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The Migrant Nation
Background to our Immigration History
The first migrants to North America came via the Beringia land bridge sometime during the last Ice Age. Native Americans first arrived, we believe, hunting large game. As they grew in numbers and settled throughout the continent, they adapted to climate, food sources, and developed their own sense of culture and religion. Make no mistake, these were the first migrants here. Once Europe discovered North America, they came in large numbers. First the Spanish settled to the south, the Russians settled sparsely in the northwest, the French in various places in the middle, and then the English came and took the Atlantic seaboard (along with the Dutch, Swedish, Germans, and a host of others). These primary and early migrants for form the United States were primarily from northern and western Europe. In the early 19th century the Irish came in increasing numbers along with the Germans and then Scandinavians. These groups either settled in cities in the east or for the Scandinavians, the more mountainous areas that reminded them of home in the north. With the gold rush, the Chinese began to come in, in large numbers seeking what all those moving into California wanted, a way to improve their economic state. China at that point as a country was in a period of decline and the dynasty, the last dynasty in Chinese history, would fall within 60 years. Given the instability, the best way for men to provide for their families was to migrated elsewhere and take whatever opportunities existed for them.
As historians, we talk about the New Immigrants of the late 19th century. In order to have “new” immigrants, there must be “old” immigrants. We tend to make the distinction between the two in terms of cultural differences. Most of the discussion also focuses on the east and the cities many of these new immigrants migrated to. However, migration history is much more complex than that. In general when we look back at the records kept of migration to the US, we see a marked change in where people are migrating from starting around 1880. Prior to 1880, most migrants to the east came from northern and western Europe. They were similar in appearance, language, customs, and religion. While some were discriminated against, primarily the Irish due to issues between the English and the Irish that are too long to discuss here, others fit in rather easily. However starting in 1880, the migration pattern shifts to Southern and Eastern Europe, where the differences are more stark. The Russian language is very different from English. In fact some characters look like numbers in English. The customs are different, the language is different, and even the foods were different. They stood out as different. As we saw with the discussion regarding Native Americans, those in the US did not want “different”. They came in large numbers as well. The migrations of the 1880-1914 were part of a much larger pattern of global migration. Europe moved in masse essentially. Approximately 50 million people moved in that time frame. Your textbook says 25 million came to the US, actually the number is closer to 32 million. My subfield in history is migration history, the number is 32 million. Most of this group stayed in the east and Americans took note of the differences.
Historians, myself included, also tend to do a push-pull factor analysis when studying the migration of a particular group. That means we want to know what either pushed someone to leave or what pulled someone to migrate to a particular place. The analysis does place migration in these positive and negative terms. Anyone who has moved, whether from one apartment to another in town or from one country to another, understands how difficult, time consuming, and costly it is to move. There must be some reason for the move to motivate one to do so. Let’s examine one group of the old immigrants and their reasons for migrations and a couple of the new immigrants and their reasons for migrating to gain a clearer picture of migration in the 19th century.
Old Immigrants: The Chinese
The Chinese fit within the time frame of the old immigrants. Their migration began in the 1840s with the gold rush. As China fell into serious decline, Chinese men began migrating to California, or as they called it “Gold Mountain”. Here they faced massive discrimination and often violence. Between the initial discovery in 1848 and when California applied for statehood in 1850, 100,000 people migrated into California from the east coast and China. Do you think the government was able to put into place law enforcement agencies equipped to handle that many people? In 1847 the population of Americans in California was roughly 2,000. Individuals were easily attacked and harassed. If they discovered gold, it could easily be taken away and the person killed, the mine stolen. Some women from the east began to set up shop in California to take advantage of the laws of supply and demand. Since there were very few women in California and most of the population were male miners, lawyers, or shopkeepers, women were in high demand for certain services. Supply was low and demand was high and there were those who took advantage of that. Some of these madams saw the larger numbers of Chinese men coming in and saw that as an opportunity. They began to send people to recruit in southern China, where most migrants came from, for women to take advantage of the economic promise of America, the American dream. Women in China were told they were to sign a 7 year labor contract and after that 7 years would be free to pursue their own dreams. The recruiters did not tell the women what that labor would entail. Upon arrival in the 1850s and 1860s, auctioneers forced the women to all but strip, or strip entirely, and then the bidding would begin. Men paid for a block of time with the women to do whatever they wanted. Many of the women faced beatings and typically were given 5-10 minutes between customers. Madams did not treat the women for diseases or injuries. Their life expectancy dropped to approximately 2years. Concern over men from the east going to the west and engaging in illicit sex prompted upper class and middle class women to begin to lobby for an immigration law. At the time, we had no such laws. We merely tracked people coming in. Alexander Hamilton had argued in the 1700s that the US needed as many migrants as possible. Now Congress decided to act and passed the Page Law of 1875, the first immigration law in our history. The law applied solely to Chinese women, unless they had husbands already in the US or were independently wealthy. Once that law was passed, it was easier to pass another law, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese migration male and female and in so doing, saw the number of migrants drop. One could still come in if they were wealthy or had family here. A fire in San Francisco in 1906 after an earthquake destroyed our immigration records on the Chinese and a system of “paper sons” started where migrants in China could buy information on someone already in the US and then claim to be their son, on paper. The US created Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the west, to detain and interrogate people after that. It looked a lot more like a prison and the shortest length of stay for migrants was 2 weeks. In fact many committed suicide while there. Poetry carved into the walls has been recovered as the facility is now a museum.
New Immigrants: Italian and Russian
Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe tended to stay in the eastern part of the US. They migrated to cities and sought employment in the new factories that were springing up. Europeans had migrated for centuries around Europe in search of better opportunities. Now they traveled to the US. The transportation to and from Europe was safer than ever before and the United States portrayed itself to the world as a land of opportunity. Migrants such as Rocco Corresca came from Italy. His story starts in an orphanage. He says that one day a man came to the orphanage claiming to be his uncle. They gave custody of Rocco to him. However, the man was not his uncle, the man traveled to orphanages claiming this to gain custody and then have the children beg for him on the streets. Rocco made a friend while doing this and they became life-long brothers. One day Rocco overheard the man negotiating with another man on how much it would cost to break both of Rocco’s legs. Apparently children that were “crippled” could garner more sympathy and Rocco was older now and not bringing in as much money. Rocco and his friend fled to the south. There they met a sailor who had a daughter about Rocco’s age (she feature pretty prominently in the diary after he reaches about the age of 15). They worked daily with the sailor until a man came to the docks talking about the US. That man told them how easy it was to make money and was always giggling these gold coins in his hands. He told them he earned this in one week in the US. After much debate, Rocco and his friend set off for the US and land in New York. The man at the docks essentially recruited them. He got them on the ship and gave the contact in New York their names and a place to stay when they arrived, he also probably got paid handsomely for it as well. Rocco and his friend settle into an area of town that was known for the Italian immigrants there and they settled in. After bouncing around a little bit, the two started a shoe shine business and became wealthy. While their story has a happy ending, most did not achieve their level of success. They do provide evidence of the system that had developed to bring migrants to the US and what migrants were told of the US before deciding to migrate.
Migrants from Russia faced an entirely different scenario. In 1881 the Czar Alexander was assassinated. Many in Russia blamed the Jewish community although little evidence exists to support that claim. As a result, many in Russia had to flee and many came to the US. The US had portrayed itself as not only a land of opportunity, but also as a religious refuge for those seeking to get away from religious persecution. What happened in Russia amounted to state sponsored violence, even murder, of the Jewish population there. People like the parents of Rose Schneiderman came to the US for that very reason. Rose was born here in the US. She wrote about the struggles facing the Russian communities though. Just as Rocco and his friend found their way into communities that were largely Italian, she lived in a largely Russian community. She provides evidence of the enclave, the communities of migrants that tended to cling together in cities in the US. She writes of the discrimination she faced as a woman in the garment factory and as a Russian migrant who appeared very different from others around her. In a context of discrimination and a certain level of hostility, living in an area with those that hold similar beliefs and are culturally similar makes a good deal of sense. Imagine yourself traveling overseas for a semester to a country that did not speak the same language or celebrate the same customs. What if the religion was completely different from your own? Do you think you would choose a dorm that had several other students from San Antonio, TX? In the midst of a very different culture that you could experience, you could also go home at night and talk to other people about the Spurs and celebrate Fiesta, right?
Jacob Riis, a migrant himself, wrote about the immigrant communities in How the Other Half Lives. This book designed to increase awareness of the struggles immigrants faced, also comes across as very politically incorrect. It reveals prevailing attitudes but also provides detailed descriptions of immigrant communities that were vast and diverse. While many from Italy lived in Little Italy in New York, not everyone who lived there was from Italy.
Push Pull Factor Analysis
It is fairly easy to see the push and pull factors in migration in the 19th century. For the Chinese, it was both push and pull. The decline of the Chinese government and economy pushed many to leave and the pull of the gold rush in the US explains their choice to come here. For many in Italy, it was primarily pull factors. The land of opportunity awaited them. While that fortune would not come easily or in the way recruiters told them it was at least an opportunity. Some did amass large fortunes. One Italian migrant sent back and brought his whole village once he acquired his wealth and Italian immigrants founded a little bank during this time and called it Bank of America. For Russian migrants, it very clearly was a push factor for migration. The extreme violence that erupted against the Jewish population there caused many to flee. Also, when doing this type of analysis, we also notice another pattern. Push factor migration means that people will migrate in groups or as families. With pull factor migration, people tend to migrate as individuals.
Immigration Attitudes Then and Now: Discussion Question
Below is an image captured from Jon Stewart. It captures the views of immigrants by Americans from the past to today. We have always been a migrant nation. Assess the validity of his statement in the discussion board.

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