The Biggest Migration in Global History

In 1886, the Statue of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” a gift from the people of France, was dedicated by President Grover Cleveland. Set at the entrance of New York, the statue was just in time to greet the biggest migration in global history. Between the years of 1860-1910, more than twenty-two million immigrants had entered the country . This influx of immigration became known as the New Immigration. Industrialization had taken over agriculture and American industries were experiencing one of their greatest booms, thus a greater demand for workers .

Immigrants from all over Europe came in hopes of securing for themselves money to return home with, or in some cases, a permanent position in a country of abundant opportunity. Although this increase in immigration eventually led to restrictive immigration laws, ultimately, this group of “New Immigrants” not only provided a much-needed economic service, but also added to the diversity of our “melting-pot” country. The promise of immediate employment and political and economic freedom were more than enough reasons to entice immigrants to come to the United States; in 1864, some 194,000 immigrants landed in America .

Until 1897, ninety percent of all overseas immigrants arrived mostly from northern and western Europe, primarily from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia . Most of these new immigrants came from lands with democratic traditions and education systems and were welcomed by the native-born Americans because they possessed much needed industrial skills. The new immigrants, primarily the Scandinavians, used the Homestead Act to receive land in the Midwest and start small farms .

They had families and skills to offer and were not a migrant group; they planned to stay and make it in America. However, by 1905, partially encouraged by the new technology of steamships and cheaper ocean passage rates, the number of immigrants had risen to 1,285,000 people annually . More than a million immigrants arrived in each of the years 1905, 1907, and 1910, some fleeing the “pogroms” (organized massacres) taking place in Eastern Europe, and others seeking a life that they could never have within the borders of their poverty-stricken countries .

These later immigrants, arriving from southern and eastern Europe, were Czechs, Poles, Ukrainians, Serbs, Slovaks and Russian, as well as Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, and Rumanians. Approximately ten percent of them were Jews fleeing from the repressive policies of Czarist Russia under Alexander III, although Roman and Orthodox Catholics were among the arrivals . The masses of immigrants were overwhelming. By 1887, it became obvious that Castle Garden (immigrant receiving station) was too small to process the large numbers of immigrants pouring into the country .

Castle Garden had because so small, that criminals were simply hanging out at the receiving station to rob the immigrants inside, instead of waiting for them to get on the streets. Thus, the government built Ellis Island and immigrants continued pouring in. The number of immigrants was so great that by 1910 immigrants and their families composed over half the total population of 18 major cities . In Chicago, eight out of ten residents were immigrants or children of immigrants . The response to these newcomers was unfriendly and inhospitable.

The Americans who saw their job security challenged by immigrants that were willing to work longer hours for lower wages did not welcome them. The newcomers did not have the same culture as the first immigrants that had come from Northern and Western Europe. Most lacked skills and very few spoke English, some could not read or write in any language. The Slavic and Polish (excluding Jewish) immigrant groups were viewed as unskilled, illiterate, and transient and were seen as a bigger threat to American institutions than the other European ethnic groups.

They were not ambitious people, tended to keep to themselves, and were opposed to the American idea of materialism. Many of the Slavs and Poles distrusted American public schools; they withdrew their children from school and encouraged them to seek training in a trade, thus allowing a high rate of dropouts. Likewise, Italians were discriminated against because they also provided cheap labor and, naturally of a clannish nature, tended to move and settle as a group in Italian communities where they only worked with fellow countrymen and did not learn the ways of urban life.

Americans thought that Italians did not assimilate into the American culture well since they held on their old-country traditions and cultures so strongly. Assimilation was important to the Americans because they were fearful of the change that came with other cultures, not to mention their resentment towards the new languages already replacing English in several parts of the cities. The Italians also brought the Mafia, which although in Italy enforced justice, came under the control of criminals in the US, and became known for racketeering, blackmail, and extortion.

The immigrants were blamed for creating disorder and violence in the cities, and in general, were thought to be “birds of passage” who would use the American economy to make their fortunes, then return to their native land taking American dollars. The ever-growing influx of immigrants disturbed many native-born Americans who were annoyed by the newcomers” appearance and way of life. They expected these people, no matter what their place of origin, to conform to Anglo-Saxon patterns of behavior and to cherish the institutions of America.

These anti-immigrant, nativist, sentiments, and the hatred and prejudice toward these immigrants led to the passing of immigration laws that greatly restricted the flow of immigration . The first restrictive law prevented immigration of lunatics, criminals, polygamists, people with diseases, and those likely to be public charges. In August of 1882, the first federal immigration law was adopted. This law put a head tax on all immigrant passengers.

In February of 1885, a law prohibiting the importation of contract labor, called the Foran Act, was enacted. In 1906, leaders of the Boston Immigration Restriction League used the arguments of racial superiority to limit immigration. Finally, in 1924, the Fundamentalists succeeded in passing the National Origins act, which allowed the US to restrict the number of immigrants to 164,000 a year, and also favor immigrants from Western Europe over those from Eastern Europe .

Many American believed that these immigration restrictions were necessary to keep the American institution cities from deteriorating. The population living in cities of over 30,000 increased from ten percent of the total in 1860 to more than twenty-five percent of the total US population by 1900 . The pressure of the tremendous inflow of immigrants quickly outstripped the ability of the nation”s established institutions to cope with them.

Already poor in the Old Country, for the most part, they arrived in America penniless and made their homes in the growing tenements of America”s major cities. The severe strain on the housing situation coupled with discriminatory practices eventually led to the creation of ghettos. Women and children were often sent to work to contribute to the survival of the family, old-world views that eventually led to wholesale exploitation of child labor. Poverty on a never-before-seen scale became the norm in America”s urban centers.

Perplexed, poor, and lacking knowledge of the American lifestyle, these immigrants were used as a low-paid labor force for dirty jobs that nobody else wanted and felt the harshness of Industrialism the most. They did not know their bosses, class animosity often divided management and labor, and their interests and wants were of little concern to the corporations. Because these people did not have the proper education, many of them remained unskilled or semi-unskilled throughout their lives.

Although many could not attain the work skills they needed, they gained many other things. By the early 1900″s, ninety percent of those who could not speak English learned to do so in less than ten years after they arrived, and only a third was still illiterate . Despite their many hardships, the new immigrants were determined to make it in the New World. For example, the Slavs” ability to take the worst jobs and stick with them enabled them to become one of the top two ethnic groups representing employees of America”s leading industries .

It was the clashing of old-world views with those of new-world ideas that forced compromises that helped to advance social and political thoughts. The cities would not have grown without people to provide cheap labor in the factories, and it was the willingness to provide a cheap source of labor and to work the most difficult and menial jobs that helped enable the United Stated to make the economic gains that she made.

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