Stephen Miller is wrong: Today’s immigrants are pretty much the same as they have been for two centuries


Since 1830, America has always been flooded by unskilled immigrants who don’t speak English and in many cases have no interest in becoming Americans. They just wanted to make money and go home.

Joshua Zeitz, writing at Politico:

The proposed shift to a skills-based system might be good for the country; it might be bad. It’s the prevailing system in Canada and Australia, two countries that aren’t known for their hostility to immigrants. But on one important point, Miller is clearly wrong: Trump’s plan would signal a dramatic break with American history and tradition.

On my father’s side of the family, my great-grandfather and grandfather both immigrated to the US. My great-grandfather returned home to Poland — only to be lynched by the Nazis or Communists (we’re not sure which).

I take immigration policy personally because for me it is personal. My grandparents came to this country poor, and at least on my father’s side of the family, never really assimilated to the majority culture.

My parents were born the US, as was my generation.

Over the course of a century, my family has done pretty well by its adopted country, paying lots of taxes, working hard, obeying the law (except for a little illegal parking and dope-smoking by some of us), and sending two generations of men off to fight for America in its wars. All in all, adopting the Wagners and Markowitzes were a pretty good investment for the US.

And when I see first-generaton immigrants today, stumbling through English, I see my own grandparents.

My grandparents on my father’s side were illiterate in English and spoke the language with heavy accent. I make my living writing and speaking in English. English is the only language I speak or write.

Large numbers of early immigrants arrived in the United States without English-language skills. Even among many Irish newcomers in the mid-19th century, Gaelic, not English, was standard. Studies of second-generation Germans in Wisconsin in 1910 found that roughly one-quarter spoke only German. In Chicago in the 1920s, most movie theaters in ethnic neighborhoods deployed subtitles, as large numbers of first-generation residents could not understand English.

“I spoke not a word of English when I started school,” remembered Jerry Della Femina, who later became an advertising executive in Manhattan. “But then why should I have? Italian was spoken at home. I lived in a claustrophobically Italian neighborhood, everyone I knew spoke only Italian, so it was natural that I didn’t know English.” Della Femina grew up in Brooklyn—not in the 1920s, but in the 1940s and 1950s.

So Stephen Miller got that wrong, too.

Historically, immigrants weren’t the poorest of the poor, and they didn’t live in isolated rural areas. They had enough financial wherewithal to make the trip, and some exposure to industry and cities. But they only had the bare minimum of skills and money needed to make the trip; if the had more, they would have stayed home.