Often called a nation of immigrants, the United States has borne witness, from the time of its earliest European settlements to the twenty-first century, that immigrant groups have significantly contributed to its survival, development, and prosperity. Although some scholars argue that low-skilled immigrants have helped to reduce American wage levels and overburden public services, most agree that immigrants have been essential to the country’s industrialization as well as to its economic, scientific, technological, and cultural growth.
More than thirteen thousand years ago, well before the arrival of the first Europeans, America was the destination of people from Asia. Those ancient immigrants spread out throughout the Western Hemisphere and diversified into about 750 distinct cultures that developed an immense variety of means of employment that enabled them to survive in arctic, temperate, and tropic regions. After
Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century immigration patterns tended to resemble those of the colonial period. Most immigrants came to farm lands that were much less expensive than those in Europe, while a small but significant minority came as artisans skilled in such professions as carpentry, metal working, textile production, and iron-making. For example,
After the United States won its independence, its leaders held contrasting views about the roles that immigrants should play in the new country. President
From the 1820’s to the 1830’s European immigrants to the United States increased from about 150,000 per year to about 600,000. At the same time, the governments of their home countries tried to limit emigration, particularly of skilled artisans. However, the strong attractions of low-priced land and a labor shortage in America provided incentives for English and Irish to cross the Atlantic to pursue their occupations as farmers, blacksmiths, weavers, masons, shoemakers, and tailors. Mechanical expertise was especially highly valued in the United States. Different immigrant groups tended to settle in different sections of the country. In general, many more settled in the North than in the South, a situation that pleased certain southerners, who were suspicious of immigrants and satisfied with their slave system. English and
Irish immigrants tended to be poorer in education, skills, and money than others, leading them to take manual jobs such as digging the
The Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849 and the political revolutions in continental
Other events that influenced immigration were the 1848 discovery of gold in California and the admission of California into the Union two years later. These events stimulated immigration from Mexico, South America, China, and Europe. Particularly notable were the large numbers of
Even before the U.S.
One of the characteristics of the postwar period was the settlement and economic development of regions from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. More than 25 million new immigrants entered the United States during the thirty-five years after the war; they played important roles in these developments. German immigrants, the largest group of the nineteenth century, participated, along with Poles,
Young immigrants working in a Fall River, Massachusetts, mill in 1912.
During the late decades of the nineteenth century, the pattern of immigration from Europe changed. By then, immigrants from Britain, Germany, Spain, and France were greatly outnumbered by those people from southern and eastern Europe. Although most came from rural backgrounds, these Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians mainly sought employment in northern and midwestern cities, in which they became
Hundreds of thousands of Italians, mostly men, spread throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they worked in factories and mines or served as barbers and bootblacks. Others became involved in massive projects such as digging aqueduct tunnels and helping build New York City’s Grand Central Station and the
As the U.S. population was increasing naturally during the early twentieth century, the numbers of immigrants increased even more dramatically, peaking in 1914. While restrictive legislation had drastically reduced Chinese and Japanese entrants, immigration from southern and eastern Europe accelerated. Even with the introduction of labor-saving machinery, the coal,
Confined to substandard tenement housing in major eastern cities and severely restricted in employment opportunities, many Italian immigrant families took garment work into their homes and employed their children. The mother and her three eldest children in this picture earned a total of about two dollars a week–when work was available–around 1913, while the father sought day work on the street.
The number of
Because immigrants often occupied low-paying positions that involved boring and sometimes dangerous manual labor, they tended to leave their jobs in droves. In 1913, one Ford factory experienced a 416 percent turnover rate, and the turnover rates for the
Immigration into the United States diminished during the four years of World War I (1914-1918) to a little more than 1 million entrants–a figure slightly greater than 25 percent of the previous five years’ immigration. Members of certain ethnic groups, particularly
After the war, the
The rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party to power in Germany created many
Meanwhile, because of the American need for workers on farms and in defense plants, the United States forged an agreement with Mexico that facilitated the organized recruitment of Mexicans for seasonal agricultural work and full-time factory work in such defense industries as airplane manufacture in California. The resulting
Immediately following the end of World War II in Europe and Asia in 1945, a huge problem confronted the world’s leaders–millions of displaced people. President
During the two decades following the war, several million immigrants entered the United States, but the nature of immigration changed yet again, as did the types of employment that the new immigrants sought and found. By this time, nearly one-half the immigrants were coming from countries in the Western Hemisphere. After
A central goal of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was to remove racial and ethnic discrimination from the system, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed discrimination in jobs and housing. Nevertheless, changing circumstances often alter laws, and the
Other Asian immigrants fared much better. For example, those coming from
During the 1980’s, more than 1.6 million Mexicans entered the United States legally, but many more entered illegally. Those who became agricultural workers were often subjected to poor working conditions, wages, and housing.
Statistical evidence indicates that, throughout the history of the United States, immigrants have experienced large variations in their occupational achievements. During some periods, immigrant groups have been forced to take low-paying and poor-quality jobs, and many even returned, disappointed, to their native countries. However, many of those who remained eventually got better jobs at higher rates of pay. Some studies have shown that newly arrived immigrants have higher rates of unemployment and tend to work at much lower-paying jobs than native-born Americans with similar levels of education and job skills. However, the same studies have also shown that immigrant employment rates and job status reach the levels of native-born workers after several years of residence.
The controversy over immigrants and employment has continued into the twenty-first century, with some believing that immigrants lower wages and become a drain on American taxpayers, while others insist that immigrants do not adversely affect the wages of American citizens, even those in unskilled jobs. A study of illegal immigration has shown that undocumented workers contribute as much as $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Furthermore immigrants have more often than not achieved the American goal that allows people of various backgrounds to rise as far as their talents and energies will take them.
Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy. New York: Basic Books, 1990. Analysis of the influence of immigration laws on the employment of immigrants, as well as the competition among members of different immigrant groups for jobs. Illustrated with tables. Notes and index. Fermi, Laura. Illustrious Immigrants: The Intellectual Migration from Europe, 1930-1941. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. The author, who accompanied an illustrious immigrant, Enrico Fermi, to the United States, divides her book into two parts: “Arrival” and “Achievement.” She details the role played by dictatorships in driving talented refugees to America and shows how, despite difficulties, refugees made major contributions to science, mathematics, and the arts. Reference notes and an index of persons. Glenn, Evelyn Nakano. Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. This historical study covers the period from Reconstruction to World War II, and the difficulties encountered by immigrants in finding employment are very much a part of her story. Notes and index. Jones, Maldwyn A. Destination America. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976. This extensively illustrated volume centers on “the greatest mass migration in history”–the settling of millions of Europeans in the United States during the previous 150 years. He makes use of personal as well as published accounts, and the need to find meaningful employment is one of his chief themes. Further reading section and an index. Karas, Jennifer. Bridges and Barriers: Earnings and Occupational Attainment Among Immigrants. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2002. Part of the New Americans series, this book emphasizes immigration and employment in the United States from 1965 to 2000. Several helpful tables of data, bibliography, and index. Millman, Joel. The Other Americans: How Immigrants Renew Our Country, Our Economy, and Our Values. New York: Viking Press, 1997. Study analyzing what immigrants do in America by showing how certain of them have formed successful businesses, rescued declining communities, and, in general, improved themselves while improving America. Notes and index. Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. This study uses various primary sources to help understand recent immigration to the United States, including how immigrants find employment and become part of the American economy. Notes, bibliography, and index.
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