Immigration, the leaving of one's homeland to build a life in another country, was not a new concept by the late 1800s. Foreigners had been leaving their homelands for the United States for decades before. Immigration historians generally divide immigration into three waves. The first wave crossed the Atlantic Ocean from 1815 to 1860; the second between 1860 and 1890. Immigrants of the first two waves were mostly British, Irish, German, Scandinavian, and Dutch. The third wave crossed between 1890 and 1914. Immigrants of the third wave came primarily from Greece, Turkey, Italy, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Romania. (See also Asian Immigration ; French and Dutch Immigration ; German Immigration ; Irish Immigration ; Italian and Greek Immigration ; Mexican Immigration ; and Scots and Scotch-Irish Immigration .)
Immigration to the United States was a process, not an event. It did not have an actual “start” date, nor will it have an “end” date. Still, immigration reached its peak from 1900 to 1915 when nearly fifteen million people entered the United States. That is as many as in the previous forty years combined. This influx (flowing in) of foreigners to the shores of the United States changed the nation's face forever.
Although immigration records dating back to the nineteenth century do exist, the numbers are not accurate either in terms of how many immigrants arrived in the United States or their ethnicity. This is so for a number of reasons.
Ellis Island in New York harbor was the major port (point of entry) for immigrants crossing the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. However, it was not the only port. Smaller ports dotted the shoreline, but those ports did not keep consistent or reliable records. The same can be said of overland immigrants from Canada and Mexico; some immigrants were counted, others were not. Chinese immigrants landed at a port called Angel Island in California .
Even after the immigration procedures were in place, immigrants were recorded according to their presumed nationality, not their ethnicity. This gives a distorted picture of who was coming to the United States. For example, sizable portions of the millions of people emigrating
from Britain were Irish. But because they came from Britain, they were recorded as British, not Irish. The only Irish in the records were those from Ireland. Likewise, “Jewish” was not a recognized ethnicity until after 1948. (See Jewish Immigration .) Before that, the word referred only to a person's religious belief. So the number of Jewish immigrants was highly underreported.
The immigration process
First- and second-class immigrants—those who paid more for their tickets and so had access to better accommodations—passed through Ellis Island easily. Only the lowest classes (working class and most immigrants) were forced to endure a rigorous inspection. Even if these foreigners had nothing to hide, the process was stressful.
Immigrants were asked to give their names, ages, country of origin, and legal status in that country. Because many immigrants had last names that were difficult for inspectors to pronounce and spell, a great number of them were given new, more Americanized, names for their new lives. For people to whom family tradition held great value, this enforced name change was devastating.
After giving their occupation and work history, immigrants were asked questions about their religious and political beliefs. A health inspection followed this inquiry, and this was probably the most worrisome aspect of the process because immigrants had just spent months on board ships full of filth and disease. Many of the passengers left the ships ill. Immigrants were marked according to their condition: “P” indicated a pregnant woman; “X” was given to the mentally disabled. Anyone incurably ill was deported (sent home) immediately.
Immigrants who successfully cleared the inspection process then took an oath of loyalty to the United States and were allowed to enter. Where they went from Ellis Island depended on the plans they had made before the trip. A great many of them simply stayed in New York, at least temporarily, until they found work and saved money to move on.
At the peak of immigration in the early years of the twentieth century, immigrants accounted for almost one-third of the United States's population growth.
Coming to America
Contrary to popular myth, most immigrants of this era were not the poorest people in their society. They paid their own way or had their journey funded by a relative, a friend, or even a prospective employer. Most of these immigrants were young adult males, single or married with wives back home, who planned to work in the United States for a few years, save money, and return home. Immigrants who did not plan to stay in the United States permanently were called sojourners. Other immigrants, usually single women or men with families in the United States, stayed permanently. Plans often depended on the immigrant's experience in the United States.
Again, recordkeeping was not consistent, and statistics of those who returned to their country of origin were not kept until 1909. It is impossible to know, therefore, how many immigrants were sojourners who returned to the United States time and again.
Although each immigrant had his or her own individual reasons for emigrating, the primary reasons for leaving home, regardless of region, were economic, political, or religious.
The long voyage
European immigrants had to cross the Atlantic Ocean to reach the United States. Prior to the mid-1850s, the only method of transportation was a sailing ship. The trip took anywhere from one to three months, and it was a voyage of great discomfort.
Sailing ships were designed to carry cargo, not passengers. Captains, intent on making a profit by crowding as many passengers on board as possible, did little to adapt their ships. Flour, potatoes, tea, oatmeal, and maybe fish were provided. Water was provided too, but often it was stored in containers previously used to store oil and other liquids not intended for human consumption. Drinking that water put one's health at great risk.
Passengers often had only a few square feet of space per person. Narrow beds similar to bunk beds were poorly constructed, with a focus on quick dismantling rather than on comfort. There were no toilets or windows, which made sanitation a major problem. Passengers relieved themselves on deck, a habit that made conditions even worse. When a storm would hit, the ship would violently pitch, tossing around food, passengers, human waste, and anything else that was not secured to the deck.
Epidemics (widespread outbreaks of disease) were common and were the primary cause of death on immigrant ships. Typhus, a disease spread by head lice, was fatal if left untreated. Cholera was another deadly disease. Caused by infected drinking water, cholera victims became dehydrated to the point of death. Bodies were either thrown overboard or left on deck until the ship reached shore.
With the invention of the steamship came a shorter, more comfortable trip for immigrants. By 1867, the journey took just fourteen days; within forty years, that time was shortened to five-and-one-half days. The new ships were built specifically to carry passengers. Permanent beds were provided, and improved boilers allowed for reliable heating during the colder months. Health risks were greatly reduced as well, and by the early twentieth century the average number of deaths at sea was less than Page 746 | Top of Article1 percent of all immigrants. Ships could hold around three hundred passengers in first class and another thousand in steerage (the bottom level of the ship, always the least expensive fare).
During the 1880s, the immigrant trade became fiercely competitive. By 1882, there were forty-eight steamship companies fighting each other for business. All these companies were German- or British-owned; the United States never managed to break into this particular industry. The competition, however, worked in the favor of the immigrants for a short time. In 1875, rates on one of the most popular steamship lines were as low as $20 (steerage) and as high as $300 (first class). By the early 1880s, fares were reduced in order to attract passengers and could be bought for $10 to $20. This is the equivalent of about $200 to $400 in modern currency. Company owners soon conducted business the same way the railroads did, by forming “pools” and fixing prices so that no one company could undersell another.
Steamship companies brought immigrants to the United States, but the railroads were responsible for providing the motivation to make the journey. They owned thousands of acres of land—in northwestern states and territories in particular—they no longer wanted and could provide immigrants something other promotional agencies could not: transportation to get to the land, and the opportunity to buy the land once they arrived. The railroads published booklets advertising the United States and making offers too good to be true. They tempted immigrants with reduced transportation fees by land and sea, low-interest loans, classes in farming, and even the promise to build churches and schools. Some railroad lines assured immigrants that they would be hired for railroad construction at $30 a month plus board.
The South was interested in cheap labor to replace the slaves it had recently lost following the North's victory in the American Civil War (1861–65). (Slavery had been outlawed.) Immigrants, however, were not attracted to the southern United States because it had virtually no unsold land and very little large-scale industry. Without these attractions, immigrants would have difficulty finding shelter as well as work.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the railroads ended their recruitment campaigns. They had run out of land to sell at prices immigrants could afford.
What impact did they have?
Immigration was difficult for American and foreign workers alike. With millions of more people available, industries and businesses could hire employees to work for less money. Owners and managers knew people were desperate for work, and they took advantage of that fact by paying them low wages and forcing them to work in dirty, dangerous conditions.
But the greatest impact of immigration could be seen and felt in U.S. towns and cities. Rural America was disappearing as skyscrapers filled the horizon, and the urbanization of America was four times greater than the increase in the rural population in the late nineteenth century.
Cities could not be developed quick enough to keep up with the number of people who required housing. As a result, urban centers throughout the United States were overcrowded. This overcrowding led to unsafe living conditions and serious health issues. The immigrants fared the worst, as they poured into slums called tenement housing .
Congress passed the first immigration restriction law in 1870. The Naturalization Act restricted citizenship to “white persons and persons of Page 748 | Top of ArticleAfrican descent.” Asian immigrants, then, were denied the right to become American citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, further restricting Asian immigration. The Scott Act of 1888 forbid the return to the United States of any Chinese who had returned to their homeland when the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted.
In 1891, a law was passed excluding convicts, the mentally retarded, the insane, the destitute (poorest of the poor), people with diseases, and polygamists (people with more than one spouse) from immigrating.
The Immigration Restriction League (IRL) formed in 1894 and encouraged Congress to pass a law requiring potential immigrants to take a reading and comprehension test. Although several presidents vetoed the bill, it finally passed in 1917. The law is still in effect in the twenty-first century.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3048900297