Chain migration

Definition: Process of movement from immigrants’ homelands that builds upon networks of familiar social relationships to construct neighborhood or communities within in the new places of habitation that reflect the cultural norms and societal expectations of the homelands

Significance: As a result of family members or neighbors contacting others from their home countries for purposes of inspiring them to become their new neighbors in America, chain migration has had a significant impact on the history and growth of immigration to the United States. The virtual replication of “Old World” neighborhoods in America not only has historically allowed recently arrived immigrants to reconstruct familiar communities but has also enabled the new immigrants to survive the rigors of a new and unfamiliar land, by incorporating familiar language, religious worship, and social venues into a sustainable working and living environment.

Chain migration is in many ways a larger sociological process involving the movement of labor around the world. Networks of social connections developed over time between newly arrived immigrants in the United States and peoples in the immigrants’ former homes that paved the way for further migration to America. This process made it easier for newcomers to find and secure economic opportunities in the growing industrial, urban, and later agricultural, areas of the United States. When new immigrants arrived, they stood a better chance of achieving prosperity and endured less “shock” to the new American culture. This was because previous migrants had already established culturally familiar communities—with churches, ethnic neighborhoods, social-benefit societies, and foreign-language newspapers—that made even the newest arrivals believe that they were, in essence, “coming home.”

Eastern and Southern European Chain Migration

During the last few decades of the nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century, eastern and southern Europeans migrated by the hundreds of thousands to the United States seeking new lives. Many Slavic, Hungarian, and Italian immigrants responded to the dramatic rise in the need for unskilled labor in the American steel industry during the late nineteenth century by accepting manual labor jobs in factories. In addition, steel companies actively contracted for foreign labor, leading to increased migration to steel-producing regions. Many of these newly arrived immigrants would, in turn, write to relatives, neighbors, and friends in their homelands, telling them of the work available in America.

Recently arrived immigrants sometimes returned home them selves and spread the word about the opportunities for unskilled workers in the coal mines and steel plants in the United States. Their letters and conversations inspired many others to follow their examples by migrating to America. When they arrived in their new homes, they often found fellow countrymen who spoke, read, and wrote in their own languages, worshiped in the same churches, and socialized at the same institutions. Moreover, they often found that the immigrants who had preceded them had already built familiar social and community networks, which gave the newcomers a sense of security and the basis for a successful start.

Slovak immigrants who came to the United States during the late nineteenth century provide an important example of successful chain migration. After many of these migrants had settled into jobs, paid off their debts for their passage to America and established themselves in settled workingclass communities, they invited their extended family members in Europe to join them in America. As word spread in the home country from the migrants’ written and oral contacts, people from neighboring villages followed the initial migrants to the United States and set up similar Slovak communities around many of the same mills and mines that employed large amounts of unskilled labor, from Bethlehem and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to cities such as Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Nativist Reactions

By the late twentieth century, chain migration had been viewed negatively by some nativists as having contributed to increased illegal immigration, particularly from Latin America. Holders of this view point to the consequences of the bracero program that brought thousands of Mexican into the country as guest farmworkers during the midtwentieth century. They argue that the program enabled Mexican immigrants to establish chainmigration patterns that later fostered a dramatic rise in illegal immigration.

James C. Koshan

Further Reading

  • Bell, Thomas. Out of This Furnace: A Novel of Immigrant Labor. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976. Originally published in 1941, this historical novel is set in the steel mills and communities of Braddock, Pennsylvania, drawing on three generations of the author’s own Slovak family history. 
  • Castile, George Pierre, and Gilbert Kushner, eds. Persistent Peoples: Ethnic Enclaves in Perspective. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982. Valuable collection of essays on immigrants living in ethnic enclaves.Agood introduction to the subject. 
  • Culen, Konštantin. History of Slovaks in America. St. Paul, Minn.: Czechoslovak Genealogical Society, 2007. Translation of Dejiny Slovákov v Amerike (1942), a detailed portrait of Slovak life in the United States before 1914. 
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990. Popular social analysis of immigration to America since the sixteenth century that includes many obscure facts and personalized accounts. 
  • Jones, Maldwyn Allen. American Immigration. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. Comprehensive history of American immigration that explores all aspects of the newcomers’ impact on the United States as well as the overall immigrant influence on American history. 
  • Rechcígl, Miloslav. Czechs and Slovaks in America. Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 2005. Collection of essays relating to the history and contributions of Czech and Slovak immigrants and their descendants in the United States. 

See also: Dual citizenship; Employment; Ethnic enclaves; Families; Push-pull factors; Religion as a push-pull factor; Return migration; Settlement patterns; Social networks.

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