History Times: A Nation of Immigrants

by Gilder Lehrman Institute

Coming to the Land of Opportunity

Family in Chinatown, San Francisco, CA (LC-G4085- 0192 <P&P />)Throughout American history, millions of people around the world have left their homelands for a chance to start a new life in this country—and they continue to come here to this day. People who come to live in a new country are called immigrants.

Over the past 400 years, immigrants have had different reasons to come to America. Some came to escape war, others for the freedom to practice the religion of their choice. Still others came for the opportunity to own land or simply for a chance to work and escape poverty.

For example, the threat of starvation brought a large portion of Ireland’s population to the United States in the 1840s and 1850s. Potatoes, Ireland’s main source of food at the time, stopped growing because of a fungus in the soil. The Irish Potato Famine led nearly 20 percent of Ireland’s population to immigrate to the United States.

Immigrants also came from China at a time when parts of China were experiencing severe drought and starvation. Many of the Chinese immigrants built the railroads running across the sprawling American continent.

The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s attracted more immigrants as businesses in the United States grew quickly. New technology and new ideas helped develop large factories where many new products were made. These businesses needed more workers to keep growing. Immigrants and migrants filled the labor demands of the new industrial order, transforming the nation.

Between 1882 and 1914 approximately twenty million immigrants came to the United States. Mass immigration from eastern and southern Europe dramatically altered the population’s ethnic and religious composition. Unlike earlier immigrants, who had come primarily from northern Europe—Britain, Germany, Ireland, and Scandinavia—the “new immigrants” came increasingly from Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Russia. The newcomers were often Catholic or Jewish, and two-thirds of them settled in cities.

A Changing Nation

By 1900, New York City had as many Irish residents as Dublin. It had more Italians than any city outside Rome and more Poles than any city except Warsaw. It had more Jews than any other city in the world, as well as sizeable numbers of Slavs, Lithuanians, Chinese, and Scandinavians.

The government began to pay closer attention to these new immigrants. From 1882 until 1943 most Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the nation’s first law to ban immigration by race or nationality.

In 1892, Ellis Island was opened in New York as a place to check immigrants before allowing them to enter the United States. On the West Coast, a similar immigrant station opened near San Francisco called Angel Island. Government agents at Ellis Island and at Angel Island recorded the names of the twenty million immigrants who passed through their gates and determined whether they should be allowed to settle here.

People on the Move

During World War I, as immigration from Europe temporarily waned, thousands of African Americans left farms in the South for better opportunities in northern cities. Between 1916 and 1918 alone, nearly 400,000 African Americans, or about 500 people each day, made the journey north. Although most had been farmers, they were attracted by industrial jobs in places like Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. Sometimes called the Great Migration, this movement inside the country continued until 1930.

Despite many difficulties, both immigrants and migrants forged new communities in their adopted homes. Assimilation of immigrants preoccupied reformers and immigrant leaders. Others believed immigrants threatened the nation and called form immigration restriction.

Today, immigrants must have permission to enter the country and Americans don’t all agree on who should be allowed to enter. But there is little argument about the importance of immigrants in our country’s history. Immigration brought people to this land from all over the world. This blend of cultures and traditions makes the United States unique. The hard work of immigrants, their talents, and their ideas have made the United States a great country.


This essay is reprinted from the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s American History: An Introduction, part of the History in a Box series.

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