Background Essay on Late 19th and Early 20th Century Immigration

This summary of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigration describes the "new immigration" that originated from Southern and Eastern Europe. The essay also outlines American responses to the new wave of immigration, including some of the laws designed to restrict immigration that were adopted between 1880 and 1910.

Between 1880 and 1910, almost fifteen million immigrants entered the United States, a number which dwarfed immigration figures for previous periods. Unlike earlier nineteenth century immigration, which consisted primarily of immigrants from Northern Europe, the bulk of the new arrivals hailed mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. These included more than two and half million Italians and approximately two million Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as many Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Greeks, and others.

The new immigrants’ ethnic, cultural, and religious differences from both earlier immigrants and the native-born population led to widespread assertions that they were unfit for either labor or American citizenship. A growing chorus of voices sought legislative restrictions on immigration. Often the most vocal proponents of such restrictions were labor groups (many of whose members were descended from previous generations of Irish and German immigrants), who feared competition from so-called “pauper labor.” 

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigration and made it nearly impossible for Chinese to become naturalized citizens, efforts to restrict European immigration increased. In the same year, the Immigration Act for the first time levied a “head tax” (initially fifty cents a person) intended to finance enforcement of federal immigration laws. The act also made several categories of immigrants ineligible to enter the United States, including convicts, "lunatics" (a catch-all term for those deemed mentally unfit) and those likely to become “public charges,” i.e., those who would place a financial burden on state institutions or charities. A second Immigration Act in 1891 expanded these categories to include polygamists and those sick with contagious diseases, and established a Bureau of Immigration to administer and enforce the new restrictions. In 1892, Ellis Island opened in New York Harbor, replacing Castle Garden as the main point of entry for millions of immigrants arriving on the East Coast. In accordance with the 1891 law, the federal immigration station at Ellis Island included facilities for medical inspections and a hospital. 

While business and financial interests occasionally defended unrestricted immigration, viewing a surplus of cheap labor as essential to industry and westward expansion, calls for measures restricting the flow of the new immigrants continued to grow. Although President Grover Cleveland vetoed an 1897 law proposing a literacy test for prospective immigrants, further restrictions on immigration continued to be added. Following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, xenophobia and hysteria about political radicalism led to the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which excluded would-be immigrants on the basis of their political beliefs. 

In 1907, immigration at Ellis Island reached its peak with 1,004,756 immigrants arriving. That same year, Congress authorized the Dillingham Commission to investigate the origins and consequences of contemporary immigration. The Commission concluded that immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe posed a serious threat to American society and recommended that it be greatly curtailed in the future, proposing as the most efficacious remedy a literacy test similar to the one President Cleveland had vetoed in 1897. Ultimately, the Commission’s findings provided a rationale for the sweeping immigration laws passed in the years after World War I.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Late 19th and Early 20th Century Immigration,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed August 1, 2014, http://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/513.