And of course, learning English was a prerequisite, especially since the typical classroom of the era had 50 or more children speaking at least half a dozen different languages. President Bush's words Monday night would have resonated well: "English is also the key to unlocking the opportunity of America," he noted. "English allows newcomers to go from picking crops to opening a grocery, from cleaning offices to running offices, from a life of low-paying jobs to a diploma, a career, and a home of their own. When immigrants assimilate and advance in our society, they realize their dreams, they renew our spirit, and they add to the unity of America." Certainly the immigrants of the early 20th century understood this and succeeded despite the naysayers of the time.
It is sometimes difficult to remember that worries were common that the Italians, Jews, Poles, Greeks, and other immigrants of an earlier era would never become truly American. When you look at the pictures from the period, you see that the children looked very much like immigrant kids today -- most were dark-skinned and noticeably shy, as if they felt out of place in their new surroundings. Although we like to talk about the immigrants of that generation as "European," most came from Southern and Eastern Europe and weren't exactly embraced as fellow countrymen by their Northern European predecessors.
The most famous immigration restrictionist of that era, Yale-educated lawyer Madison Grant, once remarked, "New York is becoming a cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel." Grant feared the very idea of a melting pot. But a look today at the descendants of those immigrant arrivals from the early 1900s reveals not an ethnic horror but the typical American.
Assimilation is the most powerful fact of America's immigration history. But it didn't happen by accident but because Americans themselves valued the concept and helped make it a reality for each new generation. We should not forget this important principle as the immigration debate moves forward.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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