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American Immigration: Then and Now

Updated on July 10, 2010

People have been arriving on American shores for Centuries but two periods stand out in terms of the sheer numbers immigrating. The late 19th and early 20th Centuries were the most prolific. All immigrants face problems and one common to both late 19th and late 20th Century immigrants is the discrepancy between expectation and reality upon arrival. In the case of the former, many false expectations were a result of letters home from relatives who did not want to admit the realities of a hard life. In recent times, expectations are favorable due to American television programs and movies which can lead to potential immigrants selectively ignoring anything negative they might hear. Although problems are always present, they have changed over time so today’s immigrant faces a whole different set of challenges than those faced by the immigrant of the late 19th Century.

          The immigration experience begins with the trip to the United States from a home country. For the 19th Century immigrant this was by ship and took weeks rather than the hours it takes for an aircraft to arrive today. Conditions on board ship were often the first real challenge the immigrants faced. As reported by Gary Mormino, professor of history at the University of South Florida, and George E. Pozzetta, professor of history at the University of Florida, during her voyage to America, Nina Tagliarini remembered that a man had died causing the entire boat to stink so everything needed fumigating. Also, all those aboard were undressed and covered in disinfectant (Mormino and Pozzetta 85). It is very rare, however, for someone to die on an aircraft and, although many still arrive by boat, the distances are much smaller and conditions relatively comfortable. On arrival, these immigrants often found representatives of political groups ready to help them in their basic needs, reports Steven E. Schier, political science professor at CareletonCollege. Unlike today, these parties desperately needed the immigrant vote because they were a relatively large, and growing, proportion of society (Schier). These days the political parties do not send representatives to the airports to welcome new immigrants so not only do the new arrivals not have the immediate help available to their earlier compatriots, they also face a greater challenge in obtaining suffrage.

While today’s immigrant will most likely start their life here in one of America’s large cities, some who arrived in the late 19th Century, particularly those from Scandinavia, made their homes on the prairies of the Midwest. According to Authors, Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler, there they found an entirely different set of challenging conditions like farming the hard, raw land and enduring scorching summers and arctic winters. Another challenge which they had not considered was the locusts that sometimes plagued the land (Hoobler 88-89). As reported by Ruth-Ann M. Harris, professor of Irish History at BostonCollege, disease was an always present threat for the 19th Century immigrant: Rose McCormick Williams wrote back to Ireland in 1879, “… seven days after we landed Mother and James died and were buried the same day. They all died with a sort of cholera, which was at the time raging here…Being in a strange land amongst strangers and not being able to help one another we had to separate and do the best we could” (Harris).

          Immigrants living in the high density urban centers in New York and Chicago coped with awful living conditions. Steven J. Gold, professor of Sociology at Michigan State University writes that with a population density of about 700 people per acre, areas such as New York’s lower East side saw regular tenement fires and diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes, and venereal disease. Even though the housing was low cost and of low quality, many were evicted because they could no longer afford to pay the rent. Today, on the other hand, Jewish immigrants tend to gravitate to the established middle class Jewish neighborhoods where they have support among others who came before them  (Gold).

          Once in the city, many immigrants found it hard to adjust to a society where they were not only a foreigner, but were also surrounded by other foreigners. The 19th Century immigrants, however, according to licensed therapist Hellen G. McDonald, being largely European and English speaking managed to join American society far more quickly and with less stress than many of today’s immigrants.  Today, immigrants are far more diverse, coming from all corners of the World and having physical features that make them distinct. These factors ensure that it is more challenging for them to assimilate into a predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant type society (McDonald).

In their new urban environment, says Historian G. Ward Hubbs, the early immigrants tended to live together in neighborhoods with friends and fellow countrymen as much as they could, so they could support each other and speak their native languages. Although this helped alleviate feelings such as homesickness and loneliness, it had a negative effect on their progress towards integrating into American society as a whole (Hubbs). One Irish immigrant, Julia Field, summed up her feelings in a letter she wrote back to Ireland,

…all persons coming here has to encounter abundance of hardships and difficulties unknown when they land on the shore unprovided – and destitute of friends or money, and no matter how clever they may be at home in abilities of earning bread they must here begin anew for they are in a new world among multitudes of strangers possessed of customs and laws entirely foreign…

(qtd. in Harris).

Today’s immigrant has one massive advantage over their predecessor and that is technology which is a great help in maintaining contact with their country of origin and culture, therefore helping to retain a sense of identity. Modern day conveniences like the internet and low rate international telephone services are a relatively cheap way to soften the culture shock and somewhat aid the process of assimilation while retaining a national sense of pride (McDonald).

Immigrants, Jews in particular, were prone to discrimination and attacks, often from other immigrant groups. Also attacks by the media, discrimination in housing and employment were common: From the 1880s up until the 1960s, Jews were generally forbidden membership of athletic and social clubs or living in exclusive neighborhoods. Also, for a Jew to be admitted to a university was a major achievement. Prominent anti-Semites included the author Henry James, who once referred to the Jews as “small strange animals-snakes or worms” (qtd in Gold), as well as Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Adams, and academics like sociologist E. A. Ross, and psychologist William McDougall (Gold). Another example, in the late 19th Century, according to Charles Jaret of GeorgiaStateUniversity, beatings and murders of Chinese immigrant miners were common. Also, in 1891 in New Orleans, eleven Italian immigrants were acquitted of murder charges but, on being set free, were immediately lynched (Jaret).

In Caribbean culture; writes psychologist David A. Baptiste, Jnr., and therapists Kenneth V. Hardy and Laurie Lewis, the color of one’s skin is of prime importance with lighter skinned people enjoying greater status. For this reason, many immigrants face difficulties in America when they come into contact with professionals who may be African American and, in their eyes, inferior to them. A visit to a dentist, doctor, counselor, or other official could mean a very difficult relationship resulting in little advantage. Ironically, the same immigrants often are unprepared to face their own new minority status (Baptiste et. al.). These days, however, the Jewish immigrant is viewed very favorably on account of their being mostly of European descent with higher levels of education and white skin. Some Jewish immigrants even enjoy a higher status in the United States than they had in their former home nation (Gold).

Back in the 1800s and early 1900s people arrived in America and went straight to work, even if the jobs were not the most desirable work in today’s terms. These days’ immigrants must first go through a myriad of bureaucratic procedures, paying money before receiving the authorization and the SSN so essential to everyday life in the USA. José Rivero Muñiz, a Cuban author, said that when he landed at Tampa in 1899, there were “no hassles, no customs, no questions” (qtd. in Mormino and Pozzetta 76-77). The problems are amplified for illegal immigrants, said Asociación Tepeyec founder Joel Magallán S.J., who are very reluctant to seek medical help when they are sick or send their children to school. Because they are so secretive about their status, they are also willing to take any work and they have no legal recourse without implicating their status (qtd. in Anderson). Today’s immigrant, on the other hand, is sometimes from a professional or other trained background in their home country. On arriving here, many find that their experience counts for little in a country where University Degrees are paramount. One case study involved a woman from Grenada who had been a supervisor bookkeeper but could only get a job as a hotel housekeeper due to her lack of a formal degree (Baptiste, Hardy, and Lewis).

Cultural differences have always been a source of problems for immigrants. Because many men arrived in America first so they could earn passage for the rest of their family, when reunited many found they had grown apart. Female immigrants, writes sociology professor Nancy Foner, especially Jewish and Italian women, found new constraints on landing in America. While in the old world they often had jobs, either managing the entire household, including the budget, in the new world they found themselves more housebound. Being less worldly in America than back home, they now faced a difficult task learning the new language and customs while their husbands picked it up at work. The result was a greater dependence and subordination to the husband as well as a reluctance to go outside their community where many felt uncomfortable. The children would not have this problem as they often worked or went to school where their young minds easily picked up the language and customs (Foner). On the other hand, today’s female immigrant typically works outside the home and hence enjoys her own independence and empowerment that was unknown to their predecessors a century earlier. One potential downside to this, however, is the increased sense of empowerment leading to new demands and confrontation with their husbands who have trouble accepting the new roles their wives’ are acquiring (Foner).

Immigrants who are parents may have already established a pattern of discipline for their children that is deemed unacceptable in the United States. They must either face punishment for child abuse or accept a muted version of their already well established family values (Baptiste, Hardy, and Lewis). One Italian immigrant, reported by history professors Bruce M. Stave, John F. Sutherland, and Aldo Salerno,  worried that kids mix with others who teach them to not respect their parents anymore (Stave, Sutherland, and Salerno 96-97).

Even though times have changed with technology, communications, and more liberal and caring societies in the Western World, immigrants continue to face problems of race, culture, and language among many others. Many of these problems are similar but at the same time so different because either the balance or emphasis has shifted. Today, the immigrant faces many more bureaucratic challenges than yesteryear: The increase in the number of people wanting to come here means the country can be more selective and put in place measures ensuring that their inclusion in US society will not be detrimental to the whole. The advantages, however, probably outweigh this as today’s immigrant enjoys a far greater chance for survival along with benefits in technology and communication that makes it easier to keep in touch with his home country and even to occasionally visit the homeland.


Anderson, George M. "Helping Immigrants Find a Home." America 191.1806 Dec 2004 17-21. 05 Oct 2006.

Baptiste, David A, Kenneth V. Hardy, and Laurie Lewis. "Family Therapy with English Caribbean Immigrant Families in the United States: Issues of Emigration, Immigration, Culture, and Race." Contemporary Family Therapy: An International Journal Sep 1997 337-360. 27 Oct 2006.

Foner, Nancy "Immigrant Women and Work in New York City, Then and Now." Journal of American Ethnic History 18.3 Spring 1999 95. 27 Oct 2006.

Gold, Steven J. "From "The Jazz Singer" to "What a Country!" A Comparison of Jewish Migration to the United States, 1880-1930 and 1965-1998." Journal of American Ethnic History 18.3 Spring 1999 114-141. 12 Oct 2006

Harris, Ruth-Ann M. ""Come you all courageously": Irish women in America write home." Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies (Spring-Summer 2001): 166(20). Expanded Academic ASAP. Thomson Gale. CICUniversity of Illinois. 27 Oct. 2006

Hoobler, Dorothy, and Thomas Hoobler. We Are Americans: Voices of the Immigrant Experience. 10th ed. New York: Scholastic, 2003.

Hubbs, G Ward. "A Settlement House in Ensley's Italian District." Alabama Heritage 75 Winter 2005 32-40. 12 Oct 2006.

Jaret, Charles. "Troubled by Newcomers: Anti-Immigrant Attitudes and Action During Two Eras of Mass Immigration to the United States." Journal of American Ethnic History 18.3 Spring 1999 9-39. 12 Oct 2006.

McDonald, Hellen G. "Conflicts of American Immigrants." Migration World Magazine 26.4 1998 14-18. 12 Oct 2006.

Mormino, Gary R., and George E. Pozzetta. The Immigrant World of Ybor City. 7th ed. Gainesville, FL: Florida UP, 1998.

Schier, Steven E. "From Melting Pot to Centrifuge: Immigrants and American Politics." Brookings Review 20.1 Winter 2004 12 Oct 2006.

Stave, Bruce M., John F. Sutherland, and Aldo Salerno. From the Old Country: An Oral History of European Migration to America. New York: 1994.


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    • profile image

      samantha stritesky 

      6 years ago

      this is a very use full web site an page i thank who ever made this avuable to all peaple have a nice day every one

    • accofranco profile image


      7 years ago from L Island

      nice writ up

    • American Romance profile image

      American Romance 

      8 years ago from America

      Times change, a large portion of the immigrants of today are drug dealers and murderers, we have established laws to know that they are here,and be able to keep track of them just like the IRS can find you anytime day or night, when one comes over without abiding by the law they are then breaking that law! thus making them a criminal, they dont go to work as you suggested, they swarm over entitlement programs from food cards to hud housing, we the working of this country believe this to be wrong!


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