Immigrants and Historical Amnesia

bread line

Bread line, the Bowery, New York City, circa 1910

In the debates over social policies, one often hears historical claims roughly along these lines: “Minorities these days want it easy. When my ancestors came they got no help and just did it on their own.” Arguments like this have been raised against programs designed to help African Americans. In his classic 1981 study, A Piece of the Pie: Blacks and White Immigrants Since 1880, Stanley Lieberson showed that, however hard many of the European immigrants had it a century or so ago, they faced nothing like the discrimination and repression American blacks did; the comparison is a false one.

Today’s debates over immigrant policy evoke similar sorts of historical assertions: that unlike immigrants today, immigrants of the past were legal, learned English, and took no handouts on their route to the American Dream. In fact, however, many immigrants in earlier periods were allowed across the border with little regulation and many others were indeed illegal. (Arthur Miller’s classic play, A View from the Bridge, is about “undocumented” Italian immigrants to the Red Hook section of Brooklyn in the 1950s.)

Earlier, I discussed how immigrants a century ago actually learned English more slowly than immigrants do today. As to “handouts,” Cybelle Fox in a recent article and in her well-received 2012 book, Three Worlds of Relief: Race, Immigration, and the American Welfare State from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, shows that we’ve misunderstood the welfare history, too. The Europeans got many a hand up.

Generosity for Some

The American welfare state before the New Deal was very thin and patchy compared to what followed. But there were public programs of “outdoor relief,” such as mothers’ and veterans’ pensions, emergency cash from local governments, soup kitchens, shelters for the homeless, and the like, as well as private charity and church help. Assistance was highly decentralized, varied from region to region, town to town, and even social worker to social worker.

mexican pecan workers

Mexican pecan workers, Texas, 1939

Fox shows that much more help was forthcoming in northeastern cities, where the poor were largely white immigrants, than in the South where the needy were largely American blacks, or in the Southwest where the needy were largely migrant Mexican farm workers. Moreover, the help that the Europeans got was more often taxpayer-provided, while blacks and Mexicans depended more on private charity.

European non-citizens had access to most support programs. In fact, for the most part being here illegally did not matter in the early 20th century. As the New Deal established additional kinds of support for the poor, some native Americans complained about spending tax money on European aliens. But the administration resisted efforts to make legal status a barrier to help

Social Security, for example, went to elderly immigrants who had never paid into the system and irrespective of their legal status. A few programs, like the jobs provided by the WPA, had restrictions, but European immigrants could get around them. In Chicago, for example, local officials thought that probing into recipients’ legal status was wrong. The foreign-born had been in town a long time and were as deserving as natives were, they argued. Also, asking about legality would frighten people and ruin relations with immigrant communities (p. 137, Three Worlds). Sound familiar?

Things were different in the South, where the powers-that-be wanted to insure that tenant farmers remained dependent on landowners. Blacks so rarely received assistance in the early part of the century that experts thought that they were too proud to take help.

And things were different in the Southwest, where migrant farming meant that the employers did not have to support their planters and pickers during the off-season. They were happy to have the taxpayers help out the migrants during slack times. But any Mexican farm workers would do. So, if the authorities forced some to go home, others could be brought in.

What explains these regional variations? Racism is part of the story. (See this additional paper by Fox.) But Fox stresses that differences in treatment followed differences in the local economies and politics. In the Southwest, easily deportable and replaceable non-citizen workers could make only weak claims for assistance.

claude fischerIn the South, the absence of support programs and the denial of the vote to black citizens made their claims for assistance weak. In the North, in contrast, southern and eastern European immigrants were critical to manning the factories and they held considerable voting power through big-city political machines. These factors, together with the sympathy of white welfare officials, made their claims for assistance effective.

One take-away from Fox’s research is that, whatever position one has on the the current immigration debate, if we are going to invoke history in that debate, let’s invoke the real history: European immigrants a century ago did get help, distinctively high levels of help, on their way to assimilation and success in America.

Claude Fischer
The Berkeley Blog

Thursday, 13 June 2013


  1. JoeWeinstein says

    In northern cities some help took the form not of welfare handouts but rather of sensitive and reasonable tactics in the public schools, which in months brought immigrant children (like my parents) from studies in their native language to studies entirely in English. Maybe busy-at-work adult immigrants learned English more slowly back then, but their children picked up good English very fast.

  2. says

    Yes, ever since a lily white Winslow led the Bible-thumping Puritans to Plymouth Rock, the northeastern establishment has been all about white is right. At first they only had to worry about stealing land and exterminating Native Americans. As the world shrunk, they broke down and allowed European immigration, as long as they had white skin as a ticket, foisting de facto apartheid on Mexico. The two world wars and radio/TV/Hollywood molded the new white mass into a coherent nation with a Founding Father theology. Then the pop. explosion in Mexico caused the tide of border-crossers, and since the Mexicans are mainly brown-skinned, the white is right knee-jerk reaction began.

    So what? Let’s get it behind us now by telling Congress to unite behind my proposal to annex Mexico as 10 new states after a plebiscite of all Mexicans. In the meantime why not grant U.S. citizenship to any Mexican who votes for the annexation now?

    Read my Megamerge Dissolution Blog to see the plan, and tell your politicians to quit pushing moose hockey immigration non-solutions for temporary political advantage.

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