Leaving Europe: A New Life in America



In the mid-1840s, anti-immigrant activity, mainly against Irish Catholics, developed in urban areas along the East Coast. From 1880 to 1921, immigrants experienced an increasing nativism - the desire to protect the interests of native-born or established inhabitants over those of immigrants - from both the native-born Anglo-Saxons and the earlier immigrant populations from Northern and Western Europe. The number and diversity of the immigrants frightened Americans. The largely Protestant Americans were wary of the newcomers who were predominantly Catholic (from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and Greece) and Jewish (from Germany, Russia, Poland and Hungary). Americans also felt that the immigrants, who were unaccustomed to democracy and suspicious of this new form of government, were a threat to the American government. And the physical appearance of the malnourished immigrants in their native dress was peculiar if not frightening to the Americans.

Nativists actively sought to eliminate the perceived threat of immigrants who they blamed for the social and economic ills of urban areas. Some nativists wrote anti-immigrant books, others engaged in violent actions against immigrants who were strike-breakers, still others lobbied Congress and state legislatures to pass anti-immigrant legislation.

Nativist Organisations

Nativists founded organisations that sought to deal with the ‘immigration problem’ and preserve American values and institutions. Founded in 1887, the American Protective Association searched out Catholic conspiracies and organised boycotts of Catholic merchants. The Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1894 to limit immigration by means of a literacy test which required immigrants older than 16 to be literate in any language. This test was finally enacted in 1917. In addition, the infamous Ku Klux Klan, revitalised in 1915, saw Roman Catholics and Jews in particular as threatening the American way of life. Dressed in white robes with hoods that obscured their identity, Klan members burned crosses and committed acts of violence against individuals who aided immigrants.

Socialism and Anarchy

While race and religion were the primary bases for nativists’ anti-immigration activity, political factors also came into play. The relatively few immigrants who were socialists or anarchists confirmed nativist fears that immigrants wanted to bring their own ideologies to bear on the American way of life. For example, the Haymarket Riot (1886), during which a bomb killed six Chicago police officers, called attention to the radicalism of some immigrants. The riot occurred after a meeting planned by labour organisers and anarchist agitators in support of an eight-hour working day. Most immigrants, however, were not interested in overthrowing American democracy; they were concerned with getting acclimatised to their new homes. Furthermore, many immigrants were opposed to socialism, which advocated limiting immigration to prevent the depression of wages in America.

Excluding Prostitutes, Convicts, Illiterates, Anarchists, and the Feeble-Minded

In 1875, legislation banned prostitutes and convicts from America. From 1896, legislators put forth bills to deny illiterate individuals entrance into the United States. Several times, these bills passed Congress only to be vetoed by the president. In 1917 on the eve of America’s entry into World War I, however, Congress passed a literacy bill, which President Woodrow Wilson vetoed only to have Congress override his veto. Responding to the assassination of President William McKinley by an anarchist, the Congress in 1903 excluded anarchists from entering the country. Four years later in 1907, people with physical or mental defects that prevented them from earning a living were also excluded.

Federal Legislation

The end of World War I in November 1918 marked a turning point in America’s open-door policy towards immigrants. The war had amplified Americans’ lack of compassion for foreigners and energised the immigration restriction movement over fears that immigrants would overrun the United States. An outbreak of anarchist violence in 1919 in which immigrants were implicated further turned public opinion against immigrants. Although some anti-immigrant legislation had previously been enacted, the Emergency Quota Act (1921) was the first to restrict immigration by country and according to a formula. The Act limited the number of immigrants from Europe to 3% of the number of people from each country according to the U.S. Census of 1910. While the Act was meant as temporary legislation, it was law until the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which further limited emigration from Europe and ended America’s open door to immigrants from Europe. These laws were enacted to keep out the less desirable immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, and they affected mainly Italians and Jews.