Tired of ads?
Join today and never see them again.
Between 1882 and 1924, frequent revisions to American immigration law steadily expanded the categories of exclusion that could be invoked by border agents to deny newly arrived immigrants entry into the country. Most of those grounds for deportation were, at least on paper, gender-neutral.
The one gender-specific exception was the 1903 law that decreed that "the importation into the United States of any woman or girl for the purposes of prostitution is hereby forbidden."
In 1924, R.W.Y. fell in love with and married a brilliant physician, a blood specialist with a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University who was called "one of the most capable doctors we have" by Hawaii's delegate to Congress. The only problem was that the doctor was Korean, which meant—as far as the United States government was concerned—R.W.Y. was now Korean as well. And since Koreans had been categorically barred from entering the United States under the terms of the Oriental Exclusion Act of 1924, R.W.Y. learned that she had lost even the right to visit her old New England home.
The intersection of the Expatriation Act and America's racially discriminatory immigration policies created a kind of legal black hole, and poor R.W.Y. got sucked in.
In 1922, Congress passed the Cable Act, which partially repealed the Expatriation Act by allowing any American woman who married an "alien eligible to naturalization" to retain her citizenship as long as she continued to live in the United States. While the new law ameliorated the worst effects of the Expatriation Act for American women who married European men, it did nothing for women in the unhappy predicament of R.W.Y.
Since Asians at the time remained ineligible for naturalization, any American woman who married an Asian still forfeited her citizenship. Racial discrimination, in this case, engendered the unequal treatment of even native-born white American women.
Americans tend to think about the history of immigration mainly in terms of its impact on our culture. In terms of the new languages, customs, religions, and—most importantly—foods that the newcomers brought with them as they passed through the famous gates of Ellis Island.
But what primarily motivated most immigrants to come to America in the first place wasn't American culture, American politics, or even the hallowed ideals of American freedom.
In fact, the strongest force driving every great immigration boom in American history—from colonial times to the present—was an economic force: The United States simply offered better opportunities for economic advancement than the immigrants could find in their homelands.
Around 1880, Americans began to notice a dramatic change in the national origins of the immigrants pouring into their country in ever-growing numbers. Before 1880, immigrants had mainly come from Britain, Ireland, or Germany, or (less commonly) from Canada, France, or Scandinavia.
After 1880, though, European sources of immigration shifted sharply to the southern and eastern portions, as Poles, Italians, Jews, and Slavs quickly came to form the bulk of the immigrant population.
The ethnic upheaval embodied in this momentous shift generated severe angst among many native-born Americans, usually on cultural grounds. The "new immigrants," many Americans fretted, would prove to be culturally inferior to the "old" and incapable of assimilating into American society. The influential Dillingham Commission Report, a major government research publication issued in 1910, essentially endorsed this view.
But while the "new immigrants" may have spoken different languages, prayed in different houses of worship, worn different styles of clothing, and eaten different types of food than their "old immigrant" predecessors, historians now understand that when it came to the question of why immigrants came to America, there was no difference between "new" and "old" immigrants at all.
The same great macroeconomic forces that had pushed Englishmen and Germans out of their homelands and toward America in the early-19th century began operating in Southern and Eastern Europe after 1880. Those forces, in turn, were rooted in one of the most consequential developments in human history: the Industrial Revolution.
The Industrial Revolution utterly transformed traditional agricultural societies, bringing them the prospect of rapid economic and population growth, but also destabilizing long-established ways of life.
One critical facet of the Industrial Revolution was an accompanying revolution in agricultural production, as the adoption of new crops and technologies allowed farmers to produce more food with fewer workers. This increase in productivity was hugely beneficial, allowing industrializing societies to support larger populations and freeing millions of peasants from a lifetime of hard agricultural labor. At the same time, though, rapidly increasing agricultural productivity created a serious new social problem: what to do with the millions of peasants who suddenly lacked work in farming and needed to find new sources of employment.
The rural upheaval that resulted from this agricultural revolution generated unprecedented flows of labor migration. At first, that migration tended to remain internal to industrializing societies, as peasants unable to find work in the country moved into the rapidly growing towns and cities of Europe in search of work. If jobs in the towns and cities proved hard to come by as well, however, migrants soon began looking for better opportunities overseas.
For about half of the 70 million people who sailed away from Europe during the 19th century, those opportunities would be pursued in the United States. Canada, Australia, and several countries in South America also welcomed millions of newcomers.
So, what then, was the difference between the "new" and "old" immigrants?
The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the late-18th century, then moved on to Germany by the middle of the 19th century. Unsurprisingly, the immigrant stream to America during that period came overwhelmingly from Northwestern Europe. Only later, in the last decades of the 19th century, did the Industrial Revolution progress toward the southern and eastern parts of Europe, loosening the ties that bound millions of Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and Russians to the farms and villages of Southern and Eastern Europe, creating the great migrant surge that Americans perceived to be a "new immigration."
The same basic macroeconomic forces continue to operate today, as the recent rapid industrialization of much of Latin America and Asia has driven contemporary patterns of immigration to the United States.
While most immigration to the United States during the late-19th and early-20th centuries was primarily economic in origin, there was one important exception to the rule: the Jews of Eastern Europe.
Some 3 million of them migrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924, not only to pursue greater economic opportunity but also, more urgently, to escape worsening ethnic persecution. Russia's tsarist government sponsored widespread, violently anti-Semitic pogroms against Jewish communities from 1881 to 1884 and again from 1903 to 1906, murdering thousands of Jews and convincing many of the survivors that a more secure future could only be found overseas.
If the macroeconomic effects of the Industrial Revolution largely explain the difficult individual choices of some 70 million Europeans to migrate overseas, what explains the decision made by fully half of them—as many as traveled to every other country on earth combined—to come to the United States?
Why did so many choose to pursue an American Dream rather than a Canadian Dream or Argentine Dream or New Zealander Dream?
Well, for much of the 19th century, America could offer something that few poor or middling Europeans could ever hope to obtain in their home countries: ownership of land.
As the frontier of American settlement pushed steadily westward over the course of the 19th century, the new states and territories carved out of the wilderness—or, more accurately, out of former Indian lands—demanded large numbers of settlers to secure American territorial claims and extend American civilization.
After the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, the federal government literally gave away land in the West for free. Any pioneer willing to build on an unimproved western land claim was entitled to a 160-acre stake, at no cost, after five years of continuous occupation.
While the Homestead Act didn't deliberately target European immigrants—Congress had the interests of native-born citizens in mind when it passed the law—news of free land soon spread to Europe, inspiring many immigrants to choose America over other potential destinations. And if the federal government didn't deliberately seek to encourage immigration with the lure of free land, many state and territorial governments did.
In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa all dispatched immigration agents to tout their states' virtues in Scandinavia. Their successful advertising campaign led to booming populations of Swedish and Norwegian settlers in those states. Later, private railroad companies got into the act, offering free travel to European passengers who committed to buying railroad-owned lands along the tracks. There's no question that the allure of free land played an enormous role in making America a nation of immigrants.
By the late-19th century, though, the continent was beginning to fill up. Once-lonely plains were dotted with farmsteads and once-empty pastures were remade into sprawling ranches. The United States Census of 1890 made the shocking announcement that there no longer existed an American frontier, which the Census Bureau had defined as a line beyond which population density dropped below two persons per square mile.
American settlement had extended fully from sea to shining sea. The closing of the frontier meant the end of a seemingly infinite supply of free land.
But immigration rates continued to climb. The lure of American agricultural land was quickly replaced by the lure of American industrial jobs. A tremendous economic boom in the United States in the decades following the Civil War transformed a sleepy agrarian nation into a great industrial behemoth. Rapid economic growth and gains in productivity due to rapid technological advancement created millions of new jobs that required little skill but still paid higher wages than most employment in the less dynamic economies of Europe.
By modern standards, the conditions of industrial employment in late-19th-century America may well look atrocious. Hours were long, work was dangerous, pay was meager, and benefits were nil. Still, despite these very real drawbacks, the work was still better than unemployment or peonage back home in Europe.
So, millions of immigrant laborers came to America, where they provided the bulk of the workforce that built the United States into the world's greatest industrial power.
The Dillingham Commission reported in 1910 that, across the 21 industries it had surveyed, 57.9% of all workers were foreign-born. And in the most important sectors of the American economy—the specific industries that stood at the forefront of American economic development—the concentration of immigrant laborers was often even more pronounced.
The transcontinental railroad—perhaps the most important infrastructure project in American history—was built almost entirely by immigrant labor. The Union Pacific Railroad, laying track westward from Omaha toward the Rockies, hired almost exclusively Irishmen, while the Central Pacific, building eastward from California across the Sierras, employed almost exclusively Chinese laborers.
After 1890, a large majority of miners in Pennsylvania's bituminous coalfields—in the black mines that supplied the vital energy to fuel America's mills and factories—were Italian, Polish, Slovakian, or Hungarian immigrants.
By 1915, Eastern European Jews dominated New York City's huge garment trade. More than three-quarters of the city's 300,000 garment workers were estimated to be Jewish immigrants, and most of them toiled in Jewish-owned workshops.
The success of New York's Jewish community in providing not just a majority of the labor but also a majority of the ownership of the city's garment industry revealed the very real economic opportunity of American immigration. Labor conditions may have been harsh and wages may have been relatively low—both were certainly true of New York's garment trade—but it was still possible for hardworking immigrants to get ahead and save up enough pay to achieve upward mobility.
For some immigrants, upward mobility meant opening a small business, like a garment shop, most of which were small operations with a few employees. For others, upward mobility meant saving enough to buy a plot of land in the country, fulfilling an agricultural version of the American Dream even after the age of free land came to an end.
And still, for others—more than half of all immigrants, in fact—upward mobility meant a triumphant return to their homelands, carrying enough dollars in their pockets to ensure an improved quality of life that would've been impossible to attain if they'd never crossed the ocean.
If immigrants' most important contribution to American economic growth from the Civil War through the Great Depression was the labor they provided to the great industrial enterprises of the day, the entrepreneurial ventures of immigrant businessmen also made their mark on the American economy.
The iconic story of an immigrant's triumph in American business is that of Andrew Carnegie, the Scotsman who arrived in the United States in 1848 as a penniless teenager and ended up becoming one of the world's richest and most powerful men after making a fortune in the steel industry.
While Carnegie's story—literally a tale of rags to riches—was tough for anyone to match, plenty of other immigrants enjoyed substantial successes of their own.
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, a handful of Jewish immigrants were among the first to recognize the potential in a new-fangled form of entertainment called the motion picture. Foreign-born entrepreneurs of modest origins like Samuel Goldwyn, Louis Mayer, and Harry Warner moved to Los Angeles and founded major film studios that still dominate the industry today—MGM and Warner Brothers—and quickly built themselves into Hollywood titans.
About the same time, a savvy entrepreneur named A.P. Gianinni founded a tiny immigrant bank to serve his fellow countrymen in San Francisco's North Beach Italian enclave. By the 1920s, he'd extended the bank's reach far beyond its original ethnic constituency. Today, Gianinni's little Italian bank still exists, having survived many mergers over the course of a century in business, to become one of the largest financial institutions in the United States—the Bank of America.
But the empire-building successes of Andrew Carnegie, the Hollywood studio dons, and A.P. Gianinni were certainly atypical. Far more common were modestly successful small businesses founded by immigrants that were dedicated to serving the specific needs of the ethnic communities in which they were located.
In the 1910s and '20s, for example, Chicago was home to a stunning array of small ethnic banking institutions—the Northwestern Trust and Savings (Polish), the State Savings and Commercial Bank (Jewish), the Papanek-Kovac State Bank (Slovak), the Bank of Napoli (Italian), the Depositor's State Bank (Czech), and so on.
As historian Lizabeth Cohen has noted, these small ethnic banks became crucial community institutions, places where immigrants could deposit their money with people they knew and trusted, where "they could speak their foreign tongue, send money to relatives abroad with ease, and [...] get help buying a home."
This ethnic business model wasn't limited to banking, either. In the early years of the 20th century, immigrants would've done almost all of their shopping at businesses owned by their countrymen. Groceries, tailors, hardware stores, and even cinemas and dancehalls catered to particular nationalities.
Such narrowly ethnic small businesses thrived throughout the great age of immigration that lasted into the 1920s, but eventually faded away as American chain businesses expanded, popular culture became more homogenizing, and—most crucially—the immigrants and their children assimilated more fully into American society.
From 1880 through 1920, nearly 20 million immigrants poured into the United States, the vast majority of them seeking and finding work in American industries. What effect did this enormous influx of mostly low-skilled, low-wage labor have on the economic prospects of people who already lived here?
The answer is frustratingly uncertain. The truth is that the kind of detailed economic data needed to make a definitive judgment simply do not exist for the time period. Still, historians and economists—though often disagreeing with each other on points of interpretation—have been able to reach certain broad conclusions.
First, almost all historians and economists agree that immigration benefited the American economy as a whole, leading to faster growth rates through the late-19th and early-20th centuries than would've been experienced without it. This is mainly due to the fact that most immigrants were of working age. Immigrant communities had lower proportions of children and the elderly—who contribute little to economic growth—than did the native-born population. Scholars continue to disagree, however, on whether the macroeconomic benefits of immigration were of great magnitude or whether they were more modest.
A large majority of immigrant workers—between two-thirds and three-quarters by the turn of the century—were unskilled laborers. This meant that they typically sought some of the most menial, lowest paying jobs available in the American economy. Their presence in great numbers clearly lowered the prevailing wages for such low-skilled work, meaning that native-born American workers with a similar lack of workplace skill certainly suffered a drop in wages due to immigration.
There's a contentious debate among academics over the question of whether more highly skilled craftsmen also suffered a loss in income due to competition from unskilled industrial workers. Whether, for example, an independent cobbler endured lower pay because the presence of unskilled immigrant laborers made it possible for a competitor to open a shoe factory. It seems likely that such negative impacts did occur, but only at specific times and in particular industries.
At the same time, by boosting overall growth and lowering the cost of consumer goods, the cheap labor provided by immigrant workers helped to raise the incomes of middle-class white-collar workers and lowered the cost of living across American society as a whole.
In the end then, immigration's impact on the American economy was mostly, but not entirely, positive: good for overall growth, great for the wellbeing of the growing middle class, but sometimes damaging to the wages of working-class unskilled laborers.
The melting pot has long served as a powerful metaphor for an American society capable of assimilating a sometimes wildly heterogeneous population into a single, unified American people.
As immigration rates surged to unprecedented heights in the last years of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th, and many native-born Americans began to worry that the so-called "new immigrants" from Eastern and Southern Europe might prove to be unassimilable, the melting pot came to occupy a more and more prominent—and contested—place in American culture.
While the New York Times fretted that "the pot as well as the melted is going to be profoundly affected if not transformed" by the "new immigration," a play called The Melting-Pot—written by a Jewish Briton named Israel Zangwill—became a smash hit in 1908 by touting the melting pot's enduring virtues.
The immigrants who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods—especially the women—embraced Addams' vision in droves. Hull House rapidly expanded, eventually occupying 13 buildings covering a full city block, housing 70 live-in settlement workers, and even including an on-site art gallery, gymnasium, theater, and coffeehouse.
In an age before government-run social welfare programs, Hull House became one of the nation's largest social service providers. And as time went on, Addams shifted her energies in a more and more political direction, using Hull House as a base for the mobilization of Chicago women behind her favored liberal causes of trade unionism, civil rights, civil liberties, suffrage, and pacifism.
The success of Hull House inspired settlement movements in other American cities, as Jane Addams and her colleagues pioneered the modern notion of social work. While the settlements couldn't eliminate the crushing poverty that mired America's urban slums, they did directly benefit the thousands of mostly immigrant women who utilized their services, making the transition to America that much easier.
Jane Addams may have shared Henry Ford's core sense of the cultural superiority of the "better class of Americans," but in her conception of the melting pot, assimilation to American cultural norms was more likely to be achieved through outreach and uplift, than through coercion and enforcement.
It can surely be said that radicalism has never been a particularly powerful force in American life. We are, and almost always have been, a nation of political moderation. Even our Revolution was, in a sense, a revolution of restraint. It ended with independence, but not with mass beheadings of the old guard (à la France) or fundamental social upheaval (à la Haiti) or systematic expropriation of property (à la Russia).
Alone among the world's major industrial powers, the United States never experimented seriously with socialism. In the 20th century, neither right-wing radical fascists nor left-wing radical communists ever attracted the support of more than a tiny fringe of the American public. The United States has never had a strong labor party on the left or a strong nationalist party on the right.
American political battles, though often heated, have almost always been fought out between two parties representing the center-right and center-left of the political spectrum, with both sharing a broad consensus on the basic contours of the nation's social order.
But that moderate consensus, powerful as it has always been, has never been absolute. The United States has always produced its share of homegrown radicals, even if they've largely failed to revolutionize American society.
Still, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the long-term weakness of radicalism in American political life more than the fact that—with the exception of cultural icon Malcolm X—you've more than likely never heard of any of these people before.
The marginalization of native-born radicals from the American political scene made it easy to imagine that radicalism itself was—to invoke the name of the House of Representatives' famous anti-radical investigative committee, the House Un-American Activities Committee—an "un-American activity." In this view, radicalism—especially the class-based radicalism of Marxism-Leninism—was a foreign problem, an affliction of the Old World that had no natural place in the New.
To the extent that manifestations of radicalism did emerge in the United States, foreign-born troublemakers were likely to blame. And radical immigrants did play a disproportionate role in a series of high-profile incidents that roiled American society in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. From the Haymarket Riot to the assassination of President McKinley to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial to the formation of the American Communist Party, the menace of alien radicalism loomed ever larger in the American imagination.
So, federal immigration policy acquired, for the first time, a national security rationale. Every act of provocation involving foreign-born activists generated new calls for tighter border controls and new laws to make it easier to deport radical immigrants already in the country and to prevent new ones from arriving.
Fears of alien radicalism played a key role in the immigration restriction movement of the early 20th century, even as immigration policy itself became a potent weapon to be used by the government to break up radical movements. By framing immigration as a counter-subversive issue, mainstream Americans of the "era of exclusion" helped to ensure that radicalism would continue to be seen as an alien, "un-American" force in national politics.
In the 1870s and 1880s, the United States experienced some of the worst class conflict in its history.
Rapid but uneven economic growth in this Gilded Age allowed successful capitalists to amass great fortunes at the same time as many wage laborers sank deep into poverty. While workingmen railed against the alleged depredations of the "robber barons," businessmen lived in constant fear of working-class insurrections, and industrial disputes often ended in violence.
The conditions proved ripe for the development of the first strong nationwide labor movement in American history. In the early 1880s, an organization called the Knights of Labor grew quickly from a small secret society into a powerful mass movement, claiming more than 700,000 members at its peak. The Knights organized railroad workers throughout the country, then sought to use their leverage over the vital railroad industry to force other types of businesses to meet workers' demands for better wages and working conditions.
On May 1st, 1886, an estimated 350,000 workers across the country went out on strike to try to win the right to an eight-hour workday. At the time, ten, twelve, or even fourteen-hour shifts with no overtime were common in America's industrial workplaces. Workers held huge rallies and parades in every major American city.
In Chicago, a hotbed of labor militancy, as many as 90,000 workers marched in the May Day parade. Two days later, on May 3rd, Chicago police killed four strikers picketing outside the McCormick Harvester Company. Outraged workers—led by a small cadre of anarchists—called a rally the next morning to protest the police brutality. On that fateful day, thousands of angry workers gathered in the city's Haymarket Square. Although the rally's anarchist speakers denounced McCormick and the police, they said nothing to incite the workers to violence. The crowd remained relatively calm and peaceful, even under the suspicious watch of a large contingent of Chicago policemen who monitored the scene from nearby.
Then, all hell broke loose.
The police suddenly moved in to disperse the crowd, marching in formation toward the open wagon that the anarchists were using as a speaker's platform. Someone threw a homemade bomb into police lines, instantly killing a young officer. The panicked policemen then opened fire on the crowd, sparking a scene of violent mayhem. When the smoke finally cleared, seven policemen and at least four workers lay dead, with hundreds more wounded.
To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb that set off the Haymarket Riot. The police fixed responsibility on the anarchist organizers of the rally, but the strikers insisted that the bomb must have been thrown by an agent provocateur working for the police. Whoever was truly responsible for starting the horrific violence at Haymarket, the riot proved disastrous to the American labor movement, and to the reputation of American immigrants.
Eight anarchist leaders—five of them German immigrants, and a sixth the American-born son of German immigrants—were tried and convicted of murder for their role in organizing the ill-fated rally. Four were hanged, one committed suicide in his cell, and the remaining three were pardoned in 1893 by Illinois Governor John Peter Altgeld, who concluded that all eight Haymarket defendants had actually been innocent and that their convictions had been a grave miscarriage of justice.
Pardons notwithstanding, the damage to the labor movement had been done. Sensationalized newspaper accounts of the riot—often accompanied by an exaggerated engraving that depicted Haymarket Square as the scene of an apocalyptic pitched battle between the forces of order and mob rule—convinced many Americans that organized labor was inherently violent and subversive.
The Knights of Labor, which had played no role whatsoever in organizing the Haymarket rally, saw its membership plummet by hundreds of thousands within months. The problem of industrial violence, many Americans concluded, was rooted not in economic inequality or unfair labor practices, but rather in the subversive machinations of foreign-born radical agitators.
Predictably, Haymarket and its aftermath generated calls to pass new laws to restrict alien radicals' ability to enter the United States. In 1888, the Ford Commission—a congressional body charged with investigating American immigration policy—concluded that the unrestricted entry of foreign-born anarchists into the country had become a dire social problem.
In 1901, after a crazed Polish-American anarchist sympathizer named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley, Congress passed the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which authorized immigration agents to exclude would-be newcomers on the basis of their political beliefs. Anyone found to "disbelieve in or [to be] opposed to all organized government, or who is a member of or affiliated with any organization entertaining or teaching such disbelief in or opposition to all organized government" was to be barred from the country.
While it has long been said that the United States is a "nation of immigrants," the impact of the foreign-born on American life has never been more pronounced than it was in the early years of the 20th century.
An enormous surge of immigration had begun in the 1880s and continued unabated for several decades, boosting the foreign-born portion of the nation's population to an all-time peak of 14.7% by 1910.
That meant that more than one out of every seven Americans was an immigrant.
The immigrant presence was even more pronounced in America's great cities, where the new arrivals from overseas congregated in disproportionate numbers. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, an astounding four out of every five residents of New York City were either immigrants or the first-generation children of immigrants.
And in the years before World War I, America's immigrant surge showed few signs of slowing down. In early 1907, the federal immigration station on Ellis Island in New York Harbor set an all-time record by processing the entry of 11,747 newly arrived immigrants in a single day.
Cermak won 58% of the vote. The "new immigrants" had become, simply, Americans.