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And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s

Author(s):Barkan, Elliott
Reviewer(s):Suzuki, Masao


Published by EH.NET (August 1998)

Elliott Robert Barkan, And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s. Wheeling, Illinois: Harlan Davidson, 1996. xi + 262 pp. Illustrations, bibliographical essay, index. $12.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-88295-928-X.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Masao Suzuki, Department of Economics, Mills College. . Immigration to the United States has boomed over the last 30 years, as increasing movements of goods, capital, and people across borders have coincided with more liberal U.S. immigration laws. Record numbers of immigrants (although still below levels of 100 years ago as a percentage of the population) combined with a new economic landscape have also raised popular misgivings about immigration. Elliot Robert Barkan, professor of history and ethnic studies at California State University, San Bernardino, wrote And Still They Come as a history of immigrants and their children in the context of social and economic changes such as the Great Depression, post-World War II suburbanization, and recent globalization. The book extends from the 1920s, which saw the enactment of legislation restricting immigration, through piecemeal liberalization in the post-World War II period, to the recent period of mass immigration and rising nativism.

Barkan begins with the passage of the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 and how immigrants faced hostility, both in the economic boom of the 1920s, as well as the Depression of the 1930s–the most severe being the deportation and repatriation of more than a half a million Mexicans and their American-born children during the 1930s. World War II and the ensuing cold war began the erosion of the discriminatory immigration and naturalization laws as our country began to open its doors to war brides and refugees, and as the laws excluding Asians and barring them from citizenship were repealed.

The second half of And Still They Come continues with the legislative changes in U.S. immigration law from 1965 to 1990, and discusses the characteristics of recent immigrants, their lives in the United States, and the recent debates about the costs and benefits of immigration. The book ends with a large appendix of tables with data on immigration from the 1920s to the present, and a bibliographic essay covering scholarly works on immigration and immigrants.

And Still They Come exhibits both strengths and weaknesses from its effort to survey the sweep of 20th-century U.S. immigration history. One of its strong points is its emphasis on the diversity of the immigrant experience (including diversity and differences among immigrants from the same country) and its sympathetic presentation of their lives in the United States. Reading the chapter on ethnic adaptation brought back my own memories of hearing Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog (Filipino) as often as English in a crowded California mall, and seeing a Sikh teenager with his unshorn hair bound in a topknot dressed in an urban style with oversized high-tops, baggy pants and a wool shirt.

Histories of late 19th and early 20th century immigration often stress the largely male composition of the last wave of mass migration, but rarely does one see comments on the fact that most immigrants today are women. And Still They Come does not neglect this aspect of twentieth century immigration, pointing out that this trend can be seen as early as 1926. Barkan’s book also makes a strong effort to integrate the experiences of Asians, Latinos, and other immigrants of color within an overall appraisal of the immigrant experience.

These strengths notwithstanding, there are also a number of shortcomings to the book. One major problem with Barkan’s book is that it begins with the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s, skipping over the mass immigration of the turn of the century and the growing nativism. In particular, the lack of an overview of earlier immigration and restriction makes it hard to answer the excellent question of his last chapter entitled “The 1990s: New Directions or Full Circle?” While Barkan’s book is a sequel to Alan Kraut’s The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880-1921 (1982), an introductory chapter would be very helpful and make And Still They Come much more useful as an introduction to 20th-century immigration to the United States.

The broad sweep of the book leads to uneven coverage. For example, even though Asian immigrants are prominent throughout the book, the bibliographic essay fails to mention Yuji Ichioka’s The Issei (The Free Press, 1988), which is not only a definitive text on early Japanese immigrants to the U.S., but also is one of the few histories that draws extensively on Japanese-language records. While the bibliographic essay is informative, it is organized by topic and not explicitly connected to the text. The statistical data is contained in the appendix whereas integrating the data tables into the main text would give them more impact.

Another shortcoming is that And Still They Come at times goes too far in the direction of an ethnic history. For example there is a discussion of the ethnic revival among Americans in the 1970s and 1980s which, while interesting, mainly involved the grandchildren of immigrants. This leads the book to try to cover even more ground than it can reasonably do.

Last, but certainly not least, I felt that And Still They Come could have drawn more on studies of immigration by economists. While issues of immigrant entrepreneurship and current debates about the impact of immigrants on government finance and the labor market are addressed, other questions are not. One important issue is the concern of George Borjas and others that the skills composition of immigrants has declined relative to native-born Americans. This issue would fit well into the Barkan’s historical concerns, since this was also an issue that led to a literacy requirement for immigrants in 1917. (Coincidentally, the literacy requirement was promoted by the Immigration Restriction League, founded by recent graduates of Harvard University, where Borjas now teaches.) This shortcoming also shows up in Barkan’s bibliographical essay section on Immigration and Economic Issues, which mentions relatively few works by economists.

Masao Suzuki Department of Economics Mills College

Masao Suzuki is author of “Success Story? Japanese Immigrant Economic Achievement and Return Migration, 1920-1930,” Journal of Economic History, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Dec. 1995): 889-901.


Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII