Many of America’s Best Ideas Have Come From New Americans, Says Immigration Historian

Dr. Shannon Anderson, associate professor of sociology at Roanoke College and author of Immigration, Assimilation, and the Cultural Construction of American National Identity, first became interested in immigration while pursuing her PhD at the University of Virginia. She researched the impact that the perception of immigrants had on the nation. “The story that was most compelling to me was the realities and attitudes about immigration and how they shape people’s notion of the meaning of America,” says Anderson, whose great-great-grandparents immigrated to the Unites States from Russia between 1900 and 1915. “That story — coming to a place with so many opportunities — is so much of what this country is about.”

So how do immigrants factor into the city of Roanoke? Anderson found that employers praised the work ethic of their immigrant employees repeatedly and without fail. Teachers said the same about immigrant children, citing their eagerness to learn and their desire to integrate English into their homes. The foreign-born population in Roanoke also tended to stay, she adds, with many doing jobs that Americans didn’t want to do. Others started small businesses, boosting the local economy. “There’s a whole corner on the eastern side of the city where businesses have been slowly turning over and all these Latin markets, restaurants, and shops are going in,” Anderson says. “Just in the last five years, several Asian-owned stores have started opening up in that same area. There’s this sense of energy and real growth that’s not happening in other parts of the city.”

If these people are working and contributing to economies, which most of them are, that’s good for us, and can be good for them, too. We need to look forward to how we can do better.

The country’s undocumented immigrants provide the same boost, she says. “We want to send them home? This is home,” she says. “What are we going to do, separate parents from their children? It just doesn’t make sense. If these people are working and contributing to economies, which most of them are, that’s good for us, and can be good for them, too. Looking back at how these people got here isn’t fixing anything. We need to look forward to how we can do better.

And looking forward is exactly what Anderson is doing. Regulating the number of people who come into the country at one time might ease some of the current negative rhetoric surrounding immigration, she says. “Right now, in many ways, we’re seeing a repeat of a conversation we had in 1915-1916 about whether we want to allow foreigners into our country,” she explains. “We have politicians who are harnessing fear, threat, and hate in the same way they were all those years ago. It’s really only at times when immigration is lower, such as during the 1920s after congress passed a series on anti-immigration laws, that we get the triumphant narrative of the melting pot.”

Once immigrants are here, the most important thing legislators can do is create policies to improve how we treat our foreign-born population, she says. “We haven’t done a good job with that, and what that ends up doing is creating tension between the immigrants and other working people that fuels the anti-immigrant narrative we’re hearing,” Anderson says. “I’m a firm believer that some of our best ideas and innovation comes from people who don’t share our exact history, training, culture, socialization, all of that, so I certainly want to see us leave the door open, at least to some degree.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…