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Historian mixes policy and personal stories in history of U.S. immigration

Dorothee Schneider
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L. Brian Stauffer

“Immigrants cross many borders, often not in the order intended by law and politics, and with uncertain results,” history lecturer Dorothee Schneider writes in a new book on 20th-century U.S. immigration.

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9/28/2011 | Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor | 217-333-2894; cdchambe@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — It’s not one border, one time, that makes an immigrant, says Dorothee Schneider. It’s not a matter of crossing over and you’re done.

Despite what many politicians want us to believe, Schneider said, not everyone who has migrated to the U.S. has tried to stay permanently, successful immigration does not always mean Americanization, and successful immigrants don’t all become U.S. citizens.

“Immigrants cross many borders, often not in the order intended by law and politics, and with uncertain results,” writes Schneider, a lecturer in history at the University of Illinois and the author of a new book on a century of U.S. immigration. The book has been published by Harvard University Press.

By Schneider’s definition, and in the organization of her book, every step in the process is a border, from the departure, to the arrival and entry, to the cultural and social process of Americanization, to the decision and effort involved in gaining citizenship. “There’s always another border to cross,” she said.

Thus the title of her book: “Crossing Borders: Migration and Citizenship in the Twentieth-Century United States.”

At different times and in different places, especially during the mass immigration period of the late 1800s and early 1900s, leaving one’s native country was much harder than gaining entry to the United States, Schneider said. (Today, it’s the opposite: “There isn’t actually a legal way to immigrate for most ordinary people.”)

Not every immigrant stayed, and many who were legally admitted were later deported. And it wasn’t until about 1930 that citizenship among the foreign-born – most of whom had arrived decades earlier – exceeded even 50 percent.

Most histories and news accounts have focused on either the broad picture of government policy and practice, or the personal stories of immigrants, Schneider said. In “Crossing Borders,” she sought to merge the history of government actions with the story of immigrants “as seen from the bottom up.”

Schneider, a naturalized immigrant from Germany, spent 10 years researching and writing the book, drawing extensively on federal immigration case files from prior to World War II. (Later files were not available for privacy reasons.)

Her research challenges the common perception that earlier immigrants arrived on U.S. shores almost clueless about their circumstances and powerless against the U.S. government.

To the contrary, they benefited from “networks of knowledge” that extended even into illiterate populations in the deepest backwoods of Europe, Schneider said. “It was amazing.”

She found immigrants, for instance, who had never seen a train station before starting their journey, yet would know which American port offered the least chance of rejection for a specific medical condition.

At one point, immigration officials required those arriving to display cash – not as a bribe, but in an attempt to screen out the destitute or unemployable, Schneider said. (The amount was not specified, and might vary for different ethnic groups at different ports.)

Many immigrants, however, were able to learn how much cash would be required, would have it supplied by the communities they were leaving, and even mail it back for use by others who would follow.

“Information is power and was power then,” Schneider said. Immigration officials understood this, she said, and sent people to foreign countries to stay on top of what information these informal networks supplied, then sought ways to counter it.

“My book should make clear that immigrants have power, they’re never powerless, even if they arrive poor with only the clothes on their back,” Schneider said.

Immigrants also are pragmatic, as they have demonstrated in certain trends toward citizenship, Schneider said. Many earlier immigrants lived long lives and died in the U.S. without becoming citizens, since it carried little benefit for them.

With changes in immigration law during the last half of the century, however, along with clampdowns on the social services available even to legal immigrants, citizenship has become a priority in recent decades, Schneider said. For some immigrants, bringing family to the U.S. is the main motivation.

“People resent that here, but it isn’t new, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the way the law’s constructed,” Schneider said.

“Immigrants have always used the law to their advantage, and we must understand that these are good motivations. Immigrants become citizens, in part, because they feel strongly about this country, but also because they recognize that their relatives will never be able to join them unless they can sponsor them as American citizens.”

One thing is clear to Schneider about U.S. immigration policy of recent decades: “It’s deeply dysfunctional. It actually doesn’t work well for anybody,” in large part because of the nation’s dependence on certain kinds of unskilled, low-paid labor.

Editor's note: To contact Dorothee Schneider, call 217-333-1155; email schndr@illinois.edu.

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