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Why Study The Immigrant Experience?
Daniel J. Tichenor
Rutgers University

"Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America," the revered historian Oscar Handlin writes in the preface of his classic The Uprooted. "Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history." There is little reason to expect future generations of Americans to view our own time any differently. The United States, with its permanently unfinished society, receives more newcomers now than at any time since the peak immigration years of the early twentieth century. As in the past, this country is a powerful magnet to immigrants, whether they are skilled professionals arriving by jetliner, refugees by boat, or undocumented manual workers on foot. Like those before them, native-born Americans today celebrate their immigrant past while expressing uneasiness and even open hostility toward the latest arrivals. In contrast to earlier waves of immigration, today’s newcomers trace their origins not to Europe but to Asia, Latin America and other developing nations of the Third World. By most accounts, contemporary immigrants are more diverse geographically, racially, culturally, and religiously than those who came before them. Whether computer technician or farm-worker, Mexican or Vietnamese, Islamic or Hindu, legally admitted or undocumented, immigrants are helping to transform the social fabric of the United States.

The reasons for studying this module, then, should be all too plain. One simply cannot understand either American development or modern American life without knowledge of the immigrant experience in the United States. Nor can one adequately appreciate how forces of globalization are recasting America without studying how it once again has emerged in recent decades as a nation of immigrants. Just consider some of the compelling questions addressed by this module:

(1) What are the push-and-pull factors that lead people to come to the United States?

We know that most newcomers leave behind poverty and unemployment of their homelands in search of better fortunes in America. However, research on this subject suggests that the causes of immigration are often more complex and numerous than most assume. These include so-called “chain” or “network migration” in which a single initial immigrant can spur a chain of new arrivals from his or her family or community; the direct recruitment of skilled and unskilled workers by firms, governments, or job contractors in an increasingly transnational labor market; the capacity of natural disasters, environmental crises, overpopulation, wars and civil unrest to uproot and set in motion millions of people around the globe; and refugee and asylum policies that extend relief to some noncitizens fleeing political, ethnic, religious, and gender persecution. This is but a short list of the various micro- and macro-level catalysts to mass immigration to the United States today. Evaluating the causes of U.S. immigration can reveal a great deal about recent immigrants, their homelands, and America’s image abroad.

(2) What are the effects of recent waves of immigration on American life?

Although the United States is a nation built upon immigration, Americans have long debated whether it is good for the country. This contentious issue inevitably leads various policy advocates, officials, and scholars to examine the impact of immigration on the nation’s economic, social, cultural, and political life. There is little question that new immigration is making the United States into a more multiethnic and multiracial nation, that it is making the country more religiously and linguistically diverse, or that it has altered the age demographics of the U.S. population (slowing so-called “graying” trends).

Yet the influence of immigration on the economy, politics, health care, education, welfare programs, the environment, crime, national security, and culture is a subject that produces more cacophony than symphony, as immigration defenders and critics present rival portraits of how newcomers are recasting American life. Sorting through these arguments will not only help you better understand and situate yourself within a heated and important national debate, but it also will help you better distinguish between polemics, on the one side, and sound evidence and analysis, on the other.

(3) What kind of environment do immigrants encounter as they settle into U.S. communities, and what processes of incorporation shape their adjustment to American life?

This question goes to the heart of the immigrant experience in the United States. It considers the opportunities and constraints newcomers encounter in terms of civil rights, education, work, social services, and political participation. American laws, public schools, employers and unions, religious institutions, the welfare state, the media and popular culture, family and community networks all shape the adjustment process.

The age, gender, educational background, job skills, family ties, cultural background, legal status and other characteristics of individual immigrants also profoundly influences their relative social mobility and cultural adaptation. Furthermore, modern transportation and telecommunications enables many immigrants to maintain close ties with their homelands; an unprecedented number maintain dual citizenship today. All of these variables remind that immigrants come to the U.S. for a variety of reasons and these rationales influence the process of becoming American. As immigrants adopt certain aspects of American life while retaining elements of their native culture, they must deal with lingering ties to their homelands, feelings of dislocation, and the political and social frames affecting life in the U.S. Immigrant literature -- whether Ernesto Galarza’s Barrio Boy, Mary Gordan’s The Other Side, or Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club – offer one engaging means to explore these issues. Interviewing newcomers in your community offer another.

(4) How should immigration be governed?

Unless a nation-state maintains entirely open or closed borders, its immigrant admissions policies are inherently discriminatory. They allow some people to establish new lives in the country, while keeping others out. The question then becomes, on what basis does a nation choose to discriminate among outsiders? Current U.S. immigration policy places a premium on family reunification, skills, education, wealth, and refugee relief. What determines existing policies? What admissions priorities best serve the national interest? What are the moral obligations of advanced industrial democracies such as the United States to necessitous strangers? American responses to these questions have varied considerably over time.

(5) How does the immigrant experience in the United States today compare with those of other countries? How does it compare with immigrant experiences of the American past?

Although many Americans like to think that the United States is distinctive as a country forged upon immigration, the reality is that Australia, Argentina, Canada, France and several other nations have both received and been deeply affected by mass immigration. Cross-national comparisons may illuminate just how exceptional or unexceptional the immigrant experience in the United States truly is. Likewise, there is much to be learned by comparing the American immigrant experience today with that of the past. In short, cross-national and historical comparisons can provide fresh vantage points for understanding the contemporary immigrant experience in the United States.

This module concentrates on the immigrant experience within a particular national setting, namely, the United States. Accordingly, it promises to offer distinctive insights about the character of American history, culture, economics, religion, politics and society. Yet, at the same time, it powerfully captures how international migration has helped change each of these realms of American life. The immigrant experience in the United States inherently places American studies in a global context, reminding us that international and intra-national studies often converge.

Professor Daniel J. Tichenor (Ph.D., Brandeis University) has been teaching about immigration, American politics, public policy, social movements, and political institutions at Rutgers since 1996. He has been a Research Fellow of Governmental Studies at the Brookings Institution, the John F. Kennedy Foundation’s Abba Schwartz Fellow of Immigration and Refugee Politics, an Associate Fellow of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego, an organizer of the American Political Science Association’s Organized Section on the Politics of International Migration, and a visiting scholar at Leipzig University. His publications related to immigration include: "The Politics of Immigration Reform in the United States," Polity (1995); "Immigration and Political Community," The Essential Communitarian (1998); "Immigration and American Civic Culture," The Immigration Reader (1999); and a new book, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton University Press, 2002). He also has written extensively on the American presidency, interest groups, social movements, and national public policy-making, with articles appearing in Political Science Quarterly, Studies in American Political Development, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and numerous edited volumes.


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