Immigrant aid organizations

Definition: Charitable organizations established within immigrant communities, often church affiliated, to provide financial assistance and other support to members of the communities

Significance: Immigrant aid organizations played an important role in helping immigrants to establish themselves in the United States. Not only have they offered muchneeded financial assistance to immigrants, many of whom have been employed in lowwage jobs, but they also have given immigrants a sense of belonging and created a sense of home by providing social activities and traditional holiday celebrations.

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, the vast majority of immigrants coming to the United States from Europe, Latin America, and Asia were poor working-class individuals who came seeking economic opportunities and better lives for themselves and their families. Farmers, laborers, and tradespeople who have lacked formal educations have found themselves in a new country in which customs are different, working conditions are often far from ideal, and the legal system is unfamiliar. The situation of new immigrants has been made more difficult by the fact many do not speak English when they arrive, and they have missed the cultural ambiance that they had left in their native lands.

Within the various ethnic communities or groups, organizations were soon formed to help individuals through both financial assistance and moral support. Early organizations helped those in their group who were ill and in need of medical care and those who were at times unable to find work and provide for their families. The concept of self-help was a major part of these organizations. Members paid either set dues or whatever they could afford. These funds were typically used to assist members with expenses incurred in childbirth, weddings, and funerals. Aid organizations eventually began offering health and life insurance at low rates. Some organizations even established banks to provide loans to members. Many organizations were also active in maintaining traditions of the home countries by sponsoring festivals and traditional holiday celebrations. Many of these organizations have remained active into the twenty-first century. as aid societies or social organizations or both.

Ethnic-Based Organizations

The first immigrant aid organization formed in the United States was the Charitable Irish Association of Boston, which was founded in 1737. Originally, its members had to be Irish Protestants, or of Irish ancestry, and had to live in Boston. However, by 1742, the majority of the members were Irish Catholics living in Boston. The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) formed organizations to aid Irish Catholic immigrants in almost all the areas of the United States in which Irish immigrants settled. The Hibernians were present in New York City, in Savannah, Georgia, and in Philadelphia.

The AOH was also active in the anthracite coal-mining region of Pennsylvania where it was purported to be associated with the Molly Maguires, a militant Irish Catholic mineworkers group that attempted to improve their working conditions by the use of intimidation and force. While members of the Molly Maguires were also members of the AOH, the latter organization itself eschewed violence, was benevolent, and provided financial assistance to members who were ill or impoverished.

The large Mexican immigrant population that was first located in the southwestern United States brought with it from Mexico a strong sense of community. El pueblo, the place where one lives, had a major significance in the Mexican mindset. Community aid organizations known as mutualistas were a part of the culture of their homeland. The membership of the mutualistas, which have remained very active into the twenty-first century, has varied and continues to do so. Members have included Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and non-Mexicans. The mutualistas provide not only financial assistance and traditional social activities but also support to members who experience workplace or political discrimination.

Flyer from an organization dedicated to protecting Italian immigrants from being exploited upon their arrival in America
Flyer from an organization dedicated to protecting Italian immigrants from being exploited upon their arrival in America. (Center for Migration Studies)

The Italian immigrants who came to the United States also created mutual aid organizations to provide financial assistance to the ill and impoverished. However, unlike the Irish, who emphasized nationality and religion, and the Mexicans, for whom el pueblo, or the community, was most important, the Italians established their societies on a narrower base. Their organizations based membership either on the families to which members belonged or the regions of Italy from which the immigrants came.

Other Immigrant Organizations

The mutual aid organizations established by the vast number of Chinese immigrants brought to the California area as laborers in the gold mines and for railroad construction were even more complex in their determination of membership. However, they also reflected the traditions and culture of the home country. Three distinct types of Chinese mutual aid associations were established. The clan associations received members having the same surname, and the tongs had a broader membership and included immigrants from different clans and districts. Membership in the huikuan or huiguan was open to all those speaking the same dialect, coming from the same district, or belonging to the same ethnic group. Other European groups such as the Belgians, Germans, and Poles also established aid organizations based on nationality.

Shawncey Webb

Further Reading

  • Candeloro, Dominic. Chicago’s Italians: Immigrants, Ethnics, Americans. Chicago: Arcadia Press, 2003. Traces development of Italian contributions to Chicago in labor unions, politics, and religion. 
  • Gutíerrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Excellent history of Mexicans and their descendants in the United States with a strong emphasis on the Mexican immigrants’ maintenance of their culture and the role of mutualistas. Also good presentation of role of labor and political organizations. 
  • Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Excellent for understanding the problems and difficulties shared by immigrant groups and the need for immigrant aid organizations. 
  • Pozzetta, George, ed. Immigrant Institutions: The Organization of Immigrant Life. New York: Routledge, 1991. Collection of useful articles on Italian, Jewish, and Japanese aid organizations. Many articles emphasize the roles of ethnic newspapers and of saloons as gathering places. 
  • Reimers, David. Other Immigrants: The Global Origins of the American People. New York: New York University Press, 2005. Good discussion of the problems faced by non-European immigrants, with some attention to the aid organizations that were formed. 

See also: Association of Indians in America; Chinese family associations; Chinese secret societies; Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles; El Rescate; Ethnic enclaves; Health care; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Social networks; Sociedad Progresista Mexicana; Welfare and social services.

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