History prof explores impact of youngest immigrants on American society


The challenges faced by immigrants today aren't dramatically different from what 25 million immigrants faced when they entered the United States from 1880 to 1925, according to Rowan University histor

The challenges faced by immigrants today aren't dramatically different from what 25 million immigrants faced when they entered the United States from 1880 to 1925, according to Rowan University history professor Melissa Klapper.

"The specific cast of characters has changed, but in many ways the social script has not," says Klapper. "Immigration remains as central to the formation and evolution of the United States in the present as it has been in the past."

Children, Klapper says, play a vital role in understanding how immigration molded modern America. Though, for the most part, ignored by historians, immigrant children and children born in the U.S. to immigrants significantly impacted education, urbanization and industrialization in the nation, according to Klapper.

"Their story is the story of the United States during one of the most pivotal moments in the nation's history," says Klapper, author of the new book "Small Strangers: The Experiences of Immigrant Children in America, 1880-1925."

"Their very presence in America irrevocably altered ideas about childhood and youth in the modern world. In a way, American history during this era replicated the experiences of immigrant children."

"Small Strangers" looks specifically at the experiences of children who were part of the mass migration to America during the Progressive Era. That includes not only immigrant children from Europe, but also from Canada, Asia, and Latin America.

Whatever their countries of origin, immigrant children at the turn of the century had many common experiences, according to Klapper. They fought poverty and prejudice, provided cheap labor, and navigated between the "twin shoals of cultural retention and cultural adaptation," Klapper says.

That was true whether the children lived in crowded tenements in the inner city, in insular mill towns, in rural ethnic enclaves or even in middle-class homes, she notes.

Often, children served as translators for their immigrant parents. Their presence in America triggered the emergence of early childhood education, social service organizations and reform efforts.

"Immigrant children carried the burden not only of their own hopes for life in a new country, but also those of their families, who typically measured success in America by their children. The frail shoulders of young immigrant children carried the double burden of their new countrymen's fears and their parents' expectations," says Klapper.

"There was no singular immigrant experience, though there were certain commonalities in immigrant life," she adds.

When mass migration began, social workers and educators decided early on that Americanization efforts of the immigrants was key and that they should focus on children, according to Klapper.

"One hundred years ago, there was no question that you'd learn English," says Klapper. "There was no multi-culturalism. In order to succeed, you had to be an American kid. At Ellis Island, the minute they walked you off the boat, you were forced into American culture.

"Because children met and mingled in their own spaces, in schools, on playgrounds and streets, they frequently had more opportunities than their parents to broaden their ideas about what it meant to live in America and become American."

Whether immigrants sought life in America due to "push" factors, such as violence or instability in their native lands, or "pull" factors, such as jobs due to American industrialization, the "mythic allure of a democratic, free society" was a huge factor in mass migration, says Klapper. That was so even if the reality in America was different for immigrants, she notes.

"The realization of the ideal was less important to the millions of immigrants than its possibility," Klapper says. "But there was opportunity. And there was a free education, which was very important. For immigrants, coming to America was always better than where they were coming from."

Mass migration slowed with passage of the National Origins Act of 1924, which, in reaction to widespread animus toward newcomers, dramatically slashed the total number of immigrants to approximately 160,000.

"The bill," says Klapper, "remained the framework for U.S. immigration policy until the 1960s."

Klapper, a Bala Cynwyd, Pa. resident, sees similarities between the experiences of Progressive Era immigrants and modern-day immigration debates.

"Now, as then, immigrant children face the hostility of an increasingly unwelcome American public. Now, as then, that hostility is frequently concentrated on schools and education policy.

"Now, as then, immigrant children walk a fine line between pride in retaining their particular heritage and satisfaction in adapting to the dominant culture," Klapper adds.

"Small Strangers" is the fourth in the nine-book "American Childhoods Series" published by Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (Chicago). Previous books have examined American childhood in the 1930s, Union children during the Civil War, and children in the western plains.

"There's a large and growing interest in childhood and youth and there's also a growing interest in girls," says Klapper, who also is the author of Jewish Girls Coming of Age in America, 1860-1920.

This summer, Klapper will share her research at an appearance at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She'll also be a fellow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.