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Responses to Immigration

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Part I:  The “New Immigration,” 1880-1924

Throughout the nineteenth century, America received a steady flow of immigration.  But after 1880, there were a few noticeable changes.

This map shows the origins of immigration from 1820 to 1879.  Note that most immigration was from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.

Now look at the period that followed.  More and more Southern and Eastern Europeans took the trip to America.  This wave of immigrants consisted mainly of unskilled workers who moved to the cities to find industrial jobs.  They brought with them cultures and traditions that were visibly different from those who came before them.

Another change was that more immigrants were coming to the United States.  While just over 9 million had come between 1840 and 1880, over 20 million immigrants came to America in the forty years that followed. 

Most came from Europe, but the number of immigrants from Asia and Latin America also increased, expanding the size of non-white districts in large cities. [1]

Despite these differences, newcomers after 1880 had the same hopes as those that came before them.  Rosa Cassettari, an immigrant from Italy, remembers:

We … stood and watched the hills and the land come nearer.  Other poor people, dressed in their best clothes …, crowded around.  America!  The country where everyone could find work!  Where wages were so high no one had to go hungry!  Where all men were free and equal….  Now we were so near [that] it seemed too much to believe. [2]

But how did those already in America react to this new wave of immigrants?

Large businesses often welcomed the newcomers, and even promoted immigration with ads like this one.  For businesses, a steady stream of unskilled workers meant that jobs would be easily filled.

Others, however, were not so happy about immigration.  Many American-born workers saw new immigrants as competition.  They felt that immigrants would work for less money and in poorer conditions, making labor more competitive—and dangerous—for all workers.

Even some of the “old” immigrants were hostile to the newcomers.  Dennis Kearney, an Irish-born worker in California, spoke out against Chinese workers.

A bloated aristocracy has sent to China … for a cheap working slave….  The father of a family is met by them at every turn.  Would he get work for himself?  Ah!  A stout Chinaman does it cheaper….” [3]

Others opposed immigration for religious reasons, especially targeting Jews and Catholics.  This poster conveys the fear that a growing number of Catholics would submit America to the will of the Pope.

There were also racial arguments.  Some Americans feared that immigration brought the worst of other countries to America, and that it would bring about a weaker, less pure, less attractive population.  In 1914, a sociology professor explained these fears:

It is unthinkable that so many persons with crooked faces, coarse mouths, bad noses, heavy jaws, and low foreheads can mingle their heredity with ours without making personal beauty … more rare among us that it actually is. [4]

For those that opposed the new immigration, the solution was to cut it off, or severely restrict it.  The first such law, enacted in 1882, tried to stop immigration from China entirely. 

Later, in 1924, the National Origins Act set a limit on the number of immigrants from Europe, giving preference to the countries of the “old immigrants,” like Britain, Ireland, and Germany.  The age of unrestricted immigration was at an end.

But what about those who had already arrived? 

The crowded cities displayed many examples of poor living conditions, and cleaning up the cities became a goal of many reformers. 

One of the goals of such reform was “Americanization,” a campaign to help immigrants to fit in, while preserving the nature of American society.  Since many immigrants wanted to Americanize, this often meant positive community activities.

A pamphlet from a religious organization explains how its members should carry out Americanization.

The women of the church should … help the foreign women … become accustomed to American ways; teach them the English language; [and] show them how to care for children and family under American conditions. [5]

Another organization that strove to Americanize immigrants was the famous Hull House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams.  In her autobiography, Addams explains the lessons of Hull House for its participants.

Residents are pledged to devote themselves to the duties of good citizenship….  They are bound to regard the entire life of their city as organic, to make an effort to unify it, and to protest against its over-differentiation. [6]

These attitudes—encouragement, hostility, restriction, and Americanization—were the most common reactions to the arrival of so many immigrants around the turn of the century.  But the problems of immigration would take on new forms, once America was at war.

Part II:  Immigrants in Wartime

Even before the First World War, some were concerned about the nature of immigrants’ loyalty, as depicted in this cartoon.  Did newcomers identify themselves as Americans, or did they retain sympathy for the countries in which they were born?

After 1914, when war broke out in Europe, these concerns increased. 

While most Americans wanted to stay out of the war, many leaders called for “preparedness,” to make the nation more secure. 

Some, like former president Theodore Roosevelt, felt that security required the removal of all foreign loyalties.

We can have no fifty-fifty allegiance in this country….  Every man of foreign birth or parentage must in good faith become an American and nothing else. [7]

This view is often called “anti-hyphenism,” because it urged immigrants to forget that they were German-American or Polish-American, for instance, and to become “100% American.” 

Although he was a political opponent of Roosevelt, President Woodrow Wilson agreed with the campaign against hyphens:

Some Americans need hyphens in their names, because only part of them has come over [to America]; but when the whole man has come over, heart and thought and all, the hyphen drops … out of his name. [8]

Later Wilson would describe hyphenism in more hostile terms:

Any man who carried a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic.

Tensions would increase once America entered the war in April 1917. 

For German-Americans, whose homeland was now the enemy, the message was clear: if necessary, Americanization would be carried out by force.

The government took steps to monitor immigrants, and to restrict or deport those considered disloyal.  Laws passed during the war allowed for the censoring of foreign-language news, the monitoring of mail, and the arrest of anyone considered to be working against the American war effort.

In addition, the American public looked to root out German symbols at home.  Sauerkraut became known as “liberty cabbage,” hamburgers as “liberty steak.” 

Those suspected of being disloyal were harassed in public, forced to kiss the American flag, and sometimes subjected to violence.

Most German-Americans had already tried to Americanize, but now the need to display patriotism became extremely important. 

This German life insurance company in Cincinnati is one example. 

The owners draped an American flag over “Germania,” a female statue that symbolized the German nation, and would later replace the statue with “Columbia,” a symbol of the new world.

In the long run, the effects of wartime Americanization were clear.  The number of foreign-language schools began steadily dropping.  Of the 522 German-language publications in print before the war, about half were gone by the war’s end. [9]  Americanization had been underway before the war, but concerns about security, along with wartime emotions, clearly fueled the process.

In the Second World War, anti-immigrant hostility would rise again, but this time the target would be Japanese-Americans.

After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, a wave of fear swept the West Coast of the United States.

Headlines like this one were common.  Fearing acts of sabotage, or even another attack, many Americans viewed Japanese immigrants with suspicion.

Responding to pressure from the public and from officials on the West Coast, the government resorted to a system of “relocation centers,” which were usually located far from other Americans.

By the summer of 1942, over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were evacuated from their homes and placed in these relocation centers.

As you look at these photos, taken by photographer Ansel Adams, reflect on the words of Minoru Yatsui, an internee in the Idaho desert.

We arrived late afternoon, at some isolated siding in the desert area, … although we did not know where we were.  No houses were in sight, no trees or anything green—only scrubby sagebrush and an occasional low cactus, and mostly dry, baked earth….  Because the virgin desert had been bulldozed and disturbed by men and machinery, instead of fresh air we got to breathe dust. [10]

Once they were placed in the camps, younger internees were usually allowed to leave if they could find employment, and if they swore an oath of loyalty to the United States. 

Those who remained in the camps sought to build new communities and carry on their lives as best they could.

Like the German communities of the previous war, Japanese-Americans came under scrutiny because of their ethnic ties to a declared enemy, regardless of personal loyalties or legal questions.  The internment of Japanese-Americans remains one of the most controversial chapters of the Second World War.

Epilogue: Immigration Then and Now

The rest of the twentieth century saw the nature of immigration shift again.  This chart shows that, by the year 2000, European immigration made up only a small percentage of the total.  Almost a third came from the continent of Asia, and about a fifth came from Mexico. [11]  Federal laws no longer restricted any countries or regions, but they did limit immigration to a few hundred thousand a year.

Additionally, hundreds of thousands of immigrants entered the country as refugees.

This was usually the result of political and economic troubles in the rest of the world. [12]

Instead of disagreements about the law, recent controversy has focused on illegal immigration, or foreigners entering the United States without official authorization.  According to one estimate, the number of illegal immigrants in America in 2002 was 9.3 million, about 6 million of whom were in the American work force. [13]

Think about the history of immigration since the 1880s.  Look at the discussion questions that accompany this video, and discuss how Americans’ responses have changed, or stayed the same, through different time periods.

For all the controversy, America has been, and remains, a nation of immigrants.  Understanding the significance of this fact will be a challenge to Americans in the future, just as it was in the early twentieth century.



[1] Statistics compiled from John Bodnar, The Transplanted (Bloomington, 1985), 217; and Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door (New York, 2004), 5-6.

[2] From Thomas Dublin, ed., Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773-1986 (Urbana, 1993).

[3] Dennis Kearney, “Our Misery and Despair.”

[4] Quoted in Edith Phelps, ed., Selected Articles on Immigration (New York, 1920).

[5] “Americanization: A Program of Action and Service for the Churches” (New York, 1920).

[6] Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull House (New York, 1912), 127.

[7] Theodore Roosevelt, “No Fifty-Fifty Allegiance,” in Albert Hart and Arthur Lovejoy, eds., Handbook of the War for Readers, Speakers, and Teachers (New York, 1918), 97-8.

[8] Ray Stannard Baker and William Dodd, The Public Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 1: The New Democracy (New York, 1925), 109.

[9] Frederick Luebke, Bonds of Loyalty (Dekalb, 1974), 271.

[10] John Tateishi, ed., And Justice for All (New York, 1984), 76-7.

[11] Daniels, 252-5.

[12] Daniels, 191.

[13] The Urban Institute, “Undocumented Immigrants: Facts and Figures.”


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