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The nineteenth century in the US had an unmistakable theme, immigration. Over 20 million immigrants, mostly European, came to the United States between 1820 and 1900. They came for a variety of reasons. Most came because the economies of many European countries were in crisis and workers had a very hard time finding work. As well, some fled religious and cultural persecution. Most of them decided to come to the US because of the opportunities they had heard abounded in the US. One immigrant put it well when he said, We are in such bad shape and in need of so much that there is nothing left for us here, we must go. Once they arrived in the US, the immigrants were seen as second class citizens by the vast majority of US citizens. As one American put it, I can’t understand those scum, those immigrants, for they talk differently and do things differently than I do. The flood tide of Europeans also overwhelmed the limited charitable services available at the time. One historian referred to the settlement house movement as, effective as bailing out the ocean with a teaspoon. Immigrants emigrated to America for the opportunity to improve themselves and found horrible working and living conditions that were a large price, although it was one they were willing to pay.
Immigrants came to the US because of political persecution and economic hardships at home. Some European countries persecuted certain ethnic groups for no apparent reason. For example, both Yugoslavia and France blamed Jews for their economic problems. As the French Secretary of the Treasury put it, Those Evil Jews who befoul our towns shall not work here, for they are second. Christians shall get the right. Jews would get beaten by the police and as a result sought political asylum in the land of the free , the United States. It was also extremely difficult for many to get jobs in Europe where 50% of the workers were unemployed in some countries. The main exception was England which thrived on industry as the US did. Workers were encouraged to go to the US because of pamphlets that gave such promises as Good work, a free life, a good life for all. The demand of factory workers was constantly growing, and immigrants decided to take their chance. As one immigrant said, We have nothing to lose, for we have nothing. The US is our greatest and only chance.
Immigrants came to the US expecting a higher standard of living but were forced into poor living and working conditions. The vast majority of immigrants, who lived in cities, lived in tenements. These were apartment buildings that were shabbily constructed and contained extremely small apartments. Twenty four to thirty two families were packed inside these six to eight storey structures, often referred to as dumbbell buildings due to the air shaft between the buildings that made them look like dumbbells from above. The residents were highly susceptible to disease, and life expectancy was significantly lower, by about 10 years, in these areas. Up to 4,000 people lived on some city blocks. Families had one, maybe two, small rooms. They had no privacy as the walls were thin as well. As one immigrant put it, I can’t even talk without my entire building knowing what I said, the walls are so thin. Bathrooms were also usually outside, although around the turn of the century, some began to appear inside.
Tenements were also susceptible to fires. Due to the required air shaft between buildings, the air got trapped which caused more fires. As the material that tenements were made of was very susceptible to fire, widespread fires were common. As one immigrant described it, I watched it and as the flames struck it, the entire block seemed to go up in a flash. It was horrible.
Working conditions for the immigrants were also horrific. The immigrants generally did two kinds of work. The first were the jobs Americans wouldn t do and the second were the unskilled jobs that almost any person, American or immigrant, could do. Immigrants were also willing to be paid less money for the same work. Immigrants were often used as strike breakers because many of them didn t understand the concept of strikes since it wasn t part of their culture. The immigrants saw these jobs as ones that had been abandoned and so they took them, provoking anger in Americans for job stealing . As Guillaume Fouchon said, We do not strike because it challenges our honor. As well, in the old country, there were so few jobs and so many workers. Also, immigrants misunderstood the process of striking because it was hard to organize people who spoke different languages.
Immigrants also had very little in the way of political power. This was not much of a problem, however, for as one immigrant said, I just want to succeed, and then I’ll worry about how much political power I have. With the exception of some groups like the Irish, the immigrants had no political power at first. However, near the turn of the century, immigrant votes became a factor as they represented 15% of the voting public in New York alone. This caused the immigrants to gain increased political power through the vote.
The Chinese were often called the devils of the immigrants. They were different than all the other immigrant groups because they had a different complexion. As a result, they were subject to more prejudice. The Chinese, who mainly lived and worked in California, took many railroad jobs away from the preexisting Americans. This resulted in their being stoned and having their houses burned to the ground. Such actions were supported by both major parties. As a Democratic National Committee spokesman said, We must fight to rid the earth of the evil Chinese. This was significant because even the party of the immigrants , the Democrats, were against the Chinese. Also, most Chinese, unlike most Europeans, wanted to go to the US, earn money and then go back to China. The American public resented the Chinese and labeled them as a second-class race. As a result of all this prejudice, the Chinese were largely banned from immigrating. As Robert Ingersoll said, the Chinese were not allowed to follow the national progression that benefitted earlier immigrants.
Immigrants hoped that by coming to America, they could still retain their culture which they were unable to do in large part due to the education system. Immigrants hoped that they could both move up socially to the same level as the Americans as well as keep their identity intact. When they first arrived, immigrants kept their cultural identity intact by creating ethnic neighborhoods such as Little Frances or Little Italies. These were places for people of one ethnic group, or even one town or one province, to retain their cultural values. These were very prominent, with 17 little Italies in Chicago alone. It was essential for these immigrants to have these places to attempt to avoid assimilation. As Italian immigrant Verduccio Marsongeri put it, I need my little Italy because the old country is still so important to me.
In this way, the free education given in the US to most children, American or immigrant, was a mixed blessing. While it certainly prepared immigrant children for better jobs due to better education than their parents had had, education also resulted in a loss of cultural identity. Those children who were educated in the US were instilled with American and not old country values as well as English as the primary language. This was in fact an intended consequence of the education expansion, that the immigrant children be assimilated into American culture so as to eliminate the foreign influence on the US. While immigrants certainly didn t want their children to be assimilated into American culture, they were willing to pay the price if it meant better education. This accounted largely for the 3 fold increase in students from 7 million in 1870 to 22 million in 1920, as well as a rise in participation from 57 to 78 percent. While the doors of primary education were open, the doors of higher education remained largely closed to the immigrant. Immigrants could go to some lower tier private colleges and state universities, but not in general to the big names such as Yale, Harvard or Stanford. Yet, still it was a major improvement for now the immigrants could be educated the same as Americans.
In conclusion, the immigrants came to the US in search of opportunity but found harsh conditions. The opportunity and advances the immigrants made in the US came at a large price. Factory workers were not able to move up and were forced to work in horrid conditions for low pay. Many despaired and wanted to move back, but they couldn t due to lack of money. Many more, however, willingly stayed. The real benefits of American opportunity and culture would be passed down to the succeeding generations. Overall, the immigration from the Europe and Asia to the US was the largest in world history. As Christa Jackstone, historian, said about the affect immigrants had on the US, Immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century really made this country because they literally built this country. As the blacks had done in the years before the Civil War, the immigrants were doing the hard work behind the scenes while other people took credit for it. Although the immigrants themselves paid a large price, they willingly took the first steps that would benefit future generations.
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