America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins

Economic and political changes in both Europe and the United States, as well as new developments in transportation, launched a fundamentally new era that brought large numbers of immigrants to the United States from eastern and southern Europe for the first time.

Summary of Event

In 1808, the U.S. government purchased Ellis Island from the state of New York for ten thousand dollars. This new federal property, located in New York Harbor about one mile south of Manhattan Island, served first as a fort and later as an arsenal. Until 1882, the state of New York had guided the influx of immigration from the old Castle Garden station at the tip of Manhattan. The opening of Ellis Island on January 1, 1892, as the first federal immigration station symbolized a new era for the United States as well as the beginning of the end of free immigration to the New World. Immigration;to United States[United States]
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[kw]America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins (1892)
[kw]”New” Immigration Era Begins, America’s (1892)
[kw]Immigration Era Begins, America’s “New” (1892)
[kw]Era Begins, America’s “New” Immigration (1892)
[kw]Begins, America’s “New” Immigration Era (1892)
Immigration;to United States[United States]
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[g]United States;1892: America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins[5770]
[c]Immigration;1892: America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins[5770]
[c]Sociology;1892: America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins[5770]
[c]Economics;1892: America’s “New” Immigration Era Begins[5770]
Strong, Josiah

The U.S. Congress Congress, U.S.;and immigration[Immigration] had begun the selective process of excluding undesirable elements among those immigrating to the United States with the passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1882 Immigration Act of 1882 . That measure was designed to prevent the immigration of persons who had criminal records and those who were mentally incompetent or indigent. During that same year, Congress also passed the Chinese Exclusion Act Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (later extended to all Asians) barring an entire nationality from entry as racially undesirable for a period of ten years. In 1904, that law’s provisions were extended indefinitely, to be repealed only in 1943.

Eastern European immigrants crossing the Atlantic to North America in 1899.

(Library of Congress)

Most immigrants who came to the United States before the 1890’s had come from northern and western Europe. During the 1880’s a fundamental change occurred. In addition to the traditional immigrants, who shared common language patterns with persons already in the United States, people from Mediterranean and Slavic countries began to arrive in increasing numbers. The extent of the change can be measured by comparing two of the peak years in U.S. immigration. In 1882, 87 percent of the 788,000 immigrants came from northern and western Europe. In 1907, only 19.3 percent were from those regions, while 80.7 percent came from southern and eastern Europe.

A great impetus to immigration was the transportation revolution made possible by steamships. In 1856, more than 96 percent of U.S. immigrants crossed oceans on sailing ships, on voyages that took between one and three months. By 1873, the same percentage of immigrants traveled by steamships, which took only ten days. The new steamships were specifically designed for passengers, and while still subject to overcrowding and epidemics, they were a major improvement over the sailing ships because their passengers had to endure overcrowding for much briefer periods. Steamship companies competed for immigrant business and maintained offices in Europe. The Hamburg-Amerika line, for example, had 3,200 U.S. agencies throughout Europe. More than half of the immigrants in 1901 came with prepaid tickets supplied by relatives in the United States.

European Emigration to the United States in 1900

As the older agricultural economies of Europe were replaced by industrial economies, many Europeans moved from farms to cities in search of employment. When they were unsuccessful in that search, they were easily persuaded to try the New World, where jobs were said to be plentiful. The same railroad-building process that opened the American West to the immigrant made it easier and cheaper for the Europeans to reach their coastal areas and embark for the United States.

Most of the emigration from southern Europe was occasioned by economic distress. Southern Italy’s Italy;emigration from agriculture was severely affected by competition from Florida Florida;citrus industry in oranges and lemons, as well as by a French tariff Tariffs;French against Italian wines. The Italian emigration began with 12,000 in 1880 and reached a peak of nearly 300,000 in 1914. After new U.S. laws restricting immigration took full effect, Italian immigration fell to 6,203 in 1925.

From Russia Russia;emigration from and other Slavic areas, emigration was also caused by political and religious problems. Russian Jews Jews;in Russia[Russia] fled in reaction to the riots set off by the assassination of Czar Alexander II Alexander II
[p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];assassination of in 1882, the pogroms of 1881-1882 and 1891, and the 1905-1906 massacres of thousands of Jews. Russia;Jewish population Major Jewish immigration to the United States began with 5,000 people in 1880 and reached a peak of 258,000 in 1907. Some two million Roman Catholic Poles Poland;emigration from also arrived between 1890 and 1914. In 1925, however, the Immigration Service recorded only 5,341 entrants from Poland and 3,121 from Russia and the Baltic States.

Two issues caused the greatest concern to American nativists Nativism, U.S.;and immigrants[Immigrants] during the 1890’s: the tendency of the new immigrants to congregate in the cities, and the fact that they spoke seemingly unassimilable languages, such as Yiddish, Polish, and Russian. One of the first articulate spokesmen against unrestricted immigration, the Reverend Dr. Josiah Strong Strong, Josiah , was alarmed by the concentration of foreign peoples in cities. Strong’s famous book, Our Country, published in 1885, clearly stated what many other U.S. citizens feared: that the new influx of immigrants would create permanent slums and perpetuate poverty in the United States.

The urban nature of the settlement was unavoidable. U.S. agriculture was suffering from the same shocks that had disrupted European agriculture, and the Populis Populism t movement in the country made clear that the myth of utopia in the western United States was no longer believable. Most new immigrants were attracted by the pull of U.S. industry and opportunity, and they came to the United States with the express purpose of settling in cities. In addition, new industrial technology had reduced the demand for skilled labor, while the need for unskilled and cheap factory help increased. To add to the social clash between the new and old immigrants, the arrival of a new labor force in great numbers probably allowed some older laborers to move up to more important supervisory and executive positions.

Many new immigrants did not share the optimism and enthusiasm of established Americans. Some tended to be pessimistic and resigned, distrustful of change, and unfamiliar with democratic government after having lived in autocratic societies. Near the beginning of the era of new immigration, the Panic of 1893 Panic of 1893;and immigration[Immigration] developed and was followed by a depression that lasted until 1897. This economic downturn seemed to confirm the fears of people already settled in the United States that the country and its system of government were failing. The new immigration, however, was but one of the major social, cultural, and economic changes taking place in the turbulent United States of the 1890’s.

In 1907, Congress created the Dillingham Commission Dillingham Commission to investigate the problems of immigration. Many of the commission’s findings reflected the fears of citizens concerning the new immigration and led to the passage of restrictive legislation during the 1920’s. Unrestricted immigration ended with the passage of the National Origins Act of 1924 National Origins Act of 1924 , which limited the number of new immigrants to 154,277 per year. Each country’s quota could be no more than 2 percent of the number of people born in the country who were counted in the 1890 U.S. census Census, U.S. , a year in which few born in southern and eastern Europe were part of the U.S. population.

After World War II, when the Atlantic Ocean reopened to civilian passenger travel, planes began replacing ships as vehicles of immigration, and there was no need for Ellis Island. By the time Ellis Island finally closed as a reception center in 1954, few European immigrants still came to the United States by ship, and the Immigration Service could handle all the new arrivals at Manhattan’s docks. By then, much of the fear of the “new” immigration had evaporated. Italians, Slavs, and Jews Jews;immigrants had not, after all, remained in permanent slums, mired in perpetual poverty, as Strong had feared. Moreover, they and their descendants had fought side by side with U.S. soldiers of British and German ancestry in World War I and World War II.


During the 1940’s, there was much criticism of the rigidity of the immigration restriction legislation that hampered attempts to deal with the problems of war refugees. Not until 1965, however, would the rigid quota system established in 1924 be replaced with a more flexible system. When that reform opened the door to increased entry by Asians and Latin Americans, complaints about the new “new immigrants” began to echo nineteenth century uneasiness about the former “new immigrants.”

Further Reading

  • Brownstone, David M., Irene M. Franck, and Douglas L. Brownstone, eds. Island of Hope, Island of Tears. New York: Penguin Books, 1986. Interviews with elderly people who went through Ellis Island during the early years of the twentieth century provide highly personal accounts of members of the generation of “new” immigrants. Many photographs.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Well-written, scholarly account of U.S. immigration from the colonial period through the 1980’s.
  • Gabaccia, Donna R. Immigration and American Diversity: A Social and Cultural History. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002. Survey of American immigration history, from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century, with an emphasis on cultural and social trends, with attention to ethnic conflicts, nativism, and racialist theories.
  • Greene, Victor R. A Singing Ambivalence: American Immigrants Between Old World and New, 1830-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2004. Comparative study of the different challenges faced by members of eight major immigrant groups: the Irish, Germans, Scandinavians and Finns, eastern European Jews, Italians, Poles and Hungarians, Chinese, and Mexicans.
  • Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted. 2d ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1973. Dramatic narrative focusing on the life experiences of immigrants to the United States.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1955. Analysis of the nativist movements whose pressure led to the passage of immigration restriction.
  • Meltzer, Milton. Bound for America: The Story of the European Immigrants. New York: Benchmark Books, 2001. Broad history of European immigration to the United States written for young readers.
  • Reimers, David M. Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. Study of twentieth century immigration to the United States, primarily after World War II.
  • Wepman, Dennis. Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island. New York: Facts On File, 2002. History of immigration to the United States from the earliest European settlements of the colonial era through the mid-1950’s, with liberal extracts from contemporary documents.

American Era of “Old” Immigration

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Arthur Signs the Chinese Exclusion Act

San Francisco’s Chinese Six Companies Association Forms

American Protective Association Is Formed

Addams Opens Chicago’s Hull-House

Ellis Island Immigration Depot Opens

Anti-Japanese Yellow Peril Campaign Begins

Chinese Californians Form Native Sons of the Golden State

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Ellis Island
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