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Huddled Masses Yearning to Breathe Free?

By Donna R. Gabaccia, Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota

Americans have long associated immigration with the images that Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus? affixed to the pedestal supporting the Statue of Liberty—images of the “tired? and of the “poor? and of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.?

Historians now dispute whether the immigrants of the past were either tired or particularly poor. Most were working age people, full of energy, and in possession of sufficient cash to pay their own passages, as the truly poor of their times were not. Today, those images of huddled masses seem even less appropriate than they did a century ago.

For the past decade, scholars have noted what they call “bi-modal? patterns among the foreign-born of the United States. Foreigners cluster disproportionately at both the bottom and at the top of the U.S. job hierarchy. Large proportions have far less educations than natives but the proportions with post-graduate degrees also surpass that of Americans. Precisely because recent debates have focused so much attention on the poor of Mexico and Central America--who often enter the United States without proper visas in order to work low-wage, low-skill jobs--it’s important to pause occasionally and to acknowledge those immigrants who are decidedly not today’s “huddled masses.?

There are many of them, as even a quick survey of a holiday week’s news suggests. For the reader who looks, information about the large and growing numbers of well-educated, high-income immigrants is everywhere to be found. Could attention to these immigrants change the terms of the current debates?

A recent Washington Post article focuses on one group of prosperous migrants from India and their quick move into the American mainstream. Eighty percent have college degrees and 70 percent work in professional and managerial positions; their incomes are higher than the American median, making it possible for them to purchase homes quickly, even in the high-price Washington area. Although we don’t usually debate about the desirability of immigrants like these, some of these immigrants, too, have overstayed their visas and have become “illegal? immigrants. Most, however, have entered the country as students or workers or have received visas as relatives of earlier immigrants who have become resident aliens and U.S. citizens.
Out of India, En Masse and on the Way Up

Many newspapers and services picked up AP business reporter Michael Liedtke’s article on foreigners as entrepreneurs. Although they make up only 12 percent of the American population, immigrants start up 20 percent of all new businesses in the country. It’s particularly appropriate that yahoo.com carried this story: Yahoo’s Jerry Yang arrived in the U.S. from Taiwan thirty years ago. In fact, Silicon Valley is to a considerable degree a product of immigrant business success stories.
Venture capitalists betting on immigrant

Even those conservatives who generally argue for immigration restriction do sometimes acknowledge the reality of middle-class migration—a phenomenon that is increasingly obvious even in Mexico (see, for example, Middle Class Mexicans Also Emigrating). The author of this article points to the complexity of wealthier migrants’ motives: many middle-class Mexican migrants are fully employed at home. He even sympathizes with their desire to earn more money in the U.S. But ultimately he insists that the only solution to the current immigration “problem? is stricter controls at the border.

In short: don’t expect attention to wealthier, better educated immigrants to end the hot debates about how many immigrants the U.S. should welcome. It’s not just the huddled masses that many debaters seek to exclude.


Donna R. Gabaccia Rudolph J. Vecoli Professor of Immigration History
Research and Director Immigration History Research Center
311 Elmer L. Andersen Library
222-21st Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
612 625-4800
FAX: 612-626-0018
Email: drg@umn.edu

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