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 to New York, the statue was just in time to greet the biggest
migration in global history. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus in 1883, invites the rest of the world to give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, a time period known as the Progressive era, there were massive waves of immigration to America. More than a million immigrants arrived in each of the years 1905, 1906, 1907, 1910, 1913, and 1914. Totaling over 23 million immigrants to America between the years 1880 and 1921. These new immigrants were largely Italians, Hungarians, Jews, Serbians, Irish, and Slovaks. Other small, but notable groups included French Canadians, Chinese, and Japanese. This so called “new immigration” was different in many other ways from previous immigration. Until 1897, 90 percent of all overseas immigrants had come from Protestant northern and western Europe. But for the first time, Catholic and Jewish immigrants outnumbered Protestants, and still other arrivals were Muslims, Buddhists, or Greek or Russian Orthodox church members.
Fleeing such hardships as poverty, religious persecution, and political unrest in their homelands, immigrants journeyed to the United States in search of freedom and opportunity. The immigrants came partly because Europe seemed to be running out of room. The population of the Old World more than doubled in the nineteenth century, and Europe began to generate a seething pool of apparently “Surplus” people. They were displaced and footloose in their homelands before they felt the tug of the American magnet.However, most of the immigrants came to the United States for economic reasons. In the late 1800s, the agriculturally based economies of many European towns declined as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Farmers and local craftspeople often could not compete with the technology and the mass production of the cities. Many of these farming families lived on tiny plots of land that barely provided the foodstuffs they needed to survive. As a result, more people competed for fewer resources, such as land, food, and jobs.
Another common reason for emigration was Political and Religious Persecution in Eastern Europe. Many of these eastern Europeans, the majority Jewish, lived in a Russian-controlled region known as the Jewish Pale of settlement. Russian law forbade Jews from owning and renting land, and excluded them from attending secondary schools and universities. In addition, the Russian government supported violent mob attacks against Jews known as pogroms. During pogroms, Jews were beaten, murdered, raped, and had their homes looted or destroyed. The United States was often painted as a magic land of unlimited opportunity and riches, and of political and religious freedoms.
Immigrants faced many hardships as they began their journey to America. Many families used all their savings to pay for the trip, including steamship fare. Many immigrants lived far away from the port cities from which the steamships embarked for the U.S., and many immigrants had to travel hundreds of miles by train or foot to reach the coastal regions.
To travel to the United States, most immigrants boarded a huge steel steamship. The ship typically held from 1,200 to over 2,000 people and was their home from 8 to 14 days. Ship life was hard. Many immigrants ate off of tin plates with only soup or bread to choose from. To alleviate themselves from the unpleasant smells on the steamships, immigrants went on deck for some fresh air. At times many of the immigrants prayed for the steamships to go under so they could relieve themselves from the fear and worry. By the end of the voyage, immigrants who had survived the journey were as overjoyed to leave steerage as they were to catch a first glimpse of their new home, America.
Upon arriving at Ellis Island, the principal federal immigration station in the U.S. from 1892 to 1954, the steerage class immigrants underwent questioning, medical examinations, and other upsetting ordeals. Each passenger had to answer a series of about 30 questions that were recorded on lists. These questions included name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, etc. Several immigrants didn’t know how to write or spell their own names, so immigration inspectors created one for them. Passengers were inspected for contagious diseases such as small pox, yellow fever, scarlet fever, and measles. If family members were with one another , their lives were considered to be tolerable, unfortunately many families were separated. With only little food to eat, the immigrants were supplied a dining area to eat with 3,000 others joining. At Ellis Island up to as many as 5,000 immigrants each day would be checked, questioned and sent on their way. This process usually took between three and five hours. For others, a longer stay meant additional testing, and for an unfortunate two percent, exclusion and a return trip home.
Only one third of the immigrants who came to the U.S. through Ellis Island stayed in New York City. The majority scattered to all points across the country via a railroad that crisscrossed the entire continent and offered easy access to all of Americas major cities. Many immigrants initially stayed with friends or relatives, a majority of whom lived in close-knit ethnic neighborhoods. These ethnic enclaves gave the immigrants a sense of security in this new, frightening world.
Most of the immigrants moved into tenement buildings– run down, low-rent apartment buildings clustered together in the poorest parts of town.
Most of these apartments were filthy, and had little ventilation, light or conveniences. Fires, disease, and death were common among immigrant tenement communities. 40 percent of New Yorks immigrants were stricken with the contagious lung disease, tuberculosis, and 60 percent of immigrant babies died before their first birthdays.
The majority of immigrants worked in industrial jobs. Most immigrants were desperate for work, and most employers were happy to have a cheap source of labor. Because of this, immigrants were particularly vulnerable to worker exploitation, and many labored under intolerable conditions. Workers typically made $4 a week, and sometimes, as low as $1.25 a week. Many immigrant children were forces to work, making half of what an adult worker would make.
While the immigrants provided industries with a cheap source of labor, Americans were both afraid of and hostile towards these new groups. If an immigrant gains employment, he does so only by displacing an American who previously held that job. For an immigrant to find an employer, he would have to offer himself at a lower wage than an American worker was earning. In addition to, if Americans were to keep their jobs, they had to match the lower wages. Because of the intense competition, Many natives (people lucky enough to have immigrated earlier) formed groups similar to the Know-nothing party of earlier times. The Immigration Restriction League and the American Protective Association were formed to enforce nativist goals. These groups worked to restrict the number of immigrants entering the United States in several ways. Most significantly, nativists called for laws restricting the number of immigrants that could enter the country. In 1921 Congress passed the Diddingham Bill, which established quotas for the number of immigrants the United States would accept from each nation. The bill marked the end of Americas open-door policy toward immigration and, consequently, the end of the greatest influx of immigrants in U.S. history.
The immigrants. They are our grandparents, our relatives, our friends. They are the immigrants. They came from all over the world for many reasons, such as, religious persecution and racial tension, but the
largest reason for coming to America was for freedom. The freedom to
live where we want, to own property, to take part in the government
and most importantly, the freedom to be treated like a human being.