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Published by EH.Net (March 2024).

Carl J. Bon Tempo and Hasia R. Diner. Immigration: An American History. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2022. 364 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0300226867.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Suzanne M. Sinke, Florida State University.

 

For people seeking an overview of immigration in US history, Bon Tempo and Diner have created a 364-page version that would be suitable for an undergraduate course or general readership. Both authors possess strong reputations in the field. Diner has written extensively on immigration, starting with a book on Irish immigrant women and then shifting to numerous publications on the history of Jewish migration to and life in the US, as well as some comparative work. Bon Tempo has published on refugees and human rights in the post-World War II era. For this volume they draw on their own work, so policies regarding Jews and refugees get somewhat more attention than in typical works, but the authors synthesize key points and utilize examples from a wider scholarly scope to create an overview of immigration from the colonial era to the coronavirus pandemic. Policy and the people who create and affect it generally take center stage, though the authors interweave a few insights on major economic shifts and how immigrants fit into them.

The work divides into thirteen chapters, along with an introduction and epilogue. For the most part the chapters follow chronological order.  The authors focus on immigrants at times, but at least as often on advocates for immigration along with anti-immigration forces. In some cases that division appears through different subsections within a chapter. In other cases, it means two thematic chapters covering the same period, for example “The Masses Arrive as the Door Starts to Close” and “What Americans Said about the Immigrants” both covering 1882–1921.

The work starts with a brief overview of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century migrations from Europe to North America, with the greatest attention to the British experience. Next the authors cover the early national period with an emphasis on the open land settlement policy that applied to many Europeans (in contrast to European conditions of the time). For the mid-nineteenth century the chapters include how migrants came from two continents, though the attention remains more on the Europeans, particularly the Irish. A paired mid-nineteenth century chapter explores the Know Nothing movement and delves into anti-Chinese agitation leading up to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Next Bon Tempo and Diner explore growing interest in restrictions and elements of immigrant adjustment from employment opportunities to language and religion in the 1882 to 1921 era. The time-paired chapter examines attitudes about immigrants from both advocates and detractors. This includes basic information on the role of eugenics in spurring immigration restriction leading up to the 1920s quota legislation.

In the chapter on the interwar years, the focus shifts a bit to migrants from the Western Hemisphere as well as from US colonial holdings. As one might expect, it notes repatriation efforts targeting Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the depression. It also offers several vignettes of figures embroiled in debates surrounding immigration quotas. World War II appears as a key turning point in the subsequent chapter, especially in reframing attitudes towards refugees and implementing the contract labor (bracero) program. The authors touch on Japanese incarceration and the shifting governmental stance towards other Asians. Braceros and refugees continue to be central to the following two chapters, which focus especially on lawmaking.  In the “new open door” the authors note both larger numbers and a greater diversity of migration in the post-1965 decades. This also highlights major variations in experiences of immigrants based on pre-migration skills. Refugees and the undocumented take the forefront in the other chapter on the late twentieth century. Bon Tempo and Diner finish off the chronological run with a chapter devoted to post-9/11 migration. This brings presidential actions and rhetoric to the fore, as well as introducing state and local level actions. It ends with a discussion of immigration policies during the pandemic under President Trump. An epilogue sums up the authors’ views on immigrants and immigration policy.

One of the salient conclusions for the authors is “Immigrants came to North America in search of a better life.” (362) This entails a definition of “immigrant” that excludes involuntary migrants. The authors articulate this choice in the introduction, noting they will not cover enslaved persons or those who found the border crossed them. This aligns with some other studies of immigration, though not all. Another key point for the authors and hence a focus throughout, concerns how governmental bodies (federal, state, and/or local) shaped immigration. This means significant attention to the creation of legislation. One final point the authors articulate in the epilogue is that immigrants are “like us.” (363) In each chapter they feature stories of specific people who exemplify some of the trends in that section, bringing in vignettes if not voices of immigrants to demonstrate motivations, patterns, and problems—to humanize the story.

The book provides some endnotes as well as a much shorter “further readings” list at the end of each chapter. The notes remain limited, as is typical of synthetic works, with cited references to some (generally well-known) older scholarship along with a few primary sources, in particular ones which might be available and useful for students. The coverage of post-9/11 trends provides background for contemporary debates regarding the border. For the twenty-first century material, state policies and those who affect them take center stage.

Scholars familiar with older histories of immigration will find many echoes here, but with additional attention to policymakers and lawmaking. That the authors devote more space to exclusion, deportation, and anti-immigrant sentiments, as well as state and local measures, demonstrates their integration of some key recent scholarship in the field. Overall this work serves well as an introduction to US immigration history.

 

Suzanne M. Sinke is Professor of History at Florida State University, where her research and teaching focus on US migration and gender. She serves as the editor of the Journal of American Ethnic History.

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