Composition and Assimilation of Our Foreign Population


By MARSHALL E. DIMOCK, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U. S. Department of Justice

Delivered at the Annual Conference of Social Work, Ambassador Hotel, Atlantic City, N. J., June 2, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 626-630.

THE general pick-up of business activity due to the war has not benefited the alien portion of the population as much as it has the citizens of our country, and hence the alien problem is of increasing concern to the social worker. There are something less than five million aliens, comprising about four-and-one-half per cent of the total population, in the United States at the present time. Due to growing discrimination, they are finding it more and more difficult to get work, despite the catapulting needs of the defense industries. What are such people to do? Most of them could not return to their native lands even if they would. Added to the economic insecurity which affects a growing number of them is another fear, the uncertainty in this insane world regarding what government will do to them, even in a country as fair and tolerant as our own. Leaving aside the humanitarian aspect of the matter and looking at it solely from a hard-headed standpoint, it is clear that those two fears, economic and governmental, cannot help but have a dampening effect upon the unity and devotion which our republic requires in the troublous days ahead. We cannot afford to have in our beloved country any distinct group, either foreign or native-born, which feels that it is somewhat set apart. This breeds trouble. It is a weapon which the dictators would soon use. At the very least, it would have a debilitating effect.

The social workers and the government are the natural allies which must see to it that these fears are routed. Aliens who have come to this country because they admire our institutions and want to build themselves into it must be assured that they can help with our defense efforts and that they can make a respectable living. Aliens who wish to fit into our political and social life and whose loyalty and sympathy are clearly established should be given every encouragement that we would give one of our own. This is a hard-headed viewpoint, because, irrespective of what one may think of the past liberality of our immigration policies, the plain truth of the matter is that most of the five million are here legally and inferentially at our own invitation. To alienate an entire group, therefore, because of disapproval of past policy is to assume a serious burden of responsibility, so indispensable is the unity of all elements at the present time.

No quarter, of course, will be allowed that small minority of aliens who seek to undermine and overthrow our institutions, we will try to show them that when it comes to legal measures of suppression our democracy can "crack down" as efficiently as those who would enslave us. For the great majority of the foreign-born, however, this government has no other conceivable purpose than fairness equal to that which is shown to our own citizens. Attorney General Jackson, who heads the principal law-enforcement program affecting aliens, has reiterated this fundamental policy time and time again. There can be no doubting the government's good faith. Anyone who tries to make it appear that we are headed for an indiscriminate round-up and hounding of all aliens in the United States must immediately be suspected ofspreading fear and fomenting resentment for purposes which serve the interests of the dictators rather than our own, for these reports and suspicions are utterly without foundation.

This government knows the dangers incident to internment of whole nationality groups. Some nations, not prepared as we are through years of experience and education in dealing with the assimilation of the foreigner, have shown us the stupidities of this segregation method. Every foreign-born resident, whatever his nationality, becomes alarmed. He says to himself, "Why, they are segregating these people just because they were born elsewhere. I'm in the same boat." Make no mistake about it. This is a costly method. There is nothing to be said in its favor except that if a nation is so unfortunate as to be caught unprepared it may be forced to adopt inept methods which under other circumstances it would never have considered.

We are much better prepared than many countries which, racially speaking, are far more homogeneous. Ever since the Naturalization Service came into being, almost two generations ago, this government has fostered a citizenship and assimilation program for newcomers to our shores. In this program we have been strongly supported by the public schools, social service agencies, patriotic groups—in fact, I challenge you to think of any important American organization that has not helped. We are still so close to the event that we cannot possibly fully appreciate the remarkable strides that have been taken in the assimilation of the 24,000,000 who have come here during the last half century. Complacent? No. Satisfied? Not by a long shot. Thankful that we have done as much as we have? Yes, very thankful. And you splendid, patriotic, social workers, working intimately with our alien population as you do, can help, in this hour of trial for the United States, to allay baseless fears and to instil an abiding and necessary confidence in those who are on the road to becoming Americans. I go further and ask your cooperation in apprehending and bringing to task that small minority which does not fit in, which seeks our overthrow. This is your duty as American citizens. You say it might jeopardize your professional standing with those you serve if you were to be called an informant? I realize that it might have this effect with a small number of our foreign-born, but for the great majority, no,—like you and me, they recognize the duty of every American citizen to his country, be he social worker or law enforcement agent. This is not universal snoopery. It is the state of awareness which guards against the necessity for a Gestapo.

We are in a much better position than we were to deal with our alien population because, thanks to Alien Registration, we now understand it. We know, for example, that the 4,742,000 aliens in our midst are a million and a quarter less than ten years ago; that a third of those registered have taken steps to become naturalized; and that more than a quarter million of them will file declarations of intention during the current year.

The ten states which lead in alien population are New York with 25 per cent, California with 11 per cent, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts with 7 per cent each, and Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Texas, Ohio and Connecticut with percentages ranging from 3 to 6 per cent. The next five states have one to two per cent, leaving 33 states with less than one per cent each.

Our foreign population is predominantly urban and industrial, as one would surmise from the states which lead the list. It is therefore in the cities that the present-day problems of the alien, intensified by the war in Europe, are found to exist today, and it is in these urban-industrial situations that social workers are able to render the greatest assistance.

Precisely because most of them are in cities rather than on self-sustaining plots of land, aliens are peculiarly hard hit by the legal and non-legal discriminations which prevent them from gaining employment. The actual number of workmen affected by state and federal restrictions is relatively small compared with those who find doors closed to them by prospective employers who debar them merely because they choose to do so. Let no one think that the motives which cause people to deny work to aliens lack substance and appeal. First, there is the ingratitude argument: "He's had a chance to become naturalized and hasn't done so." Then one hears the economic aspect: "Why pay a foreigner to work for me when he'll probably send his money to the old country?" Still another deterrent is the security factor: "You can't tell whether he's safe or not; he's more of a risk than a native-born worker." This attitude is found particularly where the foreign-born are relatively few, for lack of familiarity is the foundation of most of our fears.

Those of you who deal with aliens almost daily and know that many of these reservations are exaggerated should not be intolerant of the motives which prompt business men to seek citizen employees if they are to be secured. Rather, you should be sympathetic. You are much more likely to be of use if you adopt an attitude of understanding rather than of thinly veiled contempt. And you can be helpful: once you have won the confidence of the individual employer you can certify the reliability and fundamental attachment to our institutions of the workmen he may be seeking. In so doing you will be performing a patriotic service, for in certain skills shortages are already imminent and non-citizens will be sorely needed.

Another characterization of our alien group is that it is considerably older than the average for the country as a whole. The median age of the population of the United States is only 28 years, whereas that of the alien portion is 48 years. This fact adds further to the bread-winning and social adjustment problems of our urban foreign-born.

Add to the foregoing factors the appalling illiteracy of this group we are considering and the puzzle just about falls into place. A sample from Alien Registration reveals that approximately 15 per cent of the aliens signed their registration forms by use of "his mark" or "X," and the actual percentage of those who could not pass a more comprehensive literacy test than this would, of course, be considerably higher. Ninety per cent of the illiterate alien population is over 45 years of age and approximately this same percentage of illiterates arrived in this country before 1924. Proud as we are of the past accomplishments of our citizenship education program, we can see from these figures how much has been left undone. The plain fact is that unless there is a relaxation of the literacy requirements for this group past fifty, thousands face the absolute certainty of never being able to qualify for United States citizenship.

Of this total alien population of almost four and three-quarters millions, Italy stands first with 660,000, Canada is next with 450,000, Poland follows with 430,000, and Germany and England (not including Ireland) come a close fourth and fifth with approximately 360,000 each. Here again these figures are based upon a sampling and are not complete. They are also, of course, the number left over after naturalization and other deductions are accounted for, and hence do not give a true picture of the total composition of our population.

One of the most interesting computations we are now able to make from Alien Registration figures has to do with the percentage of those who have never applied for first papers to the total number of registrants, by countries. The total of persons who have never applied for papers is approximately 2,600,000 and of this number Italians and Canadians have the highest percentages, about 57 in each case. Poles come next with 53 per cent; then the English with 52 per cent; and the Germans last with 40 per cent. Or, looked at contrariwise, 60 per cent of all German registrants have applied for first papers, whereas the four other countries which lead in registrations can claim from only 42 to 48 per cent. Comparing two periods, 1906-1924 and 1924-1938, we find that the percentage of English non-applicants remained nearly constant at about 40 per cent, whereas the German percentage more than doubled in the latter period, increasing from 20 to 50 per cent.

Those of us who are connected with the Immigration and Naturalization Service want you to know that we appreciate the vast amount of unremunerated assistance that we get from you individually and through your organizations. You not only help applicants to get necessary information and advice, and you not only help them to fill out forms, but you advise us on the good and weak points in their make-up. So great is the demand for citizenship papers and so pressing the need for national unity that we want to improve our naturalization procedure in every possible way, certainly administratively and legislatively if necessary. You have been generous about writing and talking to us. We hope you will keep it up and that many of your constructive suggestions will be put into effect.

Deportations still occupy a large part of our attention. This current year we have handled 18,000 deportation proceedings and a large number is anticipated in the coming year. We have increased our guard on the borders; have required visas of all entrants; and have tightened up on seaman regulations. All of these steps have reduced the number of those able to slip through. Last year only 70,000 immigrants were admitted, out of a possible 153,000; the number of non-immigrants was 138,000, and an even larger number, 144,000, left the country. These are all indications that matters are well in hand, once the backlog of deportables has been taken care of.

At the present time there are four principal ways of assisting deserving aliens to establish themselves in the community if they want to clear their status and thence be entitled to permanent residence or to proceed to naturalization; these are: registry, pre-examination, suspension of deportation under Title II of the Smith Act, or private bill procedure. Your collaboration is especially sought when it comes to making the most effective use of the suspension provisions of the Smith Act. This is your meat, for the success of the procedure depends upon the skill with which the case is investigated. The study we are required to make is simply the case method you social workers use every day. What is the family situation, the environment, the health, the record of earnings, the financial outlook, the citizenship record, the moral and religious situation. Are not all of these questionswhich constitute your stock in trade? We welcome your assistance in this work. If you come across particularly deserving cases, bring them to our attention: if you can help us make investigations we wish you would say so. The most difficult deportation cases almost invariably involve social work considerations as the determinative factor.

In three years of association with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, first as a consultant and later as a supervisory officer, I have discovered that its leadership has always taken a broad, social view of its functions. We are the agency of the United States government which is concerned with the conduct and welfare of the alien from the time he secures permission to enter the country until he becomes a full-fledged member of our political society. We tell him whether he may come in; we let him in; deport him or register him; educate him in American citizenship; makehim a citizen; and use our records to assist his progeny. We are a law-enforcement agency, yes. Decidedly so. But we try to be more than that. We are an instrumentality which helps the newcomer to adjust to our American surroundings and way of life. Ours is a positive, constructive program. We are not content merely to be policemen. We crack down on the bad ones, but lend a helping hand to those deserving ones who need and appreciate it. Let it never be thought that the two do not blend. The most effective social workers I have ever known were the hard-headed ones, the practical ones who directed their altruism with a realistic understanding of the factors involved. This same combination is needed in the work we are called upon to do. It is this same combination of firmness and mutual understanding which must be relied upon to carry us through the present emergency.