Definition: Occupations and conditions of immigrant laborers in the United States
Significance: Often called a nation of immigrants, the United States has borne witness, from the time of its earliest European settlements to the twenty-first century, that immigrant groups have significantly contributed to its survival, development, and prosperity. Although some scholars argue that low-skilled immigrants have helped to reduce American wage levels and overburden public services, most agree that immigrants have been essential to the country’s industrialization as well as to its economic, scientific, technological, and cultural growth.
More than thirteen thousand years ago, well before the arrival of the first Europeans, America was the destination of people from Asia. Those ancient immigrants spread out throughout the Western Hemisphere and diversified into about 750 distinct cultures that developed an immense variety of means of employment that enabled them to survive in arctic, temperate, and tropic regions. After Christopher Columbus’s four voyages of discovery to what Europeans called the New World around the turn of the sixteenth century, the increasing numbers of Spanish immigrants settled in South, Central, and North America. The earliest Spanish arrivals concentrated on exploiting gold and silver resources, but later immigrants came to work the land with imported horses, cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats. They also introduced new crops, such as European wheat, Asian rice, and African bananas. These modern immigrants also found that such NewWorld plants as corn, tomatoes, potatoes, and tobacco could be cultivated as valuable crops.
Tragic failures of early English settlements in North America convinced English investors that, to succeed, colonies required skilled husbandmen and artisans. With the hope for a better life, many English immigrants came freely to work in New England as well as in the middle and southern colonies, but other immigrants, such as African slaves, British convicts, and indentured servants, came less freely or with no freedom at all. Most worked on plantations producing rice, tobacco, and indigo, or on farms producing wheat, corn, and cattle. While the English dominated North American immigration of the seventeenth century, during the eighteenth century other European immigrants arrived in large numbers. For example, in Pennsylvania, by 1776, the majority of settlers were non-English, and German workers had helped create a very successful iron industry.
Indentured servants, after their four to sevenyear contracts had been fulfilled, often received fifty acres of land, which they proceeded to farm. By the time of the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) the numbers of Irish immigrants nearly equaled those of the Scotch-Irish, and many of them worked as unskilled laborers. Scholars have estimated that, at that time, African immigrants, mostly slaves, numbered about 360,000; English immigrants about 230,000; with smaller numbers of Scotch- Irish, Irish, and German immigrants.
Late eighteenth and early nineteenth century immigration patterns tended to resemble those of the colonial period. Most immigrants came to farm lands that were much less expensive than those in Europe, while a small but significant minority came as artisans skilled in such professions as carpentry, metal working, textile production, and iron-making. For example, Samuel Slater, who had mastered methods of manufacturing cotton cloth in England, immigrated to Rhode Island where, during the 1790’s, he built the first American factories manufacturing cotton cloth. This technology quickly spread throughout New England, and immigrant workers were employed in large numbers in these cotton and in woolen mills.
After the United States won its independence, its leaders held contrasting views about the roles that immigrants should play in the new country. President Thomas Jefferson, for example, hoped that immigrants would contribute to his vision of a nation of self-sufficient farmers. In contrast, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton wanted immigrants to work in cities and factories. However, both Jefferson and Hamilton agreed on the importance of attracting artisans with advanced skills from Europe.
From the 1820’s to the 1830’s European immigrants to the United States increased from about 150,000 per year to about 600,000. At the same time, the governments of their home countries tried to limit emigration, particularly of skilled artisans. However, the strong attractions of low-priced land and a labor shortage in America provided incentives for English and Irish to cross the Atlantic to pursue their occupations as farmers, blacksmiths, weavers, masons, shoemakers, and tailors. Mechanical expertise was especially highly valued in the United States. Different immigrant groups tended to settle in different sections of the country. In general, many more settled in the North than in the South, a situation that pleased certain southerners, who were suspicious of immigrants and satisfied with their slave system. English and Scottish immigrants tended to have the best educations and technical training, and they naturally settled in such cities as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, in which they were able to pursue their specialized work. Skilled laborers also found work outside cities. For example, Scottish quarrymen mined granite in New England, and Welsh miners dug coal in the Middle Colonies.
Irish immigrants tended to be poorer in education, skills, and money than others, leading them to take manual jobs such as digging the Erie Canal and constructing roads and turnpikes. In cities such as Boston, the Irish became the dominant foreign-born group, and some obtained skilled jobs as carpenters and printers, but most men worked as laborers and most women as domestics. Other Irish women worked in the textile mills of Lowell, Lawrence, and Fall River, Massachusetts. An occasional Irishman became extraordinarily successful, such as James McCreery, who immigrated to the United States in 1845 and became wealthy selling Irish lace.
The Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849 and the political revolutions in continental Europe in 1848 accelerated immigration to the United States. Many of the more than two million Irish men and women who came were forced into low-paying menial jobs. The men worked on construction projects in the cities and on railroads in the countryside; the women worked as servants, laundresses, and dressmakers. On the other hand, the 1.5 million German immigrants, sometimes called “Fortyeighters,” had greater numbers of artisans and trained professionals than the Irish. However, unskilled German workers did help construct canals and railroads along with their Irish counterparts. Many Germans also found work as shoemakers, tailors, and butchers. In 1850, half of Philadelphia’s Germans were employed in jobs that required skills. Sometimes, as in Germantown, Pennsylvania, they created communities where Germans had jobs at every level, from mayor to day laborer. German immigrants also settled in such cities as Chicago, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, and in such states as Wisconsin and Missouri. There many of them found work as brewers and bakers, while aminority, about 25 percent, became farmers.
Other events that influenced immigration were the 1848 discovery of gold in California and the admission of California into the Union two years later. These events stimulated immigration from Mexico, South America, China, and Europe. Particularly notable were the large numbers of Chinese, some who came at their own expense, while others arrived indebted to merchants who had paid for their ocean passage. Although some Chinese panned for gold, most worked at menial jobs in the gold miners’ camps, where they were denigratingly called “coolies.” As gold production declined, Chinese workers traveled to towns and cities of the West, where they ran laundries, opened restaurants, and worked as laborers on construction projects.
Even before the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, many immigrants had entered the U.S. Army. During the war, the numbers of immigrant military personnel grew so much that eventually more than one-half of all Union enlisted men were immigrants. The military forces of both the North and South energetically recruited Irish, German, and Italian immigrants. However, because foreignborn residents of the North vastly outnumbered those of the South, the Union army had many more immigrant soldiers. Moreover, because soldiers— immigrant as well as native-born—needed food, clothing, and weapons, more immigrant workers were needed to produce these necessities, leading to the liberalization of immigration laws.
The federal Alien Contract Labor Law of 1864 permitted employers to recruit groups of workers overseas. By that date, immigration into the United States had declined, and many immigrant workers were serving in the military, hence the need for recruitment. Despite the fact that nearly 500,000 foreign-born immigrants volunteered to fight for the Union, the federal Draft Law of 1863 prompted violent resistance among many immigrants, particularly the Irish in New York City and Germans in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Nevertheless, the North’s ultimate victory owed much to its immigrant troops. However, these immigrants hoped that their loyal military service would result in improved employment opportunities after the war, but quickly became disillusioned as newly freed African Americans and more recently arriving immigrants competed with them for precious jobs.
Young immigrants working in a Fall River, Massachusetts, mill in 1912. (Library of Congress)
One of the characteristics of the postwar period was the settlement and economic development of regions from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. More than 25 million new immigrants entered the United States during the thirty-five years after the war; they played important roles in these developments. German immigrants, the largest group of the nineteenth century, participated, along with Poles, Lithuanians, and Irishmen, in such midwestern enterprises as meatpacking, mining, iron and steel making, and the manufacture of furniture and bicycles. Builders of the transcontinental railroad recruited Chinese workers, who eventually numbered more than 10,000, to carve out mountainsides, lay tracks, and construct bridges. After the Central Pacific was linked to the Union Pacific in 1869, many Chinese became agricultural workers. By the 1880’s, according to one estimate, as many as 90 percent of California farmworkers were Chinese. Japanese immigrants began coming in large numbers to California during this same time, and Japanese farmers, who employed new immigrants, often extended-family members, as sharecroppers, had particularly productive enterprises.
During the late decades of the nineteenth century, the pattern of immigration from Europe changed. By then, immigrants from Britain, Germany, Spain, and France were greatly outnumbered by those people from southern and eastern Europe. Although most came from rural backgrounds, these Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians mainly sought employment in northern and midwestern cities, in which they became unskilled factory workers in industries such as steelmaking. In 1886 Andrew Carnegie—himself an immigrant from Scotland—praised these immigrants as “a golden strand” that made possible the dramatic progress in American manufacturing. However, later critics pointed out that Carnegie’s exploitation of these cheap laborers contributed to the immense profitability of his steel business.
Confined to substandard tenement housing in major eastern cities and severely restricted in employment opportunities, many Italian immigrant families took garment work into their homes and employed their children. The mother and her three eldest children in this picture earned a total of about two dollars a week—when work was available—around 1913, while the father sought day work on the street. (Library of Congress)
Hundreds of thousands of Italians, mostly men, spread throughout the Northeast and Midwest, where they worked in factories and mines or served as barbers and bootblacks. Others became involved in massive projects such as digging aqueduct tunnels and helping build New York City’s Grand Central Station and the Brooklyn Bridge. The famous bridge itself was designed by a German immigrant, John Augustus Roebling, and was completed by his son. Other immigrants who arrived in New York City around that time who achieved fame in their chosen fields included Irving Berlin, a Russian Jew who went on to become one of America’s greatest songwriters. Many other Russian Jews entered the garment trade.
As the U.S. population was increasing naturally during the early twentieth century, the numbers of immigrants increased even more dramatically, peaking in 1914. While restrictive legislation had drastically reduced Chinese and Japanese entrants, immigration from southern and eastern Europe accelerated. Even with the introduction of laborsaving machinery, the coal, steel, and railroad businesses, all of which were expanding, needed workers. For example, in Birmingham, Alabama, noted for its booming iron and steel industry, about half of the laborers were immigrants. The ethnic makeup of immigrants differed from region to region. In New York State, for example, Russians were the largest immigrant group, at over 558,000, followed by Italians, Germans, and Irish. By the time of World War I, Chicago had more Poles, Lithuanians, Serbo-Croats, Swedes, and Norwegians than any other American city. Certain ethnic groups, such as Italians, Greeks, and Turks, made use of padrones, foreign-born labor brokers who exploitatively obtained jobs and housing for immigrants.
Most Italians got jobs in construction, mines, or railroads (only 15 percent obtained positions as skilled workers). Other immigrants got jobs in the new and prospering automobile industry. Henry Ford made finding employment easier for unskilled workers by introducing a system of assembly- line mass production in which, he claimed, workers could be taught their jobs in a few days. In fact, by 1914, unskilled workers, many of them immigrants, constituted more than 90 percent of the workers at a Ford plant.
The number of Mexican immigrants officially entering the United States rose from 49,000 in the new century’s first decade, to 219,000 in the second, and 459,000 in the third, though actual numbers were well in excess of these due to illegal immigration. Most of these immigrants settled in California, Arizona, and Texas, where they cultivated, harvested, and packed fruits and vegetables.
Because immigrants often occupied low-paying positions that involved boring and sometimes dangerous manual labor, they tended to leave their jobs in droves. In 1913, one Ford factory experienced a 416 percent turnover rate, and the turnover rates for the mining and steel industries were routinely near 100 percent per year. Many immigrant workers began to agitate for national labor unions to improve work conditions, pay, and benefits. Immigrant women workers were also part of this movement. In 1909, garment workers in New York City, most of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, organized a movement dubbed the “Uprising of the 20,000,” which did lead to higher wages and better conditions in some business. However, conditions were not improved in New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which ran an operation on the tenth floor of a Lower Manhattan building. In 1911, a devastating fire in the building resulted in the deaths of 146 immigrant women, many of them young, who had been locked into their workplace. This tragedy called national attention to the exploitation of immigrant workers.
Immigration into the United States diminished during the four years of World War I (1914-1918) to a little more than 1 million entrants—a figure slightly greater than 25 percent of the previous five years’ immigration. Members of certain ethnic groups, particularly Germans, suffered from the chauvinistic and xenophobic sentiments fostered by the war. Some American nativists tried to prevent the admission of immigrants with radical political and labor views, such as socialists. In response, the U.S. Congress further restricted immigration by passing a law requiring a literacy test for immigrants. However, because of protests from fruit and vegetable growers, many Mexican immigrant workers were exempted from the literacy test because they were essential in harvesting food for American civilians and the military.
After the war, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies,” as they were nicknamed) sponsored strikes, and the IWW did include immigrants from the mining, agricultural, and meatpacking industries. State and federal governments used raids and deportations to try to control labor unrest. After much debate Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, one of whose goals was to limit immigration from southern and eastern Europe in favor of immigrants from the northern and western countries of Europe. The Great Depression, which started in 1929, created incentives for further restrictions on immigration because many native-born workers were losing their jobs. The new measures worked: During the 1930’s only about 500,000 immigrants entered the United States, compared to more than 4.1 million during the 1920’s.
The rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party to power in Germany created many Jewish refugees, but isolationist, nativist, and anti-Semitic attitudes by many Americans led political leaders to remain largely unresponsive to their plight, though some “illustrious immigrants,” such as Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, and BrunoWalter found fulfilling work that enhanced American life. After Germany’s annexation of Austria in early 1938 and the Kristallnacht pogrom in November of that year, during which many German Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed, U.S. policy toward Jewish German and Austrian immigrants became more liberal, and about 85,000 were admitted during a short period after these events. However, after World War II began in Europe in 1939, U.S. refugee policy became increasingly restrictive, with catastrophic consequences for Europe’s Jews.
Meanwhile, because of the American need for workers on farms and in defense plants, the United States forged an agreement with Mexico that facilitated the organized recruitment of Mexicans for seasonal agricultural work and full-time factory work in such defense industries as airplane manufacture in California. The resulting bracero program allowed each Mexican state to provide the names of workers to the U.S. Department of Labor, which then assigned workers to various employers. The program was so popular in Mexico that the numbers of Mexicans wanting this work always far outnumbered those who actually got American contracts.
Immediately following the end of World War II in Europe and Asia in 1945, a huge problem confronted the world’s leaders—millions of displaced people. President Harry S. Truman issued a directive allowing the immediate admission of 41,000 displaced persons into the United States, and Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act in 1948 that provided for the admission of over 100,000 of them in a four-year period. Some scholars consider this act revolutionary, because through it Congress actually weakened restrictive and exclusionary policies. This liberalization continued in 1956 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the admission of 38,000 Hungarian immigrants who had fled their country after an abortive anticommunist revolt.
During the two decades following the war, several million immigrants entered the United States, but the nature of immigration changed yet again, as did the types of employment that the new immigrants sought and found. By this time, nearly onehalf the immigrants were coming fromcountries in theWestern Hemisphere. After Fidel Castro established a communist government in Cuba, about 650,000 Cubans, many of them well educated and professionally trained, entered the United States. Growing numbers of immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries created serious problems because illegal entrants constituted large and unmanageable numbers. Some U.S. employers actually encouraged illegal immigration. By hiring undocumented workers, they could circumvent laws governing minimum wages, work hours, and contracts. In 1954, more than 1 million illegal immigrants were caught and returned to their native countries. Despite this deterrent and the immigrants’ exploitation by their U.S. employers, undocumented workers continued to come from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. A higher ratio of female to male immigrants characterized this new wave of immigration, with many women finding work in the garment industry and as domestics.
A central goal of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was to remove racial and ethnic discrimination fromthe system, just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had outlawed discrimination in jobs and housing. Nevertheless, changing circumstances often alter laws, and the Vietnam War created so many refugees during the 1970’s that political leaders felt duty-bound to allow them to enter the United States. They arrived in two waves, the first consisting largely of educated, English-speaking Vietnamese, who got jobs in industry or went into business for themselves, whereas the “boat people” were largely without marketable skills and, once in the U.S., were forced mostly into menial jobs.
Other Asian immigrants fared much better. For example, those coming from India and the Philippines were often already well educated and possessed professional skills that made getting jobs relatively easy. In fact, the 1965 immigration law had the greatest influence on Asian immigration, which rapidly rose by 500 percent. So many doctors, engineers, and scientists left India, Korea, and the Philippines that politicians in these countries became concerned about a “brain drain.” Some scholars believe that this new immigration has indeed contributed to widening the gap between developed and developing countries.
During the 1980’s, more than 1.6 million Mexicans entered the United States legally, but many more entered illegally. Those who became agricultural workers were often subjected to poor working conditions, wages, and housing. César Chávez, an American labor leader who helped found the United FarmWorkers union, tried to remedy these abuses through boycotts and strikes. Mexicans, both legal and illegal, dominated the growing, cultivating, harvesting, packing, and transportation of grapes, though policies on wages and working conditions were set by business leaders far from the scene. After much conflict and controversy, Chávez was able to gain recognition for his union, with consequent improvements in the lives of both Chicanos and Latin American immigrants.
Statistical evidence indicates that, throughout the history of the United States, immigrants have experienced large variations in their occupational achievements. During some periods, immigrant groups have been forced to take low-paying and poor-quality jobs, and many even returned, disappointed, to their native countries. However, many of those who remained eventually got better jobs at higher rates of pay. Some studies have shown that newly arrived immigrants have higher rates of unemployment and tend to work at much lowerpaying jobs than native-born Americans with similar levels of education and job skills. However, the same studies have also shown that immigrant employment rates and job status reach the levels of native-born workers after several years of residence.
The controversy over immigrants and employment has continued into the twenty-first century, with some believing that immigrants lower wages and become a drain on American taxpayers, while others insist that immigrants do not adversely affect the wages of American citizens, even those in unskilled jobs. A study of illegal immigration has shown that undocumented workers contribute as much as $10 billion to the U.S. economy each year. Furthermore immigrants have more often than not achieved the American goal that allows people of various backgrounds to rise as far as their talents and energies will take them.
Robert J. Paradowski
See also: Affirmative action; Economic opportunities; Great Depression; Green cards; Guestworker programs; Immigrant advantage; Labor unions; Sweatshops; Women immigrants; World War I; World War II.