New Jersey is a state rich in immigrant heritage. Over 2 million immigrants, foreign-born, comprise 22.1% of our population. Another 1.5 million, 16.5%, are native born Americans who have at least one immigrant parent. How many more citizens have a link to another country through a grandparent would be hard to calculate, but the total of of the three groups is likely close to 50%.
Immigration and Ethnicity in NJ History (NJ Historical Society) by Douglas Shaw provides a broad view of the subject. First populated by Indians, it was in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor – the first attempt by Europeans to settle in the area that became New Jersey. By 1790 about 184,000 people lived here with just under 70% tracing their origin to the British Isles. From 1830 to 1880 immigration came almost entirely from Ireland, Germany, and Great Britain. After 1880 more came from southern and eastern Europe until 1925 when Congress sharply restricted entry into the United States. Since 1960 the major sources have been Latin America and Asia. The reasons are often political oppression, lack of economic opportunity, and violence.
The same tensions we see in today’s Trump America developed in the 1800’s in our state. Immigration created a society that was both increasingly diverse and increasingly uncomfortable with that diversity. Protestant English colonists and their nineteenth-century descendants viewed the Catholic Church as an alien force. Until 1844 the New Jersey state constitution allowed only Protestants to hold public office. NJ Governor William Newell told the legislature in 1860 “When [Irish Catholic] mysticism and [German] infidelity shall come to predominate over the faith of our fathers, we may expect anarchy and civil war to follow.” Economic issues also contributed to nativism. Native-born workers feared that the flood of immigrants desperate for work would drag down wages.
Anti-German hysteria developed during the World War I with the federal government rounding up aliens suspected of radical politics and deporting as many as it could. There were five hundred arrests in New Jersey alone. Similar hysteria occurred during WW II. By 1960 the era of immigration and strong ethnic identities appeared to be coming to a close.
However, changes were soon under way that would bring large numbers of Hispanics and Asians into New Jersey. More Hispanics began crossing our border without proper documents. In spite of deaths along the route, for them the benefits often seemed worth the risks. A 1975 estimate indicated that over 4% of NJ’s population was unauthorized, and the number has now grown to about 5.4%. Many Hispanics were and are fleeing political, drug, or gang violence, but the current administration has made it more difficult for them to gain refugee status. Asians who came to New Jersey arrived with a number of advantages including good education and command of English. Both groups have been targets of discrimination and criticism.
Despite the problems, in more recent times Governor Tom Kean urged political cooperation among historically divided groups, saying, “The simple truth is: There are no spare Americans.” He published a book entitled “The Politics of Inclusion.” Governor Christie Todd Whitman as a somewhat moderate Republican sought to help legal immigrants, softening some of the harshest provisions in the federal welfare law and establishing an initiative to assist legal immigrants in becoming citizens. Gov. Jon Corzine had as his mantra “Immigration helps our economy – encourage it.”
Governor Chris Christie’s record is more complicated. He was in favor of accepting Syrian refugees before he opposed it, In 2010, he called on President Obama and the Congress “to put forward a commonsense path to citizenship. He later reversed course. in 2013 he signed the NJ ‘DREAM Act’ which gave certain Dreamers the benefit of in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. However, he refused to follow the Legislature’s request that they be eligible for state financial aid programs. In his re-election campaign he courted immigrants, particularly Hispanics. Then as he geared up his campaign for the presidency he began to sound more like Trump and other conservative Republican contestants.
While discrimination has been and remains an important factor, there has also been significant assimilation. Over half of all living immigrants in New Jersey today are naturalized U.S. citizens. In total immigrants have become vital members of New Jersey’s labor force, accounting for a third of workers in multiple industries. They have contributed billions of dollars in taxes. As consumers, they add tens of billions of dollars to New Jersey’s economy.
In spite of all they are contributing, the bigger issue we face now is with some 500,000 unauthorized individuals (children and adults) in NJ with no path to citizenship and under threat of deportation. The lack of a comprehensive reform that resolves the legal status of these people underscores a humanitarian crisis of vast political, economic, and moral proportions. A measure of how we New Jerseyans will be viewed as a society will be how we treat these individuals.
This series will go on to examine the support immigrants are receiving from the public, what their demands are, what organizations are providing leadership, what our new governor and legislature are doing and what the opposition is saying.
To read earlier articles in this series, go to the SEARCH function on top and enter: Immigration Yesterday Today Tomorrow