Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Talking about Immigrants

The US has been debating delaying changes to its immigration policy for many years. Congress may soon propose immigration policy reform that addresses the millions of undocumented immigrants that live among us.  America is a nation where the vast majority of its citizens have ancestry that goes back to foreign-born immigrants.   Starting with largely European immigrants who came to the New World to seek their fortune or to escape religious persecution in their own homelands in the three centuries before the establishment of the United States of America, immigrants from every continent have continued to flow into the New World by the millions
For the first three centuries of immigration to America, there weren't any visas, passports or "green cards" required.  These foreigners assumed that they could expoit the resources of the New World and take ownership of the seemingly endless land.  The original native population was not asked for permission to immigrate.  The ownership rights of the native population was not an issue for these early European explorers and settlers who believed that all that they needed was God's providence and that His hand directed them in their acquisition of these new lands.  Of course, the gun was a necessary and constant companion in their taking of the land because the native people did not go gently from their ancestral homeland. These early settlers were followed by an endless stream of Europeans and African slaves. African captives were forced to come to the New World and spend their lives toiling for the enrichment of white men and women.  Their native-born children were born into slavery and were not free people until the American Civil War resulted in the prohibition of slavery.  In the 17th century, many of the poorest new immigrants "indentured" themselves to wealthier men to pay for their passage to America. Beginning in the 19th century, Impoverished and war weary immigrants filled the ships that sailed to the New World in the hope that they could escape such travails and find employment. 
Russians tried to establish ownership of the West  Coast of America.  Perhaps because their own supply lines were so far away, their colonies were financial failures for the Russian Empire. In 1862, 586,412 square miles of Russian-owned land in the far northwest of North America was purchased by the US government and became the Alaskan Territory and thereby ended the Russian early immigration.  
The land seemed so endless and the need for labor so great, that immigrants were welcomed without limit.  Chinese arrived on the West Coast in the 1800's and greatly increased their immigration when gold was discovered in California in 1848. Racism and xenophobia grew among the white population and resulted in the first immigration law to restrict immigration  in 1862, followed by Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
My Family of Immigrants
My father's ancestors immigrated from Norway in 1881 when many Scandanavians experienced economic pressures and unemployment at home.  Six brothers left a family farm to pursue a better life in the northern states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. This area was very much like the land they left and many communities were Norweigian-speaking and Lutheran, the state religion of Norway.  My great grandfather was a wagon-maker and wood-worker in Minnesota. He brought a wife and two children with him. After his first wife died, he remarried to the daughter of a Norweigian immigrant who homesteaded land in the state of Wisconsin.
The Six Gregerson brothers who immigrated from Norway to the USA in 1881.
My Great Grandfather is Carl Gregerson (second from the right lower row).
On my mother's side, my ancestors immigrated from Germany (or Prussia as it was called then).  My great-great grandfather, Carl Charles Molt, immigrated from Prussia in 1860. He became a farmer in the state of Kansas and married an American-born woman of German ancestry.

My husband's grandfather and grandmother immigrated from Austria (Slovenia) to the US in 1905.  His grandfather worked as a laborer, was uneducated and never learned to speak English.

By the second generation, most Americans born of immigrant parents become highly acculturated to  American values and life-styles, fluent only in English or bilingual in their own family's native tongue.  By the third or fourth generation, most Americans don't even know their ancestral origins.  I have only begun to have an interest in my heritage in the past 20 years.  With the help of online tools like, the Mormon Church records, and census data, I have begun to piece together my family history.

I hope the US Congress is successful in passing immigration policy reform and that immigrants who do not have papers to establish their own and their children's legal residency will get a chance to live here legally.   The anti-immigrant voices of American Nativism are gradually being diminished in the political debate, perhaps because the Republican Party sees the writing on the wall that they cannot win elections with an anti-immigrant message.  Immigrants are the lifeblood that keeps American innovation and its economy blossoming anew.  Huffington Post has a an excellent overview to the history of US immigration and its present-day issues at this link..

1 comment:

  1. Interesting family history there. Reverses my own somewhat as the paternal side is German and the maternal side is Norweigan. I naturaly love (as my father used to say) "sauerkraut and pigs knuckles" and my mom "lefse and klub". I did eat lutefisk, though my father and brother wouldn't, because I was a momas boy...:)