To What Extent Essay History Immigrants

Prompt: “As the century drew to a close, the explosion of cities paradoxically made Americans more diverse and more similar at the same time.” Assess the validity of this statement.

As the 19th century drew to a close, the rapid development of cities served as both a uniting and diving factor in American social, economic, and political life. Cities attracted a rich cross-section of the world’s population, creating a diverse, metropolitan atmosphere. At the same time, cities forced people from entirely different backgrounds to live and work together in close proximity for the first time, which served as a uniting factor. The never-ending influx of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, Britain, and Scandinavia created an ethnically diverse population united by their common financial plight, social oppression, and shared American Dream.

Cities attracted a diverse population composed of hundreds of ethnicities from around the globe. German and Scandinavian immigrants poured into America during the late 19th century, attracted by extravagant stories of the wonderful American lifestyle: three meals a day, freedom, and social equality. Sadly, none of these “American creeds” ever became a reality for German and Scandinavian immigrants. Rich industrial giants exaggerated the luxuries of American life in a deliberate attempt to attract cheap labor. Desperate people from every country in the world flocked to the United States to escape their dire political, social, and economic situations bringing with them cultural traditions and languages. One foreign observer noted on a visit to America, “You could hear over one-hundred different languages being spoken just by walking down the street in New York City”. Not only did immigrants come from Germany and Scandinavia, but immigrants continued to pour in from Ireland and Britain, bringing with them their diverse political beliefs, social customs, and religious traditions. The diversity found in the cities extended to political thought as well. Many German and Irish Catholic immigrants became democrats immediately because they identified with the worker’s struggle, the vast majority of them being wage-laborers themselves. However, other immigrants, especially those from Britain and Scandinavia, became conservative Republicans. In many other instances, the immigrants had their political preference chosen for them by powerful political machines. The immigrant would agree to vote for a certain candidate in exchange for a stable job. The density and the concentration of such diverse political beliefs in such a small locale was a worldwide first—something never seen anywhere before. The mixing and blending of so many distinct and diverse cultures was truly a dividing factor during this time period. Many minority groups tended to congregate in certain area of the city giving rise to nicknames like “Chinatown” in San Francisco and “Little Italy” in New York City. Yet, the immigrants’ common financial plight and social oppression proved to be a powerful unifying factor as the 19th century drew to a close.

As desperate people immigrated to the United States for the chance to live a better life often discovering upon arrival, however, that their situation was as bad, if not worse that it was before. New Immigrants, the majority of which did not speak English, were viewed as socially inferior to the other American residents. Rich “robber barons” or industrial giants paid the immigrants ridiculously low wages, knowing that they were forced to take the low-paying jobs or face starvation. As New Immigrants became a larger part of the workforce in America, industrial leaders began to realize that they could increase profits if they fired their existing workers and hired New Immigrants who would accept even the lowest of wages. Native-born Americans became upset with the immigrants taking their jobs and lowering wages so anti-immigration groups like the Nativists and the Know-Nothings materialized. These groups fought against immigrants in every conceivable way. Nativists drafted laws to make immigrants lives difficult through high taxes, poor living conditions, and exclusion acts. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred all Chinese from entering the country in response to their “overpopulation” of the California region. In addition to sharing the same dire financial situation, immigrants were the victims of the same powerful and corrupt political machines. Immigrants more and more were beginning to realize that despite their ethnic differences they had a lot in common and they should unite to fight for their rights. Immigrants took part in movements like Progressivism to effect change and address the problems caused by industrialization and urbanization.

Although cities were filled with a diverse mix of ethnicities, languages, and religions, immigrants shared a lot in common. They shared the same financial, political, and social plights caused by the rapid growth of metropolitan cities and the tyranny of groups like the Nativists, “robber barons”, and political machines. It was the immigrants’ common dilemma that caused them to unify and fight for their rights despite their diverse backgrounds and seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Urbanization in the 19th Century U.S.A." Study Notes, LLC., 05 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2018. <>.

Background Essay on Late 19th and Early 20th Century Immigration

This summary of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century immigration describes the "new immigration" that originated from Southern and Eastern Europe. The essay also outlines American responses to the new wave of immigration, including some of the laws designed to restrict immigration that were adopted between 1880 and 1910.

Between 1880 and 1910, almost fifteen million immigrants entered the United States, a number which dwarfed immigration figures for previous periods. Unlike earlier nineteenth century immigration, which consisted primarily of immigrants from Northern Europe, the bulk of the new arrivals hailed mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe. These included more than two and half million Italians and approximately two million Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe, as well as many Poles, Hungarians, Austrians, Greeks, and others.

The new immigrants’ ethnic, cultural, and religious differences from both earlier immigrants and the native-born population led to widespread assertions that they were unfit for either labor or American citizenship. A growing chorus of voices sought legislative restrictions on immigration. Often the most vocal proponents of such restrictions were labor groups (many of whose members were descended from previous generations of Irish and German immigrants), who feared competition from so-called “pauper labor.” 

After the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigration and made it nearly impossible for Chinese to become naturalized citizens, efforts to restrict European immigration increased. In the same year, the Immigration Act for the first time levied a “head tax” (initially fifty cents a person) intended to finance enforcement of federal immigration laws. The act also made several categories of immigrants ineligible to enter the United States, including convicts, "lunatics" (a catch-all term for those deemed mentally unfit) and those likely to become “public charges,” i.e., those who would place a financial burden on state institutions or charities. A second Immigration Act in 1891 expanded these categories to include polygamists and those sick with contagious diseases, and established a Bureau of Immigration to administer and enforce the new restrictions. In 1892, Ellis Island opened in New York Harbor, replacing Castle Garden as the main point of entry for millions of immigrants arriving on the East Coast. In accordance with the 1891 law, the federal immigration station at Ellis Island included facilities for medical inspections and a hospital. 

While business and financial interests occasionally defended unrestricted immigration, viewing a surplus of cheap labor as essential to industry and westward expansion, calls for measures restricting the flow of the new immigrants continued to grow. Although President Grover Cleveland vetoed an 1897 law proposing a literacy test for prospective immigrants, further restrictions on immigration continued to be added. Following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, xenophobia and hysteria about political radicalism led to the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which excluded would-be immigrants on the basis of their political beliefs. 

In 1907, immigration at Ellis Island reached its peak with 1,004,756 immigrants arriving. That same year, Congress authorized the Dillingham Commission to investigate the origins and consequences of contemporary immigration. The Commission concluded that immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe posed a serious threat to American society and recommended that it be greatly curtailed in the future, proposing as the most efficacious remedy a literacy test similar to the one President Cleveland had vetoed in 1897. Ultimately, the Commission’s findings provided a rationale for the sweeping immigration laws passed in the years after World War I.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Background Essay on Late 19th and Early 20th Century Immigration,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 10, 2018,

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