“The interaction of disparate cultures, the vehemence of the ideals that led the immigrants here, the opportunity offered by a new life, all gave America a flavor and a character that make it as unmistakable and as remarkable to people today as it was to Alexis de Tocqueville in the early part of the nineteenth century.” So wrote John F. Kennedy in A Nation of Immigrants about the influence of newcomers from abroad in the peopling and foundation of the United States.1
Kennedy was writing in 1958, at a time of extremely low immigration, and he had in mind European arrivals when he celebrated immigrants for creating the nation in remarkable and unmistakable ways. In fact, the groups he singled out for special attention were the Irish, Germans, and Scandinavians, who dominated immigrant inflows for much of the nineteenth century.
Today as we enter the third decade of the twenty-first century, the tens of millions of immigrants who have come to live in the United States in the past five decades have been giving the country a new flavor and character that would no doubt have been remarkable, and indeed unrecognizable, to Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, two years before the passage of a landmark law that ushered in a new era of mass immigration that has helped to redefine the nation and brought newcomers from all over the world.
The United States is in essence a nation in flux, and an essential element has long been the continuous inflows of immigrants who have helped to make and remake American culture and society since the days of the country’s founding. It is no exaggeration to say that immigrants are a source of transformation in American society; this was true in the past, with the arrival of earlier waves of European newcomers, and it has been true in recent times when most immigrants have come from Asia and Latin America.
In detailing many of the changes in which the post-1965 immigration has played a key role, the preceding chapters have covered a wide terrain; they have ranged from transformations in the racial order and cities, towns, and suburbs, to popular culture, the economy, and electoral politics, focusing on the contemporary period while also sensitive to similar changes generated by immigration in the past. In this final chapter, I reflect on some additional questions: What are the implications of the analysis for our general understanding of immigration and change in American society? Is the United States unique in its experience with immigration-driven change as compared to western Europe? And to return to this country, what further changes may be in store in the years ahead, particularly in a post-pandemic America?
Immigration and Change: What Have We Learned?
Immigrants and their descendants have been a driving force behind consequential and profound institutional as well as cultural changes in American society. From the beginning, in colonial days and the early years of the republic, Americans with roots in England gave us the basic foundations of government, common law, and language, defining many of the fundamental institutional pillars of the country that persist to this day. As we know, many far-reaching changes occurred in the decades and indeed centuries that followed, with each new wave of immigration having a part in important transformations. The nineteenth-century Irish, to give one example, built an extensive network of parochial schools to protect their children from the overtly Protestant character of the state-supported school system, and were central in the creation of political machines that dominated politics in many large cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As millions of Italian and Jewish immigrants and their children assimilated and became recognized as full-fledged Americans in the mid-twentieth century, they became part of an all-inclusive White community; the United States also left behind the idea that it was a Protestant nation, turning into one premised on the notion that it was composed of three equally American faiths—Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.2 Moreover, immigrants of the 1880–1924 era and their second-generation children had a prominent role in the development of the modern industrial economy as well as the reorienting of the Democratic Party that led to the New Deal under Roosevelt and Great Society under Johnson.3
The post-1965 inflows have been a source of equally momentous changes, transforming, among other things, the nation’s racial composition as well as perceptions of racial and ethnic groups, playing an important role in reshaping the substance and form of party politics, and serving as central players in the development and enormous success of a key sector (high tech) of the economy. They have brought new religions, most prominently Islam, into the heart of many American towns and cities.
Changes that may seem less dramatic represent noteworthy transformations too, as examples from earlier chapters indicate. Immigrants have not only created tens of thousands of small businesses but also given many a new character and pioneered new types of enterprises. They have introduced new foods and cuisines as well as innovative sounds, artistic styles, and themes. Local institutions and organizations such as schools and hospitals have developed new programs to adapt to immigrants’ needs.
In propelling change, immigration of course often operates in tandem with other forces. Or to put it somewhat differently, time and again immigration has played a major role in significant transformations that involve other factors as well. Immigrant talent has been vital in the creation and evolution of high-tech companies, but other features of America’s society and economy have helped to nurture this sector, among them the presence of world-class research universities and a financial system that supports entrepreneurial activities.4 To offer another illustration, in the world of politics, immigration has had a part in shaping the new alignment or remaking of national political party coalitions, but it is not alone. The civil rights movement and legislation began the process of large numbers of Whites gravitating to the Republican Party so that the “Solid Democratic South” became a relic of the past; later on the growing defection of working-class Whites to the Republican Party was a response not only to fears, anxieties, and resentments owing to immigration-driven racial and ethnic diversity but also a slew of other changes, including the expansion of rights to women and LGBTQ people, development of a more secular America, and economic challenges posed by technological change, deindustrialization, and globalization.
Then there is the question of what is new today. Needless to say, there are similarities between immigration-driven changes in the past and present, but history does not repeat itself in exactly the same way. The changes stimulated by immigration in the current era are not timeless replays of institutional and cultural patterns from the past but involve new features that represent modern-day shifts or transformations. This should not be surprising. The changes take place in an America with a broad range of distinctive social, economic, political, and cultural elements, and immigrants who differ in significant ways from those in earlier inflows.
There is no better illustration than the creation of ethnic neighborhoods and businesses that, although a perennial feature of immigrant life in the United States, have taken on new qualities in the contemporary context, if only because of the cultural backgrounds of post-1965 immigrants and the character of the modern-day America they come to. Unlike the old ethnic neighborhood of years gone by, contemporary ethnic enclaves are often located in areas formerly the domain of middle- and lower-middle-class Whites. They are now more likely to be in the suburbs, and have an array of new cultural features and institutions, from Hindu temples and Muslim mosques to branches of cell phone companies. Ethnic businesses still cater to the needs and tastes of newcomers, but it is no longer just the corner store that sells ethnic products; today there may be a large ethnic supermarket as well. Ethnically themed restaurants offer a wide variety of new dishes and flavors appealing to coethnics, but also beyond this, middle-class educated foodies and, especially in the case of Chinese eateries around the country, a broad American public. Many new kinds of businesses are immigrant creations. In New York City, which is home to more than three million immigrants, Korean-owned nail salons can be found in practically every neighborhood, and immigrants have invented new types of transportation services as well. West Indians brought the concept of a privatized network of passenger vans to the city as their jitneys ply the streets of Queens and Brooklyn, offering lower prices along with more frequent and convenient services than city buses. The Chinese created relatively inexpensive shuttles from Manhattan’s Chinatown to Chinese communities in Queens and Brooklyn, and developed intercity buses, originally to transport workers to and from jobs in Chinese restaurants in such cities as Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, at low cost, but later extending them to further destinations and attracting non-Chinese customers too.5
In taking up established roles in mainstream institutional arenas, today’s immigrants and their children in the process have often introduced distinctive changes—another way the present can differ from the past. In the arts, writers with origins in Latin America, Asia, and Africa have been leaving their own stamp on the American novel just as musical performers have been taking popular music in new directions. Recently elected immigrant and second-generation politicians frequently have much in common with their predecessors, yet at the same time they may advocate different and new policy measures to reflect the interests of their electoral base, and initiate, shore up, or utilize new minority coalitions.
Lastly, in analyzing immigration and change, this book provides a corrective to the one-sided picture found in much of the academic literature, which heavily focuses on how post-1965 immigrants have been changed in this country, but often neglects how they have been remaking it as well. A copious literature exists on the integration of immigrants. Indeed, an exhaustive review of the large body of research on this topic by a National Academy of Sciences panel demonstrates that integration increases over time across all measurable outcomes, “with immigrants becoming more like the native-born with more time in the country, and with the second and third generations becoming more like other native-born Americans than their parents were.”6 Language is a prime example. Immigrants who arrive as adults without English make some progress, but are usually more comfortable and fluent in their native language; the vast majority of US-born children are proficient in English (though often bilingual); and the third generation is to a large extent monolingual in English. The second generation shows strong intergenerational progress in educational and occupational attainments; in most contemporary immigrant groups, this generation equals or surpasses the schooling level of typical native-born Americans in the third generation and higher. Over time, most immigrants and their descendants gradually become less residentially segregated from the general population of native-born Whites, and more dispersed across regions, cities, communities, and neighborhoods. And if immigrants rarely abandon distinctive ethnic identities, beliefs, and cultural practices altogether, homeland customs and values begin to shift in the US context; by the second and especially third generation, ethnic cultural patterns are often symbolic aspects of the remembered old country culture—such as celebrating particular holidays or enjoying ethnic dishes—and even these are frequently Americanized to a considerable degree.7
Important as it is to appreciate the changes immigrants experience in the United States, the fact is that we know far less about how they have been reshaping American society and culture, though understanding these processes of change is equally crucial and calls for further systematic research. This, too, is a lesson of this book.
Is the United States Unique?
The United States is not the only wealthy country to be deeply affected by mass immigration in the last half century. So have western European nations, where the foreign born are generally around a tenth to a fifth of the residents.8 A comparison with western European societies is particularly apt because they are rich democracies that have also undergone significant social, political, and cultural changes in response to the enormous growth of their immigrant-origin populations. The comparison makes it clear that despite many similarities, the American experience with immigration and change is distinctive, or unique, in many respects. It also puts into sharp relief that a nation’s particular institutional history can determine whether and how immigration leads to change.
What, to begin with, are some of the similarities? One broad parallel is that immigration has reshaped the racial order, which in the case of many European countries has led for the first time to sizable Black populations with origins in Africa and the Caribbean; another is immigration’s alteration of the religious landscape, which in Europe has introduced a large and highly stigmatized Muslim minority. Large urban centers in western Europe, as in the United States, have experienced new immigration-driven diversity as the percentage of foreign born has soared; about one out of three residents in Amsterdam, London, and New York City were foreign born by the second decade of the twenty-first century.9 New ethnic neighborhoods have sprung up all over Europe along with highly diverse communities that include a welter of groups from different sending countries. Also echoing the pattern across the Atlantic, immigration in Europe has given rise to a wide range of small businesses that added vitality to urban economies, and provided an array of goods and services on which those in immigrant communities as well as outside them have come to depend—from Turkish bakeries and kebab outlets in the Netherlands and Germany, to North African small retail stores in France and South Asian newsagent’s shops in Britain.10
There are many other examples, including the influence of the huge immigrant inflows on popular culture. If more salsa than ketchup is sold in the United States, the Turkish doner kebab has become the most popular fast food in Germany, and “going out for a curry” at a South Asian restaurant is now a regular part of English social and cultural life. In Europe as in the United States, immigrants and the second generation have drawn on their own experiences and concerns as they have enriched the artistic scene in novels, plays, and films, and brought new sounds and forms to popular music. Brick Lane by Bangladeshi-born Monica Ali and White Teeth by Zadie Smith, daughter of a Jamaican mother and English father, are just two of the widely celebrated novels about immigrants and the second generation in Britain; the development of British hip-hop music has been heavily influenced by Afro-Caribbean migrants and their children in the same way that Dutch hip-hop has been shaped by youths of Surinamese and Moroccan background, and the French version by those with origins in Africa and the French Antilles.11 There are transatlantic parallels in the world of politics too, as immigrant-origin politicians have begun to make a mark at the local and national levels, with one of the best known in Europe being London’s second-generation Pakistani mayor, Sadiq Khan.12 Less happily, anti-immigrant rhetoric has become a staple of right-wing populist European parties that have gained electoral clout just as it has been a tactic used by President Trump to rally his Republican Party base. On both sides of the Atlantic, anti-immigrant appeals have particular resonance with less educated voters of lower socioeconomic status.13
If these and other changes have much in common in western Europe and the United States, the differences are prominent as well. Of special interest are a number of significant institutional changes and innovations that only developed in European countries in the wake of the huge contemporary immigration. Three examples show how much institutional histories related to race and religion matter in understanding these contrasts.
Take citizenship. In many continental western Europe countries, basic principles of citizenship law have undergone a fundamental change owing in large part to postwar immigration. In making it easier for the second generation to acquire citizenship, these countries have moved closer to a central principle of the US citizenship regime, jus soli or birthright citizenship, which was guaranteed to almost everyone born in the United States more than 150 years ago in an automatic and unqualified form by the Fourteenth Amendment, designed to ensure legal rights to formerly enslaved Black people.14 Three decades later, in 1898, in a case involving the US-born child of Chinese immigrants, who themselves were ineligible for citizenship, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that no matter where their parents were born or what their parents’ status, US-born children are US citizens.15 Post-1965 immigrants, in other words, have come to an American society with an entrenched legal tradition of jus soli. This was not the case for most immigrants who arrived in continental western Europe in the last six or seven decades. Before the Second World War in much of mainland Europe, jus sanguinis, the principle that citizenship is inherited from parents, was prevalent so that many children of immigrants remained foreign even if they were born and had spent all their lives in the European country.16
By now, however, the majority of western European countries provide some form of jus soli citizenship to the second generation, although unlike in the United States, it is granted only if certain conditions are met, such as if your parents have lived in the country for a certain number of years or one of your parents was born there.17 Among the explanations for the widespread shift to some form of birthright citizenship in mainland western Europe is the internal logic of liberal democracies in the context of mass immigration, including the need to integrate immigrants and their children; the old rules have been recognized as incompatible with modern democratic norms and impediments to the integration of the second generation.18
A second example draws attention to the role of this country’s particular racial history in understanding why immigration was not an engine for the development of significant anti-racism legislative initiatives here the way it was in western Europe. Unlike European countries, the United States has long had a large and stigmatized Black population on its soil, subject first to centuries of slavery and then, after official abolition, to a harsh regime of legal segregation in the South that lasted until the mid-twentieth century. It was African Americans’ struggle for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s, another distinctive feature of the United States, that led to the passage of a series of federal legislative acts that attempted to redress the injuries incurred by centuries of legal oppression. The legislation created new institutional arrangements along with monitoring and enforcement mechanisms that while hardly eliminating all-too-persistent racial barriers and discrimination, opened up new educational and occupational opportunities for racial minorities, including many children of immigrants. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a hallmark civil rights era law, led to a huge growth in voter registration among Black people in many southern states; it also helped minorities achieve political representation in a number of places by allowing the creation of voting districts where they had a better opportunity to elect their own representatives, although in 2013 the law was severely weakened when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision designed to combat racial discrimination in voting.19
In western Europe, it was not a civil rights movement among a long-established racial minority group to ameliorate the enduring damages of slavery and segregation that led to legislation and policies to combat racial discrimination; it was the response to the influx of non-European immigrants.20 The move in western Europe to pass laws to reduce and prevent racial discrimination was especially notable—and early—in Britain, where it occurred in reaction to the huge Afro-Caribbean and South Asian immigration that began in the 1950s. The first legislation in the United Kingdom to address racial discrimination, the 1965 Race Relations Act, prohibited, among other things, discrimination on the grounds of race in public places; it was supplemented by legislation in 1968 extending protection against discrimination beyond public places to employment and housing, and broadened again in 1976, when the definition of discrimination now also included indirect discrimination. At the level of the European Union, an anti-discrimination directive (“the racial equality directive”) was adopted in 2000 requiring member states to prohibit discrimination on the basis of racial or ethnic origin in many aspects of everyday life such as employment, education, health care, and housing.21
By and large, the legislation and policies to reduce racial discrimination have been more extensive in the United States, but whatever their exact nature or effectiveness, the main point here is that the introduction of such legislation and policies in Europe occurred in the context of large-scale immigration. This was not the case in the United States, where as a consequence of the civil rights movement, they predated the massive post-1965 inflows.
The third example has to do with historically based relations between the state and religion. In the United States, the way relations between the state and religious bodies have been institutionalized precluded the creation of government-organized councils like those established in a number of western European countries to negotiate relations between the growing Muslim migrant-origin population and the state on religious matters of public concern.
These councils, in a state-brokered arrangement, gather Muslim federations together under one umbrella to address religious issues of a public nature. The French Council of the Muslim Faith, created in 2003, has a mandate to negotiate with the French state over issues affecting Islamic religious practice such as the training of imams and regulation of ritual slaughter. As political scientist Jonathan Laurence and historian Justin Vaisse note, it represents an attempt by the state to establish an Islam of France rather than simply tolerate Islam in France. In 2006, the German federal government, too, established an Islam Council, the Deutsche Islam Konferenz, drawing on a core of representatives of Germany’s Muslims and the government to engage in exchanges as a way to try to resolve the practical challenges of religious observance facing Muslims, with initial discussions on, among other topics, the future of mosque construction and Islamic burials in Germany.22
The creation of these councils, to be sure, reflects the greater political and public focus in Europe on integrating Muslims, which in turn has a lot to do with demographic features of the Muslim immigrant population there. A much larger proportion of immigrants and their children in western Europe are Muslim—or about 40 percent of all immigrants from outside the European Union.23 In the United States, Muslims are an estimated 4 to 5 percent of all immigrants, and only about 1 percent of the total population.24 By comparison, in France and Germany, which have the largest Muslim populations in western Europe, 8 percent of the French population in 2016 was Muslim and 6 percent in Germany. Muslim immigrants in western Europe also have a much lower socioeconomic profile than those in the United States, where a substantial proportion are well educated and middle class.25
But the development of Muslim councils in Europe is not just a reflection of demographic characteristics of the Muslim population. Relations between church and state, which are rooted in institutional history, are important in understanding why European countries like France and Germany developed state-supported councils that have no equivalent in the United States for Islam or indeed any religion.
In this country, the principles of religious freedom and prohibition of an established state religion enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment have provided the framework for church-state relations since the nation’s founding. These constitutional principles were fashioned because of the religious diversity among the original colonies and resulting impossibility of institutionalizing a single state church in the new republic.26 Religious entities in the United States are loosely governed by laws on nonprofit organizations, whereas religion in “continental Europe is nearly everywhere a government affair. National ministers of the interior oversee orderly religious practice, for example, by regulating religious facilities (mosques, temples, churches, and so forth), and ministers of education may supplement clerical training through the national university system.… Other matters of religious practice also require state oversight: ritual animal slaughter, establishment of cemeteries, and appointment of state-paid chaplains in the military, hospitals, and prisons.”27
In France, laïcité, the exclusion of religion from the affairs of state, is the official ideology, yet the state owns and maintains most Christian churches, and allows them to be used for regular religious services—although the 1905 law giving the state most church property and committing it to maintaining already-standing religious buildings has prevented the government from providing the same support to places of worship built after that year, including mosques.28 The establishment of the French Council of the Muslim Faith puts Islam on the same plane as other major non-Catholic religions in relationship to the French state in at least one way, for they are represented by a similar kind of body: the Jewish Consistoire Central dates to the emancipation of Jews in the Napoleonic era and the Protestant Federation of France to 1905. In Germany, the Deutsche Islam Konferenz is of a piece with other linkages between church and state, in which long-established Catholics and Protestants as well as Jews—though not, so far, Islam—are recognized as public corporations, entitled to federally collected church taxes, and have the right to run state-subsidized religious social services and hospitals. Clearly, such linkages between church and state are strikingly different from institutionalized patterns in this country.
In sum, whether looking at government-brokered Muslim councils, race relations legislation, or principles of citizenship law, particular historically based institutional arrangements on the two sides of the Atlantic help explain why certain institutional changes occurred in western Europe, but not the United States, in response to contemporary immigration. No two countries of course are exactly alike, and I have not gone into the many marked differences among western European nations themselves—something I have explored elsewhere.29 From an American perspective, though, this broad transatlantic comparison underscores the importance of this country’s racial and religious history in understanding what has changed—or indeed not changed—in reaction to the massive immigration of recent years.
Where Are We Going?
And this brings us squarely back to the United States, with an eye to the future. If understanding immigration-propelled changes is difficult because we are in the midst of them, it is even more challenging to speculate about what will happen in the years ahead. This is especially true in light of the earth-shattering coronavirus pandemic and economic recession, which by mid-2021 had caused more than six hundred thousand deaths in this country and unemployment for millions of Americans.
Still, some developments are highly likely in a post-pandemic era. For one thing, and critical to immigration’s role in future change, there is the prospect of continued substantial inflows of lawful permanent immigrants from abroad. This is a virtual certainty when Democrats are in the White House given their commitment to humanitarian and legal immigration and a wide range of pro-immigrant policies, many of which can be implemented through administrative actions without congressional legislation. If Republicans regain the presidency, lower levels of legal immigration are a definite possibility. Trump, after all, slashed refugee admissions and aimed to severely cut the number of green cards issued annually through various administrative measures. Whichever party is in power, however, we can expect at the very least the admission of several hundred thousand lawful permanent residents per year and many temporary workers too.
Pressures for immigration in a post-pandemic America will come from many quarters, including employers seeking high- and low-skilled workers, from top talent in science, engineering, and research development in the high-tech sector to farm laborers in agriculture. On the Democratic Party side, many immigrant minorities and liberal college-educated Whites, key elements in its coalition, will push for sustained and sizable legal immigration.
The demand for immigrant workers will continue and likely go up in the context of demographic changes. Our country is aging. By 2030, all of the baby boomers will be older than sixty-five, expanding the size of the older population so that one in five US residents will be retirement age.30 More people will be required to fill jobs that retiring baby boomers are vacating at all levels of the occupational hierarchy, and to meet expanding needs in health care and other services. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts, for example, that in the third decade of the twenty-first century, 176,000 registered nurse positions will need to be filled every year through 2029 as aging baby boomers create more patients requiring care while a large number of nurses are slated to retire. Even more home health and personal care aides will be called for in that decade—with 568,000 openings projected on average each year—to meet the increasing demand for elder home care and replace aides who transfer to other occupations or retire.31 Moreover, immigrants and their children are an important source of tax revenues for the social security system, which will be facing fiscal strains in the context of the growing number of elderly. And to add to this, US fertility rates have been falling. Already in 2018, the total fertility rate had dipped to a record low, with the expected number of births per American woman dropping to 1.73, well below the replacement rate needed to sustain the existing population.32 Fewer immigrant residents ultimately would mean the birth of fewer future American citizens, especially given higher birth rates among foreign- versus US-born women, thereby portending slower growth of the workforce in the years to come. As one demographer puts it, “Any appreciable lowering of immigration levels will lead to tepid population growth, potentially negative growth in the youth population, and extreme age dependency.”33
Two important questions are how much the pandemic and recession will undo changes in the economy that immigrants spearheaded earlier, and what role immigrants will play in facilitating economic recovery. Certainly, the epidemic had disastrous effects for untold thousands of immigrants and their families. Because large numbers work in essential frontline services such as health care—caring for patients in hospitals, for instance, and cleaning hospital rooms—and support jobs—such as stocking shelves and checking out customers in grocery stores and supermarkets—they were vulnerable to illness, and many, in the end, lost their lives.34
Especially devastating was the rate of infection and death in two major COVID-19 hot spots: meat-processing plants, where about half of the frontline meatpacking workers are immigrants, and nursing homes, where they make up about a quarter of the direct-care staff.35 Immigrants also suffered massive layoffs and high rates of unemployment given their heavy concentration in a number of industries that were particularly hard hit, including hotels, restaurants, and retail businesses. In food services alone, 38 percent of the nation’s chefs and head cooks and 22 percent of food preparation workers in 2018 were foreign born.36 Many of the Main Streets that immigrants helped to revive endured damaging slumps; many of the innovative businesses that they founded, from nail salons to eateries with new ethnic cuisines, did not survive, and those that did faced extended shutdowns, thinner margins, and risky futures in the era of social distancing. Sociologist Zai Liang, who has studied Chinese restaurant owners and workers around the country, reports that while some restaurants held on through takeout business, others closed with no plans to reopen. “The impact of Covid-19 on my business is really catastrophic,” said one owner, who planned to shut down his restaurant while discussing renting the property to a chain drugstore.37
It will take time in a post-pandemic America for many immigrants to get back on their feet again, and some will never regain their losses. Nevertheless, as they recoup, and as new arrivals enter, we can expect immigrants once more to play a role in reviving troubled parts of the economy, revitalizing weakened urban communities, and stimulating growth in the housing market in many metropolitan areas. This is what happened in numerous places after previous economic downturns, such as the slowdown of the 1970s and the 2008–9 recession, and earlier disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina, when migrant workers converged on Louisiana to assist in cleanup and reconstruction.38 Recent immigrants are among the readiest to move for work, and many will undoubtedly do so in response to opportunities that reappear.
As immigrants open new businesses and revive dormant ones, they can be counted on to introduce changes, pioneering new types of enterprises, including in specialized services, and expanding businesses that have the potential for success in a post-pandemic environment, giving them new shapes and sizes as well as orienting them more to an online world.39 Already during the pandemic, many first- and second-generation restaurant owners not only adapted by turning to outdoor dining and meeting an increased demand for takeout; some experimented with new dishes and projects. In the southern Louisiana city of Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country, for example, two Jamaican immigrants made the leap in spring 2021 to move their restaurant, Di Jerk Stop, which started as a barbecue shack, to its first stand-alone brick-and-mortar location. Along with a menu with such dishes as jerk chicken pasta and curried goat, Merick Chambers and Bobby Marshall planned to sell Jamaican condiments, establish a bar serving rum punch and imported island beverages, open a gaming area with a pool table, and host a karaoke night.40 Just as immigrants like these will help restore the economy, they will also continue to influence what Americans eat and, along with their children, go on enriching other aspects of American culture. Indeed, one of the most critically acclaimed films released during the pandemic in winter 2021, the semi-autobiographical Minari, was written and directed by second-generation Korean American Lee Isaac Chung about the challenges facing a Korean immigrant family who move to an Arkansas farm.
In another domain, the pandemic will not put an end to the polarized national politics we have seen in recent decades or xenophobic appeals of many Republican politicians, at least in the near term. Indeed, many working-class White Trump voters who suffered economic devastation will no doubt continue to blame immigrants for their troubles—resentments that some Republican candidates will exploit and intensify in their election strategies. Trump’s legitimation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies will be hard to expunge. Or as New York Times columnist Frank Bruni opined in 2019, he is in the nation’s bloodstream, and his impact may linger long after his presidency is over.41 Support from White, noncollege-educated voters (especially men) in combination with structural inequities in the electoral system and voter-suppression measures may continue to work for a time for many hard-right Republicans seeking national office, and encourage them to appeal to anti-foreigner and racist voter sentiments.
Yet demographic forces rooted in immigration will operate in another direction, especially in the longer run. According to one projection, Hispanics alone will increase to 19 percent of eligible voters by 2036, up from 12 percent in 2016. Demographic realities are bound to move some Republican office seekers in a more pro-immigrant or pro-diversity direction in a bid to capture a greater share of the ethnic and racial minority vote, particularly in places where it is becoming more significant, and also in a post-Trump era when possibilities emerge for new alignments and leaders within the Republican Party.42 For Democrats, the increasing share of racial and ethnic minority voters in the electorate will no doubt boost their future prospects in many local and state elections, and despite some defections to Republicans, should make Democratic candidates more competitive in national contests as well. The pandemic and inequalities it laid bare may also enhance Democratic support from parts of the minority population by contributing to strengthening center-left economic policies among influential sections of the Democratic Party leadership.
When it comes to race, the pandemic exposed racial disparities in America like few other events in recent US history. The COVID-19 outbreak hit Blacks and Hispanics especially hard. They suffered disproportionately high rates of death and unemployment, which both reflected and reinforced racial inequalities in this country. As for Asian Americans, the rise in verbal abuse and physical attacks against them, involving being blamed for the spread of COVID-19, Jennifer Lee and Monika Yadav argue, should be a “reckoning for Asian Americans that … native-born status, US citizenship, elite degrees, and professional jobs are no shields against hate, xenophobia, racism, and scapegoating.”43
Still, as we look ahead to a changing racial order, it is hard to imagine the pandemic reversing the overall trend toward increasing inclusiveness for many who are currently seen as minorities or people of color. The signs are that in the decades to come, Americans will be more comfortable with and accepting of ethnic and racial diversity. As one journalist wryly put it, we cannot turn back the clock to a time when Americans never heard someone speaking Spanish behind them at the supermarket.44 The country will continue to have many immigrants in it as well as a rising number of their children and children’s children.45 For more and more Americans, interacting with people of different races and ethnicities in schools, workplaces, religious congregations, and local communities will be a normal, commonplace feature of everyday life. This does not mean that racial prejudice and discrimination—and race-based inequalities—will disappear. They will not. But there is every indication that increased social contacts among those of similar social status from different racial and ethnic backgrounds will reduce prejudice as well as foster less conflict-ridden, indeed often amicable, and sometimes even intimate relations.
As changes in the racial hierarchy and meaning of racial categories evolve in the coming years, immigrants, and even more their children and grandchildren, will play an important role in shaping them. It is a safe bet that altered conceptions of race and ethnicity will provide more scope for many Americans with origins in Asia, Latin America, and Africa as well. The ability of more children and grandchildren of post-1965 immigrants to move into positions in the upper ranges of the occupational hierarchy and the growth in the proportion of mixed marriages and multiracial children—these developments are bound to lead to greater inclusion for many now routinely categorized as racial minorities or non-White, and may eventually result in the emergence of new terms to talk about racial divisions. In the end, changes in the racial order will be one of the most important transformations and legacies of the post-1965 immigration for American society.
It is now more than half a century since the inflows of millions of immigrants from across the globe began to transform the United States. In thinking of the years to come, cohorts of new arrivals, along with their children and grandchildren, will inevitably leave their own mark. This in truth is the story of America. “Our growth as a nation,” historian Oscar Handlin wrote more than sixty years ago, “has been achieved in large measure through the genius and industry of immigrants of every race and from every quarter of the world. The story of their pursuit of happiness is the saga of America. Their brains and their brawn helped to settle our land, to advance our agriculture, to build our industries, to develop our commerce, to produce new inventions and, in general, to make us the … nation that we now are.”46 Certainly, there will be new twists and turns as we move further into the twenty-first century, but immigration has always been part of the evolution of American society, and there is every reason to expect that this will continue to be so in the years ahead.
In the course of writing this book, I have acquired a great many debts. They start with my debt to the institutions that provided the time and support to work on it. I began working on the book when I had a year off from teaching as a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative, then directed by Donald Robotham. A few years later, I benefited from a semester as a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, and a Guggenheim fellowship allowed me to take additional time off from teaching to complete several chapters. In addition, Jan Willem Duyvendak, Francesca Decimo, and Patrick Simon made possible shorter stints for concentrated writing at, respectively, the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the University of Trento, and INED (the French National Institute for Demographic Studies), where I also profited from conversations with them and their colleagues.
Over the years, I have had the good fortune to be part of a large community of immigration scholars who have enhanced my understanding of international migration and influenced my ideas on its impact on the United States. It’s not possible to name them all, for there are so many, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone off the list. I do, however, want to acknowledge my debt to several people who had a direct role in the development and writing of this book. Many thanks to Richard Alba, Kay Deaux, Mary Waters, and an anonymous reviewer for Princeton University Press for their helpful comments on the manuscript. I gained insights and ideas while writing the book from my collaborations with Richard and Kay as well as Christophe Bertossi, Maurice Crul, Katharine Donato, Jan Willem Duyvendak, Philip Kasinitz, Leo Lucassen, John Mollenkopf, and Patrick Simon. I learned a great deal as well from my social science colleagues on the National Academy of Sciences panel on the integration of immigrants into American society (chaired by Mary Waters), and the historians I worked with on the Statue of Liberty / Ellis Island history advisory committee (chaired by Alan Kraut) and the Tenement Museum’s scholarly advisory group (organized by Annie Polland, now the museum’s president).
My own institution, the City University of New York, has been a wonderful place to be an immigration scholar, not least because my undergraduate students at Hunter College, nearly all immigrants or children of immigrants, have helped me to better understand the experiences of immigrants and their impact on this country. In the doctoral program at the Graduate Center, I have greatly benefited from my many exchanges with colleagues as well as students, the latter including, most recently, Brenda Gambol, Rebecca Karam, Abby Kolker, and Karen Okigbo.
At Princeton University Press, executive editor Meagan Levinson was an enthusiastic backer of the book project from its early days, made enormously helpful and detailed comments on the manuscript, and guided it through the publication process. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her. Thanks as well to the rest of the Princeton University Press team, including assistant editor Jacqueline Delaney, senior production editor Kathleen Cioffi, and copyeditor Cindy Milstein.
Finally, I want to thank members of my family. My husband, Peter Swerdloff, spent hours talking over ideas with me, helped me sharpen many of the arguments, and provided critical insights and expert editorial advice. My daughter, Alexis, her husband, Byron, and their young son, Sam, have been a source of joy and delight. This is my first book in which my mother, Anne Foner—professor emerita of sociology at Rutgers University, and nearing the age of a hundred as I finished the manuscript—was unable to read drafts of chapters and offer suggestions. As usual, however, she provided encouragement and support at every step of the way. I dedicate this book to her.