Experiencing Immigration Essay

This essay has a total of 3046 words and 13 pages.


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. 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)
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