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Oscar Handlin : The Transforming Power of the Immigrant Experience

August 13, 1995|Donna Mungen | Donna Mungen is a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and was nominated for a Cable Ace award for an A&E documentary. She interviewed Oscar Handlin by telephone from his home in Cambridge, Mass

A: If the borders are better patrolled, certainly, some of the tension and hostility will fade.

Q: Will religion remain for new immigrants a cohesive element as it did for the European immigrant?

A: Things have changed. Mexican Catholicism is quite different from the Catholicism of the Northeast, which was shaped by the Irish . . . . The situation may be different, because if you look at Mexico, in spite of a long period of government hostility, people have held onto their religious faith and practices. To what extent they will be able to incorporate that into the United States is hard to say, because the Catholic Church is of a different origin, with somewhat different standards. The church is quite sympathetic to them, but they will still have to adjust within the limits of the existing religious community.

Q: One of the criticisms lodged against today's unemployed immigrants is their lingering presence in front of lumber yards on street corners. Is this an old pattern?

A: This has always been true. And to some extent, it was also true in the middle of the 19th Century, during Europe's own internal migration into its major cities. In London, one could find unskilled laborers hanging around at the docks waiting for something to happen; this also happened in New York City and Philadelphia.

But the thing that is different now is not the character of the immigrant, but that the preponderance of places in the economy for unskilled labor has shrunk. It is just the way the manufacturing and farming sectors have developed, which means more is being done by machines, and the employment possibilities for unskilled labor have mostly vanished.

Q: If immigrants continue to be unable to find work, what effect will this have?

A: There is always return-migration. If one is optimistic, one could hope for the possibility of improved economic conditions in their country of origin. But I don't think that is terribly likely, because one needs only to look at what is going on in the Mexican economy. However, it is conceivable that there will be a greater demand for unskilled labor in distribution, but that is the element about which we can only speculate.

Q: Did previous immigrants face hostility because of their use of welfare and other social services?

A: It is hard to objectively verify each circumstance. Since 1920, federal immigration law has stipulated that people who enter legally must have sponsors, who could become liable for any changes incurred by the immigrants. That has ceased to be a problem in the Northeast, where legal immigration creates little difficulty about welfare, but it becomes a problem with illegal immigrants who don't have sponsors and immediately have to rely upon the government.

Q: The civic passivity of recent California immigrants has produced little political power for them. Was this common during the European immigrant wave?

A: It is certainly an interesting characteristic. However, there is a tremendous difference between Southern California and Texas, where there is a group of people born in Mexico or of Mexican heritage who have entered politics. San Antonio is run by its Latino population, by such individuals as Henry Cisneros, who once served as mayor.

But this is less likely to happen in California, in either Los Angeles or San Diego. The existing ethnic communities in those cities are polarized. Now, Los Angeles was split before the arrival of these immigrants. That is the kind of city it is, and the kind of political meditators you see in Texas and elsewhere don't seem to appear in California. It isn't just the geography; it's the way the communities are organized.

Q: The recent infusion of immigrants from Asia and Latin America has rekindled racial inferiority-superiority ideas. Will this attitude continue to grow?

A: First of all, that entire theory has disintegrated. Today, there are very few respectable people in the United States, or anywhere else, preaching racial doctrines. Fifty years ago, that kind of thinking was based on a view of genetics, hereditary and certain kinds of characteristics that no longer has any scientific support. That kind of initial barrier has evaporated as it relates to Hispanics. As for Asians, 50 years ago, the hostility in California toward Japanese, and earlier toward Chinese, was far more acute when compared with today . . . .

Our history shows that these people were able to adjust over a period of time and they were able to advance themselves in competition with others. The Japanese and the Chinese, in particular, developed very organized communities that were internally helpful. Their actions were sometimes regarded with suspicion by outsiders, but they were important in smoothing the way for members of their own generation; very few of them were poor or went on welfare.

Q: Gov. Pete Wilson led the campaign to pass Proposition 187. Does this represent a prevailing sentiment?

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