Immigration Origins

Robert McGreevy, assistant professor of history at the College, gave the talk, “Understanding Immigration in the States,”  to educate students on the differences between the concepts of migration and immigration as it relates to the history of American society on Wednesday, Oct. 30.

“The key difference between migration and immigration is that migrants move from (different) locations within the country,” McGreevy said. “With immigrants, we tend to think of them as moving from one place to another, but this line has become blurred.”

McGreevy explained some of the latest research on the subject of “return migration,” which reveals that a very large portion of people who came to America during the mid-1800s to 1920s returned to their country of origin.

“This challenges the concept of a ‘one-way trip,’” McGreevy said. “In truth, America is not always a land of opportunity.”

McGreevy spoke about the history of Mexican immigration, and the decades of laws that have affected migration from Mexico to the United States. He revealed that prior to World War I there was relatively unrestricted access from Mexico to the southwest United States. He added that there were often no literacy requirements for Mexican workers. Just before World War II, the United States government authorized temporary visas for five million Mexican workers, but did not grant them citizenship.  A very large portion of those workers stayed beyond those visas, leading in part to the increased number of Mexican immigrants.

Another fact McGreevy noted was the very lax policy on amnesty that the United States government held. He noted that for many immigrants who were in the United States, there became widespread expectations that even if they were caught illegally, they would still obtain citizenship in the end.

The relationship between Mexican immigrants and the United States has been complicated at times, McGreevy stated.  The American Federation of Labor (AFL) excluded many of them from membership.  In addition, he stated that the recent cheap corn sales from the United States to Mexico has resulted in severe struggles for Mexican farmers, leading to many looking for work in the United States to make ends meet.

Finally, McGreevy spoke about why there seems to be a change in perception from America being a nation founded by immigrants to a nation where immigrants are destroying the country. He attributed many of the negative perceptions to nativism, adding that many groups have been creating false suspicions to exclude groups of newcomers from positions of power. He cited the harsh quotas imposed on immigrants — even Holocaust survivors — from 1920 to 1965 as only a small example of nativism and even blatant anti-Semitism playing a large role in national policy.

And as for the future of immigration in the United States, McGreevy said he sees a positive outlook.

“We are an immigrant nation.  Fifty years from now Latinos will be a much more accepted group – and then we’ll move on to the next group,” he said.