"Give me your tired, your poor,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
—"The New Colossus"
Contrary to the common portrayal in many non-American media, "American" is not an ethnic group. The United States is not a nation with one predominating ancestry. According to the most recent census information, the largest ethnic groups in the USA are: "German" (15.2%), "African" (12.9%) "Irish" (10.9%), and "English" (8.7%). Of course, as these figures are self-reported, they should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, most demographers believe that the actual number of English Americans is considerably higher than the census figures indicate.
The US is a nation of immigrants. They come for a variety of reasons:
- The first African-Americans were forcibly brought over as slaves. Recently, there are growing communities of African immigrants who are fleeing violence and poverty. These new immigrants, unlike most African-Americans, have no connection to slavery or the Jim Crow era.
- In many major cities, there is a sizable Caribbean-American community, made up of the migrating descendants of the Africans that were forcefully brought to the Caribbean.
- The Chinese-Americans came to work on the transcontinental railroad and in the gold mines.
- The Irish-Americans fled famine and The Troubles.
- American Jews mostly fled from various pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, as well as coming over after The Holocaust.
- The Cuban-Americans mostly fled Castro.
- The Vietnamese-Americans fled the end of The Vietnam War.
- Some European-Americans fled World War I.
- The Mexican-Americans came to the USA as cheap labor. A later group fled the Mexican economical crisis that lasted from 1982 to 1996.
- Most Latin Americans in general come to America looking for work.
- There are alos a great many fleeing the drug wars raging in Mexico.
- The Italian-Americans came to escape poverty.
- The US is also one of seven nations which every year accepts a significant amount of refugees from around the world: over the years these have included Hmong, Nepalis, Burmese, Karen, Somalis, Iraqis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, and many many others
Most of them, however, came and still come for one reason—to pursue the American Dream.
The Ellis Island Experience
The typical immigrant from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be from a poor town in Europe. They'd save up their money and buy a one way steerage ticket across the Atlantic to New York City.
After seeing a brothel shaped like a giant elephant and the Statue of Liberty (in that order), they'd arrive at Ellis Island. There they would be checked over medically. Sometimes they would also be administered an IQ exam—in English. After the exam, prospective immigrants would have a mark chalked on them relating to possible illnesses or health issues (pregnancy, mental retardation, etc.). Those suffering from transmissible diseases such as tuberculosis, or mental defects, were usually prevented from becoming US citizens and deported. If their surnames were too difficult for the immigration officer to spell, they would be changed to vaguely similar sounding names ("Anglicized").
They'd arrive in America with a little bit of money and the clothes on their back. Depending on who is telling the story the money would end up vanishing to a conman or thief. Or it would be used to bankroll a business, or it would be used to fund a trip across the country.
Theory vs Reality
The Melting Pot describes how various groups of immigrants come to this nation and all became American. The special qualities, values and traditions of the various groups comprise the special nature of America in the same way various metals and chemicals combine to form unique alloys.
In reality, this does happen, but it is an incomplete assimilation. America has many areas where a group of immigrants settled in large numbers and left a unique stamp on the local culture and language. In large cities where immigrants are numerous, entire sections of the city have coalesced, creating sections knows as Chinatown or Little Italy. These enclaves at their best can provide a place for immigrants to cherish their ties to "the Old Country". Sometimes these communities can become ghettos, trapping the citizens within narrow boundaries both behavioral and geographic.
Immigrants may try to hide their country of origin in order to blend in. The process of becoming a real part of America can be difficult. Learning the culture and language and living with other groups can be challenging. Particularly when some of the other groups were "the enemy" in the Old Country.
Sadly, America has always been ambivalent about being a nation of immigrants. Since the country's founding, each successive wave of immigrants has been seen as dirty, uneducated, unwilling to assimilate, etc. by the rest of America, only to settle in and decry the next wave of immigrants. To illustrate this, can anyone think bad thoughts about folks of Germanic descent? Aside from, y'know, the obvious? There was a time when the German population were seen as less-than American especially during World War I. Schools stopped teaching German and foods like hamburgers and frankfurters were renamed "Salisbury steak" and "hot dogs" (the last name stuck). Italian-Americans were also suspect, for a while. Even today, they're associated with The Mafia in some communities. Catholics (a group that just so happened to comprise Italians and Irish) were viewed as agents of the Pope who were trying to overturn America's democratic institutions, and supported a church that was, in the view of many Protestants, theologically suspect at best and outright heretical at worst. San Francisco's Chinatown is a fabulous (and popular) place to visit, though it was initially born of a really vile set of racist immigration laws.
There is currently an intense debate regarding a large wave of immigration from Mexico into the United States. Depending on your point of view, this is either a human wave of a scale and immediacy so great that it might drown the economy, or it's the current group of starry-eyed immigrant Americans who will eventually take their own place in the grand American tradition of decrying the next wave of immigrants.
Note that this is a different attitude from the equally variegated next-door-neighbor country of Canada. Rather than a melting-pot, Canada promotes "multiculturalism"; the idea is that rather than everybody adapting the Canadian culture, the cultures remain and the only thing that is adapted are Canadian "values" (such as democracy, freedom, and other vague-sounding terms). The success of this approach compared to the "melting-pot"—or if there is any difference on the ground whatever between the approaches—is the subject of intense debate and many shouted insults.
- Both these names pre-date World War I; however, names like "Liberty steak" and "Liberty cabbage" were coined precisely because of World War I