The Engine Of Emigration

THE year 1992 has begun with the audible rumbling of economic discontent.

In the Western Hemisphere, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of Ellis Island as an American immigration port of entry, and the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. The West Coast of the United States has turned distinctly Asian and Hispanic. In New Hampshire, safe from any influx of cheap Mexican labor, presidential candidates talk about erecting a fence along the Mexican border. President Bush tours Asia with huffing and puffing American manufacturing millionair es to show disapproval of Japan's trade advantage. Meanwhile, American industry, having spent a decade in acquisitions, junkbonds piracy, is in the throes of downsizing - spinning off its parts into smaller enterprises presumably better able to fend for themselves.

In Europe, the anticipated prosperity of the 1992 economic union is having to be spread more widely than many Europeans would like. When Turks and Bulgarians show up in a German town bordering Belgium, and the townspeople must find lodging for them, resentment builds. Russia and its fellow republics are having to face the very conditions that, a century ago, drove hundreds of thousands of emigrants off to countries like the US. There is talk of self-rule for the ethnic Germans still living deep within Ru ssia, to keep them, too, from departing to their homeland in the West.

Whatever the actual flow of people across national borders, the preponderance of the world's citizens this year will have to deal with economic circumstances by staying put.

They will, in effect, have to emigrate in place.

The sense of some large new tract in the world has disappeared. The mood is that we are left with fairly beaten up old places - mostly crowded urban centers.

At the same time, the feeling that the general lot of the people must be improved led to the peaceful revolution of the past few years. It lies, too, behind the peace talks in the Middle East: Neither resettled Russian Jews nor Palestinians nor resident Israelis are better off with armed confrontation; political and economic accord are essential to the advance of community life in the area.

An honest appraisal of today's economic challenge would lead no sensible person to want to return to the past. A perusal of "News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home," just published by Cornell University Press, reminds us of the forces that impelled some 6 million Germans to emigrate to the US between the 1830s and the 1930s. Back home, iron works failed, division of farms among family left plots too small to support households, the weather was dreary, and a diet of potatoes instead o f bread undermined health. The new conditions were not all that great in America: The work was hard, wives died young (in their 30s and 40s), many children did not survive childhood. As a subculture, Germans flourished for many years, with German-language schools and an ethnic German-American press. Before World War I, one in four public school students studied German. So great was the wartime reaction against things German that by 1922 only 0.6 percent of students studied the language. (By 1968, this numbe r was still only 3.3 percent.) At the turn of the century, in a Midwestern city like Detroit, first-generation German-Americans made up nearly half the population. There were two daily German-language newspapers in Detroit, and four weeklies. But the war, and then the Depression, suppressed the sense of ethnic identity among German-Americans to a level from which it has not recovered. For German-Americans, emigration has meant assimilation.

The Old World itself does not stand still - except as the emigrant remembers it. We have another, more prosperous Germany today. It is, within Europe, what the US was to Europe a century ago.

People emigrate primarily as individuals and families, only secondarily as members of a group or class. The opportunity to earn a better living is the engine of emigration, and the urge to do so is widely felt as the new year begins.

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