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In the late nineteenth century, a major wave of immigration began. Most immigrants settled in cities, where distinctive ethnic neighborhoods emerged. Some Americans, however, feared that the new immigrants would not adapt to American culture or might be harmful to American society.

Immigrants Flood Into America

 How did immigrants of the late 1800s change American society?

Between 1865, the year the Civil War ended, and 1914, the year World War I began, nearly 25 million people immigrated to the United States. Most, nearly 24 million, came from Europe, but more than 1.3 million Canadians moved south of the border, over 425,000 Latin Americans came north, and more than 450,000 Asians arrived as well during those years.

European Immigration

Europeans immigrated to the United States for many reasons. Many came because they were poor and American industries had plenty of jobs available or because they had special skills. Europe’s industrial cities, however, also offered plenty of jobs, so economic factors do not entirely explain why people migrated. Many immigrants came to the United States not just to find work, but to escape the restrictions of social class in Europe that kept them trapped at the bottom of society. In some cases, as in Italy, high rents and a cholera epidemic encouraged people to leave. In Poland and Russia, land shortages, unemployment, high taxes and a long military draft caused emigration. Others, especially Jews living in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fled to escape religious persecution.

Ellis Island

Most immigrants passed through Ellis Island, a tiny island in New York Harbor. There, a huge three-story building served as the processing center for many of the immigrants arriving from Europe after 1892. In Ellis Island’s enormous hall, crowds of immigrants filed past doctors for an inspection. Those who failed inspection might be separated from their families and returned to Europe. A medical examiner who worked there later described how “hour after hour, ship load after ship load . . . the stream of human beings with its kaleidoscopic variations was . . . hurried through Ellis Island by the equivalent of ‘step lively’ in every language of the earth.” About 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954.

Changing Demographics and Culture

By the late 1890s, more than half of all immigrants entering the United States were from eastern and southern Europe, including Italy, Greece, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Serbia. This period of immigration is known as “new” immigration. The “old” immigration, which occurred before 1890, had been primarily of people from northern and western Europe.

This wave of immigrants changed the culture of America’s cities and the demographics of its workforce. Although every immigrant group had some of its members working in every type of job and profession available, certain patterns emerged. Skilled Italian bricklayers and stonemasons contributed to the construction of many homes, churches and buildings in American cities. Polish immigrants often became coal miners, meatpackers and steel workers. Jewish immigrants often worked in the garment industry or as common laborers, although many became merchants as well. Irish immigrants, often among the poorest to arrive in America, frequently ended up as railroad workers, miners, dockworkers, ditch-diggers, and factory workers. And members of all ethnic groups also headed west to settle the Great Plains as farmers and ranchers.

By the 1890s, immigrants made up a large percentage of the population of major cities, including New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Immigrants lived in neighborhoods that were often separated into ethnic groups, such as “Little Italy” or the Jewish “Lower East Side” in New York City. There they spoke their native languages and re-created the churches, synagogues, clubs, and newspapers of their homelands. Because immigrants tended to settle near others from their homeland, regional demographic patterns also emerged. For example: although there were large numbers of every ethnic group in New York City, Italians, Russians, and Jews were more likely to remain there, while large numbers of Germans, Swedes, and Poles moved to Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Chicago. Many Germans also moved to Texas to become farmers. Large numbers of Irish settled in the northeast and upper Midwest, and they were the largest ethnic group in Boston.

The wave of immigration in the late 1800s also brought about a cultural shift in American religion. In 1850 Catholics were only five percent of the population. By the early 1900s, they made up 17 percent of the total, and had become the single largest religious denomination in the country. While there had been Catholics in America from the earliest days when Lord Baltimore founded Maryland colony as a refuge for English Catholics, American culture had been overwhelmingly Protestant in its outlook and religious perspective. That began to change in the late 1800s as the United States became more culturally diverse.

Catholics were not the only contributors to a new religious diversity in American culture. The large number of Greeks and Russians arriving in the nation meant that the number of Orthodox Christians in the nation began to increase as well. And as persecution mounted in Russia, Poland, and Romania in the 1880s, a mass migration of East European Jews began. Most settled in New York City and elsewhere on the east coast, but Jewish communities appeared all across the United States. By the early 1920s, nearly 2 million Jews had settled in America.

Asian Immigration

The first large wave of Asian immigration to the United States began in the years following the Civil War. In the mid-1800s, China was suffering from severe unemployment, poverty, famine, and a civil war, known as the Taiping Rebellion. These problems convinced tens of thousands of Chinese to head to the United States, as did news of the California Gold Rush. Almost all were young men in their teens or twenties seeking work, or hoping to strike it rich in the goldfields.

Chinese immigrants settled mainly in west coast cities, especially San Francisco. Although many headed to the gold fields, most failed to make much money and took jobs as laborers and servants. Some became merchants or skilled at a trade. Many helped build the Central Pacific Railroad. Initially, Asian immigrants arriving in San Francisco were inspected at a two-story shed on the wharf. In 1910, California opened a barracks on Angel Island for Asian immigrants. There immigrants waited, sometimes for months, for their hearings.

Nativism Resurges

 

Why did nativists oppose immigration?

Eventually, the wave of immigration led to increased feelings of nativism for many Americans. Nativism is an extreme dislike of immigrants by native-born people. It had surfaced during the heavy wave of Irish immigration in the 1840s and 1850s. By the late 1800s it was focused mainly on Asians, Jews, and eastern Europeans.

Nativists opposed immigration for many reasons. Some feared that the influx of Catholics from countries such as Ireland, Italy, and Poland would swamp the mostly Protestant United States. Many labor unions argued that immigrants undermined American workers because they would work for low wages and accept jobs as strikebreakers.

Nativists Organize

Increased feelings of nativism led to the founding of two major anti-immigrant organizations. The American Protective Association, founded by Henry Bowers in Iowa, in 1887, was an anti-Catholic organization. Its members vowed not to hire or vote for Catholics and the organization lobbied for restrictions of Catholic immigration to the United States. The APA built a large following in the Midwest and Northeast of the United States. On the West Coast, where sentiment against the Chinese was very strong, widespread racial violence erupted. Denis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, formed the Workingman’s Party of California to fight Chinese immigration. The party won seats in the California legislature and made opposition to Chinese immigration a national issue.

Congress Passes New Immigration Laws

Opposition to immigration led Congress to pass several laws designed to limit the massive number of immigrants arriving in the United States. Most of these were vetoed by the presidents of the era. In 1882, however, President Chester Arthur signed two bills—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Immigration Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigration for 10 years, and prevented Chinese already in the United States from becoming citizens. The Chinese in the United States organized a letter-writing campaign, petitioned Arthur, and filed suit in federal court, all to no avail. The ban on Chinese immigration was renewed in 1892, and then made permanent in 1902. It was not repealed until 1943.

The Immigration Act of 1882 imposed a head tax of 50 cents on each immigrant who arrived by ship at a United States port. The law also gave immigration officials the authority to reject immigrants who had a criminal record, were mentally disabled, or who were unable to take care of themselves "without becoming a public charge."

For most of American history, the borders had been open, and virtually anyone who could get to the United States could settle there. State and local governments controlled the ports and border crossings. The Immigration Act of 1882 began federal oversight of immigration and gave responsibility to the Treasury Department to issue regulations, hire immigration agents, and build inspection stations. One of the purposes of the head tax was to pay for the cost of the agents and offices needed to inspect immigrants. The law triggered a debate in American politics over the correct policies and regulations to adopt toward immigrants. The debate has continued to the present day.

Immigrant Optimism

Despite the difficulties of the journey, the challenges of finding work, and the anger of nativists, many immigrants to the United States remained optimistic—in part because of what they were fleeing from, and in part because of what they discovered upon arriving. Although many Americans were poor and faced very difficult lives, there was no widespread famine, war or rebellion, unlike parts of China and Europe. There was no rigid class system. Immigrants understood that even though they were poor, they could attempt to improve their position in life and were not permanently trapped because of the class into which they were born. In addition, wages were high compared to much of the world; jobs were plentiful, even if difficult and sometimes demeaning, and there remained a lot of cheap land on the Great Plains for those wishing to strike out on their own. In short, there was an opportunity to be free that many immigrants had never experienced before, and it created both optimism and a sense of possibility.

Reviewing Vocabulary

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Answering the Guiding Questions

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