California began drawing large numbers of immigrants only since its great gold rush began in 1848. That era brought in large numbers of French, German, Italian, British, Chinese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants. Since that time, constantly changing immigrant communities have contributed enormously to the state’s development.
One of the most populous subnational entities in the world, California is also ethnically very diverse, thanks to a century and a half of heavy immigration. The first major influx of immigrants occurred with the
On January 24, 1848,
The first transcontinental railroad made immigration to California easier and more attractive. The railroad ran from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, to Alameda, California, linking the Atlantic and Pacific coasts by rail for the first time. The railroad was divided into
Cover of an 1877 issue of Harper’s Weekly showing Chinese immigrants arriving in San Francisco.
Most of the Chinese immigrants were married men who had come to California for mining, agriculture, and other work and intended to return to China. Chinese railroad workers were poorly paid and expected to work twelve hours a day, six days a week, but many managed to set aside enough money to buy land later. The need for railroad workers grew, and the railroad company imported more from China. The newer workers were paid less than those already in California, and all the Chinese immigrants were treated poorly. They were expected to work longer hours than the white laborers, and were often beaten or prevented from seeking other employment. In 1867, approximately two thousand railroad workers in the high Sierras went on strike, asking for more pay and better working conditions. However, their strike was broken within a week.
Despite the important contributions of Chinese laborers to the railroads and other sectors of California’s economy, they had few recognized legal rights. In 1877, Pacific General Superintendent Charles Crocker testified before the Joint Special Committee to Investigate Chinese Immigration on the role of Chinese workers in the construction of the
Anti-Chinese sentiment in California grew through the end of the nineteenth century, largely due to depressed wage levels. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 attempted to exclude additional Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. in an attempt to reduce the supply of cheap labor, made it difficult to reenter the country, and excluded Chinese from U.S. citizenship. This made it difficult for Chinese American communities to balance gender ratios (Chinese men outnumbered Chinese women about 19 to 1 in California), and led many Chinese workers to return to their families in China. Meanwhile, immigrants of other races were not restricted from entry to the United States.
The Immigration Act of 1882 further restricted immigration, barring all immigration from China and restricting immigration from other Asian countries. Consequently, the Chinese American community in California consisted primarily of bachelors. After the
These legal exclusions contributed to the separate lives that Chinese Americans lived during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, centering around Chinatowns like that of San Francisco. Chinese nationals residing in the United States were permitted to become citizens in 1943 by the Magnuson Act, but large-scale Chinese immigration did not begin again until 1965.
Throughout the twentieth century, California received an influx of farmworkers, many migrant or undocumented, from Latin American nations. Agriculture, long established in California and already dependent on minorities for labor, turned to
During the early twenty-first century, seasonal migrant farmworkers, many of whom were undocumented immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries and the Philippines, still formed a significant percentage of California’s agricultural worker pool. These migrant farmworkers were typically extremely poor and uneducated and had considerably shorter life expectancies than members of the general population.
Of California’s 36.6 million residents in 2004, 9.5 million (26 percent) were foreign-born, with 2.4 million (7 percent) of these estimated to be
Despite California’s impressive immigration numbers, the state was becoming a less popular destination for immigrants during the early twenty-first century. Undocumented immigrants in particular were beginning to prefer other states over California, which was home to 45 percent of the nation’s undocumented immigrants in 1990, but only 24 percent in 2004. Nevertheless, immigrants have continued to fill a wide variety of roles in the California economy, particularly in construction, agriculture, service, and production industries. Asian immigrants are more likely to fill management and professional jobs than Latin American immigrants. Undocumented immigrants, primarily from Latin America, typically work on farms, in construction, or in cleaning.
Bain, David Howard. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. New York: Viking Adult, 1999. Solidly researched account of the building of the railroad to cross the United States, the western half of which was built largely by Chinese immigrants to California. Brands, H. W. The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. New York: Doubleday, 2002. Readable account of the California gold rush that covers immigrant experiences during that era. Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. History of Chinese Americans from their arrival in California during the gold rush through the twentieth century. González, Gilbert G. Labor and Community: Mexican Citrus Worker Villages in a Southern California County, 1900-1950. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1994. Scholarly account of the rise and fall of the California citrus industry and the Mexican immigrants who worked in it. Mitchell, Don. The Lie of the Land: Migrant Workers and the California Landscape. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Hard-hitting examination of how the California agricultural landscape has been built by the labor of migrant workers, including Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants. Nahmias, Rick. The Migrant Project: Contemporary California Farm Workers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. Spectacular photography capturing the lives and labors of modern migrant farmworkers.
Alien land laws
California gold rush
Farm and migrant workers
Oyama v. California