Although millions of people were forced into mass migration by the war, the U.S. government maintained most of its restrictions on immigration despite a national labor shortage. Presidential executive orders allowed some refugees to enter the United States, and Congress passed some laws allowing limited numbers of wartime refugees, Mexican laborers, and Chinese nationals to enter. After the war ended, the United States admitted substantial numbers of refugees.
Until Japan launched its surprise
Another reason that immigration rates were low was the persistent anti-immigration feelings of substantial portions of the American voters who feared competition from newcomers. Some of this feeling reflected nativist attitudes about the alleged inferiority of peoples from regions other than northern and western Europe, from which most early American immigrants had originated. Most Americans were opposed to lifting national immigration quotas, even as tragic circumstances in Europe were increasing the numbers of homeless refugees. Congressional leaders who wanted to take in more refugees saw their legislative measures fail. Only President
At the moment that the United States entered the war, significant numbers of citizens of the principal enemy nations–Germany, Italy, and Japan–were residing in the United States. Moreover, huge numbers of American citizens traced their ancestry to immigrants from these same nations. Many Americans turned their suspicions on people who were obviously of German, Italian, and Japanese ancestry. However, perhaps because of their more distinctive physical appearance, people of Japanese ancestry were treated most harshly.
During World War II, Asian entrepreneurs such as this Filipino farmer advertised their non-Japanese ethnic identities in order to do business safely.
Indeed, the treatment of Japanese–both Japanese nationals and American citizens–became one of the most shameful episodes in American history.
Despite the federal governments’ harsh treatment of Japanese residents, thousands of Nisei–many from the internment camps–patriotically volunteered for military service and formed one of the most decorated combat units in the U.S. Army during the war. Others served in the Pacific theater of the war as translators. Some left the camps to work in factories. Although the internment program disrupted the lives of the internees and caused many of them to lose their homes and businesses, it helped to disperse the Japanese community geographically and introduce them to many economic opportunities outside their traditional work in agriculture.
Members of other alien communities within the United States were treated less harshly. When the war began, at least 1 million enemy aliens were living in the United States, and millions more people from
Wartime migration within the United States involved internal population shifts rather than waves of immigration. Fifteen million Americans left their homes for military training, and three-quarters of them went overseas. One in five Americans migrated during the war, and 8 million of them became permanent residents in other states. The main flows were toward West and East Coast defense industries and factories in the upper Midwest. In contrast, the rural South and Midwest saw sharp population declines. Most notably,
In contrast, migrations within Europe were brought on by a series of catastrophes. When German armies advanced to the east, millions of German settlers followed them. When the Soviet armies countered from the east, ethnic Germans from all over eastern Europe fled westward. Throughout the war, Germany conscripted workers in conquered areas and moved them about. After the war ended, these people swarmed through Central Europe seeking passage home. Large numbers of surviving prisoners of war were similarly on the move. During the early stages of the war,
The term “displaced persons,” or DPs, was applied to people driven out of their countries by war. The total number of persons displaced by World War II may never be known, but estimates have ranged from 8 to 20 million. By 1945, only a few thousand displaced persons had been admitted to the United States. President
Another special category comprised tens of thousands of
Europe’s largest prewar concentrations of Jewish populations were in Nazi-occupied eastern Europe, especially in Poland and Russia. Not many survived the Nazi death camps to which Jews from all over Europe were sent. Their victims included German Jews who had held the false hope that the Nazis would become more civilized after spending some time in power. The mass
Jewish refugees from the Holocaust posed a moral dilemma for Americans before, during, and after the war. The failure of the United States to grant them
The number of German Jews who were admitted to the United States in 1936-1937 was small. President
In 1944, President Roosevelt established the
World War II substantially increased Mexican immigration to the United States because of the nationwide shortage of workers. In 1942, the United States and Mexico formed an agreement to create the
World War II also brought a significant change for Chinese immigration to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed by a new act of 1943. For the first time, the United States allowed a small number of Chinese to naturalize and become citizens. This change was in recognition of China’s role as an important wartime ally.
Divine, Robert A. The Reluctant Belligerent: American Entry into World War II. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979. Valuable source of information about the political climate in the United States at the dawn of World War II. Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Detailed history of the life, conditions, and social policy affecting Mexican guest workers who began coming to the United States early during World War II. Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. New York: Henry Holt, 1985. Study of the European Holocaust that places U.S. immigration policies in the context of a tragic history. Kennedy, David M. Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Describes how Americans responded to the deprivations of the Great Depression, the recovery period of the New Deal, and the country’s entrance into World War II. Considers immigration issues within the broader context of the war. Ng, Wendy. Japanese American Internment During World War II: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Comprehensive reference source on all aspects of the internment of Japanese people during World War II. Includes a selection of primary documents. Shukert, Elfrieda Berthiaume, and Barbara Smith Scibetta. War Brides of World War II. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1988. Comprehensive study of war brides that includes many interviews with brides.
Displaced Persons Act of 1948
History of immigration after 1891
Japanese American internment
Prisoners of war in the United States
War Brides Act of 1945
World War I