Study Guide

Ellis Island Era Immigration Introduction

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Ellis Island Era Immigration Introduction

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses," said Lady Liberty in the first half of the 19th century. (Well, she wasn't built yet, and Emma Lazarus hadn't written that poem yet, but that was America's attitude.) Pretty sweet deal for those huddled masses.

By the end of the century, she changed her plaque to say, "LOL, nope. There's like a billion of you, forget that." We're paraphrasing, but the United States wasn't exactly rolling out the red carpet for newcomers a century ago. 

After the Civil War ended, immigration sped up. (It was a lot more attractive to move to the United States when Americans weren't busy, you know, shooting each other.) Now that the country was having another Industrial Revolution, why not have another big wave of immigrants as well? History likes to keep things predictable.

Just to throw in a little curveball, though, this round of immigrants weren't as often of Irish or German background. In the 1870s and beyond, the new wave of immigrants came largely from Eastern or Southern Europe. We're talking people of Czech, Russian, Polish, Croatian, Italian, and Greek descent coming into the United States on the East Coast, and a good amount of immigrants on the West Coast coming from Asia. As immigration increased, so did the fear and hatred of immigrants. Voters asked the government to step in, and it definitely did.

That open gate to the United States? Americans slammed it shut.

In 1882, for the first time in American history, Congress passed a law that restricted free and open immigration into the United States at the federal level. The Statue of Liberty wasn't standing guard in New York Harbor quite yet, but if she were, she would have dropped her torch and started shooing people away.

That first act was the Chinese Exclusion Act. (Pssst: we've got an entire learning guide on it.) It specifically barred Chinese immigrants (obviously) from entering the United States, becoming citizens, or coming back if they had to leave the country. Subsequent legislation excluded foreigners from many other countries. 

It's nothing personal, China. We were totally planning on keeping everyone else out, too.

By the 1920s, American immigration policy evolved into a nakedly discriminatory ethnic quota system, allowing most Northwestern Europeans to enter freely while strictly limiting the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans and excluding Asians entirely. Despite the increasingly stringent controls imposed upon American immigration between 1882 and 1952, the period still witnessed the largest immigration surge—relative to the overall population at the time—in American history.

And contrary to the fears of many native-born Americans of the era, the so-called "new immigrants" of the late-19th and early-20th centuries did not, in the end, undermine American culture and society. Indeed, by the time the quota system imposed in the 1920s reduced the "new immigration" to a trickle, it had begun to become clear that the "new immigrants" were acculturating to American society just as fully as their "old immigrant" predecessors. 

Czechs and Poles and Jews and Italians made just as good Americans as had Germans and Englishmen. E pluribus unum.

What is Ellis Island Era Immigration About and Why Should I Care?

Immigrants pour across America's borders in unprecedented numbers. They settle in overcrowded, ethnically ghettoized urban communities where the English language is rarely heard or spoken. They work in jobs offering brutal labor conditions and terribly low pay. Foreign-born radical activists stir up social and political discontent.

Anxious native-born American citizens, reduced to a demographic minority within their own cities, clamor for government action to stop the immigrant influx. Their fears of the impact immigrants have on American society sometimes morph into ugly racial and ethnic resentments. Conflicts over immigration threaten to tear this self-proclaimed "nation of immigrants" asunder.

And through it all, new immigrants continue to pour into the country, thousands of them arriving every single day.

If these sound like stories ripped straight from the headlines, they are. 

But they're not from the Fox News website or Lou Dobbs Tonight. No, these are the headlines that dominated American newspapers in 1882, 1901, 1917, and 1924. For nearly 50 years, spanning the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the greatest wave of immigration in the history of the United States transformed American society and roiled American politics.

"History doesn't repeat itself," Mark Twain once said, "but it does rhyme." And the turmoil over immigration in America today does seem to resonate deeply with the contentious immigration history of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. So, what's the next verse?

Ellis Island Era Immigration Resources


Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910)
Half autobiography, half social history, Twenty Years at Hull-House is the classic first-person account of Jane Addams' long quest for the uplift of Chicago's beleaguered working-class immigrant communities. Any reader interested in the settlement house movement or, more broadly, in the history of American social reform, should begin here.

Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (1990)
Readers looking for a solid, readable overview of the history of American immigration and its impacts on American life will find a fine starting point in Roger Daniels' Coming to America.

Thomas Dublin, Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773-1986 (1993)
It's impossible to understand the history of American immigrations without understanding the individual experiences of immigrants to America. Here, Thomas Dublin collects a remarkable selection of true first-person accounts spanning two centuries of American immigration, from the late-18th century to the late-20th century.

Martha Gardner, The Qualities of a Citizen: Women, Immigration, and Citizenship, 1870-1965 (2005)
Rooted in extensive primary research in immigration case files, Martha Gardner's The Qualities of a Citizen reassesses American immigration history through the prism of gender, exploring the many ways that federal immigration policy toward women reflected popular anxieties over race, sex, and power. In the hands of another writer, this academic book might be a ponderous read, but Gardner's talents for storytelling keep things lively and readable throughout.

Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (1951)
Historian Oscar Handlin asserts that most American immigrant histories written prior to World War II tell a story of newcomers arriving in the United States full of enthusiasm and optimism. The customary view of immigration, he says, is as a challenging but ultimately fulfilling process. Handlin, instead, describes the deep and inescapable sense of loss, betrayal, and upheaval that immigrants felt upon leaving their countries of origin. The promise of new opportunities in America ("pull factor"), he argues, was not as significant as the economic and demographic forces ("push factors") in Europe that violently uprooted individuals and their families. The Uprooted is a bleak and perhaps overstated immigration tale, but nonetheless one that has since influenced other historians to better understand the forces that pushed migrants from their original communities.

John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (1965)
John Higham's Strangers in the Land is an old book, more than 40 years old now, but it remains the seminal history of nativism in American politics and culture. Readers who want to understand the forces that drove anti-Irish Know-Nothings, anti-Chinese Workingmen, or anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klansmen should begin here.

George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity and Acculturation in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1943 (1993)
Historian George Sanchez reveals the ways in which Chicano communities in Los Angeles developed and transformed during the first half of the 20th century. He discovers that, even in the face of discrimination and economic hardship, these immigrants and their children nourished a unique Mexican-American identity marked not by simple assimilation, but by social experimentation and cultural compromise.


Wild Colonial Bhoys, Irish in America (2007)
The Wild Colonial Bhoys, a band whose sound could be described as modern folk rock, is comprised of two musicians, one American and the other Canadian. Together, the Bhoys draw upon their common Irish heritage and honor their immigrant roots by integrating traditional folk harmonies with contemporary instrumentation.

Judith and Holofernes, Abraça a Tristeza (2005)
After a pilgrimage to Portugal in search of lead singer Dos DaRosa's ancestral roots (and rhythms), the members of Judith and Holofernes began making sweet, sad music together. Their sound, described by some as rock and by others as folk, is inspired by the instrumentation and the raw emotion of traditional Portuguese fado music. Lovingly distributed by the Brooklyn indie label Vanguard Squad, Abraça a Tristeza (a Portuguese phrase that translates as Embrace the Sadness) indulges in lust, agony, guilt, and heartache. We're pretty sure this record can make grown men cry, which is why we love it.

Various Artists, Fiddler on the Roof (2004)
This 2004 Broadway cast recording features all the beloved classics from the 1964 original production, including "Tradition," "Matchmaker," "If I Were a Rich Man," and, of course, "Sunrise, Sunset."

Golden Bough, Songs of the Irish Immigrants (2004)
Travel back in time to the 19th century, when hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants poured into the country in search of the American Dream. This collection features a colorful sampling of the traditional Irish folk ballads and jigs that these travelers held near and dear to their hearts.

Various Artists, The Godfather Part II (1974)
Check out this dramatic soundtrack to the second film of the Godfather trilogy, which chronicles the life of Vito Corleone from his youth in Sicily to his adult life as an Italian immigrant in Prohibition-era New York.


Performing Assimilation
Theatre program for Israel Zangwill's 1908 play The Melting Pot.

Haymarket Criminals or Martyrs?
A placard marking the Chicago site of the 1886 Haymarket Riot as a National Historical Landmark has been reclaimed by modern-day anarchist admirers of the so-called Haymarket Martyrs.

Emma Lazarus
Poet Emma Lazarus, author of the famous poem "The New Colossus," which was engraved inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903.

Haymarket Riot
Contemporary engraving of the 1886 Haymarket Riot.

Communist Leaders Found Guilty
American Communist leaders, including Eugene Dennis, Benjamin Davis, and William Z. Foster, leave the courthouse during their 1948 Smith Act trial.

Ellis Island
The famous immigration station on Ellis Island, New York Harbor.

Lady Liberty
Immigrants sail past the Statue of Liberty as they near arrival in New York.

The Golden Door
Newly-arrived European immigrants wait in Ellis Island's Great Hall for inspection and processing.

Movies & TV

Miller's Crossing (1990)
John Turturo, Gabriel Byrne, and Steve Buscemi star in this Prohibition-era crime thriller about rival East Coast gangs, one led by an aging Irish immigrant and another led by a young Italian, warring for control over the illicit alcohol trade. If you're over 17 and you can stomach gruesome violence, Miller's Crossing is a must-see.

The Godfather II (1974)
Before we tell you anything about The Godfather part deux, we must insist that you go immediately to the nearest video store to rent and then watch the first Godfather film. Don't worry, we'll wait. Good. Now that you're all caught up on the saga of Mafia chief Michael Corleone, you're ready for the backstory. This second installment of the Godfather trilogy chronicles the life of Vito Corleone, Michael's father, from his youth in Sicily to his adult life as an Italian immigrant in Prohibition-era New York—where the family business all began.

I Remember Mama (1948)
Based on a novel entitled Mama's Bank Account, I Remember Mama chronicles the lives of Norweigan immigrants struggling to make ends meet in turn-of-the-century San Francisco.

The Immigrant (1917)
If you only see one film featuring the incomparable comedic mime Charlie Chaplin, see The Immigrant. Not only is this classic silent film full of Chaplin's signature gaffes and gestures, but it features the actor's bittersweet and heartfelt interpretation of the challenges facing new immigrants.


Primary Sources on Immigration
Harvard University's Open Collections Program is a project that allows the public to access, via the internet, thousands of resources held in the Harvard libraries. The Open Collections Program's website on immigration to the United States is a treasure trove of primary sources on American immigration history.

Census Data
The United States Census is the best source of raw data on immigration (and many other topics in United States history). Here the Census Bureau presents a table detailing the nationality of the country's foreign-born population since 1850.

Asian-Indian Immigrants on the Mexican Border
"Roots in the Sand" is a fascinating documentary on the unique Punjabi-Mexican rural immigrant community that developed in Southern California's Imperial Valley during the late-19th century. PBS's well-designed companion website includes excerpts from the film and primary sources.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island was America's preeminent immigration center, processing the arrivals of more than 16 million people between 1892 and 1952. Today, Ellis Island is maintained as a museum and center for immigration history. The official Ellis Island website includes a free search tool that might let you find your own ancestors' immigration records.

Historical Documents

Chinese Exclusion Act
We've got the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act's text here, plus an entire learning guide dedicated to it.

"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus
Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," as inscribed upon the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty.

"Unguarded Gates" by Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Thomas Bailey Aldrich's poem, "Unguarded Gates," is an anti-immigrant counter to Emma Lazarus' "The New Colussus," published in 1895.

Census Data
This page includes historical statistics on the foreign-born population of the United States.

Sacco & Vanzetti On Trial
Here's testimony from the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti.

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