The Rise of Immigration

The Pull to America

After 1870, lower fares and faster transatlantic travel provided opportunity for new waves of immigration.

Learning Objectives

Assess the impact of new immigrant groups in the United States in the late nineteenth century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Nearly 25 million new immigrants arrived in the United States after 1870.
  • Among immigrants to the United States, young people between the ages of 15 and 30 dominated.
  • Immigrants provided a workforce to power the new factories and industries of cities.
  • In the face of new immigration, many states and even the federal government created anti-immigrant legislation.

Key Terms

  • xenophobia: A strong antipathy or aversion to strangers or foreigners.
  • workforce: All the workers employed by a specific organization or nation, or on a specific project.
  • Chinese Exclusion Act: A law passed in 1882 that stated that there was a limited amount of immigrants of Chinese descent allowed into the United States.


After 1870, the use of steam-powered ships with lower fares became prevalent. Meanwhile, farming improvements in southern and eastern Europe created surplus populations. This "wave" of migration could better be referred to as a "flood" of immigrants, as nearly 25 million Europeans made the voyage. Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others constituted the bulk of this migration. Included among them were 2.5 to 4 million Jews.

While most immigrants were welcomed, Asians were not. Many Chinese had been brought to the West Coast to construct railroads, but unlike European immigrants, they were seen as being part of an entirely alien culture. After intense anti-Chinese agitation in California and the West, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. An informal agreement in 1907, the Gentlemen's Agreement, stopped Japanese immigration. Each group evinced a distinctive migration pattern in the gender balance within the migratory pool, the permanence of their migration, their literacy rates, and the balance between adults and children. Asians made up the bulk of the U.S. industrial labor pool, making possible the emergence of such industries as steel, coal, automobile, textile, and garment production, and enabling the United States to leap into the front ranks of the world's economic giants.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island, in Upper New York Bay, was the gateway for more than 12 million immigrants to the United States as the nation's busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 until 1954. In the 35 years before Ellis Island opened, more than eight million immigrants arriving in New York City had been processed by New York State officials at Castle Garden Immigration Depot in Lower Manhattan, just across the bay. The federal government assumed control of immigration on April 18, 1890, and Congress appropriated $75,000 to construct America's first federal immigration station on Ellis Island. Artesian wells were dug, and landfill was hauled in from incoming ships' ballast and from construction of New York City's subway tunnels, which doubled the size of Ellis Island to more than six acres. While the building was under construction, the Barge Office nearby at the Battery was used for immigrant processing.

The first station was an enormous three-story-tall structure, with outbuildings, built of Georgia pine, containing all of the amenities that were thought to be necessary. It opened with celebration on January 1, 1892. Three large ships landed on the first day, and 700 immigrants passed over the docks. Almost 450,000 immigrants were processed at the station during its first year.


Immigrants' urban destinations and numbers and an overall antipathy toward foreigners led to the emergence of a wave of organized xenophobia. By the 1890s, many Americans—particularly those from the ranks of the well to do, white, and native born—considered immigration to pose a serious danger to the nation's health and security. In 1893, a group called the "Immigration Restriction League," along with other similarly inclined organizations, began to press Congress for severe curtailment of foreign immigration.

Irish and German Catholic immigration was opposed in the 1850s by the Nativist/Know-Nothing movement, originating in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party (not to be confused with the modern Republican Party). It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Active mainly from 1854–1856, the movement strove to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery, most often joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.


Shortly after the U.S. Civil War, some states started to pass their own immigration laws. This prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1875 that immigration was a federal responsibility. In 1875, the nation passed its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, also known as the "Asian Exclusion Act." This outlawed the importation of Asian contract laborers, any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own countries.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act stated that there was a limited amount of immigrants of Chinese descent allowed into the United States. The law was renewed in 1892 and 1902. Prior to 1890, the individual states regulated immigration into the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 established a commissioner of immigration in the Department of the Treasury. The Canadian Agreement of 1894 extended U.S. immigration restrictions to Canadian ports.

Settlement of Immigrant Populations

About 1.5 million Swedes and Norwegians immigrated to the United States within this period due to opportunity in America and poverty and religious oppression in united Sweden-Norway. This accounted for around 20 percent of the total population of the kingdom at that time. They settled mainly in the Midwest, especially Minnesota and the Dakotas. Danes had comparably low immigration rates due to a better economy; after 1900, many Danish immigrants were Mormon converts who moved to Utah.

More than two million eastern Europeans, mainly Catholics and Jews, immigrated between 1880 and 1924. People of Polish ancestry are the largest eastern European ancestry group in the United States. Immigration of eastern Orthodox ethnic groups was much lower.

New York and other large cities of the East Coast became home to large Jewish, Irish, and Italian populations, while many Germans and central Europeans moved to the Midwest, obtaining jobs in industry and mining. At the same time, about one million French Canadians migrated from Quebec to New England. Lebanese and Syrian immigrants started to settle in large numbers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The vast majority of the immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were Christians, but smaller numbers of Jews, Muslims, and Druze also settled. Many lived in New York City and Boston. In the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of these immigrants set out west, with Detroit getting a large number of Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as many Arabs working as farmers in Midwestern areas.

From 1880 to 1924, around two million Jews moved to the United States, mostly seeking better opportunity in America and fleeing the pogroms of the Russian Empire. After 1934, these Jews, along with any other above-quota immigrants, usually were denied access to the United States.


"From the Old to the New World": An illustration published in Harper's Weekly in 1874 shows German emigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, Germany, to come to America.

The Nativist Response to Immigration

Nativism refers to a political sentiment that favors greater rights and privileges for white, native-born Americans.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the Nativist Movement in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Throughout much of the nineteenth century, nativists objected primarily to Roman Catholics because of their loyalty to the Pope ("popery") and because of their presumed rejection of republicanism.
  • After subsiding somewhat during the Civil War, nativist sentiment was revived in the Gilded Age.
  • In 1890, Wisconsin passed an act known as the " Bennett Law," which threatened to close hundreds of German -language elementary schools.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act barred all Chinese workers from entering the United States, under threat of imprisonment, for 10 years.

Key Terms

  • Sand-Lot Incident: A riot in San Francisco in 1877, incited by anti-Chinese agitators.
  • The Chinese Exclusion Act: A U.S. law prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers.
  • American Party: An American political party that operated nationally during the mid-1850s, which arose in response to an influx of migrants and promised to "purify" American politics by limiting or ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants.
  • Bennett Law: A controversial Wisconsin law passed in 1889 that required public and private schools to teach most subjects in English. The law was opposed by the state's large German-American population, but was typical of the assimilationist education policy of the Progressive Era.

Nativism is the political position of preserving status for certain established inhabitants of a nation as compared to claims of newcomers or immigrants. It is characterized by opposition to immigration based on fears that the immigrants will distort or spoil existing cultural values. In the context of the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the "native" of nativism refers to those descended from the inhabitants of the original thirteen colonies. Nativism held sway in mid-nineteenth-century politics because of the large inflows of immigrants from cultures that were somewhat different from the existing American culture. Nativists objected primarily to Irish Roman Catholics because of their loyalty to the Pope, and also because of their supposed rejection of republicanism as an American ideal.

Nativist Movements

Nativist movements included the Know-Nothing or American Party of the 1850s, the Immigration Restriction League of the 1890s, and the anti-Asian movements in the West, the latter of which resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Labor unions were strong supporters of Chinese exclusion and limits on immigration, mostly because of fears that they would lower wages and make it harder to organize unions.

The Immigration Restriction League

The Immigration Restriction League was founded in 1894 by people who opposed the influx of "undesirable immigrants" that were coming from southern and eastern Europe. The League was founded in Boston and had branches in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. It felt that these immigrants were threatening what they saw as the American way of life and the high wage scale. They worried that immigration brought in poverty and organized crime at a time of high unemployment.

The League used books, pamphlets, meetings, and numerous newspaper and journal articles to disseminate information and sound the alarm about the dangers of the immigrant flood tide. The League also had political allies that used their power in Congress to gain support for the League's intentions.

Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a U.S. federal law signed by Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, following revisions made in 1880 to the Burlingame Treaty of 1868. Those revisions allowed the United States to suspend Chinese immigration, a ban that was intended to last 10 years.

The first significant Chinese immigration to America began with the California Gold Rush of 1848 to 1855, and continued with subsequent large labor projects, such as the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. During the early stages of the gold rush, when surface gold was plentiful, the Chinese were tolerated, if not well received. As gold became harder to find and competition increased, animosity toward the Chinese and other foreigners increased. After being forcibly driven from the mines, most Chinese settled in enclaves in cities (mainly in San Francisco), and took up low-end wage labor such as restaurant work and laundry just to earn enough to live. With the post Civil War economy in decline by the 1870s, anti-Chinese animosity became politicized by labor leader Denis Kearney and his Workingmen's Party as well as by California Governor John Bigler, both of whom blamed Chinese "coolies" for depressed wage levels.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was one of the most significant restrictions on free immigration in U.S. history. The Act excluded Chinese "skilled and unskilled laborers employed in mining" from entering the country for 10 years under penalty of imprisonment and deportation. Many Chinese were relentlessly beaten just because of their race. The few Chinese nonlaborers who wished to immigrate had to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate, which tended to be difficult to prove.

The Act also affected Asians who had already settled in the United States. Any Chinese who left the United States had to obtain certifications for reentry, and the Act made Chinese immigrants permanent aliens by excluding them from U.S. citizenship. After the Act's passage, Chinese men in the United States had little chance of ever reuniting with their wives, or of starting families in their new homes.

The Sand-Lot Incident

The San Francisco riot of 1877, also called the "Sand-Lot Incident," was a two day pogrom waged against Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, California, by the city's majority white population from the evening of July 23 through the night of July 24, 1877. The ethnic violence that swept Chinatown resulted in death and destruction.

The riot was inspired by Denis Kearney, who founded the Workingmen's Party of California. The party took particular aim against Chinese immigrant labor and the Central Pacific Railroad, which employed them. Its famous slogan was, "The Chinese must go!" Kearney's attacks against the Chinese were of a particularly virulent and openly racist nature, and found considerable support among white Californians of the time. This sentiment led eventually to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

A meeting was called for the evening of July 23, 1877, by the Workingmen's Party of the United States to agitate on behalf of the needs of the labor movement and those of unemployed workers in particular. Nearly 8,000 people turned up for the socialist meeting at the so-called "sand-lots" in front of City Hall. Several representatives of the Workingmen's Party addressed the throng on the labor question, but none of them so much as mentioned the city's Chinese population, let alone attempted to lay blame upon them as the cause of the unemployment problem.

Historian Selig Perlman recounts the origin of the riot which followed:

Everything was orderly until an anti-coolie procession pushed its way into the audience and insisted that the speakers say something about the Chinese. This was refused and thereupon the crowd which had gathered on the outskirts of the meeting attacked a passing Chinaman and started the cry, 'On to Chinatown.'
Mayhem ensued, resulting in a two-day riot that claimed four lives and inflicted more than $100,000 worth of property damage upon the city's Chinese immigrant population. Twenty Chinese-owned laundries were destroyed in the violence, and San Francisco's Chinese Methodist Mission suffered smashed glass when the mob pelted it with rocks.

The ethnic violence was only halted on the night of July 24 through the combined efforts of police, the state militia, and as many as 1,000 members of a citizens ' vigilance committee, each armed with a hickory pickaxe handle.

The American Party

The Nativists went public in 1854 when they formed the "American Party," which was especially hostile to the immigration of Irish Catholics, and campaigned for laws to require a longer wait time between immigration and naturalization (the laws never passed). It was at this time that the term "nativist" first appeared, in the sense that opponents denounced them as "bigoted nativists." Former President Millard Fillmore ran on the American Party ticket for the Presidency in 1856. The American Party also included many ex-Whigs who ignored nativism, and included (in the South) a few Catholics whose families had long lived in America. Conversely, much of the opposition to Catholics came from Protestant Irish immigrants and German Lutheran immigrants who were not native at all.

The American Party often is associated with xenophobia and anti-Catholic sentiments. In Charlestown, Massachusetts, a nativist mob attacked and burned down a Catholic convent in 1834. No one was injured in the incident. In the 1840s, small scale riots between Catholics and nativists took place in several American cities. In Philadelphia in 1844, for example, a series of nativist assaults on Catholic churches and community centers resulted in the loss of lives and the professionalization of the police force. In Louisville, Kentucky, election-day rioters in 1855 killed at least 22 people in attacks on German and Irish Catholics in what became known as "Bloody Monday." Nativist sentiments experienced a revival in the 1890s, led by Protestant Irish immigrants hostile to Catholic immigration.

The Bennett Law

The Bennett Law caused a political uproar in Wisconsin in 1890, as the state government passed a law that threatened to close down hundreds of German-language elementary schools. Catholic and Lutheran Germans rallied to defeat the incumbent Republican governor, William D. Hoard, the leader of the nativists. Hoard attacked German-American culture and religion:

"We must fight alienism and selfish ecclesiasticism... The parents, the pastors and the church have entered into a conspiracy to darken the understanding of the children, who are denied by cupidity and bigotry the privilege of even the free schools of the state."
The Germans were incensed at the blatant attack not only on their language and culture but also on their religion. The parochial schools were set up and funded by the parents in order to inculcate the community's religious values. Furthermore, the idea that the state could intervene in family life and tell children how to speak was intolerable. The law was repealed in 1891, but Democrats used the memories to carry Wisconsin and Illinois in the 1892 U.S. presidential election.

Licenses and Attributions