Saturday, July 19, 2014

Coming to America: The Immigrant Experience During the Cold War (I)

As thousands of refugee children from Latin America rush to enter the United States and politicians even more hastily rush to trade accusations about security and humanity, immigration is once again a hot issue this summer.

Ironically, the country makes a point of holding especially festive citizenship ceremonies for new Americans on the 4th of July. (Here, stories of local immigrants and festivities in the Gazette: 1, 2, 3, 4). As I followed the news stories and prepared for the July 4th weekend, I suddenly realized that it was exactly 65 years ago, in July 1949, that my father came to America. Three years later, he became a citizen. Those who arrived here at that time had been fated to live in "interesting times" (as the apocryphal Chinese expression would have it): the European world that had given birth to them and shaped their identities was destroyed, yet the new American world did not fully understand them, either.

The following artifacts are a modest testimony to that experience.

Then, as now, every prospective citizen had to study to pass a test and qualify for admission. But becoming a citizen was about acculturation, not just education. Much of the naturalization process involved teaching the newcomers how to be(come) American. Just to make sure, the government provided further reading for the time after securing the coveted certificate, as well.

This booklet, written by the Attorney General and Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (1951) contained:
  • The Star-Spangled Banner (text)
  • Greetings from the President and the Attorney General
  • The Meaning of American Citizenship, By Argyle R. Mackey, Acting Commissioner, Immigration and Naturalization Service: no longer a foreign citizen, but also not "a hyphenated-Amercican."
  • The Duties of a Citizen [include: obeying laws, voting, informing oneself about issues on the ballot, paying taxes, jury duty, holding office, serving in the military, etc.]
  • Rights and Privileges of a Citizen: basically standard civil and political rights, derived from the Constitution
  • Photo of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives, along with an "Oath of Allegiance"
  • The Five Qualities of the Good Citizen
  • "America" (My country! 'tis of thee; text) 
  • Memories of the Occasion (space for "signatures," "messages of congratulation," and "newspaper clippings")
    The "Five Qualities of the Good Citizen":
    1. "cherishes democratic values and bases his actions on them"
    2. "practices democratic human relationship in the family, school, community, and the larger scenes"
    3. "recognizes the social problems of  the times and has the will and the ability to work toward their solution"
    4. "is aware of and takes responsibility for meeting basic human needs"
    5. "possesses and uses knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary in a democratic society" 
    Most of this was the standard stuff. The "Five Qualities" are unobjectionable--even admirable. If phrased in the language of a warrant article, they could pass muster even in Amherst Town Meeting. But it was also the era of McCarthyism, which caused my parents some concern. (More on that on another occasion, perhaps.) The combination of the hunt for subversives and the dominant doctrine of assimilation could create an atmosphere of uncertainty for even the most well-intentioned of immigrants. 

    A piece in the booklet by Argyle R. Mackey, Interim Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, reflected the combined spirit of democratic hospitality and assimilationist advice:
    Today you have become a citizen of the United States of America. You are no longer an Englishman, a Frenchman, an Italian, a Pole. Neither are you a hyphenated-American--a Polish-American, an Italian-American. You are no longer the subject of a government. Henceforth, you are an integral part of this Government--a freeman--a Citizen of the United States of America.

    This citizenship, which has been solemnly conferred on you, is a thing of the spirit--not of the flesh. When you took the oath of allegiance to the Constitution of the United States you claimed for yourself the God-given unalienable rights which that sacred document sets forth as the natural right of all men.
    One notes that only immigrants from southern and east-central Europe merited the term, "hyphenated." (No one, after all, speaks of an English-American.) Not coincidentally, these were immigrants from the groups whose entry was severely curtailed by the notorious Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. Its replacement, the likewise restrictive McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act, aimed particularly against immigrants from "eastern" Europe, passed Congress over President Truman's veto days before my father received his citizenship.

    The stress on popular government must have been empowering. To what extent was it offset in the minds of the newcomer by the equal stress on assimilation and homogenization?  A subtly engaging short film, "The Cummington Story" (1945; score by Aaron Copland) shows how standoffish New Englanders and insecure European refugees right here in western Massachusetts overcame cultural barriers to become friends as well as neighbors.

    In 1952, Congress changed the name of the holiday honoring new Americans from "I Am an American Day" to "Citizenship Day" and shifted the date from the third Sunday in May to September 17, the anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution. In accordance with President Truman's declaration, the Mayor of Minneapolis held a reception for the newcomers at City Hall.

    My father was selected as one of the two new citizens to speak at the ceremony. The name of the other, "Mrs. H.A. Bullis," is somewhat misleading. She was a fellow Polish refugee, the Countess Maria Smorczewska, who was active in the underground during the war, fled to the US in 1947, and married the widowed Harry Amos Bullis, Chairman of the Board of General Mills, in 1948.

    The program of the ceremony refers to the new Americans receiving four things: "Certificates of Naturalization," instructions concerning "The Etiquette of the Flag," "Greeting Cards," and "Citizenship Buttons."
    I of course have the Certificate of Naturalization. Curiously, given that my father was a meticulous record-keeper (regardless of whether the subject was his travel experiences, the family budget, the car's gas mileage, or my height and weight as an infant), I did not find the other items among his papers and memorabilia.

    It is possible that the booklet welcoming immigrants to American citizenship constituted the "greeting card," for I found it along with the above program. In any event, I do have the flag presented at the naturalization ceremony. My parents each had one, and I recall playing with one as a child.

    Here is the other, still striking in its freshness and simplicity. Protected from the light all these many years, it has kept its color, which appears to have been stenciled with paint onto the fabric (presumably linen?). It is less vibrant than today’s flags or even others of that day, but the muted colors are warm, and the texture of the  natural fabric offer a visual and tactile satisfaction that our slick modern synthetics simply do not. The effect, whether reflecting reality or merely a construction of our imagination, evokes a bygone era.

    Back then, of course, the flag had only 48 stars, here in the configuration specified by the Executive Order of President Taft, 24 June 1912. It did not change until the admission of Alaska and Hawaii under President Eisenhower, both in 1959.

    American flag, c. 9 3/4 x 14 1/4 inches [enlarge]

    As I've said before: whatever America's flaws and continuing problems, I'd much rather live in a country that people are fighting to get into rather than out of. Happy Fourth of July--and a warm welcome to all those still struggling to join us as citizens of this constantly evolving country.

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