Immigration in America: 19th Century to Present
The millions of immigrants who have come to America over the past four hundred years have made America what it is today. The immigrants who have made America their home came to find new lives and livelihoods and their hard work benefited not only themselves and their families, but their new home called America. The fact that immigrants decided to make America their home is central to the United States’ overall development, “involving a process fundamental to its pre-national origins, its Atlantic outpost to a world power, particularly in terms of its economic growth. Immigration has made the United States of America” (Diner 2008). This paper will take a look at some of the major turning points in American immigrant history beginning in the 19th century up until present time. It will also attempt to discover some of the patterns of settlement of different broad groups of immigrants during this time. Finally, the paper will discuss how immigrants have change American culture, from being a solely white culture where non-whites were considered minorities to the current state with whites being just one of several major ethnic groups (Diner 1983).
Diner (2008) notes that the first and the longest era of settlers coming to the New World stretched form the 17th century through the early 19th century. Immigrants during this time came from a variety of places, including France, Poland, and the Netherlands. By the early 19th century, however, Takaki (2008) notes that the immigrants consisted of people mainly from the British Isles. Settlements were mainly on the Eastern coast and the Western land was still rather vast and inhabited by Native American Indians (Takaki 2008). For the immigrants who would come during the mid- and late-nine nineteenth century, these earlier immigrants were already considered “old” immigrants (Takaki 2008).
By 1820, mass migration to America officially began (Diner 2008). This period of mass migration lasted roughly until 1880. Over the course of these 60 or so years, approximately 15 million immigrants came to the United States. Many of these immigrants chose to go to the Midwest and the Northeast so that they could own land and make a life out of agriculture. Some went to big cities like New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore (2008).
The immigrants who came to the New World during the 19th century tended to stay with their fellow countryman. The Midwest was a common place for Europeans from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Bohemia, “and various regions of what in 1871 would become Germany” (Diner 2008). The Midwest with its rich farming land “became home to tight-knit, relatively homogeneous communities of immigrants” from the Northern European countries aforementioned.
Diner (2008) states that it was also the 19th century that saw the â€¦first large-scale arrival of Catholic immigrants to the largely Protestant United States, and these primarily Irish women and men inspired the nation’s first serious bout of nativism, which combined antipathy to immigrants in general with a fear of Catholicism and an aversion to the Irish. Particularly in the decades just before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), this nativism spawned a powerful political movement and even a political party, the Know Nothingsâ€¦ (Diner 2008).
Many immigrants left their countries in order to have the freedom to practice their own religion, but even in America there were prejudices against certain immigrants. The Irish, specifically, were met with harassment even in America because of their Catholic religion. The Irish had to struggle for their faith in an almost completely Protestant country. The Irish often were met with signs that said “No Irish” (Gjerde 1998). Because the crime rate increased when the Irish numbers went up, they were oftentimes blamed for the crimes occurring, considered criminals because of it. The only jobs they could oftentimes get were the ones that required very difficult manual labor — the jobs that nobody else wanted. They worked on railroads across the United States, much like the Chinese. Many of them traveled with the railroad companies; those that did tended to stay around New York and certain areas of the Midwest (around the Great Lakes, in general). Some, however, were able to go to San Francisco, others to New Orleans (1998). The Irish were, thankfully, protected by America’s Constitution, but the journey to equality was still a very difficult one for the Irish immigrants in America.
Gjerde (1998) notes that nearly one-third of the immigrants who came to America between 1820 and 1870 were Germans, however, unlike the Irish, many of the Germans had enough money to go straight to the Midwest and buy farmland. The Germans faced religious harassment in their own country, but other reasons for the Germans coming to America were the failed revolution of 1848 in their country, the growing population and thus growing competition in their home country, and the desire to come to a country where they believed that they would have more opportunities and thus a better life (Takaki 2008).
Scandinavians had their own reasons for their mass migration to America. One of the reasons, and probably the most important, was the economic problems in their own countries. The Norwegians, like the Germans, saw their population growing and knew that there were not enough resources for everybody (Takaki 2008). Between 1825 and 1914, approximately 750,000 immigrants from Norway came to America (2008). Approximately 350,000 immigrants from Finland came during the 19th century as well (2008). Most of the Finnish settlers who came to American in the 19th century settled in states like Minnesota and Michigan, and throughout the northern states, in general, because the climate and landscape was so similar to what they knew back home (Gjerde 1998).
Moving onto the 20th century in America, Takaki (2008) notes that Mexican-Americans were first incorporated into the United States because of the 1846-48 war against Mexico. The Mexican-Americans did not “come to America; instead, the border was moved when the United States annexed the Southwest” (2008). The majority of the Mexican-Americans today have immigrant roots, having started their trek to “El Norte” in the early part of the 20th century (2008).
The 21st century in America has brought about all sorts of debates when it comes to immigration and the role of immigrants in the American fabric of society. America has continued to be the place where immigrants want to come for refuge, for new opportunities, and for new lives. There are many people who believe that there has been enough immigration now, though not denying that this country is made up of immigrants. Some see immigrants as being unable to adapt to American culture, wanting to keep their own customs from the old country while in the new country. Some people simply believe that immigrants make more competition for the natives in terms of jobs. And still others believe that immigrants pose some kind of threat to the social structure of America. No matter what — if any — truth there is in any of these arguments, the bottom line is that immigrants have made this country what it is today.
It is true that America once used to be a predominately “white” country, run by white men. Today we have an African-American president and there are many different ethnicities represented in leadership positions in our government. The United States — and the world, in general, has changed significantly from the early days of immigration. However, the truth is that just like the early immigrants faced ridicule, prejudices, and harassment from people, immigrants today are also facing the same sort of harassment. Takaki (2008) notes that before September 11, 2001, the Afghan immigrants who were settled in America were relatively unknown. After the 9/11 attacks, however, and when it became suspected that Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan were somehow linked, the views about Afghans in this country changed.
The issue with Mexican immigrants coming to America is another hot topic that people just can’t seem to agree on. While Asians used to be the people whom was excluded from America’s most desirable immigrants’ list, today it is the Mexicans. Despite the fact that Mexicans make up a large population in the west and southwest of America, filling many labor needs in those areas, there is still rampant racism and downright hostility when it comes to Mexican immigrants. Why haven’t the Mexicans assimilated in American like other ethnic groups? The answer could be that America has constantly looked to the Mexican neighbors as merely as source of labor. Other immigrants who came to the United States were looking for religious freedom, they were looking for farmland and a better quality of life, but Mexicans, though they also have come to the United States for more opportunities and a better life, are continually labeled inferior and their labor is often considered to be the cheapest, yet it is often some of the most important.
Arguably, our nation still has issues with race. It can be argued that certain ethnic groups have assimilated in America because their skin was lighter. This doesn’t explain why the Irish had such a difficult time, but in America, religious differences are often the cause of intolerance as well. The truth is that without immigrants in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century — and of course the two hundred years before this, this nation would not be where or what it is today and to remain true to our roots we must accept that immigrants will always be a vital part of the U.S.
Diner (2008) states that the National Origins Act of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) restricted the number of immigrants coming to the U.S. And also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins (2008). “A complicated piece of legislation, it essential gave preference to immigrants from northern and Western Europe, severely limited the numbers from eastern and southern Europe, and declared potential immigrants from Asia to be unworthy of entry into the Unite States” (2008). Interestingly enough, this quota system excluded the Western Hemisphere and so the “1920s ushered in the penultimate era in U.S. immigration history” (2008). Immigrants could and did come from Mexico, the Caribbean, and other parts of Central and South America (2008). The quota system lasted until 1965, but during the 40 years that the quota system existed, the United States would allow certain immigrants — on a case-by-case basis — into the United States. Some of these immigrants were refugees from Nazi Germany before WWII, Cubans after the 1960 revolution and Hungarians seeking refuge after their uprising failed (2008).
In 1965 the Hart-Celler Act was passed, a sort of “by-product of the civil rights revolution and a jewel in the crown of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs” (Diner 2008). The act was never meant to “stimulate” immigration from Asia, Africa, or the Middle East (and other places in the developing world). The creators of the act thought that people would come from the more traditional places (like Italy),
places that labored under very small quotes in the 1924 law” (2008). After 1970, Diner (2008) notes that there was a major influx from places like Korea, China, India, Pakistan and the Philippines — as well as some countries in Africa. By 2000, the immigration in the United States had “returned to its 1900 volume” (2008).
Today there is much debate over the immigration issue. It seems that throughout history there has been major immigration issues when the United States is in economic trouble or is experiencing some kind of political turmoil. Especially with the economic downturn today, many people have spoken out about immigrants, worried that they will use resources like welfare and unemployment benefits and thus there will be none left for the native people. Congress restricted non-citizens’ access to social services in 1996 over a fear that immigrants may be lured by the U.S.’s welfare benefits. However, people must accept that immigrants can’t just go to a country and take — they also have to give or consume. This is often an argument that proponents of immigration give. They create certain markets for all sorts of products, goods, and services.
There are many Americans who, though knowing that this is a country built of and by immigrants, there is still anxiety when it comes to immigrants in the U.S. Some hope that the differences in ethnicities, race and culture will teach people to become more tolerant, but others feel that the differences simply act as barriers and that we are becoming a nation of divided peoples.
It must be noted that immigrants add tremendously to our life in the United States — legal or not. For the most part, undocumented working immigrants are often employed in low-wage jobs without any job security, without benefits, in positions that nobody else wants to have. Employing tactics like the ones the state of Arizona uses will not only harm the immigrants but it will hard the native citizens of the U.S. In the long run as well.
Diner, Hasia. (1983). Erin’s daughters in America: Irish immigrant women in the nineteenth century. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
Diner, Hasia. (2008). Immigration and U.S. history. America.gov. Accessed on October
28, 2010: http://www.america.gov/st/peopleplace-english/2008/February/20080307112004ebyessedo0.1716272.html
Gjerde, J. (1998). Major problems in American and ethnic history: documents and essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Takaki, R. (2008). A different mirror: a history of multicultural America (Rev. ed.).
Boston: Little Brown Company.
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