My Beautiful Wickedness

Birds of Passage
May 11, 2007, 2:42 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Slarti asks a very intelligent question in regard to the Aunt B/Kleinheider immigration boogaloo:

“It seems to me that there is a large section of the Mexican immigrant population that not only has no intent of assimilating, they have no intent of becoming American at all. There is quite a large contingent that is in the US to work, and send money back home. … maybe Bridgett could add historical context: has this happened before?”

Yes, this has happened many many times before. The term immigration historians use for this is “birds of passage.” For instance, in the colonial era, most of the Dutch had zero intention of permanently settling in the (to them, literally) godforsaken cultural wasteland. They wanted to make a pile of cash in the marchlands of empire and then go back to Amsterdam. The transatlantic wash of 18th century Europeans throughout the British Empire was pretty common; it was easier to go from New York to London than it was to go from New York to Pittsburgh and the economic ties were such that it was far from uncommon to have multiple business enterprises in various colonies and circulate among them.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, those who could go back (not religious or political refugees) often did. Steamship travel was relatively inexpensive and American businesses recruited heavily and would pay the passage to obtain cheap labor (especially in industries prone to strikes — immigrants had a bad reputation for being opportunistic strike-breakers when they were used as pawns in a pre-existing struggle between segregated unions and employers.) Take, for example, southern Italians. They were mostly farmworkers from an impoverished region who wanted to work in US cities for high wages as a way to finance property acquisition and education back in Italy. So southern Italian men migrated and left their wives and kids behind. Some of them changed their minds, obviously, and some of them got stuck, and some of them fell in love with America or a nice German girl, but overall, there was not much incentive to learn English or assimilate because you didn’t plan to be here more than a couple of years. Chinese and Japanese laborers who wanted to try their luck on the Golden Mountain had no choice but to be birds of passage; their wives and kids were systematically excluded from immigration as “undesirables.” There were about 20 million immigrants who came into the country between 1880-1920; Mark Wyman (author of *Round Trip to America*) estimates that the rate of return for some regions was as high as 80% and as low as 10% in places where the economy was tanking or religious/political upheaval precluded return (like Tzarist Russia).

Even when the immigrant populations did not physically return, they remained deeply connected to the politics and economy of their countries of origin. The Irish in America, for example, helped to finance the independence movement in the Republic of Ireland. There’s a long history of transatlantic labor and political organizing among the poor and many of the social reforms that we see as being American accomplishments were undertaken by immigrant social reformers who were responding to similar reforms in their countries of origin. The history of American Progressivism, for example (usually credited by Americans to either a group of elite beanieheads from Harvard, municipal housekeeping women, or the genius of Teddy Roosevelt) has been convincingly demonstrated to have a distinctively transatlantic character — meaning that the ordinary folks who immigrated continue to be connected to the politics, economies, and ideological developments in their countries of origin. (The big book on this is by Daniel Rodgers, titled *Atlantic Crossings*.)

When you talk specifically about Mexican populations, you should recall that there’s been a very long history of adult male out-migration from villages (both ethnic enclaves in the US and in northern Mexico) to seek work and to send capital back to home communities. Sarah Deutsch talks about this gendered phenomenon as early as the 1880s…the California migrant labor thing began pretty much as soon as there was a refrigerated car to ship produce out of California. And of course, the US government imported Mexican temporary workers during WWII with exactly that intention — use them while there were manpower shortages, then send them back (permitting them to remit wages all the while). One of the key differences in this wave of emigration is the degree to which women and children are also making the trip (indicating that families are more likely to stay)…and of course, this doesn’t account for Central Americans whose countries got torn up in the 1980s and 1990s, who have little to go back to.

Businesses have a very long history of profitting from a porous border (Atlantic or otherwise) when it suits them to do so. There’s also a high degree of residential segmentation, wherein immigrant populations tend to cluster in certain areas and so retain and reproduce a remembered culture in diaspora (which is, as Mark points out, not so unusual or unhealthy) We’re making it ever more difficult to get citizenship and to return, sealing people in as we’re trying to seal them out. So, in a sense, we’re reaping what we’ve sowed here and then complaining about it.

So, Kleinheider’s assertion that the failure to assimilate is of a recent vintage is not so. It might be that this is exactly the American culture of which he speaks — the embrace of pluralism and liberalism — and which he fears is gone for good.


4 Comments so far
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Thank you! I had a hunch, but didn’t want to go spouting off on things I don’t know much about. (see? I’m turning over a new leaf!)

Actually, this picture of America is more romantic than the traditional “huddled masses yearning for freedom” in our folklore. Huge quantities of people who were just passing through, but either fell in love with the landscape and people and opportunity and freedom, or less romatically, got stuck – this gives me a new kind of national pride I never knew before. I like this picture of America.

It, along with the interstate highway system, might explain our migratory ways. Of the 10 people I work directly with, I am the only native Nashvillian. Americans can’t seem to sit still for more than a generation. Perhaps “passing through” is encoded into our genes now.

But, I digress again.

Thanks again. Very, very informative!

Comment by Slartibartfast

There’s nothing more American than road stories. Lewis and Clark. Huckleberry Finn. We seem to figure out who we are once we leave and “home” is always somewhere we’ve left, not somewhere we are now. So nearly all of us are “passing through” in one way or another, cultural strangers hunkering down for a bit and trying to learn the native ways as necessary.

Comment by bridgett

This whole thread has been fascinating, and thanks for all of the information. Clear, precise, and immensely interesting to me (son of an adopted dad who married into a German/English family). You don’t happen to know about the women-in-one-Kentucky-city who gave up their sons for adoption around about 1940-50, do you? It may/might help me explain a lot. 🙂

Comment by Devil's Advocate

[…] am by magniloquence This post made me think of Brigdett, for some reason. Especially posts like this and […]

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