History Lesson 2: History of Immigration From the 1850s to the Present

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This lesson continues the history of immigration from 1850 to the present. Special emphasis is placed on the experience of Chinese immigrants, the "new immigrants" from Southern and Eastern Europe, nativism and restrictive quotas, the 1965 immigration act, and the "new immigrants" from Asia and Latin America in the contemporary era. In the activity, students research, write, and report on a notable immigrant to America.


Students will be able to:

  • Identify the two periods of greatest immigration in the United States and the main immigrant groups that came in each of the periods.
  • Explain what nativism is and give historical examples of it.
  • Compare the 1924 and 1965 immigration acts and give a reasoned opinion on each.
  • Briefly explain the issue of unauthorized immigration.
  • Research, write, and make a presentation on a notable immigrant to the United States.

Standards Addressed:

National U.S. History Standard 17: Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity. (1) Understands challenges immigrants faced in society in the late 19th century (e.g., experiences of new immigrants from 1870 to 1900, reasons for hostility toward the new immigrants, restrictive measures against immigrants . . . .)

National U.S. History Standard 22: Understands how the United States changed between the post-World War I years and the eve of the Great Depression III (1) Understands the various social conflicts that took place in the early 1920s (e.g., state and federal government reactions to the growth of radical political movements, rising racial tensions and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan . . . how the restriction of European immigration affected Mexican American immigration)

National U.S. History Standard 31: Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States. II (2) Understands the factors that prompted new immigration in contemporary American society (e.g., new immigration policies after 1965, areas of the world from which most immigrants have come)

California History-Social Science Standard 8.12: Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution. (7) Identify the new sources of large-scale immigration . . . and discuss the new wave of nativism.

California History-Social Science Standard 11.2: Students analyze the relationship among the rise of industrialization, large-scale rural-to-urban migration, and massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

California History-Social Science Standard 11.5: Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s. (2) Analyze the international and domestic events, interests, and philosophies that prompted attacks on civil liberties, including . . . the Ku Klux Klan . . . and immigration quotas . . . .

California History-Social Science Standard 11.11 Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society. (1) Discuss the reasons for the nation's changing immigration policy, with emphasis on how the Immigration Act of 1965 and successor acts have transformed American society.

Notes: For the activity, consider having one or two students a week make a presentation on their notable immigrant instead of all students making the presentations one after another. Also consider creating a grading rubric for the presentations and have students evaluate the presentations.

History of Immigration From the 1850s to the Present

Most 19th and early 20th century immigrants landed in America at the great Eastern seaports of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. But a smaller, but no less significant, port of entry for immigrants was San Francisco. Through this port, numerous Chinese began to arrive in the 1850s. Many came as contract laborers to build the western segment of the transcontinental railroad. Others came for the California Gold Rush that had begun in 1849. By 1870, over 100,000 Chinese were living in California.

When an economic depression occurred in 1873, many Americans lost their jobs. Dennis Kearney, an Irish immigrant, led the Workingman's Party in San Francisco. He charged that Chinese immigrants took away jobs from white Americans by working at low "coolie wages." Kearney made many speeches against the Chinese ridiculing their language, religion, and customs. He ended his speeches by demanding, "The Chinese must go!" Nativist sentiment grew against the Chinese.

Responding to the supposed "Yellow Peril" in the West, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. It stopped further Chinese immigration and prevented Chinese in the United States from becoming naturalized citizens. This act was not changed until World War II (when China was an important U.S. ally).

In the 1890s, Western farmers needing a source of cheap labor began to encourage the immigration of Japanese. About 7,000 Japanese arrived each year until 1907, when the U.S. and Japanese governments made a "Gentlemen's Agreement" to slow down the immigration. By 1910, over 70,000 people of Japanese ancestry were living in the United States, most of them in California.

By 1940, this number had grown to more than 120,000. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment arose. Citing fears of espionage and sabotage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order authorizing the mass evacuation of people of Japanese ancestry from Western states. Citizens and non-citizens alike went to relocation camps for the duration of the war. In 1988, Congress passed a law apologizing for the action and compensating each surviving detainee with $20,000.

European Immigration

About 5 million immigrants, mostly from northern Europe, arrived in America between 1861 and 1880. They arrived on ships, most of them traveling in steerage.

Before 1880, most European immigrants came from Northern Europe. Starting in 1880, this changed. More and more immigrants began to arrive from Southern and Eastern European nations. People came from Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Rumania, Poland, Russia, and other nations. From 1881 to 1920, nearly 24 million people from these nations came to America. Most entered on ships through New York Harbor and Ellis Island.

They differed from earlier European immigrants. More of them were Catholics or Jews. They brought new customs and ways of doing things.

Most chose to live and work in the large Eastern cities, especially New York, rather than disperse to the Western farmlands. They filled the tremendous demand for unskilled workers in the growing factories of America's industrial cities.

Reaction Against the New Immigrants

In cities, the new immigrants often congregated in ethnic enclaves. In these parts of the cities, immigrants could maintain their customs, eat food they were used to, and speak their own language. Some Americans grew concerned that the new immigrants would not become part of American society. A new nativism arose.

Immigration by decades

The Immigration Restriction League, formed by professionals in Boston, pushed for legislation requiring a literacy test of all immigrants. League members believed that such a test would stop most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1907, the U.S. Senate created the Dillingham Commission to study immigration. Its report in 1911 filled 42 volumes. The commission blamed many of the nation's problems on the new immigrants and recommended a literacy test and other restrictions on immigration.

Extremist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan emerged. The Klan had terrorized Southern blacks after the Civil War to keep them from voting. In 1915, the organization started up again and spread outside the South. Its followers believed in the superiority of the white race and spoke out against non-whites, Jews, Catholics, and the foreign born. Klansmen participated in beatings, brandings, mutilations, kidnappings, lynchings, and murder. The Klan reached its greatest strength during the 1920s. It gradually lost members and officially disbanded in 1944 (but it was restarted during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s).

Immigrants admitted

Relatively few Americans ever supported the Klan. Many, however, did think that the new immigrants presented a problem. The First World War increased this wariness of foreigners. Responding to political pressure, Congress in 1917 passed a law over President Woodrow Wilson's veto requiring all immigrants to pass a literacy test. It also banned immigrants from all countries in Asia except Japan and the Philippines. In 1921, Congress put a temporary quota on immigration.

In 1924, Congress made the quota permanent and more strict. It limited the total number of immigrants to 164,000 each year. It also fixed quotas on immigration from each country, basing the quota on the percentage of people from that country who lived in the United States in 1890. Since the population in 1890 was overwhelmingly from Northern Europe, the law favored immigration from Northern Europe and discouraged immigration from other countries.

Immigration dropped dramatically. The Great Depression caused it to drop even further. In some years, more people left the United States than entered as immigrants. During World War II, many people sought to escape from the Nazis. Some were denied entry into the United States because they did not fit within the immigration quota set by the 1924 law.

Immigration to the United States by Decade-From 1821-2001

Decade Number of Immigrants
1821-1830 143,439
1831-1840 599,125
1841-1850 1,713,251
1851-1860 2,598,214
1861-1870 2,314,824
1871-1880 2,812,191
1881-1890 5,246,613
1891-1900 3,687,564
1901-1910 8,795,386
1911-1920 5,735,811
1921-1930 4,107,209
1931-1940 528,431
1941-1950 1,035,039
1951-1960 2,515,479
1961-1970 3,321,677
1971-1980 4,493,314
1981-1990 7,338,062
991-2000 1 9,095,417
Source: 2001 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service

Immigration After World War II

Shortly after World War II, the Cold War began. The United States and Soviet Union squared off against one another. During this period, Congress passed measures to admit refugees from communist nations. In 1953, it passed the Refugee Relief Act, which admitted thousands of refugees from Europe. The 1957 Refugee-Escapee Act allowed entry to people escaping from persecution in communist and Middle Eastern countries. After the communist revolution in Cuba in 1959, refugees fleeing the island were granted admission to the United States.

Although Congress was liberal in admitting refugees from communist nations, it did not change the immigration quota system. In 1952, it passed the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act over President Harry S. Truman's veto. This act allowed a few immigrants from Asian nations. It also gave the attorney general "parole" authority to let immigrants enter if it was in the public interest. Most important, however, it kept the quota system.

Truman complained that the McCarran-Walter Act "discriminates, deliberately and intentionally, against many of the peoples of the world." Both Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy tried to reform the act. But nothing happened during their terms. Remarkably, when change came, it stirred little controversy. President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through the controversial Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. These were epic struggles. His Immigration Act of 1965 sailed through Congress.

The act did away with national quotas and instead set overall limits for immigrants from the Western and Eastern hemispheres. It gave preference to people with useful skills and to relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. In 1978, Congress got rid of the limits on each hemisphere and instead set a yearly ceiling on immigration.

The New Immigrants

The 1965 act ushered in a new era of immigration. A new wave of immigrants came in the 1980s and 1990s. In sheer numbers, more immigrants came during this period than during the wave at the turn of the 20th century. For example, in 1914 (the peak year of immigration for that era), 1.2 million immigrants arrived. In 1991 (the peak year of the new immigration), 1.8 million immigrants came. But this comparison is somewhat misleading. In 1914, the population of the United States was 99 million compared to 252 million in 1991. As a percentage of the population, immigration in 1914 was far greater than in 1991 (1.2 percent of the population compared to .7 percent in 1991).

The 1965 law caused the percentage of foreign-born people to rise. In 1970, only 5 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born. Today, about 10 percent are foreign born. But this is still lower than in 1910 when 15 percent of the population was born outside the United States.

Top five countries

Most of today's immigrants do not come from Europe. They mainly come from Asia and Latin America (especially Mexico). Mexico had provided a small percentage of immigrants to the United States since the 1849 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which ceded the Southwest to the United States). The Mexican Revolution of 1910 and the subsequent unrest sent more Mexicans north. But in the 1930s, the Depression in the United States, stability in Mexico, and nativist pressure caused many Mexicans to return home.

Because of a labor shortage in World War II, the U.S. government started the bracero program (bracero means "day laborer" in Spanish). It allowed workers from Mexico to come temporarily to do seasonal farmwork and other labor. The program ended in 1964. In its peak year (1959), 450,000 braceros entered the country. Beginning in the 1950s, more immigrants came from Mexico. This flow continued, and by 2001, Mexico sent far more legal immigrants to the United States than any other country.

Most recent Asian immigrants have come from five countries: China, India, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam. Chinese immigration restarted in 1943 when Congress got rid of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Like the other immigrant groups, it surged after 1965. The first Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War, which ended in 1975. Most Korean immigrants have joined family members who immigrated around the time of the Korean War (1950-53).

Immigration from the Philippines dates to the Spanish-American War of 1898 when the United States took control of the Philippines. As members of an American colony, Filipinos were allowed to immigrate to the United States. Congress cut off this immigration in 1934 when it promised Philippine independence. Immigration rose sharply after the 1965 law.

The law also sparked new immigration from India. In 1970, about 75,000 people of Asian Indian ancestry lived in the United States. By 2000, the Asian Indian population had jumped to more than 1.6 million. Most of the immigrants from India were professionals or well-educated.

Unauthorized Immigration

Since the 1950s, unauthorized immigration has also grown. No one knows how many people have entered illegally, but the Immigration and Naturalization Service has made estimates. (The INS is now called the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services and is part of the Department of Homeland Security.) In 1990, it estimated that 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States (about 1.4 percent of the total population). By 2000, it calculated that the number had doubled to 7 million (about 2.4 percent of the total population). About a third of the unauthorized immigrants live in California and a sixth live in Texas. About two-thirds of them come from Mexico.

A debate has raged over whether unauthorized immigration is a serious problem and, if so, what to do about it. California and Texas have called on the federal government to help stem the tide. Beginning in the early 1990s, the government increased patrols around major border crossings. In recent years, it seems that unauthorized immigration has slowed down, and despite stepped-up border patrols, the number of apprehensions has dropped. It's not known whether the decline in unauthorized immigration comes from the increased patrols or the recession in the United States.

Why Do Immigrants Come to America?

From 1820 to 2001, more than 67 million people entered this country from many lands. Some paid their own way. Some came as indentured servants. Some signed up as contract laborers to work on American railroads, canals, farms, and factories. Others came as refugees or entered the United States illegally. Millions abandoned their homes to become part of the greatest mass migration of people in the history of the world. Why did they do this, and why do they still come?

As in most cases of human migration, there are "push" and "pull" factors at work. "Push" factors are conditions that encourage people to leave their homelands. They include such things as famine, unemployment, and poverty. Also, crippling taxes, wars, the military draft, and religious and political persecution have forced people to abandon their native countries.

Immigrants coming to this country have not only been "pushed" from their homelands. They have also been "pulled" by the seemingly limitless opportunities of America. There was land to farm. There were forests to cut down and railroads to build. The Gold Rush of 1849 stirred the imaginations of the adventurous. Those trapped in poverty saw a way out by getting jobs as farm laborers or in the industrial cities of America. Still others were drawn by the American ideals of freedom and equality.

Millions of immigrants have pulled up their roots and journeyed to America. Immigrants are still coming. They are coming for the same reason that most immigrants came in the past: for hope and a chance for a better life.

How Has America Accommodated So Many Immigrants?

The United States has forged a nation of immigrants. The presence of different ethnic groups could easily have led to permanent divisions and ethnic strife as it has in other places. This country has experienced some of these problems at various times, most notably racism and nativism. Yet through all the hardships and setbacks, it has managed to mold a united nation from diverse ethnic groups. There are many reasons for this success.

First, from the beginning, the United States has been a nation of immigrants. In 1783, President George Washington stated: "The bosom of America is open to receive not only the opulent and respectable stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions." Accepting immigrants is considered part of American culture.

Second, America's commitment to freedom has encouraged toleration of different religions and traditions. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the right to freely practice any religion.

Third, upward mobility has kept ethnic groups from being mired in poverty. The United States has historically had a strong economy. The growing economy has pulled most people up, including immigrants. In most cases, after a generation or so, people have joined America's vast middle class.

Fourth, the United States' two-party system has helped prevent political fragmentation along ethnic lines. The United States has had some third-party movements, but they have been short-lived. Those engaged in politics have had to work within one of two parties. The parties in turn have had to accommodate a broad range of people.

Fifth, American ideals proclaim an openness to immigrants. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal." The Statue of Liberty stands in New York Harbor as a beacon welcoming immigrants. The United States has not always lived up to these ideals, but they have given immigrants a sense that they belong in America and have encouraged toleration from everyone.


For Discussion and Writing

  1. The two largest periods of immigration in our history occurred before World War I and from the 1980s onward. Where did the immigrants come from in each of these periods? How are the immigrants of the two periods different? How are they similar? Why do you think that more European immigrants did not come to the United States after 1965?
  2. What were the "push" and "pull" factors that accounted for the mass migration of people to the United States up to 1924? What factors exist in the world today that explain why many people are still coming to America?
  3. What is nativism? What examples of it are cited in this article? What do you think accounts for it?
  4. The end of the article cites various reasons for America's success in forging a nation of immigrants. Which of these reasons do you think is most important? Why?
  5. What did the 1924 immigration law do? How did the 1965 law change this? Which law do you think is better? Explain.
  6. What do you think causes unauthorized immigration? What, if anything, do you think should be done about it? Why?


Biography of a Notable Immigrant

We are a nation of immigrants. Each generation of immigrants has contributed greatly to America. In this activity, students write biographies of notable first-generation immigrants.

Each student should:

  1. Select a person from the list Some Notable Immigrants. Each person on this list was foreign born and immigrated to America.
  2. Research information about the person. Go to the library and find books and articles from magazines. Go on the Internet. A good place to start on the Internet is Constitutional Rights Foundation's web site. Go to www.crf-usa.org and click on Links, Immigration Debate Links, and History of Immigration From 1850s to the Present.
  3. Write an interesting biography of your person. A few questions to consider answering:
    Where was the person born?
    What was the person's family like?
    Why did the person decide to leave the country?
    What were the person's hopes and dreams about America?
    What did the person do when arriving in America?
    What kind of education did the person have?
    What obstacles did the person have to overcome?
    What talents did the person have?
    What did the person do to become a success?
    What did the person accomplish?
    What did the person contribute to America?
  4. Prepare an interesting two- or three-minute presentation on your person.

Some Notable Immigrants

Madeleine Albright
Isabel Allende
Mario Andretti
John Jacob Astor
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Alexander GrahamBell
Irving Berlin
Andrew Carnegie
Charlie Chaplin
Edwidge Danticat
Willem De Kooning
Albert Einstein
Jaime Escalante
Patrick Ewing
Enrico Fermi
Milos Forman
Felix Frankfurter
Eric Fromm

Greta Garbo
Andy Garcia
Marcus Garvey
Kahlil Gibran
Samuel Gompers
Andrew Grove
Alfred Hitchcock
Dolores Huerta
Bob Hope
Harry Houdini
Mary "Mother" Jones
Elia Kazan
Henry Kissinger
Bette Bao Lord
Frank McCourt
Zubin Mehta
Mario J. Molina
Ricardo Montalban
John Muir
Thomas Nast
Martina Navratilova
Mike Nichols
Haing Ngor
Hakeem Olajuwon
Patrick Oliphant
I.M. Pei
Allan Pinkerton
Sidney Poitier
Joseph Pulitzer
Jacob Riis
Knute Rockne
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Carlos Santana
Arnold Schwarzenegger
John Shalikashvili
Levi Strauss
Rudolph Valentino
Baron von Trapp
Chang-Lin Tien
Derek Walcott
An Wang
Billy Wilder
John Peter Zenger
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