'Heritage Americans' Were Unassimilated Immigrants Once Too

Ellis Island arrivals maintained close ties to the Old World for generations. Nativists want us to forget that.


The immigrants keep coming, and they're not assimilating. Unlike our immigrant ancestors, who came to America and never looked back, they still maintain ties to their old country, waving their foreign flags and reading their news in another language, bringing along cousins and friends from their village. Of course I'm talking about Basque shepherds, who settled the Rocky Mountains in the 19th century and continued to welcome new arrivals into their ethnic clubs more than 100 years later.

Almost everyone in this country has ancestors who came from somewhere else. So nativists are now arguing that immigration now is simply different from their ancestors' immigration. "A Peter Thiel point on this I return to often is that the settlers who became Americans in the 19th century were—for most intents and purposes—dead to the Old World," writes Micah Meadowcroft, research director at the national conservative Center for American Renewal. "Today, thanks to communication and transportation tech, migrants never have to fully leave home psychologically."

That's simply not true. Since ancient times, immigrants have maintained a sense of connection to the lands they left behind. ("By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion," goes the psalm. "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.") The diasporas of 19th century America were no exception. They organized newspapers, social clubs, political organizations, and informal networks that let them keep a foot in the Old Country, sometimes for generations.

While technology has made it easier to stay up to date and travel back every so often, the same innovations have also made it harder to avoid assimilating into broader American society. Even famously insular religious communities, like the Amish and Orthodox Jews, are on social media now. And to some extent, new immigrants now come "pre-assimilated": People around the world, especially those who want to emigrate, are familiar with American pop culture and the English language to a degree that was simply impossible when boatloads of Europeans fanned out across the frontier.

For decades, for example, northern Wisconsin was a little Finland, with entire towns built by immigrants who did business, socialized, and prayed almost entirely in Finnish. And they held onto those ties for generations. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Oulu continued to have Finnish-language services through the 1950s. The Wisconsin-based Finnish-language newspaper Työväen Osuustoimintalehti didn't close down until 1965. Between television and TikTok, that level of isolation from English-speaking society would be impossible to maintain today. Around half of Finns inside Finland now speak English.

The Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey collected 116,553 pages of foreign-language newspapers published in America from 1855 to 1938. These papers made it clear that their readers were not "dead to the Old World." In 1897, the Lithuanian-American weekly Lietva stated that ethnic schools are "the only institution that can uplift the intellect of our brothers and inspire our children with the Lithuanian spirit." In 1910, the Czechoslovak-American weekly Denni Hlasatel complained that the U.S. Census would not recognize Slavic identities, much like the recent campaign to have "Middle Eastern" added as a census category.

Some old-time European immigrants engaged in identity politics so blatant that they would make modern woke academics blush. A week before the U.S. elections of 1922, Denni Hlasatel stated that "Czechoslovak voters, both men and women, should forever bear in mind that there are four of our countrymen on the Democratic ticket and not one on the Republican, and act accordingly next Tuesday." Six years later, the Bolletino of the Italo-American National Union reminded its readers that "various Italians are candidates for different offices. It is our duty to vote for them regardless of our party affiliations."

When President Theodore Roosevelt complained that "a hyphenated American is not an American at all," he cited German, Irish, English, French, Scandinavian, and Italian Americans as the threat to the nation. The people that Meadowcroft considers examplars of good assimilation were seen a century earlier as an unassimilated subversive element. Italian Americans in particular were maligned as carriers of religious extremism, political violence, and organized crime; the largest mass lynching in American history targeted so-called "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins" in New Orleans.

Some modern nativists make a more sophisticated argument, conceding that earlier immigrants changed America but wanting to freeze the clock on that change. Chronicles podcast host C. Jay Engel recently wrote that his definition of American identity "includes the type of people that came here during the Ellis Island generation, even if that was a significant sociopolitical mistake. We are also the product of our mistakes as a nation." Engel's preferred cutoff point for American identity is World War II, the last time he believes that America was "centered around the experiences and norms of Anglo-Protestants."

Why not make the cutoff earlier, before the massive waves of Southern and Eastern European immigration through Ellis Island diluted Anglo-Protestant culture? (The fact that Engel himself has Italian grandparents shows why that would not be politically feasible in America.) Or if we agree that those Ellis Islanders irreversibly became part of the American fabric, then why not include later waves of immigrants?

According to Engel, it is because "some peoples are less threatening" to Anglo-Protestant society than others. "Irish or Italians or Catholics may not fit the original core," he writes, "but were closer on the spectrum, being Europeans." Therefore, they could be assimilated, while recent non-European arrivals are not "capable of fitting in and should be sent home immediately."

Like Meadowcroft's claims about settlers, Engel's classification of "Heritage Americans" is historically illiterate. Not every immigrant in the 19th century was European—and some were born as far from Europe as could be.

The first major law restricting immigration to America, after all, was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. And one of its most notorious acts during World War II was the internment of Japanese Americans, many of whose families had lived on the Pacific coast for generations. A forgotten incident in the same vein was the Hindu Conspiracy Trial during World War I, a California-centered panic about Indian-American support for resistance to the British Empire. These instances of nativist backlash reveal just how much Asian Americans contributed to settling the western frontier.

Paterson, New Jersey, a city famous for renaming its main street "Palestine Way," has had an Arab-American community since the 19th century, when Syrian silk weavers helped build the local garment industry. There is a similarly old Arab diaspora in Michigan, which has also hosted many generations of Armenian Americans. Both of these communities have continued to welcome new immigrants while keeping the memory of the old country alive. There is no neat separation between "Heritage Americans" and newcomers along ethnic lines.

Basque shepherds first came to the American frontier with the Gold Rush of 1849, and dominated California's sheep industry through the 1970s. They were often the first and only settlers in remote parts of the Rockies. Basque-American men would frequently return to Spain and France to look for wives or recruit new workers. Despite being European, those Basques did not adopt the "ways and habits and standards of culture and behavior" of "Heritage Americans," as Engel put it. Instead, they created Basque bubbles in America, some of which still exist today.

"After church, Basques line up outside the Pyrenees Bakery for the thick-crust, sourdough 'shepherds loaf' for their Sunday meal. Others gather at the Basque Club for a game of pelota (Basque handball) or a card game called mus," the Los Angeles Times stated in 1989, describing the Basque quarter of Bakersfield, California. "By late afternoon, the bar at the Noriega Hotel is filled with sheepmen and the descendants of sheepmen drinking Picon punch, a heady blend of brandy, grenadine, soda and Amer Picon aperitif."

Just as some of the oldest American communities have maintained their ties to the Old World, some of the newest arrivals have been eager to slam the door behind them. A few months ago, a Fox News reporter encountered a group of Turkish immigrants sneaking from Mexico to California without papers. Moments after crossing, one of them told the reporter that Americans should be worried about "no security" on the border. "Who comes into this country? They don't know," the man said. "OK, I'm good. But how if they're not good?"

That's the American immigration debate in a nutshell: Someone who arrived 10 minutes ago trying to keep out the people who arrived five minutes ago. Although "Heritage Americans" may be separated from the immigrant experience by a few more decades, it's only a difference of degree. The fundamental message is still the same. OK, my ancestors were good. But those guys doing the same thing? They're not.