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The Power of the Powerless

THE IDEA OF writing history from the point of view of the “inarticulate” is hardly new: scholars have been viewing past eras from the bottom up for four decades. But somehow most histories of immigration still tell the story top-down, from the perspective of the receiving country. They chart changes of policy and law, and chronicle the politics behind those changes—politics driven not by unknown, silent players, but by powerful figures with loud voices. Novels sometimes tell the story from the immigrants’ standpoint, and occasionally, immigrants write memoirs. But with a few notable exceptions, the newcomers’ vision has been missing from the histories.

Dorothee Schneider does not speak of the inarticulate, but it is her goal to remedy this imbalance. She has culled a wide range of sources—personal memoirs, immigration service files, social histories compiled by philanthropic institutions—in search of the immigrant narrative and immigrant outlook. And her new book interweaves this material with a more conventional history of American immigration policy: the actors and the acted-upon appearing in the same frame. And Schneider goes even further. She denies that the history of immigration is in fact the story of actors and acted-upon. In her view, immigrants are far more powerful than we traditionally give them credit for being. “Laws and administrative practices always emerge from the interplay of lawmakers and those at whom the laws are directed,” she claims, “even if, as in the case of immigration, they are not citizens of the country that governs their lives.”

This is an alluring thesis. But unfortunately it is not entirely persuasive. And the need to prove it often pushes Schneider to advance arguments beyond what her evidence can bear. Still, Crossing Borders deserves a place on the growing shelf of immigration histories. Filled with fresh material and compelling stories, it is a useful supplement to more traditional accounts of American immigration politics and policymaking.

The central example Schneider brings to bear to illustrate her point appears on her very first page, where she recounts the episode that drove her to write the book. In 1996, Congress enacted a law dramatically cutting back on immigrants’ access to federal welfare benefits—a change that still shocks and horrifies Schneider. But rather than just accepting their fate, she argues, over the next decade newly arrived foreigners became citizens in record numbers, thus reclaiming their right to the withheld services. Never mind that immigrant welfare use is dramatically lower than that of native-born Americans of similar socio-economic status, or that most evidence suggests today’s newcomers go to significant lengths to avoid relying on government services—something Schneider does not mention. Even if we accept her theory of cause and effect, it is a stretch to call this a “negotiation,” or to see it as evidence of immigrants’ “power” in relation to the federal government.

Schneider organizes her story not as a narrative, but rather as an anatomy of the stages through which immigrants pass on their way from life in the old country to life in the new one. She calls each stage a “border,” emphasizing at each phase the state-imposed obstacles that migrants face. Leaving home is the first border crossing; landing in America is the second. Newcomers forced to return home cross in reverse. Learning what it means to be American is construed as traversing a frontier, as is becoming a citizen. This is not a bad metaphor: each stage surely does require newcomers to navigate a new transition. The problem is that a book organized in this way is much less dynamic than a conventional narrative: for all the engaging illustrative anecdotes, several chapters read like catalogues. And this structure only reinforces Schneider’s questionable instinct to see every step in the immigration process as a battle between suspect powers and little people rightfully challenging authority.

Argument aside, many of the stories Schneider tells are marvelous. Leaving Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was indeed much harder than is often understood. Many countries forbade citizens from exiting. European border controls often made it more difficult to cross the continent to a seaport than to sail across the Atlantic. And a handful of large shipping companies played an outsized role—Schneider sees it as pernicious, though it was also facilitating—in organizing transcontinental rail travel and screening would-be emigrants to eliminate those unlikely to be admitted to the United States for health and other reasons. Schneider uses immigrant memoirs and accounts by American government researchers who traveled in Europe disguised as migrants to tell this story from the ground up, and it is one of the best parts of the book.

The chapter on entering the United States is also filled with vivid, affecting detail. My favorite section is the description of how people arriving at Ellis Island tried to impress inspectors with their best clothes and other tokens of respectability, whether a marriage certificate or proof of their professional qualifications. But once again this does not strike me as an exchange that merits the term “negotiation.” What stands out most from Schneider’s account is how little authorities did until very late to control who entered the United States. There were no federal immigration inspectors at all until the 1880s, no papers or passports required, and even as health and other tests multiplied over the next four decades, no more than two percent of arrivals at Ellis Island were barred from entering.

Eventually, of course, this changed—dramatically. In 1924, Congress enacted an openly racialist national-origins quota system that limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted annually from any country to two percent of the number of people of that nationality living in the United States in 1890, before large numbers of Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe arrived. Like many historians today, Schneider is fixated on issues of race and gender, and her claims often seem exaggerated—but in this instance her indignation is more than justified. Her accumulated detail is particularly effective in exposing the bias against Asian immigrants: laws that barred all but a few from entering between the 1880s and the 1960s, and excluded most of those who did get in from citizenship until 1952.

Schneider’s determination to frame the story as a conflict between heroes and villains—restrictive authorities versus heroically resistant immigrants—seems particularly misleading when it comes to Americanization and citizenship. She posits a rigid dichotomy between formal, top-down Americanization programs and what she calls “immigrant-driven Americanization”—the many spontaneous and private ways in which newcomers accommodated to life in the United States. It is a useful distinction: government-sponsored parades and YMCA English classes are different from what occurred in “the workplaces and dance halls of urban America . . . the rural churches and voluntary associations of the Far West.” And during World War I and after, some official programs did indeed take on a coercive cast that made them less than helpful. But for the most part, surely, the public and private sides of Americanization were complementary, not contradictory—and only a deeply ideological agenda could lead to seeing them as largely at odds.

So, too, with naturalization. Intent on positioning immigrants in opposition to the state, Schneider insists that most newcomers became citizens strictly for instrumental reasons—the chance to sponsor relatives for visas or participate in New Deal programs—and never because they had come to identify as Americans or felt they belonged in the United States. Loyalty, attachment, patriotism: for Schneider, these are close to dirty words—even though her own evidence repeatedly shows that immigrants naturalized for these very reasons.

Many of Schneider’s instincts are appealing. She wants to see immigrants as dignified and empowered, shaping their own destiny in America; and this is not all wishful thinking. But all too often, in her zeal, she overstates her case, and this blinds her to the reality of the people she is writing about—determined, resourceful newcomers who have done so much to make the country great.

Tamar Jacoby is president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of small business owners in favor of immigration reform.