The Rush of Immigrants

Immigration to the United States peaked from 1880-1920. The “Old Immigration” from the nineteenth century through Reconstruction brought mainly Irish and German immigrants.

During the Gilded Age, the immigrants brought greater ethnic diversity. Many came from Southern and Eastern Europe, and from as far away as Asia. These new immigrants added different complexions, languages, and religions to the American population.

The New Immigrants

Most immigrant groups that had come earlier by choice had many similarities. They came from Northern and Western Europe, where they had experience with representative democracy. Except for the Irish, most old immigrants were Protestant, literate, and brought some degree of wealth with them.

The new groups arriving in the Gilded Age were different. They came from Southern and Eastern Europe. Japanese and Chinese immigrants settled on the West Coast. None of these groups were predominantly Protestant.

Most of the new immigrants were Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Many Jewish immigrants sought freedom from persecution in Eastern Europe. Few of the new immigrants spoke any English, and many were illiterate even in their native tongues. None of their homelands had democratic regimes.

The poorest immigrants settled in urban areas. They were drawn to tenements in ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown, where they already had family and friends. As a result, there was little integration.

Despite the poor conditions of tenement housing and factory work, for many immigrants their new life was still better than what they had left behind.

Resistance to Immigration

Not all Americans welcomed the new immigrants. Factory owners were pleased with the supply of cheap labor, but established laborers saw the new immigrants as competition for jobs. Many religious leaders were dismayed by the rise of non-Protestant religions. Whites who were racial purists feared the potential mixing of races.

Gradually, the Nativists lobbied to restrict the flow of immigration. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which ended all Chinese immigration. Later Japanese immigration was also restricted. These two Asian groups were the only ethnicities to be completely excluded from the United States.

Congress placed other limitations on the immigrations of certain groups, such as criminals, the mentally ill, and anarchists. In 1917, Congress passed a law requiring literacy tests for new immigrants. In 1924, the United States placed an absolute cap on new immigrants based on ethnicity.

Each ethnic group brought elements of their old culture and made contributions to their new one. The next generation enjoyed a higher standard of living than their parents, spoke fluent English, and adopted American lifestyles.

Source: The Rush of Immigrants
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