The Magazine

How America Grows

Immigration, in stages, has refreshed the nation.

Nov 25, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 11 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
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As Barone portrays them, German settlers in the Midwest—many of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848—traveled down a reformist path that ran parallel to that of their Yankee counterparts. Abraham Lincoln became the first Republican to master the politics of addition. Not wanting to offend either the Irish or the Germans, he kept his 1860 platform free of anti-Prohibition and anti-immigrant language. Ancestors of both groups, along with some of the Midwestern Yankees, provided much of the opposition to American entry into both world wars. (Those of German ancestry opposed fighting the ancestral homeland; the Irish were wary of anything that helped Britain.)

As industrialization picked up after the Civil War, Southerners defied expert predictions and did not migrate out of their region in search of jobs. Whites stayed put, largely out of lingering sectional bitterness. Their attempts to reduce emancipated slaves to peonage, and overt racism in the North, kept African Americans from moving. With the South having “walled itself” off from the rest of the country, Barone says, Ellis Island immigrants began to man the levers of the Northern factories that made the United States an industrial giant.

If the Civil War left sectional isolation and bitterness in its wake, World War II had an “annealing” effect (in Barone’s view) on the entire country. In support of his case, Barone cites the flocking to California of millions in search of work in emerging defense-related industries and bungalows in rapidly developing suburbs. 

Barone recalls the paradox of African Americans winning their struggle for civil rights and protection against mob violence, especially in the South, only to see their hopes for a better life in the North dissipated by urban blight and myriad other maladies in the urban crisis of the 1960s and ’70s. In the decade of 1965-75, welfare rolls tripled, violent crime soared, and state after state enacted income taxes to fund programs intended to ameliorate the effects of poverty. During this same period—and, in part, as a reaction to what was happening—businesses, middle-class residents, and retirees relocated to states with warm climates and cheaper energy costs, no income or estate taxes, weak unions, and reduced regulations. 

Barone offers up two legacies of 1960s liberalism to illustrate his point: the transformations of Texas and Florida in the period between 1970 and 2010. In those 30 years, the population of Texas rose from 11 million to 25 million; Florida’s jumped from 6.8 million to 16 million. For a visible reminder of what these non-immigrant migrants left behind, the author recommends a ride on Amtrak from Washington to Boston. 

Barone is most sympathetic to the plight of Latino immigrants. He finds them hard-working and less likely to attach themselves to the welfare state than reform critics often argue. He attributes their failure to assimilate into American society and acquire fluency in English (in comparison with the rapidity of their Ellis Island antecedents) to four factors: the prevalence of large, predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods; significant numbers of employers who use Spanish in the workplace; the failure of bilingual education and public education generally; and elite policymakers who regard assimilation as oppressive and cultural maintenance as liberating. 

Barone castigates policymakers and bankers for pushing—in the name of “minority home ownership”—non-creditworthy buyers with no W-2 forms into $350,000 homes: He estimates that Latino immigrants accounted for one-third of all foreclosures during the Great Recession.

While he subscribes to the view that Americans are (in Bill Bishop’s term) “sorting themselves out” by political and social views as well as lifestyles, Barone does not see the United States pulling itself apart any time soon. He attributes this to the genius of the Framers in bequeathing us a system that puts a premium on limited government, accommodation, and tolerance. Let us hope he’s right. 

Alvin S. Felzenberg is the author, most recently, of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game