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Ellis Island Nation

Immigration Policy and American Identity in the Twentieth Century

By Robert L. Fleegler

Publication Year: 2013

Though debates over immigration have waxed and waned in the course of American history, the importance of immigrants to the nation's identity is imparted in civics classes, political discourse, and television and film. We are told that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," built by people who came from many lands to make an even better nation. But this belief was relatively new in the twentieth century, a period that saw the establishment of immigrant quotas that endured until the Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965. What changed over the course of the century, according to historian Robert L. Fleegler, is the rise of "contributionism," the belief that the newcomers from eastern and southern Europe contributed important cultural and economic benefits to American society.

Early twentieth-century immigrants from southern and eastern Europe often found themselves criticized for language and customs at odds with their new culture, but initially found greater acceptance through an emphasis on their similarities to "native stock" Americans. Drawing on sources as diverse as World War II films, records of Senate subcommittee hearings, and anti-Communist propaganda, Ellis Island Nation describes how contributionism eventually shifted the focus of the immigration debate from assimilation to a Cold War celebration of ethnic diversity and its benefits—helping to ease the passage of 1960s immigration laws that expanded the pool of legal immigrants and setting the stage for the identity politics of the 1970s and 1980s. Ellis Island Nation provides a historical perspective on recent discussions of multiculturalism and the exclusion of groups that have arrived since the liberalization of immigrant laws.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Haney Foundation Series


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pp. C-ii


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pp. iii-iii


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pp. iv-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. 1-16

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Americans across the political spectrum have fiercely debated the costs and benefits of immigration. Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and others have declared that the recent wave of ‘‘new’’ migrants from Latin America and Asia are not assimilating into American culture. By contrast, they praise the eastern and southern European...

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Chapter 1 The Beginning of the Era of Restriction

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pp. 17-34

During the debate over immigration restriction in 1924, Representative Samuel McReynolds (D) of Tennessee declared, ‘‘This country can no longer be the melting pot for foreign nations. There was a time when that could be done, when conditions were different, but this time has long since passed.’’ Senator Arthur Capper (R) of Kansas, like many of McReynolds’s...

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Chapter 2 Contributionism in the Prewar Period

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pp. 35-58

During the 1930s, the growing tensions between the United States and Nazi Germany inspired many government agencies and private organizations to sponsor programs to improve attitudes toward recent immigrants. Breaking from the World War I-era Americanization campaigns, some involved with these efforts stressed the accomplishments and contributions of different...

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Chapter 3 The Quest for Tolerance and Unity

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pp. 59-84

In November 1942, Louis Adamic wrote an article in the New York Times Magazine titled ‘‘No ‘Hyphens’ This Time.’’ In this piece, Adamic commented on the lack of punitive action against recent immigrants during the war: ‘‘So far in this war—aside from the campaign against the Japanese group on the Pacific Coast, which was old-time exclusionism hitched to a...

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Chapter 4 How Much Did the War Change America?

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pp. 85-102

What impact did the combination of a war against racist enemies and cultural and educational campaigns promoting tolerance actually have on attitudes toward immigrants? Toward the end of the war, Yank, the Army weekly, used its open-forum section ‘‘The Soldier Speaks’’ to ask servicemen the question, ‘‘What changes would you like to see in post-war...

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Chapter 5 The Reemergence of Contributionism

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pp. 103-136

By 1950, the Cold War dominated American foreign relations and shaped the domestic political debate. A series of international events, such as the Czech coup of 1948 and the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949, alarmed many Americans and prompted vigorous American policies to contain the USSR. When President Truman sent American troops to defend South...

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Chapter 6 The Cold War and Religious Unity

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pp. 137-160

In his book Protestant, Catholic, Jew (1955), sociologist Will Herberg declared, ‘‘The same basic values and ideals, the same underlying commitment to the American Way of Life, are promoted by parochial school and public school, by Catholic, Protestant, and Jew, despite the diversity of formal religious creed.’’1 He asked rhetorically, ‘‘After all, are not Protestantism,...

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Chapter 7 The Triumph of Contributionism

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pp. 161-190

During a congressional debate over immigration reform in September 1965, Robert F. Kennedy, now a senator from New York, decried the spirit of the times that produced the national origins quotas, saying, ‘‘the system was imposed during the postwar [World War I] crisis in Europe, when many in the United States feared that a continuance of unlimited immigration...

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Epilogue: ''How great to be an American and something else as well''

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pp. 191-204

By the mid-1960s, contributionism had emerged as a central theme in public discourse regarding immigration in the United States. The acceptance of contributionism, the idea that newcomers strengthened the American economy and culture while also accepting certain American norms, represented a significant shift from the mentality of the early years of the century,...


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pp. 205-242


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pp. 243-254


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pp. 255-268


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pp. 269-270

E-ISBN-13: 9780812208092
E-ISBN-10: 0812208099
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812245097
Print-ISBN-10: 0812245091

Page Count: 280
Illustrations: 5 illus.
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Haney Foundation Series
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OCLC Number: 859160688
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Ellis Island Nation

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Subject Headings

  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- Government policy -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Emigration and immigration -- 20th century.
  • Immigrants -- United States -- HIstory -- 20th century.
  • Acculturation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Multiculturalism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
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