The new immigration to America, which rose in importance from the 1880s until it was cut off by federal law in the 1920s, represented the second-largest period of immigration in the nation’s history—only surpassed by the period from 1965-present. More than 40 million people, mostly Europeans, came to the United States during this time. The vast majority were from southern Europe (Italy, Greece) and Eastern Europe (Poles, Russians, Jews and Slavic peoples from Austria-Hungary).
The traditional immigrants from Germany, Scandinavia, Ireland and England had dissipated by this time, replaced by newcomers with strange languages, customs and religious practices. The majority of immigrants were Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Jews, which led native-born, white Protestants to limit and hinder the advancement of these immigrants in a variety of ways, from banning Catholic teachers in public schools to fighting for laws to prevent the Catholic Church from becoming a dominant institution in American life.
The immigrants came for many reasons. They were pushed out of their homelands by declining opportunities. Many had been small farmers and the limitations on land in many parts of Eastern Europe led them to seek work elsewhere. In Russia and Austria-Hungary, the military draft led many young men to escape—military service could last a lifetime. Jewish immigrants from Russia, confined to a Pale of Settlement in Poland (then part of the Russian empire), faced religious discrimination and pogroms—organized violence—against their communities. Economic hardship and the lack of economic opportunity in Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland caused immigrants to seek new opportunities and freedom in the United States.
What lured immigrants to America was the opportunity for work and for the economic success which they heard about from earlier immigrants in letters written to family members. “In America, I heard the streets were paved with gold,” one Italian saying went. “When I came here, I learned three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold. Second, the streets weren’t paved at all, and third, I was expected to pave them.”
No matter. The lure of economic opportunity in the cities and factories of industrial America proved hard to resist. Italian immigrants flooded into cities, working in factories, steel mills, mines and on railroads. Similar work awaited eastern Europeans in the meat-packing houses of Chicago, the steel mills of Pittsburgh and factories in other cities. Jewish immigrants came to New York City and established themselves in the textile “putting out” system (where garments were manufactured in small batches in tenements) thriving on the Lower East Side of the city.
- Why do people want to come to America? What image do we portray to the rest of the world?
- What reasons do those who want to restrict immigration offer for their views?
- Why do you think the U.S. changed from having open borders, to a much more restrictive immigration policy in the 1920s? Do you find the reasons compelling?
- What characteristics do you think someone should have, in order to be eligible to immigrate to America?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense American History eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense American History materials.
The Main Building on Ellis Island, 1905. [Digit photograph]. Retrieved from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-37784)