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USA - Immigration - Early

In the late 1800s, people in many parts of the world decided to leave their homes and immigrate to the United States. Fleeing crop failure, land and job shortages, rising taxes, and famine, many came to the U. S. because it was perceived as the land of economic opportunity. Others came seeking personal freedom or relief from political and religious persecution. With hope for a brighter future, nearly 12 million immigrants arrived in the United States between 1870 and 1900.

Once settled, immigrants looked for work. There were never enough jobs, and employers often took advantage of the immigrants. Men were generally paid less than other workers, and women less than men. Social tensions were also part of the immigrant experience. Often stereotyped and discriminated against, many immigrants suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were "different." While large-scale immigration created many social tensions, it also produced a new vitality in the cities and states in which the immigrants settled. The newcomers helped transform American society and culture, demonstrating that diversity, as well as unity, is a source of national strength.

The volume of immigration to the United States during the 1840s was moderate, and at no time reached 100,000 per annum. Though the volume was small and may not have had any particular effect upon the economic situation, it is interesting to note that immigration shows a drop of more than one-half in 1838, the first year after the start of the depression. The volume was much greater in 1839 and, with a few exceptions, increased each year thereafter until 1849, when it reached the high level of 297,024.

Germany during the years 1850-1854, due to some extent at least to famine conditions in Ireland and the political situation in Germany. In Germany these years constituted a period of petty despotism, to escape which great numbers of its people migrated to the United States.

Beginning with 1855 immigration decreased almost every year until 1862, after which it gradual~y increased to a new high level of 459,803 in the year 1873. The decline in immigration was probably due to a number of causes, among which are: The depression in the United States and the conditions prevailing prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the political and economic conditions existing in Great Britain, Germany, and other European countries, and the Crimean War, which directly involved Great Britain and France and indirectly Germany and the other countries of Europe.

The bulk of immigration to the United States came from the United Kingdom and Germany; and again, as in previous periods of depression in the United States, immigration shows a sharp decline, caused not only by the unfavorable economic conditions existing in the United States but also by similar conditions in the countries named. Beginning with the year 1879, it gradually increased each year until a new high level of 788,992 was reached in the year 1882.

The year 1883 witnessed the beginning of a marked change in the origin of immigration to the United States. Prior to that time over 95 percent of all European immigrants came from the northern and western countries of Europe, with only a comparatively few from the southern and eastern countries. From the above date the ratio gradually changed, until in the year 1890 about 36 per cent of all immigration came from the southern and eastern countries of Europe. At the beginning of this depression immigration showed a sharp decline and continued to decline until the low mark was reached in 1886, after which it gradually increased.

In 1891, the federal government assumed responsibility from the states for regulating immigration through the Immigration Act of 1891, which established the Office of Immigration (later the Bureau of Immigration) to administer immigration affairs. The government also appropriated money to build a new immigrant inspection station on Ellis Island. The Immigration Act assigned the Marine Hospital Service (later the Public Health Service) the responsibility of examining the health of immigrants entering the United States.

The percentage of immigrants coming from the southern and eastern countries of Europe continued to show a large increase from 1892 to 1899. In the latter year 66 per cent of all immigration came from these countries, as compared with 36 per cent in 1890. During this depression immigration shows a gradual decline to the low level of 229,299 in the year 1898, after which it gradually increased.

There followed a period of heavy increase in immigration, the peak being reached in 1907, when 1,285,349 arrived. The great bulk of the immigration of the period came from the southern and eastern countries of Europe, caused to some extent at least by the great expansion of our manufactures, the old type of common labor being replaced by labor from these countries. The great influx of this new type brought immigration questions to the fore, and in 1907 the first basic immigration law was enacted. It provided for the exclusion of the mentally, morally, and physically unfit, also the exclusion of contract laborers. There was a sharp decline in immigration in the year 1908, and it continued on a lower level during 1909, with a sharp increase to more than a million in 1910. There was another sharp decline in 1911 and 1912, probably due to the Italian-Turkish and Balkan Wars. Immigration increased again to above the million mark in the years 1913 and 1914.

From 1880 to 1920, the number of foreign born increased from almost 7 million to a little under 14 million. These figures, however, underestimate the economic and demographic contribution of immigration. Immigrants inevitably lead to a second generation—the children of immigrants—whose social, cultural, and economic characteristics are heavily influenced by their origins. Counting the 23 million children of immigrants, in addition to the 14 million immigrants, means that over one-third of the 105 million Americans in the 1920 population belonged to the “immigrant community,” defined as inclusive of the first and second generations.

The United States experienced rising immigration during the early years of the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1920 the nation admitted over 14.5 million immigrants.

Concerns over mass immigration and its impact on the country began to change Americans’ historically open attitude toward immigration. Congress strengthened national immigration law with new legislation in 1903 and 1907. Meanwhile, a Presidential Commission investigated the causes of massive emigration out of Southern and Eastern Europe and the Congressional Dillingham Commission studied conditions among immigrants in the United States. These commissions’ reports influenced the writing and passage of the Immigration Act of 1917.

The uncertainty generated over national security during the Great War made it possible for Congress to pass this legislation. Among its other provisions, the 1917 Act required that immigrants be able to read and write in their native language, obligating the Immigration Service to begin administering literacy tests. Another change, the introduction of pre-inspection and more-rigorous medical examinations at the point of departure saved time for people passing through some American ports of entry and reduced the number of excluded immigrants.

The 1917 Act excluded from entry anyone born in a geographically defined “Asiatic Barred Zone” except for Japanese and Filipinos. In 1907, the Japanese Government had voluntarily limited Japanese immigration to the United States in the Gentlemen’s Agreement. The Philippines was a US colony, so its citizens were US nationals and could travel freely to the United States. China was not included in the Barred Zone, but the Chinese were already denied immigration visas under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The Great War interrupted European immigration, and it was not resumed on a large scale until the year 1920. Following the World War there was every indication that unprecedented num- bers would come to the United States as soon as means of travel could be reestablished, and an unmistakable demand for immigration restriction came from all parts of the country. European immigration jumped from 24,600 in 1919 to 246,000 in 1920 and 652,000 in 1921, thus rapidly nearing pre-war proportions.

In the latter year, and at a time when Congress was considering the immigration problem, approximately 5,000,000 persons were unemployed in the Unit ed States, and when it is borne in mind that every passenger ship coming from Europe was bringing large numbers who would be compelled to seek a livelihood in an already overcrowded labor market, it is not to be wondered at that Congress passed the first restrictive immigration law, known as the 1921 quota law, which fixed a definite number who might come from any country annually.

This law was superseded in 1924 by the present immigration quota act, under which law by presidential proclamation the revision of the quota of each respective nationality fixed the limit on European immigration at 153,714. Since the enactment of the quota act referred to European immigration has been nominal and not an important economic factor. During the present business depression through additional laws and Executive orders it has been reduced to the disappearing point.

Almost 12 million immigrants were processed through the immigration station on Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 when the station closed. By 1924, however, the number of immigrants being processed at Ellis Island had been significantly reduced by anti-immigration legislation designed to establish quotas by nationality. This legislation dramatically reduced the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States.

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Page last modified: 21-10-2017 19:10:01 ZULU