Industrial Revolution Conflicts
Patterns of immigration to the United States changed in the 1880s. Many of these newcomers were refugees escaping from violence or poverty in their homelands. Compared to earlier arrivals, they tended to be poorer, less well educated, and less likely to speak English. Among them were many Jews and Catholics, as well as Buddhists and Confucianists – a major change for a country that had always been largely Protestant.
Americans wondered how the throngs of immigrants would affect the country. Most favored assimilation of foreign-born people into the culture of their new homeland. They expected immigrants to become “Americanized” – to talk, dress, and act like their native-born neighbors. Others believed that the new immigrants, especially nonwhites, were too “different” to be assimilated. Their prejudices were reinforced when ethnic groups clustered in their own towns or neighborhoods, in part for mutual support and in part because they were not accepted elsewhere.
In fact, many immigrants were eager to adopt American ways. Others had little choice. Public schools taught in English, and most stores sold only American-style clothes, food, and other goods. Many employers demanded that their workers speak English on the job.
Some immigrants did cling to their own language and way of life. But even those who tried hardest to assimilate often met with abuse and discrimination. Immigrants also faced resentment from workers who saw them as competing for jobs.
Each group of immigrants faced its own challenges in journeying to America. Once they arrived, most had to pass inspection at immigration stations like those on Ellis Island in New York Harbor and Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. There they could be denied entry and sent home.
The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, yet time and again nativism (anti-immigrant feeling) has sparked actions and policies directed against new arrivals. Sometimes nativism is rooted in economic competition. Sometimes it stems from ethnic, religious, and other differences. In the 1830s, for example, Protestant nativists charged that Catholic immigrants were enemies of democracy because they owed their primary loyalty to the Pope in Rome.
The surge in immigration that began in the 1880s fueled another rise in nativism. Native-born Americans blamed immigrants for everything from slums and crime to hard times. Fearing competition for jobs, many labor leaders stoked the fires of prejudice, especially against nonwhites. The president of the United Mine Workers wrote of Asians that “as a race their standard of living is extremely low, and their assimilation by Americans impossible.”
Politicians responded to the growing clamor against immigrants. Congress banned further immigration by Chinese laborers. Japanese immigrants were forbidden entry. Congress required immigrants to prove that they could read and write before they would be allowed into the United States. To further limit immigration, Congress established a quota system. Quotas limited immigration from any one country to 2 percent of the number of people from that country who lived in the United States in the late 1800s. The new laws did not limit Mexican immigration. However, Mexicans now needed passports and visas to enter the United States. For the first time, America was closing its doors.