Monday, March 23, 2015

A Nation of Immigrants: E Pluribus Unum

 A Nation of Immigrants: E Pluribus Unum

What is your cultural heritage? Do you know how you came to be an American? Almost all of us are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. While the nation can trace her immigrant roots all the way back to the settlements at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock, most of us are relative newcomers. A large number of Irish immigrants came during the 1850s to escape the Potato Famine, while Chinese immigrants came in droves to help build the Transcontinental Railroad. However, many Americans can trace their roots to the “Great American Migration” that occurred at the turn of the twentieth century.

During the depression of the 1890s, immigration plummeted to a low of 3.5 million immigrants, but rebounded to a high of 9 million in the first decade of the new century! In the past, the majority of newcomers were from northern and western Europe, but most of these new immigrants came from Eastern and Southern European countries, as well as Canada and Latin America. By 1910, Eastern and Southern Europeans made up 70 percent of the immigrants entering the country. Why did these people leave their native countries? The reasons these new immigrants made the journey to America differed little from those of their predecessors. Many came escaping religious, racial, and political persecution. Other were seeking relief from economic hardships, such as a lack of opportunity or famine. Many, especially Italian and Greek immigrants, came with contract labor agreements offered by recruiting agents, while railroad companies distributed pamphlets in many languages and countries, advertizing the availability of free or cheap farmland in America.

Ellis Island
Ellis Island
Nearly every port saw waves of immigrants coming ashore. However, the vast majority of immigrants had barely enough money to enter the country. Immigrants who could not afford first or second-class passage to other ports came through the processing center at Ellis Island, New York. Built in 1892, the center admitted some 12 million European immigrants, including my great-great grandparents, before it closed in 1954. During the peak years for screening, thousands of immigrants filed through the barn-like structure each day. Intimidating government inspectors asked a list of twenty-nine probing questions, such as: “Have you money, relatives or a job in the United States? Are you a polygamist? An anarchist?” Next, the doctors and nurses poked and prodded them, looking for signs of disease or debilitating handicaps. An experienced physician could tell if an immigrant had one of 50 or more diagnoses just by looking at an immigrant during this six second physical! Most immigrants were only detained 3 or 4 hours, and then free to leave, striking out to their new life here in America. However, many heartbroken immigrants were given a stamp of disapproval and sent back to their place of origin at the expense of the shipping line.

Being deemed well enough for admittance was not the end of the new American’s troubles; often, it was only the beginning. Once approved for entry, immigrants looked for work. There never seemed to be enough jobs, and employers often took advantage of the immigrants. While the railroads’ pamphlets did bring a handful of agricultural workers to western farmlands, most did not go west. By and large, Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, Bohemians, and Italians flocked to the coal mines or steel mills, while Greeks preferred the textile mills. Many Russian and Polish Jews worked in the needle trades or pushcart markets of New York. While different cultures took up different occupations, the vast majority of immigrants crowded into the growing cities, searching for their chance to make a better life for themselves. Men were generally paid less than other workers, and women less than men. In order to survive, many settled together, creating the ethnic pockets like “Little Italy” or “Chinatown” etc. that still exist today in many cities.

Irish Brigade Memorial at Antietam National Battlefield
Irish Brigade Memorial at Antietam National Battlefield
As more immigrants came, more competition rose. Many Americans feared their livelihood was at risk, as these newer immigrants would do the work for increasingly lower wages. During the huge influx of Irish In the 1860s, it was not uncommon to see signs saying “No Irish Need Apply.” By the American Civil War, there were entire brigades of soldiers made up of Irish men willing to fight for the Union in exchange for a few dollars and a guaranteed meal. By the turn of the 20th century, working conditions and hours were deplorable. The 1906 novel The Jungle by journalist turned muckraker Upton Sinclair exposed the deplorable working conditions and even more squalid living conditions. As more immigrants came, waste was being formed faster than could be properly disposed, but blind eyes were turned again and again. An old Italian adage can sum up the disillusionment felt by many: "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, found out three things: First, the streets weren't paved with gold; second, they weren't paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them." Little changed until New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Five hundred women were working in a piecemeal sweatshop when the building caught fire. Between the locked doors (only one guarded door was left unlocked to ensure none of the workers stole anything) and the too-short ladders of the New York Fire Department, nearly 150 women were killed. However, in spite of the difficulties, few gave up and returned home. Pride and the hope for success fueled them, knowing return to their homeland was impossible.

The United States is often considered a “melting pot”, with immigrants from every nation. From the first settlers in the 1600s to the thousands immigrants that still knock at the “Golden Door” of the New Colossus, most of our ancestors, mine included, came to America seeking refuge from persecution and hardships. While large-scale immigration made life seem like an urban jungle, it also produced a new vitality in the cities and states in which the immigrants settled. The newcomers helped transform American society and culture, demonstrating that diversity, as well as unity, is a source of the United States’ national strength. This great influx of immigrants proved once again the country's motto: E Pluribus Unum, or "out of many, one" great nation.

The New Colossus Emma Lazarus
"The New Colossus" by Emma Lazarus

Cover Image: The Apotheosis of Washington, Constiantine Brumidi, US Capitol Building

©2012- 2015 Adventures with Jude. All rights reserved. All text, photographs, artwork, and other content may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the written consent of the author.

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