Julia M. Biagiarelli
American Immigrants; Late 19
Century through early 20
Throughout history people have moved from their homelands seeking refuge from poverty, oppression and other problems that made their lives difficult. Since the days of the early European explorers, beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, The United States of America has been a country of immigrants. Groups of immigrants have come in waves depending on different situations such as wars, famines and religious persecutions in other parts of the world.
Although there has often been opposition from U.S. citizens and adjustments to be made to accommodate immigrants, their presence has helped make the U.S. a dynamic and unique country. Immigrants to the United States in 2006 numbered 37.5 million. (http://people-press.org).
Speaking to graduates of Portland State University in 1998 President Bill Clinton said: "The United States has always been energized by its immigrant populations...America has constantly drawn strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants...They have proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative, the most industrious of people." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_to_the_United_States).
How immigrants adjust to their new homes in America and how U.S. citizens' attitudes toward them has evolved over the past century. In the early and mid 1900s immigrants were expected to blend in to the proverbial "melting pot" as expressed in this Sicilian proverb quoted by Thomas J. Ferraro in Ethnic Passages:
Chi lascia la via vecchia per la nuova, sa quel che perde e non sa quel
che trova. (Whoever forsakes the old way for the new, knows what he is
losing but not what he will find).
In the 1990s, the mayor of New York City, David Dinkins declared that the city was a "salad bowl" and a "gorgeous mosaic" of various cultures. Consciousness of others' customs, beliefs and values increased over the latter half of the 20
century, however there is still progress to be made. Today the subject of illegal immigration, peoples' fears of immigrants as terrorists and takers of American jobs continues in the forefront of American politics. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Dinkins).
In the 1890s about three and a half million immigrants came to the United States. This changed dramatically between 1910 and 1914 when over nine million people immigrated to the U.S. During World War I and into the 1920s immigration decreased due to restrictions imposed as a reaction to the previous wave of immigrants. (http://people-press.org).
Often they were encouraged by recruiting agents, known as padrones to Italian and Greek laborers. Steel mills coal mines and quarries attracted people from Italy, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia. People from Greece worked in textile mills, Russian and Polish Jews worked the needle trades or pushcart markets of New York. Although there were advertisements of free or cheap farmland in America in pamphlets distributed in many languages throughout Europe, only a few agricultural workers moved to western farmlands. Most immigrants moved to the cities, looking for the chance to improve their lives. (http://people-press.org).
Nearly twelve million, mostly poor, immigrants from Europe were required to enter through the processing center at Ellis Island, New York. The screening, which usually took about three to four hours, included a list of twenty nine personal questions about the immigrant's family, money, religious and political views, and work experience. There was also a medical screening. Those deemed unhealthy or undesirable in any way were separated from the others, and sent back to where they came from. (http://www.history.com/content/ellis-island/timeline).
Life was not easy for these new immigrants. Safety regulations and laws to protect workers had not yet been established. Adults and children often worked long hours in dirty, dangerous conditions for very little pay. (Dorf, et al. p.488).
To ease the difficulty of adjusting to a new country, many immigrants lived together in ethnic neighborhoods where they continued to practice the language, customs and culture of their homelands. (Dorf, et al. p.488).
The California gold rush in 1849 attracted many Chinese immigrants, mostly single men who worked mining gold, on railroad construction or in low wage factory jobs. Some returned home to China after several years of working and saving money to bring back to their families. Those who stayed often opened their own businesses such as laundries and restaurants. Unfortunately, Chinese people were subjected to racism and competition from European immigrants. This led to the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed by Congress in 1882. Nearly a hundred years passed before Chinese people were allowed to immigrate again to the United States. Further legislation was written in 1924 which virtually put a stop to all Asian immigration to the U.S. (http://www.asian-nation.org).
Change came in the 1960s with: The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the restrictions from 1924. Now, instead of restricting immigrants on the basis of nationality, "family unification" is emphasized. From the enactment of this significant legislation to the year 2000 thousands of people from Asian countries have come to the United States; 176,000 from Japan, 204,000from Pakistan, 150,000 from Thailand, 206,000 from Cambodia, and 198,000 from Laos. (http://www.asian-nation.org).
Coming from Mexico, the Caribbean Islands, and although they are not technically immigrants, Puerto Rico; Latin American immigrants have had a significant influence on American culture. The U.S. census estimates that 11.2 percent of the United States population is Latin American, grown from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35.3 million in 2000. The popularity of Latin American music and food and the prevalence of Spanish/English signs and advertisements, demonstrates that their influence is more than demographic. (www.prb.org).
The subject of illegal immigrants is a major issue surrounding Latin American immigrants. Although attitudes of native born Americans towards Latin American immigrants have become more positive in the past twenty years, ambivalence in opinions and the political quandary over illegal immigrants continues. Some fear that immigrants, especially those from Mexico, will take away jobs from native born Americans while others state that immigrants take the jobs that other Americans don't want.(http://people-press.org).