Yugoslav state immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The history of Yugoslav state immigration divides into three distinct eras: the period before Yugoslavia was formed in 1918, the period during which Yugoslavia was an independent nation, and the period after the early 1990’s, when Yugoslavia began breaking into new, ethnically based independent states. Yugoslav immigration is further complicated by the large number of distinct ethnic groups that made up Yugoslavia, including Bosniaks, Croats, Kosovo Albanians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, Slovenes, and others. Although immigrants and their descendants from former Yugoslavia do not quite represent even one-half of 1 percent of the whole population of the United States, they can be found throughout the North American continent. Descendants of the original immigrants from Yugoslavia are among important inventors, and they have made themselves valued in all fields in the United States.

The earliest identifiable Yugoslav immigrants to arrive in what is now the United States came during the 1680’s. They were among the early explorers and Missionaries;Roman CatholicRoman Catholic missionaries in the regions along what would become the Mexican border region. During the 1830’s, some California;Croatian immigrantssmall Croatian settlements were founded in California. Croatians were employed as farmers and also worked in the fields of commerce and Fishing industry;in California[California]fishing and oyster industries. Around the same time, Slovene Catholic missionaries labored among North American Indians in the regions on the Great Lakes, and the first Serbs were starting to arrive.Slovenian immigrantsSerbian immigrantsCroatian immigrantsMontenegrin immigrantsBosnian immigrantsSlovenian immigrantsSerbianimmigrantsCroatian immigrantsMontenegrin immigrantsBosnian immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Yugoslav state immigrants[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Yugoslav state immigrants

Late Nineteenth Through Early Twentieth Centuries

From 1890 to 1914, the largest wave of Slovene, Croatian, Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian immigrants came to the United States. According to U.S. Census data of 1910, among immigrants and their children there were 183,431 Slovenes, 1,460 Wends (Slovenes from the Hungarian part of Austria-Hungary), 93,036 Croats, 5,505 Dalmatians, 26,752 Serbs, and 3,961 Montenegrins. These immigrants founded settlements in the mining communities and industrial centers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Minnesota (Iron Range), Indiana, Colorado, and California. Within those early settlements, the immigrants organized fraternal benefit organizations; built Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox ChristianityOrthodox Christian churches in which, at first, they worshiped in their ancestral languages; and built national homes in which they gathered for meetings of their cultural and fraternal lodges and for dances and wedding parties.

Most immigrants from the territories of former Yugoslavia came from the agrarian and economically undeveloped regions that were then part of Austria-Hungary–regions that were part of Slovenia and Croatia during the early twenty-first century. Within these regions, almost everyone depended on income from the land. Because more than half these regions were situated on porous limestone (karst) areas in which fertile land was scarce, the immigrants looked for additional sources of income. Many turned to handicrafts and transportation services. However, after the mid-nineteenth century, their incomes from these occupations declined because they could not compete with developing factory industries and the expanding railroads.

The loss of the additional sources of income affected small farms the most, as they were heavily taxed. Large families could not survive off their farms. An already bad economic situation became even worse due to Natural disasters;in the Balkans[Balkans]natural disasters, such as floods, heavy frosts, and droughts. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the political situation in then European TurkeyTurkey worsened and this was followed by the Balkan Wars. Serbs, Montenegrins, and Macedonians then began following the Slovene and Croatian immigrants to the United States.

By 1910, about 230,000 people from the regions that would later make up Yugoslavia were living in the United States. About 85 percent of them were men. About 93 percent were between fourteen and forty-five years of age, and roughly equal numbers were younger and older. The bulk of these immigrants had been small farmers and farm laborers at home. After they arrived in the United States, most worked in mines and other industries. The majority intended to save money and later return to their homelands, but that rarely happened.

Most of these immigrants were deeply concerned about the condition of their homelands. During World War I[World War 01];and Yugoslavia[Yugoslavia]World War I (1914-1918), many hoped that Austria-Hungary would be defeated. Serbs and Montenegrins opposed Austria-Hungary because their ancestral homelands were at war with it. Slovenes and Croats opposed it because of its pressure to Germanize and Hungarianize their homelands.

After Italy entered the war in 1915, many Slovenes and Croatians feared that it might annex substantial parts of their territory. Not surprisingly, therefore, most of the immigrants wanted a Yugoslav state to be established. Views differed on whether the future state should be a kingdom or a republic, a federal or a centralized state. Before the end of the war, however, the immigrants united in their endeavors to help the Yugoslav state be formed and to ensure it would have “fair borders.”

Interwar period

After World War I, tens of thousands of immigrants left the United States and returned to their homelands, where were now part of the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes–which in 1929 was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. However, most of the immigrants were unable to find work in Yugoslavia. Between 1919 and 1924, 24,409 of them returned to the United States. Many of these people wisely feared that changing U.S. immigration laws might prevent them from returning if they waited too long.

Refugees fleeing the civil war in Bosnia in August, 1995.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1920, the U.S. Census counted 411,012 residents of the United States whose mother tongues were among the languages spoken in Yugoslavia. Among them were 208,552 Slovenes, 140,559 Croats, 52,208 Serbs, 4,535 Montenegrins, 3,119 Dalmatians, and 2,039 Wends.

New U.S. immigration laws enacted in 1921 and 1924 drastically reduced the numbers of immigrants permitted into the country from southern and eastern Europe, causing the migration currents to change the course they had taking for several decades. The entire nation of Yugoslavia was permitted fewer than 1,000 immigrants per year. However, loopholes in the quota system allowed many more immigrants to enter the United States legally. Between 1920 and 1938, for example, about 70,000 people from Yugoslavia came to the country.

By this time, the composition of the immigrants from Yugoslavia was changing. For the first time, more than one-half (55 percent) of the newcomers were women. Another change was a substantial increase in the proportion of immigrants who were children. U.S. Census data for 1940 recorded 342,700 residents of the United States whose mother tongues were Yugoslavian languages. The bulk of these people were Slovenes (184,420), Croats (119,360), and Serbs (38,920).

World War II

Yugoslavia’s World War II[World War 02];and Yugoslavia[Yugoslavia]entry into World War II (1939-1945) again virtually stopped movement between it and the United States. During the war, the only Yugoslavians who traveled abroad were politicians, diplomats, and businessmen. Between 1941 and 1945, fewer than 1,000 Yugoslavs took refuge in the United States.

The April 6, 1941, Axis invasion of Yugoslavia mobilized Yugoslavian immigrants. Until the end of 1942, they supported the Yugoslav people’s fight against the Axis through correspondence with important world leaders, members of the Yugoslav regime, and later its representatives in exile. Between December, 1942, and April, 1943, American Slovene, Croat, and Serb leaders called for unity among all Yugoslav Americans in the war effort. They also issued resolutions in which they tried to find solutions for their “national questions” in a federated Yugoslavia. The leaders organized the United Committee of South Slavic Americans to coordinate their activities. In 1944, they began gathering relief supplies for Yugoslavia and established a special organization for that purpose. Yugoslav Americans eventually collected about 20 million dollars for Yugoslavia’s relief efforts. During late 1944 and early 1945, Yugoslav American leaders directed their activities toward favorable solutions for Yugoslavs in resolving postwar border issues among Yugoslavia, Italy, and Austria.

Mid to Late Twentieth Century Trends

After World War II, immigration from Yugoslavia to the United States resumed as changing U.S. immigration laws allowed in more immigrants from eastern Europe. By this time, many Yugoslavians wished to escape from the rising communist influence in eastern Europe. After the mid-1960’s, many qualified for refugee status and could seek political Asylum, political;Yugoslavian immigrantsasylum in the United States. Most were refugees from Communism;refugees fromcommunist suppression of liberal movements within Croatia and Serbia. After the mid-1980’s, suppression of the Albanian minority in Kosovo forced thousands of ethnic Albanians to flee Slobodan Milošević’s regime to seek asylum.

Between 1950 and 1989, approximately 73,000 people immigrated to the United States from Yugoslavia. The 1990 U.S. Census counted 544,270 Croatians, 116,795 Serbians, 124,437 Slovenes, 20,365 Macedonians, and 257,994 people designated simply as “Yugoslavs.”

Post-Yugoslavia Immigration

During the 1990’s, immigrants from the territories of former Yugoslavia played important roles in the process of dissolving Yugoslavia. The goal of transforming Yugoslavia’s major ethnic regions into separate independent republics became popular during the mid-1980’s. Most Slovene, Croat, and Macedonian immigrants in the United States supported the efforts of their homelands to establish independent states. Most Serb immigrants supported the policy of Slobodan Milošević and Serbia, which meant that initially they supported centralization of the Yugoslav federation and, later, “Great Serbia.”

Many immigrants wrote letters and petitions to newspaper editors, heads of world governments, and legislators in the United States. A war of words developed among members of the different ethnic communities during the early 1990’s. Members of each community hoped to receive support for their requests, especially from American politicians with the same ethnic backgrounds, such as Bentley, Helen DelichHelen Delich Bentley, a Maryland congresswoman who worked to aid the “Serb cause.” Minnesota congressman Obersta, JamesJames Obersta and Ohio, congressman Eckart, DennisDennis Eckart supported the “Slovene cause.” Diaspora communities established several organizations in support of independence and recognition of their countries of origin, and these groups were often active in collecting economic and humanitarian aid. Among these organizations were the United Americans for Slovenia, the Serb National Federation, the Croat Congress, the United Macedonian Organization, and the Macedonian Patriotic Organization.

As Yugoslavia was breaking apart during the early 1990’s, bloody civil wars within several former Yugoslav territories prompted many people to flee to the United States. By the year 2000, about 107,000 Bosnian refugees had been admitted to the United States. Much small numbers of refugees came from Croatia (4,500) and Serbia and Montenegro (15,000). Most of the latter were Serbs from Kosovo who immigrated after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) began intervening in Bosnia’s civil war, and it was becoming clear that Kosovo would not remain part of Serbia.

The 2000 U.S. Census counted 374,241 Croats, 176,691 Slovenes, 140,337 Serbs, 38,051 Macedonians, and 328,547 “Yugoslavs” residing in the United States. After that year, the number of refugees from the former Yugoslav region decreased quickly. However, the number of immigrants petitioning for green cards increased. During 2000-2006 alone, permanent residency was granted to approximately 122,000 persons from the region of former Yugoslavia. Two-thirds of them were from Bosnia and Herzegovina.Slovenian immigrantsSerbian immigrantsCroatian immigrantsMontenegrin immigrantsBosnian immigrants

Further Reading
  • Čizmić, Ivan, Ivan Miletić, and George J. Prpić. From the Adriatic to Lake Erie: A History of Croatians in Greater Cleveland. Eastlake, Ohio: American Croatian Lodge, 2000. Brief but useful survey of Croatian immigration into the region around Cleveland, Ohio.
  • Čolaković, Branko Mita. Yugoslav Migrations to America. San Francisco: R&E Research Associates, 1973. Broad overview of Yugoslavian immigration to the United States written at a time when Yugoslavia appeared to be a strong unitary state.
  • Coughlan, Reed, and Judith Owens-Manley. Bosnian Refugees in America: New Communities, New Cultures. New York: Springer, 2005. Study of immigrants who came from the troubled nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the breakdown of Yugoslavia during the early 1990’s.
  • Gorvorchin, Gerald G. Americans from Yugoslavia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1961. Now badly dated but still useful scholarly study of Yugoslavian immigration to the United States.
  • Klemenčič, Matjaž. Slovenes of Cleveland: The Creation of a New Nation and a New World Community Slovenia and the Slovenes of Cleveland, Ohio. Novo Mesto, Slovenia: Dolenjska Založba, 1995. Useful study complementing Čizmić, Miletić, and Prpić’s study of Croats in Cleveland.
  • Prpić, George J. South Slavic Immigration in America. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Overview of immigration from the eastern European nations by southern Slavs, who include many of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia.

European immigrants

Greek immigrants

Italian immigrants

Muslim immigrants

Russian and Soviet immigrants

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