An Overview of Immigration to the United States from 1870 to 1920
Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” describes with remarkable accuracy some of the actual motives that immigrants had during the time that this poem was written to inaugurate the Statue of Liberty. Such a diverse influx of people had never occurred in US history prior to this time period. Immigrants arrived not only from northern and western European nations, such as Germany, France, and Ireland, but also from Italy, Eastern Europe, Canada, and the Far East. Their motives for seeking a new home were as varied as the places from which they had come.
Numerous immigrants were indeed “struggling to breathe free” as they faced religious and political persecution in their homelands. Jews in Russia were, for example, met with severe government-sanctioned anti-Semitism. The czar’s henchmen would often stage pogroms which destroyed what little property and security Russian Jews were allowed to have. In addition, the draft in Russia was merciless and would often take 25 years of a man’s life away to fight in fruitless wars with outdated weapons and brutal discipline. To many Jews and people in similar situations, America symbolized a place where their freedom of religion and occupation could be exercised to a greater extent than anywhere else in the world.
A large portion of immigrants originated from the rural areas of their home countries, and were especially hard-hit by agricultural troubles. Events all over the world much like potato blight in Ireland that triggered an earlier Irish mass migration led people to move away from densely populated and famine-wrecked countries to a more spacious and plentiful America. Many small farmers and craftsmen were unable to find jobs in their homelands, since their original occupations had been rendered obsolete by large-scale mechanized production while the skilled labor market was already too full for them in Europe.
In general, either the difficulties at home or the prospects in the U.S. were so immense as to compel immigrants to leave many belongings behind and expose themselves to an entirely different language and culture in the U.S. A large number did not intend for the change to be permanent; about three-tenths merely came to earn a large enough amount of money to return home in greater financial security. Yet, whatever their intent, the immigrants profoundly shaped America’s history, economy, and culture.
The Journey to America and Immigrant Processing Upon Arrival
Many immigrants experienced journeys to the United States that were similar in numerous aspects. Conditions during the voyage and upon arrival had improved from prior eras, but were still uncomfortable and lacking in many respects.
The development of passenger vessels made the journey easier, cheaper, and faster for many immigrants. By the 1870s, steam powered ships replaced sailing ships. They were bigger, faster and safer. Immigrants in the early 1800s had to endure voyages averaging 40 days, depending on weather; by the 1900’s, the average voyage was only one week long.
In order to account for and regulate immigration, the US government established immigrant processing centers on both the East and West Coasts. 70% of the European immigrants beginning in 1855 would be dropped off at Castle Garden on Manhattan Island and pass a series of examinations. In 1892, a new immigrant center at Ellis Island was built to replace Castle Garden. On the West Coast, immigrants, mostly Chinese or Japanese, arrived through Seattle or Angel Island in San Francisco.
The increased convenience of immigration did not, however, imply a level of comfort for the immigrants anywhere near modern standards. Poor sanitation and food, as well as diseases such as cholera and typhus, were still common on the trans-Atlantic liners.
Immigrants who could only afford the minimal third-class fees of about $30 were referred to as “steerage passengers.” The name came from the part of the ship, the steerage, where they were kept and which provided the cheapest possible accommodations. It was crowded below deck, and steerage passengers were seldom allowed to go up for fresh air. The trans-Atlantic shipping companies had not yet learned to provide efficient basic services, such as food, and often fed passengers nothing but soup or stew, and sometimes bread, biscuits, or potatoes.
Many immigrants had to wash themselves with salt water while drinking stagnant water that was stored in dirty casks. At the root of these problems was a mindset on the part of many of the companies that considered the immigrants “human cargo.” These same companies would often ship American-made goods to Europe on the return trip, and could not yet see the essential distinction between transporting products and people. They would learn with time.
Even after the tough voyage, immigrants were not guaranteed entry to America. About 250,000 people (2% of all immigrants) were sent back home. 1st and 2nd class passengers were inspected on the ship, but 3rd class passengers had to go to Ellis or Angel Island for screening, waiting about three to five hours in line and undergoing inspections of both a medical and legal nature.
Officials at Ellis Island also did something that is not commonly done today. When they could not pronounce an immigrant’s name, the immigration inspectors thought that this gave them the prerogative to change the name to something less difficult. Names like “Andrjuljawierjus” might be simplified to “Andrews” or something similar.
How Immigrants Lived Upon Arriving in the United States
From 1870 to 1920, most immigrants arriving in the United States found themselves facing current material poverty, but immense prospects for opportunity and enrichment. But how did they live in the meantime, as they endeavored to achieve the American Dream?
After arrival, immigrants spread themselves throughout the country. Most of them settled in cities, as it was easiest to find jobs there as well as locate persons of similar background or ideology to oneself and cooperate with them economically. Cities that served as the gateways to immigration also came to house many immigrants. In New York City in 1910, for example, three-fourths of the population consisted either of immigrants or children of immigrants.
For lack of abundant funds, many immigrants in large cities settled in mass tenement and apartment complexes that were affordable but often exhibited uncomfortable living conditions. Many rooms did not have windows, and were ten feet wide at most. Filth, dampness, and foul odors were common inconveniences. Yet for many immigrants, this was only a transitional stage in their lives, but still something unpleasant that left a mark on their experiences.
Many immigrants were able to persevere through initial hard times because of support and guidance from relatives. Immigrant families often served as the basic economic unit; they provided assistance to their members and pooled resources together.
The location of immigrants’ relatives would also often affect their destination. If an immigrant had an uncle or cousin in a particular neighborhood, he would be more likely to settle there himself and maintain close ties. Cooperative arrangements, such as boarding with relatives or native middle and working-class families were common transitional stages for many young immigrants.
But these useful ties did not in any way bog immigrants down in one place or one mode of life for a long time. Mobility was high: the families who inhabited a certain neighborhood were unlikely to still be there in 5 or 10 years. Though ethnic districts existed, most white immigrants lived in ethnically mixed neighborhoods, testifying to the fact that families served to spur on economic opportunity and change, rather than counteract it.
Due to productivity and prudence in saving a large portion of the money they earned, many of the new immigrants were able to quickly rise to middle-class status, and some even made vast fortunes during their lifetimes. While they endured initially unpleasant conditions, these immigrants ultimately saw such circumstances as stepping stones toward a better life than they could get anywhere else in the world.
Immigrant Contributions to American Life and Culture
Immigration from 1870 to 1920 brought to the United States a vast quantity of both ordinary and extraordinary people: individuals who, through their search for greater opportunity and prosperity, dramatically altered and improved American life and culture.
Samuel Gompers, an immigrant from England, was head of the American Federation of Labor beginning in 1886. He advocated moderate labor reforms but was a staunch opponent of socialism and coercive action on the part of unions. His memoirs give an account of his own life and experiences as an immigrant.
Ironically, however, Gompers himself came to oppose the mass wave of immigration, which he perceived to threaten the workers of his union. Many of the nativist arguments that advocated restricting foreign immigration had come from him and his associates, despite the obvious double standard that this implied.
On the opposite side of the immigration debate was an immigrant from Germany, political cartoonist Thomas Nast. His cartoons in the magazine Harper’s Weekly ridiculed nativist sentiments and advocated fair treatment and equal rights for new arrivals to the country.
Some of the most famous and lasting contributions to American culture have been made by brilliant immigrants like the composer Irving Berlin from Russia. Two of his most famous hits were “God Bless America” and “White Christmas.”
During the first decade of the twentieth century, Frank Capra came to America from Italy as a little boy. He would grow up to be a six-time Oscar-winning director who would produce some of the best-known films of the 1930s, including “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”
It is important to keep in mind that, were it not for these individual immigrant innovators, American culture would not have attained some of its distinct elements. Rather than “invading” the American way of life, immigrants, in all spheres of activity, brought about great progress.
Though some immigrants were great creators and innovators, over half identified themselves as unskilled laborers or domestic workers upon arrival. They still had a role to play in the US economy.
Jobs were plentiful, and, especially in a society where living standards rose across the board, there were many jobs for which most natives were overqualified. Those jobs could be taken by immigrant workers, saving businesses money on wages while still giving those workers five or ten times what they would have received in their home countries.
Work in dry-cleaning stores, newsstands, grocery stores, and machine shops, attracted many new arrivals and served as a first step on their upward economic journey. So great was the need for people to operate these jobs, that many of the sparsely populated states actively worked to promote immigration by offering newcomers guaranteed jobs and land grants.
Immigrant Contributions to American Prosperity and Unjust Persecution of Immigrants by Nativists
Immigrants from 1870 to 1920 made possible America’s economic growth and rise to prominence as a global power. Yet these newcomers also faced unjust persecution from nativists who sought the aid of government to stifle further immigration.
During the past two centuries, small businesses comprised over three-fourths of America’s economy. Small businesses were a sector most crucial and unique to America, as, with scant initial capital, any intelligent man with a profitable idea could quickly rise to financial security.
The small-business field was, without exaggeration, dominated by immigrants. In every U.S. census from 1880 onward, immigrants accounted for a greater percentage of small business owners than natives. These businesses greatly expanded the country’s productivity and job openings, creating jobs for immigrants and natives alike.
Moreover, immigration fueled industrialization. In 1910, foreign-born persons comprised about 53% of the national industrial labor force. So not only did immigrants carry the small business field; they played an indispensable role in large industries as well. One can say with certainty that America would not have reached the status of a global economic power in those days were it not for the contributions of immigrants.
Despite these overt contributions to American prosperity, immigrants encountered a great deal of political regulation and outright opposition from nativist groups allied with the legislature.
Not all legislation discouraged immigration; earlier bills, such as the Homestead Act of 1862 helped attract newcomers by promising anyone who would develop a plot of land in the West for five years ownership of that land. Many Europeans took advantage of this opportunity.
But on the Pacific coast, Chinese immigrants did not fare so well. Bigoted sentiments and laws that began during the Gold Rush era culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, wherein Chinese immigration was forbidden for ten years. This law would be renewed and rendered permanent in the twentieth century and would last until 1943. In 1890, the Federal Government assumed control of immigration, implying that it would be easier to establish nationwide controls for immigration and enforce any initiative that would restrict the inward flow of people.
A slight gain for immigrants, especially those of Asian descent, was the Supreme Court decision of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, in 1898. The Supreme Court ruled that children born in America of Asian parents must be granted citizenship. Denying this citizenship would violate the 14th Amendment clause that classified all persons born on American soil as citizens and would jeopardize the rights of native-born whites with immigrant parents.
The court realized that discriminating against some immigrants could easily be extrapolated to discrimination against large portions of the American population, and that immigrants and America were inseparably linked.
Yet the nativists who controlled the other two branches of the US government continued to push their exclusionist schemes. The Literacy Act of 1917 required arrivals to be literate in some language, therefore cutting off the flow of many of the unskilled and uneducated workers that would have otherwise taken the jobs that no one else wanted.
The death blow to immigration came in 1924, when the National Origins Act set a quota of 150,000 total immigrants per year, disproportionately distributed to England and Northern Europe, with few slots allotted to southern and Eastern Europe and none for Asians. The act ended mass immigration into the U.S. until its repeal in 1965.
Nativist Xenophobia and Persecution of Immigrants
Immigrants to the United States from 1870 to 1920 were not always welcomed. Many faced unjust and even violent persecution from well-connected nativist groups, who often acted out of nothing more than ignorance and prejudice.
No one expressed and condemned the irrationality of the xenophobia exhibited by the nativist groups against immigrants more vividly than Thomas Nast. His cartoon, ironically titled, “Pacific Chivalry: Encouragement to Chinese Immigration,” portrays Nast’s response to some of the most extreme forms of racism and nativism in the country at the time.
You see a California native whipping and pulling the hair of a defenseless Chinese immigrant. In the inscription in the background, you can barely see written some of the things that aid the abuser in his cruelty. The inscription reads: “Courts of justice closed to Chinese; extra taxes to Yellowjack.”
What does this cartoon suggest about the means that Chinese and many other immigrants had to resist invasions of their rights and dignity? They had just about no means whatsoever. Nast recognized that many of these productive and peace-loving individuals were barred from resisting their inferior condition by small, well-organized activist groups connected with the legislature and prepared to use all means necessary, from the law to vigilante violence, to damage the immigrants. The American people were not opposed to immigration, but many powerful and well-connected elites of the time were.
Indeed, the xenophobia against immigrants sometimes reached horrific extremes. There was substantial discrimination against the Chinese in terms of wages and employment conditions in the West, but this passage by historian John Higham refers to some of the more brutal attacks on their freedoms.
“No variety of anti-European sentiment has ever approached the violent extremes to which anti-Chinese agitation went in the 1870s and 1880s. Lynching, boycotts, and mass expulsions…harassed the Chinese.” (Higham 1963)
Of course, in order to make these actions seem more tolerable in their eyes, nativists tried to justify them by conceiving of Asian immigrants as inferior beings. They could back down somewhat and grant some degree of equality to foreign whites, but this would enable them to play a powerful race card which contained some vicious stereotypes. Anti-immigrant stereotypes were spread by many labor unionists, especially Samuel Gompers, who wrote that “both the intelligence and the prosperity of our working people are endangered by the present immigration. Cheap labor… ignorant labor…takes our jobs and cuts our wages.”
There are numerous fallacies in Gompers’s claims. Immigration creates jobs rather than destroying them. Immigrants did not steal jobs, but rather took work that few natives wanted. Half of immigrants were indeed unskilled, but the other half consisted of people just as, if not more than, educated and innovative than the native population. Indeed, without immigrants, American economic prosperity would have been cut by more than half.
It seems, however, that some debates in American history linger on for centuries. The immigration debate is one of them. Currently, as immigration restrictions in the past thirty years have been laxer than previously, we are experiencing a new massive influx of foreigners into this country. The benefits that these immigrants bring are even more obvious today than ever, but the nativists are still around to attempt to impose stricter quotas and border-control measures. They are often still guided by the same fallacious arguments about immigrants stealing jobs or polluting the country’s culture.
Novelist Stephen Vincent Benet offered a powerful response to nativism, relevant both during his time and today: “Remember that when you say, ‘I will have none of this exile and this stranger for his face is not like my face and his speech is strange,’ you have denied America with that word.”