Experiencing Immigration

Experiencing Immigration The United States has been notorious for welcoming peoples from all over the world onto its lands in order to facilitate the growth of a diverse nation and generations of families have traveled to America in search of creating lives more fulfilling than those they had escaped. During the years of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States allowed the highest rates of immigration in it’s history with groups from a number of different countries sought an escape from the economical, political, and religious hardships their own nations bequeathed. This massive influx of such a myriad of ethnicities irreversibly changed the evolution of the newly formed United States and challenged existing ideas and attitudes of what constituted an American citizen. In addition, immigrants were faced with the difficult task of finding equilibrium in what seemed, and often was, a world full of chaos. Although those traveling to America came from contrasting origins, the trials and tribulations they endured were much the same. Reasons for immigration, arrival, living and working conditions, socialization, and increasing assimilation into the American culture were experiences common to all immigrating groups. These areas of adjustment and the ways in which they evolved illustrates typical “immigrant experiences” and proves that this was an era that truly shaped the evolution of the world. In general, factors pushing immigrants to emigrate from their own countries take on similar themes across groups.

Fleeing religious persecution, seeking political asylum, and escaping economic hardships were just a few of the common situations that influenced the search for improvement in America. Some immigrants began their journeys with plans of obtaining seasonal work to augment their meager incomes and most intended on returning to their native lands thereafter. As time went on and relatives already in the United States enticed families to join them, those immigrating commenced with no future plans of returning to their homes. The rapid increase of immigrants entering under these circumstances led Americans to question the lenient policies of immigration that were implemented by the United States government and created controversial issues encompassing all involved. In addition to reasons for leaving their native countries, immigrants also shared the experience of the long and exhausting trek to America. Although some arrived via railway or, in few cases, airway, most were tightly packed onto steamships, enduring extremely unsanitary conditions.

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Passengers funded the trip with money they had saved or had boarding passes sent by friends or relatives already in America, as was generally the case. Despite the surge of excitement in arriving to their destination, immigrants were exhausted, hungry, and scared when they first encounter with their new home. Ellis Island, located in New York’s harbor, was the arrival point for the majority of immigrants coming during the early 1900s. This building was designed in order to organize the process through which immigrants were granted entry. The officials working in this building enforced “laws and orders passed from 1885-1907 which barred people with contagious diseased, paupers and persons likely to become public charges, and also antichrists, prostitutes, the mentally deficient, and the disabled.” (American Identity Explorer CD-ROM) The tests that measured these ailments included medical, eye, and physical exams as well as two-minute interviews in which the immigrant had to prove that he or she had money, a place to live, and if not employment, then the means to obtain it.

It was a long and grueling process to endure for the immigrant that had just arrived from a several day steamship cruise. Ridden by exhaustion, hunger, confusion, and anticipation, the immigrant was faced with hours of interrogations and examinations. It is amazing that 80% of immigrants were allowed passage and despite the number withheld pending further exam, only 8% of those wishing to enter were prohibited and deported to their native lands. (Lecture: 07 Feb 00) Fortunately for the immigrants, most had been prepared for the notorious experience of Ellis Island from family already in the United States. They were generally instructed on what questions would be asked and what the proper responses were so that despite the intimidation of Ellis Island’s grandeur impression, the new arrivals had some a small amount of comfort in it’s predictability.

Once the hours of examinations were completed and passage was granted, immigrants generally had friends or relatives to meet their arrival. Many times, those immigrating were the wives and children of a husband that had previously immigrated and had already established residency. For a lot of immigrant groups, the husband emigrated first in order to create a secure environment for which the rest of the family can adjust to. In other cases, friends and family welcomed the immigrants and immediately took them under their wings. These networks of close- knit ties provided the arrivals with a secure feeling and aided in their adjustment to the new world.

Often times, these networks consisted of groups and relationships that existed in old world neighborhoods and so the development of concentrated areas of groups formed in large cities in America. These areas provided the familiarity of the old world in a place so completely strange to the immigrants. Most immigrants found homes in large apartment buildings that lined the inner streets of numerous large cities. New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles were just a few of the major cities that immigrants inhabited. The large tenements, as the apartment buildings were called, were packed compactly in urban ghettos and housed hundreds of families in small living spaces.

It was not uncommon for a family of seven to live in a one-bedroom apartment with little means of proper ventilation. Because most immigrant groups moved to places inhabited by acquaintances, the neighborhood ghettos comprised families of the same backgrounds and facilitated the development of such areas labeled “little Italy” or “Hebrew town” in which “people continued to speak their own language, establish their own newspapers, and created atmospheres that eased the transitions.” (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) Employment took on similar themes across all groups of immigrants with most taking jobs in textile factories. Here, employers took advantage of immigrants’ precarious positions and created appalling work conditions. A typical workday lasted ten to twelve hours and was performed in hazardous and unsanitary environments. In addition, the pay was meager at best, which required many women and children to contribute to the family’s income.

Outside from textile jobs, men worked construction jobs, pushed peddler carts, or found employment in bakeries or retail. Women also took jobs in textile factories or worked in laundries and tailoring shops, often working under the same conditions as their husbands. It was also common for women to take on “home work” in order so that they could work extra hours. Many children were required to contribute and helping their mother’s with this work was one way in which they could do this. Common to all immigrants, regardless of type of employment, were low wages, hazardous conditions, and extreme demands in order to economically survive. The one experience shared by absolutely all arriving groups was the transition into American life and all the dynamics that it entailed.

Suddenly, immigrants were faced with the pressures to “Americanize” while still struggling to preserve their native cultures. Compounding this aspect was the way in which Americans reacted to the growing number of foreigners inhabiting American cities. Every immigrant group endured the barriers of stereotypes, discrimination, and intolerance in their assimilation and enculturation into American way of life. Examining the experiences of two specific immigrant groups provides a clear illustration of the experience of immigration. Two of the largest groups to immigrate to the United States include the Italians and the East European Jews who mostly moved to the streets of New York with families that had already established a permanent place to live. Both these groups shared similar encounters in their struggles to adjust to their new surroundings and in their attempts to form new identities.

Creating close-knit neighborhoods, educating their children, preserving their ethnic cultures, and striving to create an equilibrium between past and present worlds were just a few of the ways in which these groups faced their transitions. Family and friends awaiting the arrival of East European Jewish immigrants generally met them at Ellis Island. From there, the families welcomed the new comers into neighborhoods that resembled much of what they left behind. Road signs were written in Hebrew, congregations of people spoke Yiddish, and generally, an ambiance of security surrounded them. During this time, landsmanshaftn societies formed to ease the immigrant’s transition. These societies “assisted the new arrivals, loaned money for the passage of relatives to the U.S., offered insurance against sickness, and provided opportunities for Old World sociability.” (American Identity Explorer, CD-ROM) In addition to the landsmanshaftn societies, many other facilities developed to aide immigrants in the transition to America and to create a Jewish community offering support and assistance that was comparable to old world ties.

Since the majority of Jews coming to America continu …