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Profiles in Citizenship

Thursday, May 1, 1997

The United States today has more foreign-born residents than ever before. While some Americans worry about our country's ability to absorb all these newcomers, others recall that previous waves of immigrants have successfully assimilated. Such assimilation, however, is never inevitable. It depends upon not only the willingness of the newcomers to adapt, but also our willingness to teach them English, encourage them to become citizens, and inspire them to embrace the American way of life. The massive effort in the early 20th century to bring this about was known as the Americanization Movement, and many of its greatest accomplishments were due to a social reformer named Frances A. Kellor.

Kellor was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1873. Her father abandoned the family when she was a teenager, forcing her mother to move to Michigan to find work as a laundress. Frances toiled beside her while attending high school, but dropped out to become a newspaper reporter. Her Presbyterian pastor eventually sparked her lifelong interest in social issues and prompted her to resume her academic studies. She earned a law degree from Cornell University in 1897 and enrolled as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago.

In Chicago, Kellor lived in Hull House, Jane Addams's famous settlement house. There she learned first hand about the countless problems facing immigrants: getting jobs, holding families together, and surmounting linguistic and cultural obstacles to such seemingly simple tasks as buying food and finding a home. So she was a natural choice in 1908 to serve on New York's State Commission of Immigration. After spending months investigating immigrant living conditions, she focused public attention on overcrowded housing and unsanitary labor camps.

Kellor's work prompted the state to establish a Bureau of Industries and Immigration, which she headed. It advised recent arrivals and tried to prevent their exploitation. Its work also led to increased regulation of immigrant banking houses and steamship companies, which were notorious for taking advantage of bewildered newcomers. According to the historian John Higham, Kellor may have been the first woman ever to direct a state agency.

With immigrants arriving in record numbers, Kellor worried that a revival of nativism in the United States would shatter fragile ethnic relations. She believed that rapid assimilation of immigrants could both improve their living conditions and defuse nativist attitudes. She often said that immigrants could make enormous contributions to America, if only the nation could figure out how to harness their talents. "From the moment [the immigrant] arrives in America he needs the creative aggressive attention of American institutions," wrote Kellor in 1916.

Business leaders agreed with her, partly out of economic self-interest, but also out of a genuine public spirit. With their backing, she helped create a network of private organizations, such as the North American Civic League for Immigrants, that set out to help immigrants assimilate. She considered one of her most important tasks to be the development of English classes for adults, and helped set them up around the country. "The English language is a highway of loyalty," she wrote in 1919, "it is the open door to opportunity; it is a means of common defense." Kellor also published pamphlets in foreign languages to protect immigrants from exploitation and to advise them about jobs, housing, and transportation.

With the outbreak of World War I, Kellor began to fear that the unassimilated segments of America's large foreign-born population might threaten national security. One out of every three immigrants had been a subject of the Central Powers fighting the Allies, and many Americans worried about divided loyalties. So she shifted her efforts away from everyday problems and toward the advocacy of naturalization, citizenship, and national unity. On July 4, 1915, about 150 cities across the country took part in a National Americanization Day promoted and coordinated by Kellor. In Pittsburgh, an audience of 10,000 immigrants listened to 1,000 children sing patriotic songs and form a giant American flag. In Indianapolis, recently naturalized citizens gave speeches in 11 languages on the duties of citizenship.

President Woodrow Wilson even traveled to Philadelphia to deliver remarks at a swearing-in ceremony. "You cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you become in every respect and with every purpose of your will thorough Americans," he said. "You cannot become thorough Americans if you think of yourselves in groups." In the wake of these events, dozens of communities around the country established classes in English and citizenship to help immigrants assimilate.

Kellor's brand of liberal nationalism lost ground in the 1920s, when the country decided to slam shut the door it had held open for so long. Immigration levels dropped to historic lows in the 1930s. This disappointed Kellor, who moved on to become an expert in international arbitration, and served in public life until her death in 1952. Today, she is best remembered for her most enduring achievement: helping millions of foreign nationals become patriotic Americans.