The Rush of Immigrants

Immigration to the United States reached its peak from 1880-1920. Previous immigration had brought thousands of Irish and German people to the New World. This time, many came from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from as far away as Asia.

The New Immigrants

Most immigrant groups that had formerly come to America by choice had many similarities. Most had come from Northern and Western Europe. Most had some experience with representative democracy. Most were Protestant, with the exception of the Irish. Many were literate, and some possessed a fair degree of wealth.

The new groups arriving by the boatload in the Gilded Age were different. Their nationalities included Greek, Italian, Polish, Slovak, Serb, Russian, Croat, Japan, and China. None of these groups were predominantly Protestant.

The vast majority were Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Many Jewish immigrants sought freedom from persecution in Eastern Europe. Very few newcomers spoke any English, and large numbers were illiterate in their native tongues. None of these groups hailed from democratic regimes. The American form of government was as foreign as its culture.

The new American cities became the destination of many of the most destitute. Letters from America beckoned new immigrants to ethnic enclaves such as Chinatown, Greektown, or Little Italy. This led to an urban ethnic patchwork, with little integration.

Despite the horrors of tenement housing and factory work, many immigrants agreed that the wages they could earn and the food they could eat was an improvement over their former realities.

Not all Americans welcomed the new immigrants. While factory owners greeted the rush of cheap labor, laborers often treated their new competition with hostility. Many religious leaders were concerned about the increase of non-Protestant believers.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring this ethnic group in its entirety. Twenty-five years later, Japanese immigration was restricted by executive agreement. These two Asian groups were the only ethnicities to be completely excluded from America.

Criminals, contract workers, the mentally ill, anarchists, and alcoholics were among groups to be gradually barred from entry by Congress. In 1917, Congress required the passing of a literacy test to gain admission. Finally, in 1924, the door was shut to millions when Congress placed an absolute cap on new immigrants based on ethnicity.

But millions had already come. During the age when the Statue of Liberty beckoned the world's "huddled masses yearning to breathe free," American diversity mushroomed. Each group brought pieces of an old culture and made contributions to a new one. Their children enjoyed a higher standard of living than their parents, learned English easily, and sought American lifestyles. At least to that extent, America was a melting pot.

Source: The Rush of Immigrants
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