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The Presence of Immigrants in America and Its Impact

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Coming to America: Immigration in the 19th & 20th Century

Throughout history, immigrants have been coming to America for many different reasons. Their presence in America has made a great impact on the country. There have been four different immigration periods dating from the foundation of America to present day. The first period, the Formative Era, lasted until 1815. Next came the 19th Century Era, which went from about 1815 to 1824. The third period was the era of Restriction, which was from 1924 to the mid 1960s. Lastly, the era of Renewed Immigration started in 1965 and continues today as immigrants continue to populate America. Although each wave has played a significant role in the history of the United States, the 19th Century Era of immigration has made the greatest impact in shaping America into the country it is today. Not only did this wave of immigration create a huge boom in population, it also set the pace for a new industrialized nation as immigrants came to America from all over the world, mainly for economic prosperity. Although immigrants came here for a better life, they often faced many difficulties and had no one to turn to. Immigration during the late 19th and early 20th century may not be considered a prosperous and happy time for many; however, it was necessary for the future of America and its people.

Immigrants came to the United States from all over the world, from countries big and small. Irish immigrants made up a significant number of the total immigrants coming in the late 19th century. By 1900 there were over ten million foreign born people in America, and over 15% came from Ireland. Others came from all across Europe, including Britain, Norway, Germany, Italy, Poland, and many others. Immigrants also came from the East as high numbers of Chinese and Japanese entered the country. They came for several different reasons, including religion, war, overpopulation, family, new opportunities, economic prosperity, and others. America was seen as a country of freedom, equal rights, and prosperity (Keene). Immigrants believed their life would be better in such a country. To come alone was not very common, and most often immigrants brought their immediate family as well as some extended family. This was the case portrayed in The Jungle, with Ona and Jurgis Rudkus traveling to America with a total of twelve members of their family, including children, parents, and cousins. They came in hopes to find a better life as they sought higher earnings because wages in their home country of Lithuania were very low and the family was in much debt. For Jurgis family, America was seen as a place of wealth and love (Sinclair). This was a norm for many of the families who came to America as Industrialization hit America in the late 19th century and created many jobs with wages higher than in home countries. Many of these jobs were in the big cities of the East Coast, but others moved further west.

As Industrialization hit America, cities grew very quickly. With the quick emergence of raw materials, cheap labor, and innovation, America was shaping into a new country. Machines became the tool of the century and the need for skilled workers dropped as anyone could perform the tasks machines required. Along with machines came big business corporations. Manufacturing factories were being built quickly in cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. These cities were popular spots for European immigrants since the ships they travelled on majority of the time came through Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Ellis Island is where immigrants first entered the country. Here, they answered questions and filled out paperwork to make them citizens (Keene). Therefore, the easiest and most cost efficient place for the immigrants to go and find jobs was New York City. With the amount of people entering New York City, it soon became overcrowded, causing other cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago became popular. Chicago also became a well known place to travel for its stockyards, which provided thousands of jobs. As the case of Jurgis family showed, Chicago was an easily accessible city with a growing economy and many jobs. Also, large cities were desirable because they provided easy transportation and there were good chances of finding others from your home country.

The West was also a popular place for immigrants, especially those coming from Asia because it was easier to get to. As a result, the West Coast of the United States was quickly prospering. After the discovery of gold in places such as California, the population of the West began to grow. Along with Manifest Destiny and several laws which gave Americans land in the West, Industrialization slowly began travelling west. To do this, railway was a necessity and this became a great opportunity for work for many Chinese and other immigrants. Other industries, such as steel and coal, brought significant numbers to the West. Although Chinese immigrants were seen as dirty, dangerous, and strange, workers overlooked these qualities as cheap labor was the main priority as it was across all of America (Keene). Business owners knew immigrants needed jobs; therefore, cheap labor and bad working conditions was the norm.

As immigrants came to the United States, they needed any job they could find, regardless of the wage. The most common way to find a job in the 19th century was to stand in a job line and wait for employers to pick you based on age and physical appearance. It was very difficult for women and elderly to find jobs given that they were seen unfit to perform the labor demanded. For Jurgis Rudkus in The Jungle, finding a job was not a problem: Jurgis had stood outside of Brown and Company’s “Central Time Station” not more than half an hour, the second day of his arrival in Chicago, before he had been beckoned by one of the bosses (Sinclair p. 19). Jurgis was selected so quickly because he was a young fit man with an attitude ready to work. Others were not as lucky as Jurgis, and some stood in the line for weeks or months. Those who were unable to find jobs were often seen by others as lazy good-for- nothings (Sinclair). Finding a job was only one of many difficulties that immigrants faced upon arriving to America.

Another difficulty immigrants faced when arriving to America was the language barrier. The majority of immigrants knew little to no English. This made it very difficult to communicate with others. Because of this, immigrants were often victims of scandal as people tried to cheat them for more money. Furthermore, once a family was able to get their intended destination, it was very difficult to locate a place to live and to know where or how to find things. Like the Rudkus, immigrants often knew only one or two words, and that was the location they intended to go. Once they reached their location, that word was no longer significant. Most times, others would go on without paying any attention to new immigrants, and they were pitiable in their helplessness. Immigrants feared those in uniform and could not turn to the law for help (Sinclair). With there being a language barrier and a fear to ask for help, immigrants struggled to find housing, especially something that was affordable. Oftentimes, they found themselves in tenement houses with dozens of other families in the big city. Tenement houses usually were five or six story buildings. Families would obtain 2 or 3 rooms of the building, squeezing anywhere from 2 to 15 people in their rooms. Families would also take shifts in the rooms, while one family worked, the other slept and the two switched at some point in the day. These houses often brought about high rates of disease and death due to the easy spread of bacteria in such tight corridors. Water also carried disease through the cities, which took many lives during the 19th and 20th centuries (Keene).

Another option for living was renting or buying your own house. There would often be advertisements to buy houses by making payments over the year. Large families such as Jurgis family saw this as a good idea because it was more room for everyone and it would be manageable with so many people and several different incomes. Like Jurgis, though, families would get swindled. Instead of buying a house, as they thought they were doing, they ended up renting, which allowed for easier eviction. If you were late on one payment you would be evicted immediately (Sinclair). Even with the dreadful conditions of city living, rent continued to rise as the demand for housing was high. This made finding an affordable house extremely difficult. Housing problems were just the beginning of immigrant difficulties. The majority of the hardships that came along with immigration were caused by the direct and indirect effects of jobs and the work force.

Finding a job was not the only difficult part of joining the industrialized workforce; the conditions and the demands of the jobs themselves were over bearing for many immigrants. Every sort of job had its difficult demands. The most common requirement of a job which put strain on the family was the long work hours. The average work day was a minimum of ten hours. With long days came low wages. During the 1900s, the average worker made around seventeen and a half cents per hour. A common laborers income was about $250 to $350 a year. This income was not nearly enough for many families to survive, especially larger families. Expenses of the family, including rent, fuel, food, clothing, and medical often added up to more than the families income, causing high amounts of debt (Hollitz ch. 2). Beyond the hours and the wage, the most difficult part of majority of jobs was the physical labor and the conditions of the work place. Factory and mine jobs were the most common for immigrants, and both were extremely dangerous. The machinery of a factory was very large and treacherous. Hundreds of men were injured from the machines, while others were not so lucky and were killed. Besides the dangerous machinery, factories were scorching hot and filled with disease that spread quickly. As described in The Jungle, hazardous chemicals played a large role in the harsh conditions of the meat packing factories. Each and every job of a packing factory put the workers at risk. Lost limbs were a norm, as well as unbearable odors. Not only did the factories cause physical disabilities, but they were also mentally straining on workers, pushing them to saloons after work (Sinclair).

Immigrants did not have many resources to turn to for help; because of this, they struggled for support and turned to the saloons and alcohol as a means to bare their problems. Every factory town had multiple saloons, often times they were ethnic specific. The Irish would go to the Irish saloon while the Germans went to the German saloon. There was much tension between the different ethnicities, as well as the native born Americans. Americans would treat immigrants with much disrespect, saw them as a threat to jobs, and felt they dirtied the city. Immigrants came together through unions. Unions were used as a support system and a reform group. Together, the immigrants fought for better work conditions and shorter work days (Keene). Through unions, immigrants were able to find other immigrants from their home country. This allowed them to become friends and hold on to some of their native customs and beliefs. Although traditions and customs were very different in America than in European and Asian countries, immigrants needed to keep a part of home with them. This was done by holding on to traditional holidays, beliefs, and foods of ones homeland, as well as continuing to speak the native language while learning English. Holding on to some native customs and beliefs allowed immigrants to find more comfort as they made the transition to American life.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the number of immigrants coming to the United States was huge; although, these numbers did begin to dwindle after World War I as American laws put restrictions on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country. Immigrants were vital in the growth of the U.S. economy as many were laborers during Industrialization, an era that helped the country grow into what it is today. As immigrants traveled to America in hopes for a better life, they were met with many difficulties and despair. Through the help of unions, immigrants fought for a better life in America. The presence of immigrants in America is vital to the history of the country.

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