"Today's immigrants are not different from other immigrants who have arrived here in the past. Throughout the 1800s, there was a huge wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, Italians, Polish, Russsians, Jews, who arrived on our shores with no knowledge of English. These newcomers encountered the same racist nativist bullshit that is being heard today. It is estimated that four million Italians and three million Slavs arrived during that time. More than two million Jews also emigrated to the US. These people were poor and illiterate. They could not read or write in their own language, much less in English. Germans and English also arrived in the millions to escape political instability and food shortages in their countries. Newspapers of the day decried that arrival of these aliens and condemned the corrupt governments who sent these people to the shores of the United States.
Riots erupted in opposition to the presence of these immigrants. Just like in the previous century, when Germans were accused by Anglos of being the cause of all ills in society, immigrants were scapegoated.
The Irish fled Ireland starting in the 1840s to escape the deadly potato famine. Millions of Irish arrived to the American continent, almost a third of North America's immigrants. They were escaping political corruption and certain starvation in their country.
Most immigrants came for economic reasons and were part of extensive migratory systems that responded to changing demands in labor markets. The American economy had needed both unskilled and skilled workers through much of the nineteenth century. But after the 1880s, the demand was almost exclusively for unskilled workers to fill the growing number of factory jobs. More than five million immigrants came to the US during the 1880s alone. Southern and eastern Europeans, dislocated from their land and possessing few skills, were attracted to the burgeoning industries in the United States.
Like todayâ€™s Latino immigrants, Italian immigrants were particularly likely to take heavy construction jobs after arrival in the US. About half of all late 19th century Italian immigrants were manual laborers. Contracted out by a professional labor broker known as a â€śPadrone,â€ť Italians dug tunnels, laid railroad tracks, constructed bridges and roads. They were mostly young, single, and had little money. The Irish immigrants had few technical skills, and their agricultural skills were limited to the spade-culture of potatoes and animal tending. They were half-starved, weak and destitute. A New York Times Editorial, June 2, 1874, urged the US government to turn a million Italian beggars into prosperous citizens.
Too poor to leave Ireland when the Potato famine began, families found passage on overcrowded, fever-ridden ships after unscrupulous businessmen discovered they could make money transporting desperate people to the US. On these "coffin ships," as they came to be known, many of them died during or just after the trip, but they had no choice but to leave for a better future or to starve to death in their own countries. These aliens had no skills, no tools, no education. Sometimes immigrant men had to be supported by their wives and daughters who worked as domestic servants in hotels and private homes, while they themselves worked sporadically sweeping streets, tending horses, cleaning stables, cutting fish, and performing any other menial work they could find.
The Italians immigrants were escaping poverty from their country, unemployment, high mortality, no medical care, little or no schooling, poor housing, semi-starvation, and exploitation. The majority of immigrants around the turn of the century were males who worked and saved money to send back to their families back home. Shipping companies made large profits by carrying immigrant aliens to the United States. They would bring cotton, wood, and crop cargoes to Europe and on the return trip bring immigrants to the US. There was hardly a city of any size in US that did not have a section designated as â€śLittle Italy.â€ť Italians would look to settle in these areas, for it was here that they felt free from the discrimination around them. This resulted in the formation of very definite ethnic communities: Irish, Polish and Jewish ethnic enclaves developed.
The majority of these European aliens entered the country illegally. For this reason, in 1891, Congress passed a law stating that those who had entered the country illegally could be expelled within one year. See Reports of the Immigration Commission (61 Cong., 3 Sess., Senate Doc. No. 758.) However, these aliens simply got off the boats, declared themselves to be American, and blended with the larger society.
By blaming immigrants for all the problems in their cities, politicians hoped to easily win election to office. In 1884 US congressmen decried that Italy and Hungary were shipping â€śas many cattle, large number of degraded, ignorant, brutal foreign serfsâ€ť to replace American citizens.
The racist media, who has always been the main conduct of anti-immigrant propaganda, proclaimed:
â€śThese people are not Americans, but the very scum and offal of Europeâ€¦an invasion of venomous reptilesâ€¦long-haired, wild-eyes, bad-smelling, atheistic, reckless foreign wretches, who never did an honest hourâ€™s work in their lives..crush such snakesâ€¦before they have time to bite.â€ť See Public Opinion, I (1886), 82-86, iii (1887), 49 and V (1888), 432.
In 1882, the New York Tribune spoke against Jewish immigrants: â€śNumerous complaints have been made in regard to the Hebrew immigrants who lounge about Battery Park, obstructing the walks and sitting on the chains. Their filthy condition has caused many of the people who are accustomed to go to the park to seek a little recreation and fresh air to give up this practice. The immigrants also greatly annoy the persons who cross the park to take the boats to Coney Island, Staten Island and Brooklyn. The police have had many battles with these newcomers, who seem determined to have their own way.â€ť
The Chinese immigrants also arrived, but they experienced more direct discrimination because of their non-European origins. There were numerous riots against Chinese miners in California in the mid 1800s. In 1885, the population of Eureka drove all the Chinese out of Humboldt county by threat of force. In 1885, there were anti-Chinese riots in Rock Springs, Wyoming. An Arizona newspaper editorialized against the Chinese immigrants who sent money back to their families: â€śThe Chinese are the least desired immigrants who have ever sought the United Statesâ€¦the almond-eyed Mongolian with his pig-tail, his heathenism, his filthy habits, his thrift and careful accumulation of savings to be sent back to the flowery kingdom.â€ť
The Montanian newspaper in 1873 editorialized against the Chinese: â€śWe donâ€™t mind hearing of a Chinaman being killed now and then, but it has been coming too thick of lateâ€¦Donâ€™t kill them unless they deserve it, but when they do--why killâ€™em lots.â€ť In 1869, Montana governor James M. Ashley advocatedâ€ť â€¦Montana is better adopted to the hardy races of men and women from Great Britain and Northern Europeâ€¦â€ť The Chinatowns that sprang up in cities like San Francisco and New York was a defense mechanism against the hatred and prejudice of the society around them. According to the racist newspaper editorials of the time, â€śThe manners and habits of the Chinese are very repugnant to Americans in California. Of different language, blood, religion, and character, inferior in most mental and bodily qualities, the Chinaman is looked upon by some as only a little superior to the Negro, and by others as somewhat inferior. See Frank Soule, John H. Gihon, and James Nisbet, The Annals of San Franciso (1966).
Anti-Chinese riots occurred in San Francisco in 1869, and in Los Angeles in Chinatown, when whites descended on the area and burned and looted businesses, beat the Chinese , and killed at least 19 Chinese during four hours. See â€śChinese Massacre at Los Angeles in 1871,â€ť Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California (Los Angeles, 1894), C.P. Dorland. In 1877, a similar even took place in San Francisco when whites attacked the Chinese ghetto in San Francisco. In the California Constitution, Article XIX was added in 1879, which forbade employment of any Chinese in any public work and allowed any city to expel its Chinese residents. In the 1850s, the Californiaâ€™s Supreme Court stated that Chinese were Indians, and similarly as with Mexicans, they could not testify in court against a white man.
Between 1820 and 1890, fifteen million people immigrated to the US, 2/3s of them from Germany, Ireland and Great Britain. The majority of the British immigrants were paupers.
It was during this period that the Know-Nothing organizations were created in response to the arrival of these new immigrants who were considered different from "true Americans". Immigrants were often lynched by mobs. Riots were common throughout the nation to protest the arrival of these undesirables. Irish immigrants were considered by nativists to be lazy drunks. Poles, Italians and Jews were considered to be racially inferior and to be detrimental to America society.
The Know Nothing Party feared the arrival of Catholic Irish. They advocated banning immigrants from holding office, and a 21-year wait for citizenship. They used criminal statistics to show that Irish were the group with the greatest number of arrest in cities like New York. Eugenicists like Edward Jarvis published studies that indicated that immigrants had higher rates of mental disorders.
In the early 1850s the anti-Catholic Native American Party was established to attack the foreign religious elements of the German and Irish. Convents were burned, priests were driven from their pulpits.
Nativists blamed Catholics for unemployment by stating that Papal agents had unleashed millions of Italians on American soil to take away the jobs from native Americans. They stated that Catholics had started a run on banks to prepare the way for the seizure of the US government by Italyâ€™s Pope. They fabricated a document â€śInstructions to Catholicsâ€ť, which detailed a conspiracy by Catholics to control the American workplace. See Washington Gladden, â€śThe Anti-Catholic Crusadeâ€ť, Century Magazine, XLVII (1894), 790.
In 1855, German immigrants, who were routinely persecuted, were involved in deadly riots against Know Nothings in Cincinnati, Columbus and Louisville.
These immigrants were accused by the larger society of refusing to assimilate. Little Italys and Irelands could be found in major cities like Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, and New Britain, where they were sealed off from the wider American society. New Haven's Italian colony centered around Wooster Square. It was at first a neighborhood for the Irish. There were many large mansions in the area. However, after the Civil War, industry began flourishing and factories moved into the area. Landlords turned the remaining homes into multiple dwellings which became overcrowded and neglected.
In The Children of Columbus by Erik Amfitheatrof, he describes the worst of the padroni as "flesh peddlers" who recruited peasants from southern Italy, stuck dozens of people in disgusting tenements and took over 60% of their pay as their commission. Jacob Riis, an immigrant, described the horrors of these tenements in his book How The Other Half Lives. He reports "one room 12x12 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partitions, screen, chair or table." In New Orleans in the 1800s, many Sicilians had settled in this area and were employed as fishermen or farmers. Italians were generally stereotyped as mafioso criminals. In 1891, the police chief had been investigating reports of what he considered to be mafia activity in the city. He was assassinated by unknown assailants and the backlash against the Italian community was hysterically racist. Suspicion fell on the Italians in the community and ten were arrested and put on trial for the crime. The mayor of the city had made an announcement to the press that "We must teach these people a lesson they will not forget for all time." All ten of the men were acquitted. However, after the verdict, a mob of 5,000 angry New Orleaneans stormed the jail and shot the men to death in their cells.
In "Restriction of Immigration"(Atlantic Monthly, June, 1896) Francis A. Walker warned that vast inpourings of southern European immigrants threatened to overwhelm and thereby degrade American culture and institutions.
According to Walker "for nearly two generations, great numbers of persons utterly unable to earn their living, by reason of one or another form of physical or mental disability, and others who were, from widely different causes, unfit to be members of any decent community, were admitted to our ports without challenge or question. It is a matter of official record that in many cases these persons had been directly shipped to us by states or municipalities desiring to rid themselves of a burden and a nuisance...while yet the patriotic American of to-day may properly shrink in terror from the contemplation of the vast hordes of ignorant and brutalized peasantry thronging to our shores...The arrival in the United States, between 1830 and 1840, and thereafter increasingly, of large numbers of degraded peasantry created for the first time in this country distinct social classes, and produced an alteration of economic relations which could not fail powerfully to affect population. The appearance of vast numbers of men, foreign in birth and often in language, with a poorer standard of living, with habits repellent to our native people, of an industrial grade suited only to the lowest kind of manual labor, was exactly such a cause as by any student of population would be expected to affect profoundly the growth of the native population. Americans shrank alike from the social contact and the economic competition thus created. They became increasingly unwilling to bring forth sons and daughters who should be obliged to compete in the market for labor and in the walks of life with those whom they did not recognize as of their own grade and condition. It has been said by some that during this time habits of luxury were entering, to reduce both the disposition and the ability to increase among our own population. In some small degree, in some restricted localities, this undoubtedly was the case; but prior to 1860 there was no such general growth of luxury in the United States as is competent to account for the effect seen. Indeed, I believe this was almost wholly due to the cause which has been indicated,--a cause recognized by every student of statistics and economics."
According to a 1911 study of the US Immigration Commission, the new immigrants "...has been largely a movement of unskilled laboring men who have come from the less progressive countries of Europe...They have...congregated together in sections apart from native Americans and the older immigrants to such an extent that assimilation has been slow." Citing from the racist book The Passing of the Great Race, a book by Madison Grant, the Commission stated: "The new immigration contained a large and increasing number of the weak, the broken, and the mentally crippled of all races drawn from the lowest stratum of the Meditarranean basin and the Balkans, together with hordes of the wretched, submerged populations of the Polish ghettoes. Our jails, insane asylums, and almshouses are filled with human flotsam and the whole tone of American life, social, moral, and political, has been lowered and vulgarized by them."
European Immigration to the US:
1841-50: 1.6 million
1851-60: 2.5 million
1861-70: 2.1 million
1871-80: 2.3 million
1881-90: 4.7 million
1891-900: 3.6 million
1901-1910: 8.1 million
1911-20: 4.3 million
1921-30: 2.5 million
Dr. Larry Laughlin, appointed as consultant to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization in 1922, provided support to the anti-immigrant propaganda, by stating in testimony to congress that Italians, Slovaks, Russian and Polish Jews had three times the insanity rate of American natives.
Today, about 10 percent of U.S. residents are foreign-born, far short of the 14.7 percent who were foreign-born in 1910."