It is historian Oscar Handlin’s thesis that the demand that immigrants assimilate and surrender their separateness made them adjust to the American way of life; but they were treated immorally and were condemned under the shadow of consciousness that the immigrants were strangers and outsiders that would never belong.
Immigrants would come with minds and spirits fresh for new impressions; and being in America would make Americans of them. The sense of being welcome gave them the assurance that their struggles to build a new life would be regarded with sympathy. The expression of doubts that some parts of the population might not become fully American implied the existence of a settled criticism of what was truly American. There were attempts to distinguish among the natives between those who really belonged and those who didn’t.
All critics expressed that some hereditary element had given form to American culture, but they provided no means of social recognition and offered no basis on how the true Americans could identify themselves as such. The experience of life in the United States had not broken down the separateness of the elements mixed into it. Long after the great immigration of Irish and Germans, these people had not become indistinguishable from other Americans; they were still recognizably Irish and German. The conclusion was inevitable: to be Americanized, the immigrants must conform to the American way of life completely defined by the way they lived.
The boldness of such judgments testified to the voluntary nature of immigration adjustment. The adjustment had depended on the immigrants’ ability as individuals in a free society to adapt themselves to their environment through what forms they chose. The demand by their critics that the adjustment take a predetermined course seemed to question their right to a place in American society. Acting as an American was not a step they would’ve taken at home. To subscribe to a newspaper was one of the acts of a citizen of the New World.
People changed their names. August Bjőrkegren decided to be called Burk, and Andry Blumberg, Kelly. There were matters in which they wished to be like others, undistinguished from anyone else, but they never hit upon the means of becoming so. In truth, these people found it difficult to know what were “American forms” they were expected to take on. What they did know was that they had not succeeded, that they had not established themselves to the extent that they could expect to be treated as if they belonged where they were.
The Immigrants were constantly treated immorally and blamed for the disorders in the country. They were first accused of poverty. Indeed to citizens, the ghettos were altogether alien territory associated with filth and crime. American social scientists approached their subject through the analysis of specific disorders such as criminality, intemperance, poverty, and disease. Everywhere they looked, they found immigrants somehow involved in these problems. They concluded that immigrants were responsible for every evil that falls upon the country: pauperism, economic depressions, and the low birth rate of natives, class divisions, prostitution and homosexuality, and the appearance of city slums. A violent anti-Chinese movement had developed in California in 1873 and categorized Chinese with Blacks and Indians, which led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
The newcomers were also accused of congregating together in their own groups and of an unwillingness to mix with outsiders. Employment advertisements like “NO IRISH NEED APPLY” were common in limiting immigrants’ belonging to America. In politics, also there were occasions on which the activities of the new citizens met the hostility of the old natives. Immigrants felt an undertone of acrimony in every contact with an official. Men in uniform always found them unworthy of respect; the police were their capital fear of the law; the postmen made foreign writing on their letters; the streetcar conductors laughed at their requests for directions. The U.S. would move in new directions of its own because its people were a new people.