Remember this part of the famous poem by
Emma Lazarus called
“The New Colossus”?
"Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
We know, of course, that this is more of an ideal, and that throughout our
nation's history, such opportunities were not always available to those who
wanted to make the United States their new home. Over the past two centuries,
immigrants have faced numerous obstacles that have hindered such efforts. The
ease or difficulty of this endeavor often depended on economics and the
political climate in the U.S., and on the laws passed by the government that
often reflected the mood of the nation. Understanding these laws, the state of
the nation and the world during these times, while keeping in mind the dates of
our ancestors’ immigration, will allow us to imagine what might have gone into
their thinking as they weighed their decision
on whether or not, and if so how, to emigrate. By having some knowledge on these
matters, and by being empathetic, history can become more real and more relevant
to us, and just perhaps this will enable us to see our immigrant ancestors in a
slightly different and truer light.
THE EARLY IMMIGRANTS
With the exception of the Native American
Indian, the United States began and was formed as a nation of immigrants. The
first immigrants were generally white, with a fair complexion and facial
features. Most were from the countries of Northern Europe, i.e. England,
Germany, and the Netherlands. Twenty percent of the population of Colonial
America was made up of African Americans, i.e. mostly slaves. From early in the
17th century through the first half of the 19th century,
most of the immigrants were from either Western or Northern Europe. There was
little in the way of federal legislation regarding immigration during this time.
In 1798, the Alien and Sedition Act was passed, which allowed for the
deporting of any foreigner who was deemed a threat to the peace and safety of
the United States. Also, in order to become a citizen, a person would have to
had resided here in the States for fourteen years, not five years as was the
previous requirement. In 1819,
with the passage of the Steerage Act, ship captains were now required for the
first time to actually keep precise records of the immigrants that were sailing
on their ships.
THE NEW WAVE OF IMMIGRANTS
1840, immigrants began to arrive from different regions in the world. Europe was
in poor shape economically and the U.S. was expanding westwards. There were
great improvements made with regards to communication, i.e. telegraph and mail
service got better. Even trains and steamships made travel easier. So for a
time, these immigrants served the needs of a growing country. Many workers had come from
both China and Japan. They worked in jobs that most others did not want and worked for
low wages. They dug in mines. They helped build the railroad lines that would
eventually traverse the country. They worked in laundries and became
Even before this,
beginning in the 1830s, many Irish immigrated to the U.S. In 1845, there was a
great potato famine in Ireland. Ireland was very dependent on the potato to
sustain its people, and because of this blight, one million Irish perished from
starvation. This caused many Irish to emigrate in order to escape this
It wasn’t yet the Jews
who were the target of those nativists, the ones who had deep roots in America. It
was the Irish, as well as the Italians, who were Catholic. Word was spread that
they were here to spread the Pope’s influence. Many Italians had a darker skin
tone than the earlier Northern European immigrants. A secret society, called the
“Know Nothings,” was formed and spouted patriotism and railed against the
influx of the “ignorant” foreigners, who were not as educated and superior as they
Of course, the Chinese
had it bad too. They were called the “yellow peril,” and a lot of agitation was
stirred up against them too, and rioting occurred in some Western states. The
Chinese were said to be a corrupting influence and were idol worshippers. Now
that they were no longer needed for their cheap labor, e.g. in building the
trans-continental railroad lines, they were vilified.
There was a growing sentiment that all of these new
immigrants would take away jobs from those already here. There was also, without
a doubt, an underlying racism among many.
In 1862, Congress passed
a law that restricted Chinese immigration (they were called “coolies”),
prohibiting vessels registered in the United States from transporting Chinese to
In 1870, a uniform
naturalization law was passed that required at least a two-year residence in the
United States before a person could become a citizen. In 1875, a federal law was
passed that prohibited both prostitutes and convicts from immigrating.
By 1880, there were at
least 75,000 Chinese in California alone. In 1882, Congress prohibited Chinese
immigration all together for at least ten years by passing the “Chinese
Exclusion Act.” Also, it was even forbidden for the Chinese to become
Those that were contract
laborers, i.e. those entering the U.S. employed by U.S. employers, were also
excluded through the passage of the “Contract Labor Law of 1885.” American
companies were forbidden from even advertising for such help. Such restrictions
caused the rejection of almost 3,000 people per annum.
In 1891, the
federal government took over control of immigration into the United Sates. In
New York, this meant that the immigration center in New York Harbor, called Castle
Garden, previously run by the state, would be closed down, and Ellis Island
would be built. The Congress passed laws that would affect those trying to
immigrate from overseas, but did nothing to prevent anyone from crossing the
borders from either Mexico or Canada. Once the purview of the state, the
government now assumed the burden of providing services for the new immigrant.
The laws that were
passed in this year by the government sought to keep out those who did not meet
a minimum health requirement. If a person was suffering from a “loathsome or
dangerous contagious disease,” they were turned away, and returned to where
they began their voyage. The arriving, potential immigrant would have to prove that they would
not become a public charge.
Other events, besides
the stricter immigration laws, had the same effect. There was a cholera scare in
1892, and a financial crisis in 1893, which lead to years of a depression in the
U.S. economy. This all caused a dwindling in the numbers that immigrated. The
sentiment toward immigration was becoming increasingly negative, and a call for
even more restrictions and regulations was being made.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY BEGINS NO BETTER
In 1901 President McKinley was
assassinated. Following this catastrophic event for the nation, the U.S.
government, in 1903, consolidated their immigration laws, adding polygamists and
political radicals such as anarchists, subversives to their exclusion list. In
1907, an agreement was made between the governments of the United States and
Japan that no passports would be issued to any Japanese that wished to come to
the U.S. to work as a laborer. In this way, the United States would not have to
turn them away when they tried to immigrate.
In the ten years
immediately preceding the beginning of World War I, more than one million souls
immigrated into the United States each year. When war came, this number was
drastically reduced by seventy-five percent. After the war, there was an
increased paranoia in the United States. It was feared that many of those
arriving from abroad would be Communists, and that they would spread Communistic ideals throughout the
country. This was especially tough for the Jew, many of whom came from Russia,
home of Lenin and Trotsky. The Jew was looked at suspiciously just because of
where they came from. There was a general fear of “foreigners.”
In 1917, due to
pressures put on it by such groups as the Immigration Restriction League,
Congress passed a law that would require that all potential immigrants over
sixteen years of age pass a literacy test if they wanted to be admitted. Asians
were affected too. They could be turned away if they didn’t meet certain mental,
moral, physical and economic standards.
Sometime after the war, despite the literacy
test and all the other imposed regulations, 800,000 people immigrated into the
United States in 1921. Many of these Jews were immigrants from Southern and
Eastern Europe. These immigrants were looked at as
inferior, uneducated, lacking in skills, and undesirable. So due the increased
anti-immigrant sentiment, the fear of those already living here possibly losing
their jobs to foreigners, and a growing isolationist sentiment, Congress made it
extremely difficult for people from certain regions to immigrate. A quota system
was enacted, whereby the number of aliens of from any nationality could not
exceed three per cent of the number of those who preceded them from that same
nation, those who were already residing in the U.S. as of 1910. This was
supposed to be a temporary measure that would give the Congress time to debate
the issue of immigration.
By 1924, the U.S. government passed
“The Immigration Act of 1924,” which created a permanent quota system. This, in
effect, reduced the number of immigrants of undesirable nationalities who were
allowed in under the quota to less than half, to little more than 150,000.
Instead of the aforementioned three percent, this number was reduced to two.
Instead of using the 1910 census, they used the census from 1890. What is the
significance of this? So many of the southern and eastern European immigrants,
e.g. Jews, had immigrated to the United States in the period between 1890 and
1910, and thus, the number of them permitted in was greatly reduced. Whereas
this new quota system decreased the quota of those from northern and western
Europe by twenty-nine percent, the quota of those from southern and eastern
Europe was lowered by eighty-seven percent! This, of course, favored the
countries that were responsible for the country’s early immigration, e.g.
England, Germany and Scandinavia. If the immigrant did satisfy the requirements
for residency however, exemptions were provided for their wives and children who were
Beside all of this, those seeking entry into the U.S. had to obtain a visa from an American consul in the country
from which they wanted to emigrate from. This was a way of turning away
potential immigrants even before they reached our shores. It should be mentioned
that these quotas only applied to those entering from abroad. The U.S. still
needed cheap and plentiful labor from its neighbors, especially Mexico, to
harvest its crops.
In 1929, national origin was now the
basis for who would be allowed in under the new quota system. Also, during this
time, the Great Depression occurred, and many of those who potentially would
have immigrated didn’t come; thus, most of the quotas were never satisfied. In the
decade of the 1930s, more people left the United States than entered!
It should be noted, importantly, that
this quota system did not distinguish between those seeking to enter the United
States as immigrants or as refugees. In 1939, many of those wanting to leave Nazi
Germany were turned away from our shores. Who knows how many tens or hundreds of
thousands of Jews would have been saved had our policy toward immigration not
been so stringent?
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS
What does a person do when they
cannot immigrate through normal means? If they could, they often came
here illegally, perhaps buying passports, or being smuggled in, or immigrating
to another country. Many Jews immigrated to Cuba, especially those from eastern
Europe. Some stayed and opened up small businesses there. Many Jews from the
United States, after the war involving Cuba, Spain and the United States in
1898, were already in Cuba, and had already set up businesses there. Most
immigrants, though, had hoped that this would only be temporary, that eventually
they would be able to enter into the United States and stay there permanently.
At least if they were in Cuba they would be that much closer to the United
States, and perhaps nearer to fulfilling their dream of becoming a U.S. citizen. They had hopes of somehow
getting a legal visa, or if that was not possible, perhaps entering the U.S. illegally, from either Cuba
itself, through Canada or through the porous borders of Mexico into one of the
neighboring states, i.e. California or Texas.
So, doesn’t this all
give us food for thought? There were our ancestors, often living such a fragile
existence in Eastern Europe, wanting to escape poverty, persecution and pogroms.
During World War I, many had to run between bombs, being sandwiched in between
warring nations. They certainly wanted better. Depending on the economic, social
and political environment in the United States and abroad, this opportunity for
a new life in a new land was often made that much more difficult. Alternative
means of entry had to be found. Often, they had to wait for just the right time
to emigrate. We must be grateful for those who did make it, for without them,
many of us would not be living here as Americans today.