World History 2 160 - 10.4.1 European Immigration

Over the course of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth century, approximately sixty million Europeans sought better economic opportunities on other continents. Most came from relatively nonindustrialized or agricultural regions, such as southern Italy and Sicily. Approximately twenty-eight million Europeans and Canadians immigrated to the United States during this time, the majority between 1890 and 1914. Most were peasant farmers from southern and eastern Europe. Many also continued to arrive from Germany and Ireland, the countries that had been responsible for the greatest influx of immigrants in the first half of the nineteenth century. Along with those fleeing poverty came victims of religious persecution, especially Jewish people of the Russian empire. They had faced discrimination and anti-Semitism, which often culminated in waves of violence called pogroms that left people dead and their property destroyed. Political dissidents and craftspeople displaced by industrialization made up the rest.

After the United States, it was Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay that received the largest numbers. Some 4.5 million emigrants went to Argentina, where at one point they made up 30 percent of the population. Latin America attracted many Italians and Germans as well as Spanish and Portuguese settlers. Canada was the destination of approximately 5.1 million people between the 1850s and the 1920s. Other common landing places for European immigrants were Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Particularly attractive after gold was discovered there were Australia in 1851 and South Africa in 1886.

Once in their new homes, European immigrants performed a large variety of jobs. Many worked in factories. Jewish people were especially active in the garment industry in places like New York City. In the United States, Polish people and other eastern Europeans worked in the steel industry in Pittsburgh and in Chicago’s stockyards. The Portuguese often worked in the fishing industry or, in New England, alongside French Canadians in textile mills. Italian immigrants did a variety of work in agriculture, mining, and the building trades. The Welsh found jobs as miners in the West. Irish immigrants worked in mines, built railroads, and labored in factories throughout the United States. Women from all these ethnic groups entered domestic service.

The response of the countries where immigrants settled often depended on the newcomers’ ethnicity. In the United States, the “foreign” ways of Germans and eastern European Christians might be mocked but were largely accepted. Irish newcomers, most of whom were Roman Catholics, had been rejected when they first began to migrate to the largely Protestant United States in large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s, but by the second half of the nineteenth century, they and their children had established themselves as politicians, business owners, and police officers. Jewish people and Italians, however, who were more recent immigrants, often faced discrimination, and anti-Semitism was prevalent.

By the end of the nineteenth century, many native-born Protestants of northern European ancestry in the United States began to call for changes in immigration laws. These calls were met in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act, which set a quota on the total number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States from outside the Western Hemisphere. In addition, the act limited the number of immigrants of each nationality to 2 percent of the number already living in the United States in 1890. Thus, a person might be turned away if the permitted number of immigrants of that particular nationality had already been admitted, even if the total limit had not been reached. Before 1890, most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe and relatively few from southern or eastern Europe. Thus, the 2 percent quota allowed far more English, Irish, and German people to enter than Italian, Polish, or Russian Jewish people. Immigration from Asia, with the exception of the U.S. territory of the Philippines, was banned.

In Latin America, the situation was much different. Argentina and Uruguay, for instance, had never had large populations because they lacked their neighbors’ mineral wealth and climates conducive to the growing of sugar and coffee. The arrival of European immigrants there was thus a welcome boost. Brazil and Venezuela deliberately sought out European immigrants to make their predominantly African, Native American, and biracial population more White.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax