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Why did immigrants come to America?

Neil Diamond wrote the song "America" in tribute to the impact of immigration in America. It speaks of the quest for opportunity that embodied million who crossed into our nation. Click here to listen to the song. It is an MP3 file (4 megs and should take 2-3 minutes with a Cable Modem.) Choose open to play the song or save to save it to a disk and listen later. Let me know if the link stops working.


Written by Neil Diamond

We've been traveling far
Without a home
But not without a star
Only want to be free
We huddle close
Hang on to a dream
On the boats and on the planes
They're coming to America
Never looking back again
They're coming to America
Home, don't it seem so far away
Oh, we're traveling light today
In the eye of the storm
In the eye of the storm
Home, to a new and a shiny place
Make our bed, and we'll say our grace
Freedom's light burning warm
Freedom's light burning warm
Everywhere around the world
They're coming to America
Every time that flag's unfurled
They're coming to America
Got a dream to take them there
They're coming to America
Got a dream they've come to share
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
They're coming to America
Today, today, today, today, today
My country 'tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Of thee I sing

Both Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy found it necessary to remind the American people that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Every person on the North and South American continents came from someplace else -- either as an immigrant herself or as a descendant of immigrants. It is a telling and unfortunate commentary that we require regular reminders of these facts.

The late nineteenth century was one of the great ages of immigration in American history. This era of immigration differed from previous immigration booms in two key respects: scale and sources. In many ways, the change in sources of immigration was more important than the change in scale. By far the largest sources of immigrants in the period were the nations of central, eastern, and southern Europe. These immigrants were refugees from economic privation and political and religious persecution in the ailing empires of Austria-Hungary and Russia and the new, fragile nations of Italy and Germany.

This also was the first great period of Asian immigration to America, mostly from China but with a trickle of immigrants from Japan and Korea as well. However, anti-Asian feeling in the western United States, exacerbated by such cynical politicians as Daniel Kearny of California, limited both the extent of Asian immigration and the degree to which the Asian immigrants could take full advantage of the opportunities available to their white neighbors.

The growth of immigration in this period was spurred, as were so many other social phenomena, by technology. The development of ocean-going steamships and the rise of a great transoceanic trade spanning the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans made it possible for tens of thousands of men, women, and children to seek a new life in America and, despite the lure of the large eastern cities, to spread out across the continent to do so. Moreover, the rise of American industries and the growth of the railroad system created thousands of jobs -- both in factories and in the construction trades -- that offered powerful inducements to prospective immigrants seeking a new life.


Copyright 1995 by the Council for Citizenship Education. All rights reserved.

This material may be reproduced for classroom use and other educational purposes without prior permission so long as no commercial profit is gained from it and so long as full credit is given.

The proper citation for this material is as follows: CROSSROADS: A K-16 American History Curriculum, Troy, NY: Council for Citizenship Education, Russell Sage College, 1995

Immigrants came to America for many reasons. Beginning in the 1600's and 1700's America was seen as the land of opportunity. The Pilgrims came for the opportunity to have religious freedom. The Quakers and French Huguenots did as well. Economic opportunity was also a goal of many early immigrants. Whether it was the search for gold, the chance to own land and a farm or the chance to start a new life... even as an indentured servant; America was the "new world" and full of opportunities.

Immigration Before 1865

Before the Civil War America had an open immigration policy. Anyone could come here with no restrictions. Immigrants at this time were considered the "OLD IMMIGRANTS."

Old Immigrants - Came from northwestern Europe. These immigrants were mostly English and German. There were some French. These immigrants were light skinned and had light eyes and hair. They were Protestant.


Immigration After 1865

After 1865 Americans began to restrict immigration. Groups called nativists formed to oppose immigration. The Ku Klux Klan and the Know Nothings were nativists groups.


Immigration from 1890 - 1920

A look at the statistics below shows that immigration increased tremendously in the early 1900's until it was slowed by the Emergency Quota Act (also known as the National Origins Act) in 1920. These immigrants were different from the Old Immigrants and were called NEW IMMIGRANTS.

New Immigrants - Came from Eastern and Southern Europe. These immigrants were from Russian and Polish Jews, Italians and Irish. Their religions were different from the Old Immigrants (Catholic and Jewish). They were typically darker in color with darker hair and eyes.


Immigration from Asia

Chinese and Japanese immigration occurred throughout the periods listed above. It was Chinese labor that built the transcontinental railroad. Because of their unique racial background, however, they were discriminated against a great deal. As a result Asian immigrants are neither old or new immigrants.

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