A Nation Shaped by New Arrivals

Journalist Michael Barone explains how migration has changed America.

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Immigration legislation may be stalled on Capitol Hill, but historically migration to and within the United States has tended to occur unpredictably and in relatively short time periods. In his new book, "Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics," Michael Barone tracks the effects of the major U.S. population movements over the last 250 years. Barone, a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner and resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, recently spoke with U.S. News about how the country adjusted to such migrations and how he sees it shifting ahead. Excerpts:

Why investigate migrations for this book?

America is the story of many migrations – from the Scots-Irish migration to the Appalachian chain from northern Ireland and lowland Scotland back only a dozen years before the Revolutionary War to the migration that we've seen of Mexicans into the United States in large numbers from 1982 to 2007. These migrations, in most cases, were not predicted. They tended to last just one or two generations. And in many ways the America that we live in today and the America of history has been shaped by these migrations.

What are some lasting effects of these past migrations?

You have things like the northward migration of black Americans – about one-third of black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North in just one generation, 1940-65. That reshaped the northern cities. Black voters became an important force in our politics, which they really weren't when they were not allowed to vote in most of the southern states. It had some negative effects – we had urban riots and so forth – but also a lot of achievement.

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What typically causes these movements?

Sometimes there's an economic motivation – certainly the southern rural blacks who were moving to the North hoped to and did get better paying work in the North – but I think there's something more to it. These are people pursuing dreams or escaping nightmares. The nightmare of the southern segregation; the nightmare of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, which killed a million people. You had more than a million leaving Ireland in the 15 years following that for the United States.

What lessons can be learned from previous migratory growing pains?

I think we did a better job of assimilating what I call the Ellis Island immigrants of a hundred years ago than we have been doing with Hispanic immigrants over the last generation. A role was played by World War II. Sixteen million Americans were at one time or another in military service. They were mixed in units; they were in there together. I think that produced a sort of cultural and national unity that prevailed for at least another generation. Today, Hispanic immigrants, they're lagging behind somewhat in assimilation. History tells us that we need to try somewhat harder than we've been doing on immigration. We've got the tradition; now we've got to put it in place.

How do you see the current immigration reform debate playing out?

Immigration legislation has tended to look to the past. The 1924 act that restricted immigration did so by basically closing the door on those Ellis Islanders. The 1965 act basically changed those country quotas. We got a very large number of Latin and Asian immigrants that we weren't prepared for. The interesting fact is that, at least temporarily, immigration from Mexico stopped in 2007. There's been no net migration from Mexico to the United States. I think one reason is that the Mexican economy is doing better than the U.S. economy. I think basically for Mexicans today, the United States is less of a dream and Mexico is less of a nightmare.

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Do you have any sense of what the next big movements might be?

What we've been seeing the last almost 40 years really is … what I call volitional migration: people, especially highly qualified people, choosing to move to metro areas that they find culturally congenial. The other kind of volitional migration has been more economic in motivation: people moving from high-tax states to low-tax states, from states with high housing costs to places with low housing costs.