What is an American? Americanization and immigrants

(Contributor: Joey Nolan)

Immigration has long been a hot button topic in the United States, particularly when it comes to the question of “Who is really American?” Although it is a hot-button issue, most Americans will agree that American culture is a “melting pot,” or the product of centuries of different people groups coming to the United States and bringing their customs and traditions with them, adding them to the larger diaspora of American culture.

Yet along with that melting pot idea, xenophobia – fear of foreigners – has also prompted efforts to “Americanize” immigrants. At the turn of the twentieth century, in the middle of a massive surge in immigration and of shifts in the sources of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe to Southern and Eastern Europe, many desired to outright ban immigration and eliminate the problem of foreign culture all together.  Either in addition to or instead of banning immigration, many also sought to “convert” immigrants to what they saw as being a proper American. The process that this former group employed was referred to as Americanization, and its influence was felt across the country.

Many of the same fears that are present today about immigration were present at the turn of the century, in particular fears about crime. These fears reached Colorado, too. For example, in 1920 the Denver Post published an article on crime in immigrant communities, portraying them as hotbeds of crime. The attitude of the article is harsh and demonizing; there isn’t much good-faith effort here to rather dig deeper for any explanations of  why immigrant neighborhoods might suffer from high crime rates, let alone to figure out whether those rates were higher than for native-born Americans of similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Instead, the article suggests that the only way to lower crime in the immigrant population is to increase Americanization efforts. This attitude that it is the foreignness of immigrants that is the cause for crime prevailed across the United States. Although less popular than it was in 1920, this attitude continues to persist to this day.