In the eyes of the early American colonists and the founders of the Constitution, the United States was to represent the ideals of acceptance and tolerance to those of all walks of life. When the immigration rush began in the mid-1800’s, America proved to be everything but that. The millions of immigrants would soon realize the meaning of hardship and rejection as newcomers, as they attempted to assimilate into American culture. For countless immigrants, the struggle to arrive in America was rivaled only by the struggle to gain acceptance among the existing American population.
It has been said that immigration is as old as America itself. Immigration traces back as far as the 1500’s when the West faced the coming of the Spanish. At that time, the Americas had been settled by the Indians, who were soon threatened by the first immigrants of America. These Spanish conquerors threatened to undermine the culture of the Indians as well as their way of life. Evidently, immigration started from the beginning of our country’s time and has had an everlasting effect on America today.
Between 1880 and 1920 almost twenty-four million immigrants came to the United States. Between better salaries, religious freedom, and a chance to get ahead in life, were more than enough reasons for leaving their homelands for America. Because of poverty, no future and various discrimination in their homelands, the incentive to leave was increasing. During the mid-1800’s and early 1900’s, the labor and farm hands in Eastern Europe were only earning about 15 to 30 a day. In America, they earned 50 cents to one dollat in a day, doubling their paycheck. Those lower wage earners in their homeland were stuck in lowest paid jobs and had no chances to upgrade themselves.
Many left their homelands in search of a better life and soon, word got out on how great things were in America. The job recruiters form America hung posters and told stories about free land, a lot of opportunity to work for good money, and above all, the freedom to do as they wish. Many were aspired to come to the “land of honey where all the streets were paved with gold”. Fueled by the news of the California Gold Rush, they arrived in America looking to strike it rich with hopes of being able to send money back to their poor rural homes, or of returning to their country in a few years with newly acquired wealth.
One of the largest groups ever to immigrate to the United States was the Chinese. In 1842 the British Empire defeated China in the first Opium War. China was forced to pay indemnities of 21 million silver dollars and open five ports to foreign commerce. As a result, peasant farmers were heavily taxed. A series of floods and crop failures in Southern China lead to poverty and famine among peasant farmers. The British were given the power to preside over the immigration of the Chinese people. Eventually 12 treaty ports were opened to Westerners and Western missionaries begin to arrive in China, paving the way for Chinese youth to receive western training abroad.
In 1848, California struck gold at Sutter’s Mill, California. Chinese immigrants now had yet another incentive to go west in search of their fortune. For the most part, these immigrants were young male peasants who came in search of economic success. Unfortunately, this wealth was never realized for most of the newcomers in this stage of Chinese immigration.
While some worked as panhandlers searching for the elusive “Gold Mountain” of California, most moved to fill the low paid labor created by America’s rapidly expanding industries. Wool mills, as well as shoe, and garment manufacturers were among the most employers of Chinese immigrants, especially in the West. By 1880, 25% of California’s workforce was of Chinese descent. Others moved to support the growing need for labor in areas such as mining, land development, and irrigation. A crucial American accomplishment that was achieved primarily with the help of Chinese immigrants, was the Transcontinental Railroad.
However, this acceptance did not last long for the Chinese immigrants. Even as they continued to contribute to the country’s progress, American attitude towards the Chinese began to grow more strained. Fear, ignorance, and post-Civil War depression combined to create a secluded atmosphere and eventually, a hostile home.
As the Chinese population in America increased, many of these immigrants came together to form primarily poor Chinatowns in virtually every major U.S. city. These became targets for anti-immigration protests and riots that often resulted in violence. There was an increasing belief that immigrants were occupying too many jobs within the city. Pressure upon these immigrants became so fierce that some chose to leave the country altogether, and just like that, their American dream had been shattered.
For those that remained, things only worsened, as America grew intolerant of the overwhelming number of immigrants. Americans accused the Chinese of almost everything possible.
“The Chinese are aliens, born in a foreign land, speak a foreign tongue, owe allegiance to a foreign government, are idolaters in religion, have a different civilization from ours, do not and will not assimilate with our people, come only to get money, and return; and they are inimical to our laws, evade them whenever and wherever possible. They bring with them their filth and frightful and their nameless diseases and contagions. They bring no families as a general rule, but numbers of their countrywomen are brought for purposes of prostitution. They enhance the cost of government, and increase the burdens of taxation, while they contribute practically nothing in the way of taxes.”
-James Harvey Slater, 1882
In 1882, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was the first significant law restricting immigration to the United States. The law suspended all immigration of Chinese workers for ten years and barred Chinese immigrants then living in the U.S. from applying for U.S. citizenship. After that, a series of oppressive exclusion laws were made against the Chinese who became scapegoats for the high unemployment rate during the post-Civil War recession
American businesses, farmers, railroad and mining companies had depended on cheap Chinese labor for the majority of their profits and were still unwilling to pay higher wages to white American workers. These businesses increasingly depended on Japanese immigrants to replace the prohibited Chinese workers. As the Japanese came, the Americans told the same story that they had with the Chinese. They were once again arguing that the Japanese were taking their jobs and not absorbing the American culture. The United States took action yet again, by creating an informal treaty with Japan, restricting Japanese immigration to the U.S.
As America continued to recruit workers from other countries, they continually worried about an immigration problem. In 1924, the Federal government passed the Immigration Act which officially barred further immigration from Asia and Europe to the U.S.