It seems misleading to call us a “nation of immigrants.” Most of us aren’t—though almost all of us have parents, grandparents, or great greats who were.
But most of us are migrants — I have no statistics on it, but personal experience and observation tell me that most Americans don’t live where they started, and fewer yet can trace multiple generations to the house, plot of ground, or town they live in now.
“Where’d you grow up?” growled Chuck Gavin, the Wyoming cowboy who ran the Extension office in Wallowa County when I arrived in 1971.
“Well, I grew up in Minnesota and Californian and went to college….” “No,” Chuck said, “where’d you start?”
“How big a place?”
“You might make it here.”
That was almost 46 years ago, so maybe I’ve “made it” here. No regrets anyway.
But the point is that we are a restless nation and always have been.
My paternal side came from Germany in the late 1800s — Germans made up the largest group of immigrants from 1840-1880, and more than 6 million came from Colonial times to World War I.
It’s all Norwegians on my mother’s side, shoved off lands divided too many times in too many generations. They also came in the late 1800s.
And then came World War II, when uncles were stationed in the West before shipping out and dad worked at Lockheed; in 1952 we moved to California. For me, it was college in Colorado, California, and Illinois; Peace Corps in Turkey; then Washington, D.C.; and in 1971 I landed in Wallowa County, a place I’d never been, after a job interview in Corvallis.
There is nothing unusual about my story. Ask your neighbors where they’re from, how many places they’ve lived. And trace your own family’s and neighbors’ families’ migrations over 50 or 100 years. World events — famines and wars — push us around; parents move us for jobs and health and family; we move ourselves looking for that fit — that place where we can “make it.”
It’s what drives me crazy about blue states and red states and the urban-rural divide. Everyone wants to label and “fix” people in places. The illusion is that we are all from someplace where “our people” were somehow original. When in realty we’re always moving.
In “You Can’t Go Home Again,” published in 1940, writer Thomas Wolfe, taking the train from New York back to North Carolina, said Americans are only comfortable when they are on the move. A few years later, World War II would take millions of men from farms and small towns, then send thousands of them post-War to colleges and different kinds of jobs. The “Great Migration”—the movement of Blacks from the South—had begun earlier, with factory jobs in northern and eastern cities, but then swelled with Black troops who’d seen a different life.
A college friend wrote a thesis in the 1950s about the automobile spurring migration and defining the country. The new interstate freeways, drive-in movies and restaurants had us living in our cars.
In the 1960s and 1970s it was urban riots, the Vietnam War and protests, and the back-to-the-land movement.
Wallowa County swelled in the 1970s, and shrunk in the YUPPIE (Young Urban Professional) 1980s.
In 2007, Austin, Texas, journalist Bill Bishop came to Fishtrap and told us that the country had been sorting itself ideologically for the past 30 years. College grads had gravitated to some tech, education and financial industry cities; people who felt they had few choices, or liked the life they had, stayed in mining and timber towns, where automation and politics were changing the natural resource economy; county by county American elections became landslides one way or the other, and moderate elected officials were fast disappearing.
In 2008, Bishop published The Big Sort, with big fears about what this was doing to America.
Bishop was right, and for me, the troubling thing about the new administration’s immigration policy is that migration is getting mixed up with immigration. We’re “sealing” borders when new immigrants — migrants moving here because of high-tech jobs, family ties, or escape from war and persecution — fill many entry level jobs and account for a lopsided percentage of new companies. Meanwhile, emigrants from the US — foreign-born citizens and green card holders and asylum seekers — are taking education and entrepreneurship out of the country to British Columbia, and braving winter snows and cold to walk across the border from Minnesota to Manitoba. Canada, realizing that its own birth replacement rate is shrinking the country, has embraced immigration. Some Europeans see the same problem and solution.
(P.S. Maybe this continuous migration is why we misunderstand American Indians, whose sense of place is palpable, who made their major migrations over centuries and well before European immigrants landed in their lands?)
Columnist Rich Wandschneider lives in Joseph.