Immigrants: Welcomed. . . or not?
Frameworks for America's Past
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A picture that says "Welcome to America!"

   Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s had a mix of different views about immigration and immigrants.  The drawing is from a news magazine in 1887, and probably reflects the view of most Americans of that time.  Immigrants on the arriving ship are shown as good people eager to become new citizens of America.


Sometimes, not a
very warm welcome

As immigration increased rapidly, there was sometimes a suspicious or even hostile attitude toward the new arrivals.

   The political cartoon on the right is from the same time period as the drawing above.  This image, however, gives a very different view of the immigrants arriving from Europe in those years.  (Galway is a famous city in Ireland.)

   Often immigrant groups from particular countries settled together in a specific neighborhood of big cities.  That made the cultural differences of immigrants all the more obvious to native-born Americans.

An immigrant neighborhood in NYC

The photo shows Hester Street in New York City.  It was a well known street in a neighborhood that had many Jewish immigrants from countries all over Eastern Europe.  The picture was taken around 1900.

Discrimination against immigrants: the Irish

When a large wave of Irish immigrants began arriving after 1850, they often faced prejudice and discrimination.  Many were very poor and desperate when they arrived.  Irish neighborhoods in big cities had a reputation as rough places.  Many better-off Americans looked down on the Irish immigrants in those years. 

   The Irish Americans shown in the photo worked as clam diggers in Boston in 1882. 
Often the Irish were hired to do the worst, lowest-paid types of work.

Those "No Irish Need Apply" signs

Signs worded like the one shown below are often used in history books to illustrate the problem of discrimination against the Irish immigrants. 

   There is a debate among historians about whether such signs were common or actually very rare.  Regardless, it is certainly true that the Irish - like many other groups of immigrants - faced a struggle to be fully accepted in America.

The Irish, accepted at last!

Over time the Irish, like all the other groups that arrived in those years, did become a respected part of the American scene.  The photo shows a St. Patrick's Day parade of Irish Americans in New York City in the early 1900s.  The famous parade is still held there every year, and it always attracts a big crowd.
   In fact, the St. Patrick's Day celebration has become so much a part of American culture that people of many different backgrounds often "Wear the Green" of old Ireland on that day.

Discrimination against

immigrants: the Chinese

   Chinese immigrants who arrived in large numbers in America after 1850 also faced difficulty being accepted.  Some came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad.  Others came to do other work, mostly in the West, in the 1860s and 1870s.

   Many Americans feared that the Chinese immigrants would never assimilate, or blend in, to American culture.  There was also a fear, especially in California, that the Chinese immigrants were taking jobs from native-born Americans.

   Those fears led Congress to pass a law in 1882 that stopped immigration by unmarried Chinese workers. 
The law was called the Chinese Exclusion Act, and was in effect until 1943.  That law is now considered by many people to be an embarrassment in America's history.  Others, however, say the law was a reasonable response to very real concerns.

A Chinese neighborhood in NYC

   The photo shows Mott Street, the well known street in the center of the largest Chinese neighborhood in New York City.  This picture is from 1905.

Now a tourist favorite!

Today big cities like San Francisco and New York proudly celebrate their Chinese American neighborhoods.  Many of these "Chinatown" areas now draw big crowds of tourists on weekends to their shops and restaurants.  This more recent photo shows the same New York City neighborhood that is shown in the old pictures above.

Looking deeper - a few personal thoughts

It would be a mistake to leave this page with the impression that most Americans at that time were hostile toward immigrants.  It is true that many groups - including the immigrant groups themselves - often viewed other groups of people with suspicion or even dislike.  That seems to be a part of human nature all over the world, not just in America.

   It is also true, however, that no other nation has ever been so welcoming of people from other nations and cultures.  In 1903 these words, from a poem written by an American woman, were added to the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Judging the story of the past fairly

   When judging events in history, it is important to judge by comparing those events not just to an imaginary perfect world, but to the real world as it is and to human beings as they really are.  By that standard, the mass immigration to America during that time was most remarkable for its overall success.

All photos except the clam diggers and the sign are from the Library of Congress.
The Chinatown color photo is from the library's Carol M. Highsmith collection.
The photo of the clam diggers is from the National Archives.
The sign image is a graphic reproduction, not an historical photo.
Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.