U.S. Immigration Debate Is a Road Well Traveled

Early-20th-Century Concerns Resurface

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006; Page A01

NEW YORK — They were portrayed as a disreputable lot, the immigrant hordes of this great city.

The Germans refused for decades to give up their native tongue and raucous beer gardens. The Irish of Hell’s Kitchen brawled and clung to political sinecures. The Jews crowded into the Lower East Side, speaking Yiddish, fomenting socialism and resisting forced assimilation. And by their sheer numbers, the immigrants depressed wages in the city.

As for the multitudes of Italians, who settled Mulberry Street, East Harlem and Canarsie? In 1970, seven decades after their arrival, Italians lagged behind every immigrant group in educational achievement.

The bitter arguments of the past echo loudly these days as Congress debates toughening the nation’s immigration laws and immigrants from Latin America and Asia swell the streets of U.S. cities in protest. Most of the concerns voiced today — that too many immigrants seek economic advantage and fail to understand democracy, that they refuse to learn English, overcrowd homes and overwhelm public services — were heard a century ago. And there was a nub of truth to some complaints, not least that the vast influx of immigrants drove down working-class wages.

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