Tag: Ellis Island

A Sort of Madness

You can imagine my alarm when I first heard the term “immigrant psychosis.”

Evidently, this was a very real issue back when Ellis Island was booming, and lots of Italians and Irish people were coming off the boats and making everything in America all weird and strange and different.

Psychologists of the time identified a malady common to the recent arrivals, and these professionals dubbed it “immigrant psychosis.”

Today, we know it by a more common name: Homesickness

Yes, most of the American doctors were generations removed from their immigrant roots, and they had no experience living someplace new and exotic. As such, the concept of homesickness was unknown to them.


So when immigrants displayed odd behaviors such as depression and anxiety — combined with the bizarre new emotion of nostalgia — the psychologists gave it a name and insisted it was confined to the Irish and Italians (and maybe those Chinese people too).

Of course, we now recognize homesickness as a common complaint of everyone from college students to people on long overseas trips. It’s hardly a psychosis.

But unfortunately, today’s immigrants often have more to deal with than a bout of sad sentimentality. A recent study found that “the stress and hardship faced by immigrants setting up in a new country could be contributing to an increased risk of psychosis” among new arrivals.

Basically, more immigrants are having issues adjusting to their new lives. And when they do encounter these problems, they have more difficulty getting the mental health assistance that they require.

The study added that “racism and discrimination are certainly one of many things that are contributing” to the increasing mental distress of immigrants.

So this is fresh proof that the whole nativist attitude is psychotic (or at least contributes to it forming).

It’s almost enough to make one yearn for a simpler time… which is ironic because excessive yearning is a sign of homesickness, which is how all this started in the first place. Damn.


A New Wave

A subtle shift is taking place. I’m referring, of course, to the news that Asians will eventually overtake Latinos as the largest source of immigration.

Yes, recent data shows that fifty years from now, “Hispanics are expected to make up 31% of immigrants. Asians, on the other hand, will outnumber Hispanics and make up 38% of immigrants.”

Wow, this is news. After all, the words “immigrant” and “Hispanic” have been interchangeable for decades now, at least in the minds of many Americans. And to be clear, Latinos are still the largest immigrant group, making up almost half (47 percent) of all immigrants in the United States.

But as we all know, immigration from Latin America has slowed in recent years. In fact, a steep decline began in 2007, mostly because the Great Recession had kicked in, and El Norte looked a lot less appealing that it had previously.

What this all means is that the percentage of new arrivals who are Hispanic is actually smaller than it was 50 years ago. Yes, despite all you’ve heard about the border being overrun, the fact is that immigration — both documented and undocumented — is down over the last decade. And in a shocker, “the percentage of the total U.S. population born outside this country was higher in 1890 than it is today.”

So what does this mean for Asians, who are the new face of immigration? Well, they appear to be in pretty good shape.

A recent poll found that “immigrants from Asia fare best when it comes to how Americans view them, with 47% seeing them in a positive light. Only 11% see Asians negatively.”

In stark contrast, “immigrants from Latin America are viewed positively by only 26% of those surveyed and are seen negatively by 37%.”

A natural question, of course, is why are Latino immigrants the object of so much loathing?

Well, there are the usual strands of xenophobia based on skin color, language, and cultural differences. But if I had to pick the biggest reason for the disgust many Americans feel for Hispanics, it is the perception, fueled by certain presidential candidates and professional buffoons, that Latinos are a pack of bloodthirsty, sociopathic criminals.

It’s what marketing pros call a branding issue.

And how bad, and ultimately misguided, is this perception?

Well, that’s a whole other post (yes, coming soon).

More on That White Thing

Recently, I wrote about the Pew Research Center’s finding that, over the last decade, 2.5 million Latinos changed their racial classification to white. Now this development has caused consternation, rejoicing, or befuddlement, depending upon your perspective.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the whole concept of race “is a construct. Its meaning throughout history has had no basis in biological reality but rather in social domination and political contention.”

As we all know, racial classifications have no anthropological basis. So the people who say there is only one race (the human race) are correct, strictly speaking.

one finger

However, for something so arbitrary and minor, race sure causes a lot of controversy. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that the U.S. Census Bureau has always perplexed people with its separation of race and ethnicity, particularly when it comes to Hispanics.

As such, many commentators have argued that a lot of those 2.5 Latinos who changed their race “may not consider themselves white. Many or even most might identify their race as ‘Hispanic’ if it were an explicit option.”

Indeed, we have to consider that “the confusion on the U.S. Census has little to do with evolving ideas about race among Latinos and a lot to do with the limited options available to Latinos.” As such, this is just “more evidence of Americans’ puzzlement about how the census asks separately about race and ethnicity.”

In essence, when it comes to the census, “Hispanics can be at once a race and not a race.”

It’s all very metaphysical, and possibly even a cool discussion if you’re high enough. But it also might say something very real about self-identity and cultural legacies.

You see, there is some debate over whether modern-day Hispanics are the sociological decedents of those huddled masses yearning to be free back in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Keep in mind that when Ellis Island was an immigration hotspot, “all sorts of immigrants, including Irish, Jews, and Italians, were once considered irredeemably alien, even racially inferior to ‘white’ Americans.”

This sounds intensely similar to how Latinos are described today in many sections of the country. And yet, the longer a Latino family has been in America, the more likely its members are “to check the ‘white’ box.”

Yes, those Latinos who identify as white are more likely “to be second- and third-generation Hispanics than foreign-born and noncitizen Hispanics.”

This lines up with the experience of earlier immigrants. After all, when it comes to the Irish, Italians, and Jews, their fifth-generation descendants don’t hesitate “over how to fill out the census. They check ‘white’ — because that is how the rest of America now sees them.”

Again, that may say something very uplifting or truly disturbing about the direction in which Latino culture is headed. Or maybe it’s both — or neither.

See how tricky this gets?

But to end on an optimistic note, note that the recent census data has also supplied another “strong sign that fears of a unique ‘Hispanic challenge,’ where Hispanics immigrants might remain as a permanent Spanish-speaking underclass, are overblown.”

In fact, there is mounting evidence that “Hispanics are succeeding in American society at a pace similar to that of prior waves of European immigrants.”

And that will continue to be true — whether Latinos are white or not.


The One Thing We Do Better Than Them (Besides Football)

As some commentators have noted, the election of Barack Obama has forced Europe to address one of its uncomfortable contradictions. This most progressive of continents has a reputation for being more enlightened than America. Indeed, their health-care policies, attitude toward gays, and work-life balance far exceed our stumbling, nineteenth-century approaches. In comparison to them, we look – and often feel – like beer-swilling cretins who fire shotguns at random while cursing out fancy book learnin’.

But there is one area where Europe can only gaze upon us in wonder. Believe it or not, we do a better job at integrating immigrants, promoting assimilation, and addressing racism than they do. Yes, even with all the screaming about Mexicans taking our jobs and Laotians refusing to learn English and Somalis creating their own ethnic enclaves and what have you, we’re far ahead of our European counterparts.

For starters, we have just elected a new leader who happens to be a biracial man whose father was an immigrant. I don’t see anything similar happening soon in Great Britain or Denmark. In fact, xenophobia is on the rise in Europe.

Or look at France’s National Assembly, which is the rough equivalent of our U.S. House of Representatives. Of its 577 members, only one is a minority. In contrast, of our 535 members of Congress, 75 are minorities (and 27 of those are Hispanics, thank you very much).

That’s just looking at the political breakdown of our leadership. There are other ways in which it is better to be a dark hue in America than it is in Austria, even though it’s clear that we have acres of room for improvement. Still, we’re farther along the path than many other nations are, and one factor for this headstart may be because of our view of immigration.

The writer Naomi Wolf points out several reasons why immigrants strive for a U.S. address, and why they tend to like it better here than in Europe.

First, Wolf points out that our national story is different. With the exception of Native Americans, we all came from somewhere else. To quote “Stripes” and the esteemed philosopher Bill Murray, our ancestors were “kicked out of every decent country in the world” (Ms. Wolf does not employ this reference).

Also, the values of immigration are admired – or at least the initiative and ambition of old-time Ellis Island immigrants are – while in Europe, immigrants are viewed with almost universal disdain. In addition, everyone gets to be hyphenated once he or she gets here (e.g., African American, Italian American, Asian American). See if you can find someone who considers himself a “Turkish German.”

Wolf also points that we emphasize values that everyone (in theory) can share, instead of focusing on a lineage of great kings or the specifics of a tiny geographical area, like they do in Europe. Finally, she stresses how the separation of church and state is vital to preventing a xenophobic culture, which is a point I’ve made several times in these posts.

Obviously, there are also geographical reasons why so many people from Latin America come here. There will never be an influx of Hondurans to, say, Belgium. But I imagine that if most of those Guatemalans who risk it all to emigrate could chose any nation on Earth, they would still look north first.

Despite the enormous obstacles that newcomers face here – some legal and necessary, others cultural and ugly – it’s better to be an immigrant in America than anywhere else. And it’s not just because we’re, you know, America – where everyone has nine iPods and drives hot cars and watches 188 channels of pornography and indulges in freedoms that terrorists apparently hate.

Really, you can have a good quality of life in Spain or Greece. But it would suck to start at the bottom in any of those countries, because that’s where you, your children, and probably your grandchildren will remain. That is often the case here, of course. But we at least offer the hope of progress, and as I can vouch from first-hand experience, one successful immigrant can create a situation where an entire family can thrive.

Is essence, perhaps the main reason America has always been a nation of immigrants is simple.

American is not race or an ethnicity. It is a nationality. More than that, it’s an idea.

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