|A land of immigrants
The United States has experienced immigration since its founding. At times, immigrants have come in waves as conditions in the U.S “pulled” them or conditions elsewhere “pushed” them. Immigration to the U.S prior to 1840 totaled approximately 13.1 million people1. The immigrants came primarily from Ireland and Europe with Germans representing the majority of the Europeans. In the 1840’s there were two noteworthy waves of immigrants from Ireland and Germany. The Irish potato famine “pushed” the Irish to the United States to escape conditions in Ireland. Germans were “pulled” to the United States by land and newly created jobs in the industrial sector. In the late 19th and early 20th century immigration laws were passed as the previous immigrants were now competing for jobs with newly arrived immigrants.
Pushes from Europe
The Potato Famine
One of the most well known waves of immigration to the United States came during the Irish potato famine. The Irish potato famine lasted from 1845 until 1851.2 Approximately 1 million people died of starvation and another 1.7 million people left Ireland for North America because of the potato blight3. Agricultural based families were primarily subsistence farmers and they depended on their potato crop to survive. Without their crops, farmers could not pay their rent. Some landlords sent their tenants aboard “coffin ships” to North America.4 Once the Irish arrived they worked in many different industries such as mining, building railroads, boat builders, and dock hands.5 By the middle of the 18th century Irish laborers dominated the urban unskilled labor market and women without families worked as chambermaids, domestic servants, and cooks6. The map below shows Irish population centers circa 1872.
The German flood
Prior to 1830, most Germans immigrated to locations other than the United States. The expansion into the western U.S. attracted the German Immigrants and their numbers grew until they peaked at about 215,000 in 1854.8 After the end of the U.S. Civil War, the numbers of German immigrants started to rise again. The majority of German immigrants were skilled workers and either found their way into industry or owned small craft based businesses9. The Germans primarily settled in the mid-west. They were concentrated in Wisconsin.
Some immigrants, such as the Jews of Eastern Europe, sought to escape ethnic persecution. The first migration of Eastern European Jews occurred in 1881 to escape persecution from the Russian Tsarist government. Jewish Europeans also fled Russia from 1903 to 1906. The last migration of the Jews happened before World War II in which immigrants came to the United States to escape Nazi persecution in Germany.
The Pull of America
The factors that “pulled” immigrants to the U.S. included free land, new jobs, the ability to create businesses, and increases in labor demand from previous immigration. Since immigration increased aggregate demand, the demand for labor rose to meet the needs of the immigrants. With the increase of demand for labor, real wages increased. The higher incomes of the immigrants created more demand for goods and services when the immigrants spent their newly earned incomes. The increase in real wages attracted even more immigrants to the United States. Immigration to the U.S. peaked in 1907 and during that decade 8,795,386 immigrants came to the U.S.10.
Another reason for immigration was that the demand for labor increased due to movement of Americans to the western part of the United States. Western migration allowed immigrants to own land which they were not able to do in Europe. The Homestead Act in 1862 allowed the government to give away land to anyone willing to build a settlement on a 160 acre plot of land.11Many states also advertised land to certain regions of Europe to attract immigrants to their state. 12
Jobs in railroad construction lured foreigners to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century. The Transcontinental Railroad employed workers from many countries. The Union Pacific railroad, for example, employed mainly Irishmen and the Central Pacific Railroad employed Chinese immigrants to build the Transcontinental Railroad. Since real wages were higher in the United States, this helped entice immigrants to take jobs in the United States such as working for the railroad.
Immigrants did not always come to the United States to work for businesses. Immigrants created businesses themselves as a way to become successful in the United States. Andrew Carnegie came from Scotland and made a fortune in the steel industry. Other immigrants used their entrepreneurial skills to create banks and film studios.
Chinese Exclusion Act
To prevent a non-white group from becoming established in the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. This act did not allow the Chinese to immigrate to the United States. The law was not removed until World War II. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first piece of legislation to restrict immigration flow into the United States. 13
In 1917, the Literacy Test Law was adopted for all immigrants. The law required all immigrants to pass a literacy test prior to entry in the United States. The literacy test law did not allow for any immigrants to come from Asian countries. Although the Literacy Test law expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 with more restrictions, although overall immigration into the United States rose.
Quota and National Origins Acts
In 1921, national quotas restricted the number of immigrants based on the direct proportion to each country’s presence in the United States during 1910. The Quota Act of 1921 restricted the number of immigrants coming from Europe to 350,000 per year. In 1924, the National Origins Act was passed which required immigrants to get a visa from an American consulate from abroad. The National Origins Act further reduced the European quota from 350,000 to 165,000. The Act changed the ratio of a foreign country’s presence to 1890’s population figures.