Alien land laws

Targeting mainly Asian immigrants, the alien land laws demonstrated an anti-immigrant hysteria in a nation that prided itself on the welcome it extended to immigrants.

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Anti-Filipino violence

Although Filipinos have been generally less well known in the United States than immigrants from other parts of Asia...

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Bracero program

Date: 1942 to 1964

Location: Southwestern states

The Event: Cooperative international program through which the United States imported large numbers of Mexican workers—mainly farmworkers—on a temporary basis

Date: 1942-1964

Significance: Initiated because of farm labor shortages caused by American entry into World War II, the bracero program brought Mexican workers to replace American workers dislocated by the war. The program was intended to be temporary, but a growing dependence of American farms on Mexican labor kept it going for nearly two decades after the war ended.

Bracero program

Bracero workers registering at the Hidalgo, Texas, labor center in 1959. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Mexican immigration has historically fluctuated with changing social and economic conditions in both the United States and Mexico. During periods of social unrest, violent uprisings, or bad economic times in Mexico—such as the Mexican Revolution— immigration increased. When the U.S. economy has been in decline, Mexican immigration has decreased. Whatever the circumstances, however, Mexico has long been a source of cheap temporary labor for the United States. Indeed, until the establishment of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, the border between the United States and Mexico was virtually unsupervised. Citizens of both countries crossed it as they pleased, and farmers in the American Southwest recruited seasonal workers from Mexico without government interference or supervision. After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Mexican workers played an important role in keeping American agriculture productive. The bracero program of the 1940’s was essentially a more formal and more tightly supervised international agreement to provide an adequate labor force during and after World War II. However, despite the contributions the program made to American agriculture and to the Mexican economy, it had many vocal critics in both countries.

U.S.-Mexican Relations

Relations between the Mexico and the United States have never been intimate. Since the time of the 1846-1848 Mexican War, which ended with Mexico losing half its territory to the United States, relations have been strained. Added to this initial source of conflict was the large-scale "repatriation” of Mexicans and Mexican Americans during the Great Depression during the early 1930’s, when Mexican workers were indiscriminately rounded up from their workplaces and off the streets on which they lived and summarily sent back to Mexico. Meanwhile, the nationalization by Mexico of its petroleum industry, which resulted in the seizure of property that had been owned by American companies during the 1930’s, caused a festering legal dispute between the United States and Mexico.

In addition to these international events involving governments, there was the personal ongoing problem of racist antipathy against Mexicans that was prevalent throughout the American Southwest. A common saying that expressed Mexican feelings toward the United States at that time was "Poor Mexico, so far from God but so close to the United States.” Mexicans were generally considered "nonwhites,” forced to live in segregated barrios, and limited to employment in low-level jobs. Nevertheless, the prospect of finding better wages in the United States than those in Mexico has always drawn Mexicans north of the border. Consequently, even the state of Texas, which Mexicans have generally considered the most discriminatory of U.S. states, has been one of the most popular destinations for Mexican immigrants.

Negotiating the Agreement

Before the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, some Americans were concerned that if their country entered the war, there would again be a need, as there had been during World War I, for foreign workers. Farmers were especially concerned, and they pressured the federal government to make preparations to ensure an adequate farm labor supply in case of entry into the war. When the U.S. government approached the Mexican government about providing workers, its leaders were initially uninterested. This was partly due to the strained relations between the countries that had existed for some time. However, the situation changed after Japan’s surprise attack on the U.S. Navy base Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States quickly declared war on Japan and Germany, and Mexico, which until then had been neutral, followed suit by declaring war against the Axis. The Mexican government then saw providing workers for the United States as a tangible means of actively contributing to the Allied war effort.

Mexico still had certain reservations about entering a cooperative program with the United States. American racism against its people was a concern, as was the size of its own labor force at a time Mexico itself was attempting to modernize and industrialize. Another consideration was how the stability of families would be affected if only male workers were allowed to migrate to the United States under the new program. Apart from those concerns, the Mexican government wanted to address four major issues before making an agreement:

  • Mexican workers were not to serve in the U.S. military
  • Mexican workers were not to be subjected to discrimination on or off the job
  • Mexican workers were to be guaranteed transportation to and from their destinations, decent living conditions in the United States, and repatriation at the end of their contract periods, in accordance with Mexican labor laws
  • Mexican workers were not to be used to replace American domestic servants or to reduce wage levels

After its concerns were addressed in the negotiations with the U.S. government, the Mexican government considered the benefits that would accrue from a labor agreement. These included providing jobs for poor unemployed men, who might otherwise cause social unrest in Mexico; the acquisition of new skills and knowledge by workers that might later benefit Mexico when the workers returned home; and the infusion of U.S. dollars into the Mexican economy from the remittances workers sent to their families from the United States. For its part, the United States stood to gain workers who would replace American farmworkers who entered military service or left rural areas for better-paying jobs in cities as the war economy expanded.

Establishment of the Bracero Program

The final agreement that established the bracero program was reached on August 4, 1942, the date on which the program officially went into effect. The agreement acknowledged the sovereignty of Mexico and stated that either government could terminate the program unilaterally by notifying the other party ninety days in advance. The program was to provide the United States with both agricultural and nonagricultural workers.

Although both Mexico and the United States would benefit from the program, the program had many opponents in both countries. American labor unions were among the most vocal opponents. Their leaders argued that there was no significant labor shortage in the United States and thus no justification for a large and continuing influx of immigrant workers. Unions and their members were also convinced that a large influx of migrant workers would depress American wages. Texas growers were also opposed to the final agreement because it promised to make a drastic change in the way they had been accustomed to hiring Mexican workers. Texas growers were among the most prominent supporters of importing Mexican farmworkers, but they did not like the government oversight and guarantees of the bracero program.

Violations of the Agreement

Another reason that many Americans were upset by the bracero agreement was that it gave guarantees to Mexican workers that domestic workers did not enjoy. In practice, however, many provisions of the program were not honored. Among the many violations and abuses reported were charges that American growers made Mexican workers pay for food, lodging, tools, and blankets they were supposed to receive without charge. Growers were also accused of requiring workers to perform tasks beyond those specified in their contracts. Under the terms of the original agreement, the Farm Security Administration (FSA) was the principal federal government agency responsible for the importation of foreign labor. Aware of the criticisms of the agreement, the FSA attempted to secure better living conditions and pass legislation favorable to American workers, such as those guaranteed to foreign workers.

Violations of the agreement also occurred through the actions of the U.S. government itself. On April 20, 1943, the U.S. Congress passed Public Law 45. Its section 5 could be interpreted as allowing the commissioner of immigration and naturalization, with the approval of the U.S. attorney general, to import Mexican workers without the permission of the Mexican government. For example, in 1948 and 1954, the U.S. government would open the Mexican border to admit thousands of undocumented workers to satisfy the urgent demands of American growers who wanted more and cheaper labor. Meanwhile, the FSA was replaced by the more grower-friendly War Food Administration’s Office of Labor to oversee the bracero program. Another serious violation occurred when the wartime bracero workers returned home to find that the 10 percent of their wages that had been withheld had disappeared. It is unknown who was responsible for this violation.

Because of the history of Texas racism against Mexicans and the frequent abuses of workers practiced by Texas growers, the Mexican government refused to allow its citizens to work in Texas under the bracero program. This turn of events contributed to an increase in the number of undocumented workers who were allowed to cross the border into Texas, where they worked without government oversight or written contracts. In further violation of the agreement that stipulated that only single or unaccompanied men be employed, Texas growers employed men, women, and children. The wages they paid to these undocumented workers were also well below the levels specified by the bracero agreement. In 1947-1948, for example, average incomes for undocumented Mexican workers were less than ten dollars per week.

Both the U.S. and Mexican governments were aware of these violations. In an attempt to correct the problem, an agreement was reached whereby undocumented immigrant workers would be returned to Mexico, where they were to be given physical examinations, fingerprinted and photographed, and provided with identification cards. Each worker would then be given a written work agreement indicating where they would work and the conditions of their employment. They then were returned to the United States, where again they were to be given physical exams, fingerprinted, photographed, and given identification cards that would make them legal immigrants. Meanwhile, the governors of Texas attempted to improve working conditions in their state, and Mexico finally agreed to let workers go there in 1947.

Renewal of the Bracero Program

The original U.S.-Mexican agreement was to end the bracero program in 1947; however, there were numerous extensions. Although most of the braceros worked in agriculture, some did not. For example, from 1942 to 1946, more than 100,000 Mexicans worked for American railroads.

While most of the program’s conditions and guarantees were the same for both agricultural and nonagricultural workers, some differences applied. For example, wages were higher for railroad workers, who were allowed to engage in collective bargaining and join unions, although unions were generally reluctant to accept them. The use of these nonagricultural braceros to work in the United States stopped after the war ended. However, the agricultural agreement was renewed on February 21, 1948. A significant change was made in this new agreement, whereby growers, rather than the U.S. government, would be the employers of record. This agreement was renewed again in 1951, during the Korean War.

President Harry S. Truman was sufficiently concerned with the bracero program to establish a commission to study problems connected with it in 1950. However, his commission’s recommendations for reforms in the program were ignored by Congress because the program as it was already constituted was popular with growers, and keeping Mexican farmlabor cheap helped keep food prices down for consumers. A decade later, President John F. Kennedy moved to terminate the program. Congress nevertheless extended the program an additional year, but it finally ended in 1964. Overall, the program lasted for twenty-two years and was extended or renewed eight times. Braceros were employed in approximately thirty states with most working in California, Texas and Arizona.

Philip E. Lampe

Further Reading

  • Bustamante, Jorge, Clark Reynolds, and Raul Hinojosa Ojeda. U.S.-Mexico Relations: Labor Market Interdependence. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992. Broad survey of the dependence of American agriculture on immigrant Mexican workers.
  • Copp, Nelson Gage. "Wetbacks” and Braceros: Mexican Migrant Laborers and American Immigration Policy, 1930-1960. San Francisco: R and E Research Associates, 1971. Provides detailed accounts of emigration and immigration policies affecting migrant agricultural workers from Mexico.
  • Craig, Richard B. The Bracero Program: Interest Groups and Foreign Policy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971. Discusses the political agreement between the United States and Mexico regarding migrant laborers.
  • Galarza, Ernesto. Merchants of Labor: The Mexican Bracero Story. Santa Barbara, Calif.: McNally & Loftin, West, 1978. Discusses the treatment of braceros and the effects of the bracero program in California.
  • Gamboa, Erasmo. Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Detailed history of the life, conditions, and social policy affecting migrant workers fromMexico in Oregon and Washington State.
  • Gonzalez, Gilbert G. Guest Workers or Colonized Labor? Mexican Labor Migration to the United States. Boulder, Colo.: Paradigm, 2005. Study of the state of Mexican labor immigration to the United States into the early twenty-first century.
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. General history of the problem of illegal immigration in the United States that includes a chapter covering Operation Wetback and the bracero program.
  • Valdes, Dennis Nodin. Al Norte: Agricultural Workers in the Great Lakes Region, 1917-1970. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991. Penetrating discussion of the Mexican migration to and settlement in the upper Midwest regions.

See also: El Paso incident; Farm and migrant workers; Guest-worker programs; Immigration Act of 1943; Latinos and immigrants; Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Mexican deportations of 1931; Mexican immigrants; Operation Wetback; United FarmWorkers; World War II.

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One of the most populous subnational entities in the world, California is also ethnically very diverse, thanks to a century and a half of heavy immigration.

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Economic consequences of immigration

Any understanding of the factors encouraging immigration to the United States must rest on an understanding of the economic conditions motivating immigrants, as well as the effects of their presence in the United States.

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Economic opportunities

Throughout the history of the United States, quests for economic betterment have been a driving force behind the decisions of immigrants to come to the United States.

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El Paso incident

The complicity of agents of the U.S. government to contravene an agreement with Mexico by allowing Mexican farmworkers to enter the United States was another black mark in the administration of the bracero programs that damaged U.S.- Mexican relations.

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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.

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Farm and migrant workers

The supply of farm labor has become one of the most significant issues in U.S. immigration policy.

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Filipino immigrants

Significance: During the late twentieth century, Filipinos became one of the fastestgrowing immigrant populations in the United States. By the early twenty-first century, they constituted the third-largest Asian immigrant group in the United States, after Asian Indians and Chinese, and could be found living throughout the North American continent.

Filipino farmworkers in California during the 1930’s

Filipino farmworkers in California during the 1930’s. (Library of Congress)

Although most immigration from the Philippines to the United States occurred during the twentieth century, the earliest identifiable Filipino immigrants arrived in America during the 1830’s.At that time, hunters and trappers of Filipino origin settled in the region of Louisiana below New Orleans, which was then the busiest port in the United States after New York City. At that time, the Philippine Islands were a Spanish colony, and these first Filipino immigrants appear to have reached New Orleans on Spanish ships. As late as the 1930’s, descendants of these early Filipino immigrants, popularly known as "Manila men,” maintained a settlement along the mouth of the Mississippi River and supported themselves by shrimping, fur-trapping, and fishing.

American Involvement in the Philippines

At the end of the nineteenth century, the Philippines came under the political dominance of the United States, a development that would eventually contribute to a large Filipino American population. When the United States fought Spain in the Spanish-AmericanWar in 1898, Filipino rebels were engaged in their own war against their Spanish rulers. When Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt ordered the U.S. Navy to attack the Spanish at Manila, the Philippines’ capital, the United States established contact with Filipino insurgents. After the United States defeated Spain, the U.S. government did not withdraw its armed forces from the occupied former Spanish colonies, which included the Philippines, Cuba, and Guam. Instead, the United States sent troops to the Philippines to subjugate Filipinos unwilling to accept American rule, and the United States set up its own colonial government.

U.S. governor-general William Howard Taft, who later became president of the United States, was among many Americans who believed that educational programs could help to direct the development of the Philippines and establish ties between the United States and its new colonial subjects. American teachers were sent to the Philippines, and Filipino students known as pensionados were brought to the United States. About 14,000 government- subsidized Filipino students studied in the United States between 1903 and 1938.

Push-Pull Factors

During the decade following the arrival of the first pensionados, Filipino immigration to the United States increased dramatically. The Filipino American population increased from fewer than 3,000 persons in 1910 to more than 26,000 in 1920 and more than 100,000 in 1930. These new immigrants were drawn to America primarily by the demand for labor.

Profile of Filipino immigrants

Country of origin Philippines
Primary language Tagalog, English
Primary regions of U.S. settlement West Coast, Hawaii
Earliest significant arrivals 1830’s
Peak immigration period 1965-2008
Twenty-first century legal residents* 469,033 (58,629 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

During the early twentieth century, American industry grew rapidly and agriculture increasingly became a large-scale enterprise, requiring growing numbers of hired workers. Farming became more regionally specialized as advances in refrigeration and transportation made it practical to grow fruits and vegetables on large regional farms for export to distant parts of the United States. To meet the need for labor, farmers in California and canning factories in Alaska began recruiting Filipino workers. In 1920, the West Coast of the United States alone was home to an estimated 5,600 Filipinos. By 1930, this number had grown to 45,372. Filipino migrant workers provided much of the seasonal labor for fruit and vegetable farms in California, Oregon, and Washington, where they harvested asparagus, grapes, strawberries, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, and beets.

Hawaii, then an American territory, was the destination for many Filipino agricultural workers. American sugarcane planters in Hawaii rapidly expanded their exports during the first decade of the twentieth century and needed workers for the fields. In 1906, A. F. Judd, an attorney representing the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) arrived in the Philippines to recruit workers for the sugarcane fields and to make the legal arrangements to bring them to Hawaii. However, relatively few agricultural workers left the Philippines forHawaii until 1909. During that year, unrest among the Japanese, who until then had made up the majority of laborers in the Hawaiian sugarcane fields, prompted plantation owners and managers to increase their recruiting efforts among Filipinos. When Japanese plantation workers went on strike, Hawaiian planters concluded that they needed a new and more easily controlled labor source.

The peoples of the Philippines speak many different languages, although there are a few widely spoken major languages, such as Tagalog, Ilocano, and several closely related dialects of Visayan. The linguistic diversity among the Filipino immigrants helped the Hawaii planters to avoid the labor problems they had experienced with the linguistically homogeneous Japanese. By being careful to recruit workers from different regions of the Philippines, they limited communication among Filipino field-workers. Between 1909 and 1914, about 4,000 Filipinos made the voyage from the Philippines to Hawaii each year. Their numbers decreased after 1915, when the Philippine legislature passed laws regulating the recruitment and treatment of Filipino workers. The numbers picked up again during the 1920’s, however. By 1925, around half of all plantation workers in Hawaii were Filipinos. By the early 1930’s, Filipinos made up about three-fourths of all Hawaii plantation workers.

From the 1930’s to 1965

The wave of Filipino immigrant labor to the United States that began in the first decade of the twentieth century became a trickle in 1934. During that year, the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings- McDuffie Act, which transformed the political status of the Philippines into a commonwealth—the first step toward independence for the Philippines. Under the law’s provisions Filipinos were no longer considered American nationals, and immigration from the Philippines was limited to fifty persons per year. When World War II reached the Philippines in 1942, Japan occupied the Philippine Islands, bringing even this limited flow of migration to the United States to a temporary halt.

After World War II, the United States recognized the full independence of the Philippines. However, the U.S. government still maintained a presence in the Philippines that contributed to new forms of migration. In 1946, the U.S. Congress passed the Luce-Celler Bill, which increased the Philippines’ immigration quota from fifty to one hundred persons per year. Spouses of U.S. citizens were not counted within this quota, however, and they became a major part of Filipino immigration. Meanwhile, the United States retained large military bases in the Philippines, ensuring an ongoing presence of large numbers of mostly male American military personnel, some of whom interacted socially with Filipino women. Many Filipino- American marriages resulted from these contacts. Between 1946 and 1965, as many as one-half of all immigrants from the Philippines arriving in the United States were wives of U.S. servicemen.

In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Education Exchange Act, another piece of legislation that promoted the immigration of a new category of Filipinos who would join the growing Filipino American population. The 1948 law enabled foreign nurses to spend two years in the United States for study and professional experience. Differences between American and Filipino living standards lured many Filipino nurses to remain in the United States after they completed their training, and the large demand for nurses in the United States made it relatively easy for them to find work.

Post-1965 Immigration

The 1960 U.S. Census counted 105,000 people living in the United States who had been born in the Philippines. At that moment, Filipinos constituted the second-largest immigrant group in the United States, only slightly behind immigrants born in Japan. As American restrictions on immigration from Asia were relaxed after 1965, the historical ties between the Philippines and the United States set the stage for a new wave of Filipino migration.

Immigration from the Philippines, 1930-2008

Immigration from the Philippines, 1930-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status. There are no data for Filipino immigration before 1930.

When Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart- Celler Act), the United States adopted a new immigration policy that dropped the former quota system of immigration that had been biased in favor of immigrants from northern and western Europe. The new basis for admitting immigrants was a set of preferences, with immigrants migrating to reunite with family members in the United States given the highest priority classifications, followed by immigrants with needed job skills. The new immigration policy opened immigration to the United States to many parts of the world, and the numbers of immigrants began climbing dramatically.

Thanks to the historical links between the United States and the Philippines, Filipinos were in a particularly good position to take advantage of the change in American immigration law. Because the Philippines remained a relatively low-income country—even though it had many well-educated and highly skilled people—and the United States was one of the world’s most prosperous nations, Filipino interest in emigrating to the United States was great. Moreover, many potential immigrants already had skills that were in demand in the United States and some familiarity with the English language and American culture.

Many post-1965 immigrants from the Philippines were highly skilled professionals. Before 1960, fewer than 2 percent of the people of Filipino ancestry residing in the United States had professional occupations, compared to 6 percent of all Americans. By contrast, two decades later, about one-quarter of all Filipinos in the United States were professionals. By the twenty-first century, this figure had risen to nearly one-third.

The United States had a particularly strong demand for medical workers that Filipinos could supply because the American occupation of the Philippines had established American training and standards in the islands. As a consequence, nurses, physicians, medical technicians, and other medical professionals were heavily overrepresented among the occupational fields of Filipino immigrants to the United States.

Nurses, who had already begun moving from the Philippines to the United States after passage of the 1948 Education Exchange Act, began arriving in the United States in even greater numbers following the passage of the Health Professions Assistance Act in 1976. This piece of legislation required professionals to have firm job offers from American employers before they could immigrate to the United States. This law was followed by active cooperation of immigration officials with American hospitals in recruiting nurses. Again, the special historical connections between the United States and the Philippines meant that the Philippines was training nurses ready for work in the United States, making that Asian country an ideal recruiting ground for immigrants.

Changing Push-Pull Factors

During the 1960’s, the American military presence in the Philippines continued and even grew along with American involvement in the Vietnam War. By 1980, one quarter of all married Filipino American women had husbands who had served in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War period. The popular identification of the Philippines as a source of wives also expanded into civilian American society, so that marriages arranged by mail between women in the Philippines and men in the United States were becoming common during the 1970’s. By the early 1990’s, an estimated 19,000 so-called mail-order brides were leaving the Philippines each year to join husbands and fiancés abroad, with the United States their primary destination.

As the Filipino American population increased, a growing number of residents of the United States had immediate relatives in the Philippines. Because the 1965 change in immigration law had made family reunification the category that allowed the most immigrants, this meant that each new immigrant opened the way for others. The result was an exponential growth in the Filipino American population throughout the last decades of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 2.5 million people of Filipino descent were living in the United States, ranking Filipino Americans only slightly behind Asian Indian Americans and a little further behind Chinese Americans.

In 2007, more than 72,500 people from the Philippines were admitted to legal permanent residence in the United States, and nearly 39,000 people born in the Philippines became naturalized U.S. citizens. By this time, Filipino Americans were living in communities across the United States, but the single largest concentration could be found in California’s Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana metropolitan area, in which an estimated 380,000 Filipinos resided in 2007.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

Bankston, Carl L. "Filipino Americans.” In Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues. Edited by Pyong Gap Min. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006. Sociological survey of modern Filipino American communities throughout the United States. 

Bulosan, Carlos. American Is in the Heart: A Personal History. 1946. Reprint. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974. Memoir of perhaps the best-known Filipino American writer, who came to the United States as an immigrant fieldworker during the 1930’s. 

_______. On Becoming Filipino: Selected Writings of Carlos Bulosan. Edited by Epifanio San Juan, Jr. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996. Additional writings by Bulosan documenting the Filipino American immigrant experience. 

Espiritu, Yen Le. Homebound: Filipino American Lives Across Cultures, Communities, and Cultures. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Study of how Filipino immigrants have adapted to American culture and society built around interviews with more than one hundred Filipino Americans. 

Karnow, Stanley. In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines. New York: Random House, 1989. History of the American conquest and occupation of the Philippines and efforts to impose American culture and institutions on the island nation. 

Okamura, Jonathan Y. Imagining the Filipino American Diaspora: Transnational Relations, Identities, and Communities. New York: Garland, 1998. Exploration of Filipino immigration that examines the subject in the context of Filipino emigration to more than 130 countries around the world. 

See also: Alaska; Anti-Filipino violence; California; Exeter incident; Filipino American press; Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935; Hawaii; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Indonesian immigrants; Luce-Celler Bill of 1946; Mail-order brides; Malaysian immigrants.

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German immigrants

Significance: The first non-English-speaking immigrant group to enter the United States in large numbers, Germans played major roles in American economic development, the abolitionist movement, U.S. military forces, and other spheres during the nineteenth century, and German immigrants continued to make important contributions to the United States during the twentieth century.

German immigrants on the steerage deck of the immigrant ship Friedrich der Grosse

German immigrants on the steerage deck of the immigrant ship Friedrich der Grosse. When World War I began in August, 1914, the U.S. government seized the ship, which happened to be laid up in New York harbor. After the United States entered the war in 1917, the Navy used the ship, renamed USS Huron, to transport troops across the Atlantic. Over the next two years, the ship completed fifteen round-trip voyages. (Library of Congress)

Most German immigration to the United States occurred during the nineteenth century, but Germans began arriving as early as 1608, when they helped English settlers found Jamestown, Virginia. Germans also played an important role in the Dutch creation of New Amsterdam, which later became New York City, during the early 1620’s. Other early German immigrants helped to settle North and South Carolina. By the nineteenth century, German immigrants were advancing farther inland to states such as Nebraska, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, and Texas.

Early Immigration, 1608-1749

Two forces were paramount in prompting early German immigration: heavy taxation and German laws of primogeniture, which permitted only the eldest sons in families to inherit their fathers’ land. These forces, along with seemingly constant and disruptive German wars, gave many young Germans strong motivations for emigrating to a new country, where they could hope to own their land and prosper with minimal government hindrance.

The first American region in which large numbers of Germans settled was Pennsylvania. Germantown, near what is now Philadelphia, was the first of many permanent German settlements in the British colonies—many of which had the same name. After Germantown was founded in 1683, German immigration to Pennsylvania grew more rapidly. By the mid-eighteenth century, Pennsylvania’s approximately 50,000 German immigrants made up about 40 percent of the colony’s entire population. Amish and Mennonite religious communities and the creation of the perhaps inaptly named "Pennsylvania Dutch” established Pennsylvania as a primary stronghold for German immigration. Pennsylvania was also becoming a base from which Germans migrated to other colonies, including what is now northern West Virginia, most of Maryland, parts of North Carolina, and the western regions of Virginia and South Carolina.

Profile of German immigrants

Country of origin


Primary language


Primary regions of U.S. settlement

Pennsylvania, New York, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Nebraska

Earliest significant arrivals


Peak immigration periods

1840’s-1920’s, 1950’s

Twenty-first century legal residents*

63,214 (7,901 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Taking their name from Deutsche, the German word for "German,” the Pennsylvania Dutch were the primary builders of Philadelphia and many of its neighboring communities in what became a six-county region that would be known as "Pennsylvania Dutch Country.” Pennsylvania’s Amish communities have kept alive German culture through their rejection of modern technology, their continued wearing of early German farming attire, and their ability to speak both old and modern forms of German. German farmers, craftsmen, and indentured servants helped develop Pennsylvania.

Late Eighteenth Century Developments

During the late eighteenth century, the Industrial Revolution began transforming the economies of the many German states from agricultural to manufacturing bases, making it more difficult for farmers to prosper. The lure of apparently unlimited farmland in North America, coupled with news from successful immigrants to provide a powerful lure to emigrate. From the late eighteenth century through much of the nineteenth century, millions of Germans went to the United States. Many of them were farmers who brought skills that contributed significantly to the agriculture of the Midwest, and many settled and helped build cities such as Milwaukee and Cincinnati.

The success of many early German immigrants in agriculture helped draw many German-born businessmen to the United States, where some of them built beer breweries that prospered alongside local agriculture. Some the best-known American breweries, such as Pabst, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller, were started by Germans.

Because Philadelphia was at the center of American opposition to British colonial rule, it is not surprising that Germans played an important role in the American Revolution that led to the independence of the United States. By the late eighteenth century, many German immigrants had deep roots in North American and were eager to help fight for independence. However, Great Britain’s use of German mercenaries against Americans helped give German Americans a bad name.

Known as Hessians because most of them were from the German state of Hesse, as many as 30,000 German mercenaries may have fought for Great Britain, and they may have constituted as many as one-third of all British combat troops in the Revolutionary War. These Germans fought ruthlessly against the Americans, but they paid a heavy price in casualties. Nearly one-quarter of them died from illnesses, and another quarter may have died in combat. It is not known exactly how many of the German troops remained in the United States after the war, but their number seems to have been high. Moreover, many Hessian mercenaries prospered after the war, thanks to the fact that the new U.S. government lacked the funds to send them back to Europe.

German immigrants who fought on the American side were also recognized for their valor and loyalty. Some held high commands. A particularly well-known German general in the war was Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who volunteered his services as a trained Prussian general to the American cause free of pay. Von Steuben was especially valuable in teaching discipline and drill to revolutionary soldiers, few of whom had any formal military training. The colonial troops were initially ridiculed by British troops for their inability to hold line and their eagerness to retreat. Von Steuben helped transformthe untrained men into efficient soldiers. Steubenville, Ohio, was later named in his honor.

First Century of American Independence, 1783-1900

Through the half-century following the Revolutionary War, German immigration increased steadily. Many of the new arrivals settled in such major cities as New York and Philadelphia, but independence from Great Britain allowed the United States to open up the West to settlers, greatly expanding agricultural opportunities for Germans and other immigrants.

Although much of the prosperity that German immigrants enjoyed in North America was based on their success in agriculture, Germans played a leading role in opposing slavery, which provided most of the farm labor in southern U.S. states. Some of the German leaders in the American abolitionist movement were political refugees from the many failed revolutions of 1848 in Europe who came to the United States filled with liberal ideals.

After the U.S. Civil War began in 1861, German immigrants again played a prominent role in the fighting. Some Germans fought for the Confederacy during the war, but the overwhelming majority of Germans involved in the conflict fought on the Union side. Indeed, nearly one-quarter of all Union Army troops were German Americans, about 45 percent of whom had been born in Europe. Among the most outstanding German officers in the Union Army were Carl Schurz, Max Weber, Louis Blenker, and Franz Sigel. Many Germans who fought for the Union brought considerable military experience. A slave state that remained in the Union, Missouri had a large German population that supplied many soldiers to the Union cause. After the war ended in 1865, German immigration continued to rise at a rate faster than that of any other immigrant group into the early twentieth century.

Immigration from Germany, 1820-2008

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status.

Twentieth to Twenty-first Centuries

German immigration to the United States continued to grow until 1914, when World War I began in Europe. The U.S. declaration of war against Germany in 1917 began the first period of anti- German sentiment since the Revolutionary War, when Great Britain used German soldiers against Americans. Anti-German fever during the war caused many Americans to vilify German Americans, especially those known still to speak German, and recently arrived German immigrants. Only a small number of German Americans openly supported Germany’s position in the war. Many of them were imprisoned for sedition or attacked by mobs.

During the war, former U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt went as far as to say neutrality was not an option and dual loyalty could not exist. Rising anti-German sentiment saw many German names disappear from the names of businesses, schools, and even public streets. Indeed, World War I helped accelerate the obliteration of German subcultures within the United States. Many German-language magazines and newspapers stopped publishing. German Americans avoided speaking German in public, and school systems stopped teaching German. Many German Americans anglicized their own surnames: "Mueller” became "Miller,” "Schmidt” became "Smith,” and "Franz” became "Franks.” Fear of American hostility, not the war itself, did much to destroy visible traces of German culture in the United States.

American entry into World War II in 1941 renewed American animosity toward Germans. Anti- German and anti-Japanese campaigns began shortly after Japan launched its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States had still not fully recovered from anti- German animosity during World War I, and the new war against Germany’s already reviled Nazi regime renewed American distrust of Germans. Using the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the U.S. government legally detained more than ten thousand German Americans during the war. German businesses suffered vandalism and many Germans were attacked by American mobs. Meanwhile, the Holocaust in Europe led to another increase in German immigrants following the war. Most of these people were German Jews who had suffered greatly under the Nazi regime.

An ironic aspect of the war was the fact that the supreme Allied military commander and future president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower was himself of German descent. Some of his ancestors had been members of the Pennsylvania Dutch communities. The war also brought to the United States the great German theoretic physicist Albert Einstein and German rocket expert Wernher von Braun, who would later help shape the American space program.

After memories of World War II receded and Eisenhower became a popular U.S. president, German heritage lost some of the negative stigma it had acquired over the previous decades. This development was aided by growing American distrust of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the Cold War. With an ominous new international threat looming, Americans were becoming less inclined to worry about differences among their own subcultures.

Despite early twentieth century anti-German movements, many traces of German culture have survived into the twenty-first century. These can be seen in product names such as Bayer, Heinz, Chrysler, Busch, and Budweiser, and in such now thoroughly American items of cuisine as hot dogs (frankfurters) and pretzels. In addition to foods and beers, German culture has provided the American educational system with the concept of kindergarten, which was regularly practiced in Germany following the increased immigration during the early nineteenth century. Other German contributions to American culture include two-day weekends, gymnasiums, Christmas trees, and theme parks.

Keith J. Bell

Further Reading

Brancaforte, Charlotte L., ed. The German Fortyeighters in the United States. New York: Peter Lang, 1990. Eighteen essays covering a wide range of topics, including a reappraisal that many of the immigrants were not radicals or revolutionaries. 

Creighton, M. The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Depicts the forgotten heroism of Germans and other immigrant peoples in one of the bloodiest battles in American history. 

Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Hopeful Journeys: German Immigration, Settlement, and Political Culture in Colonial America, 1717-1775. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996. Details the everyday struggles of common German immigrants to the colonies during the eighteenth century and includes many individual stories. 

Heinrich-Tolzmann Don. The German American Experience. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2000. Thought-provoking examination of how German immigrants have blended into American society. 

Kamphoefner, Walter, and Wolfgang Helbich, eds. Germans in the Civil War: The Letters They Wrote Home. Translated by Susan Carter Vogel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Fascinating collection of documents presenting the firsthand views of German immigrants who fought in the U.S. Civil War. 

Kennedy, David M. The American People in World War II: Freedom from Fear, Part II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. This book places immigration issues in the broad context of America at war and looks at American attitudes toward German immigrants. 

Spalek, John, Adrienne Ash, and Sandra Hawrylchak. Guide to Archival Materials of German- Speaking Emigrants to the U.S. After 1933. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978. Invaluable handbook for historical and genealogical research into German/Austrian immigration during the mid-twentieth century. Especially strong on Holocaust-related immigrants. 

Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. New York: Humanity Books, 2000.Comprehensive study of German immigrants in the United States, with sections on politics and nativism, German rural and urban communities, and German-speaking communities. 

Trumbauer, L. German Immigration. New York: Facts On File, 2004. Details personal stories of German immigrants to the United States and the key players in the formation of the country. 

Wittke, Carl. Refugees of Revolution: The German Forty-eighters in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1952. A classic work on the experience of the Forty-eighters in the United States. Heavy emphasis on biography. 

See also: Austrian immigrants; CivilWar, U.S.; Einstein, Albert; German American press; History of immigration, 1620-1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; History of immigration after 1891; Holocaust; Prisoners of war in the United States; Schurz, Carl; Strauss, Levi; World War I; World War II.

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Guest-worker programs

Guest-worker programs in the United States, such as the mid-century bracero program, have often met with controversy due to variable labor conditions and their perceived effect on American wages and job availability.

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Land laws

Definition: Federal legislation pertaining to the transfer of public lands to private ownership

Significance: From the time that the United States was established as an independent nation in 1783, the U.S. Congress has passed land laws defining the procedures by which new territory can pass from public ownership to individual ownership. While agriculture was a major source of employment during the nineteenth century, the acquisition of land became a fundamental inducement to immigrants to come to the United States. Many were pushed off their lands in Europe as population rose dramatically during the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century. Owning land individually became in the eyes of many immigrants the pathway to a secure future.

 Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West

Homesteaders crossing the Plains during the 1880’s, looking for land in the West. (Getty Images)

When European immigrants first came to what became the United States, they brought with them a concept of land ownership fundamentally different from that held by the aboriginal Native American inhabitants. The concept of individual ownership, in Europe restricted by the surviving elements of feudal society, stood in sharp contrast to the concepts prevailing among the Indian tribes, which favored communal ownership with individual rights to use land temporarily. However, striving for land over which they had full control had propelled the first European discoveries in America. Although titles to New World lands were first vested in the monarchs whose subjects "discovered” them, as governments developed into their more modern forms, they found themselves constrained by shortages of funds during an era when possession, or control, of land was considered the primary measure of wealth. As governments sought to expand their territories, they began to use the granting of ownership to pieces of land as a means to collect revenue.


Some of the major grievances that eighteenth century North American colonists had about British rule concerned government restrictions on their freedom to settle and farm lands in the vast open spaces between the Atlantic seaboard colonies and the Mississippi River to the west. Great Britain, which had acquired control over those western lands when it defeated France in the French and Indian War (1756-1763), had tried to block settlement by individuals migrating from the colonies along the Atlantic Coast. In its Proclamation of 1763, the British government forbade new settlements in lands west of the Alleghenies that were reserved for use of Native Americans. Attempts by settlers from the coastal colonies to move into that western area became one of the bones of contention in the American Revolution (1775-1783). After the war, the United States gained title to the area in the 1783 peace treaty with Great Britain. Settling in the region then became a priority for the new nation.

Within the British North American colonies, which had ben populated overwhelmingly by immigrants from Great Britain, laws pertaining to land ownership were determined largely by the individual colonial governments. Although it was technically vested in the British monarch, land ownership was quickly devolved to those who managed the colony in America—either as a company such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, or as individuals, who through wealth or connections, secured from the British monarchs grants of land in North America. These agents in turn passed over control either to large landowners or to new communities, as was the case in Massachusetts. The latter tended to pass subordinate control to new settlements with provisions for dividing the allotted lands to early settlers.

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

U.S. Lands Settled by 1890

Land Laws of the United States

One of the earliest problems faced by the new Congress of the United States was how to organize the distribution of land west of the Alleghenies. In 1784, Congress appointed a committee, of which Thomas Jefferson was the leading member, to draw up a plan. The proposal the committee produced set forth the outlines of the plan that followed in the Land Ordinance of 1785. The plan required several things:

• resolution of Indian claims to the land through treaties with local tribes

• surveying of the land into rectangular townships six miles on a side, each township to be then subdivided into 36 sections, one mile square and comprising 640 acres

• reservation of some of the land for military bounties granted during the Revolution

• subsequent sale of the land to private individuals

This subdivision of the United States into units of thirty-six square miles was followed throughout the settlement of the west. When Congress was passing the Land Ordinance of 1785, it added some new wrinkles. It reserved one section of each township to be offered for sale for the schools of the future community; it ruled that the secretary of war could claim some of the sections for payment to veterans of the Revolutionary War; it provided that the townships would be distributed to the various states on whom would fall responsibility for selling the land by sections or as whole townships; and it required that sales should be conducted through public auctions after at least seven (later reduced to four) of the survey (range) lines had been run. By 1787, relatively few sales had actually occurred, so Congress then authorized the sale of large aggregates to wealthy individuals who were prepared to take on the task of finding settlers to work the lands.

Peopling of the West

Although settlers from the seaboard colonies poured into the new Ohio Territory, formal settlement was held up by the slow progress of the survey lines and by the need to secure treaties fromthe Indians then resident in Ohio. Several unsuccessful clashes with tribes that resisted the flood of settlers led, finally, to the conclusive victory of an American force at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. In the ensuing Treaty of Greenville, the Indian tribes then resident in northwest Ohio ceded all their Ohio lands to the United States. The conditions of the Land Ordinance continued to be fulfilled in future years as more victories over the Indian tribes and cession of their rights by treaty were met.

It is not known how many immigrants were attracted to the United States by the availability of public land because U.S. immigration records were not kept until 1821. However, there is little doubt that the prospect of securing large plots of land at minimal costs drew many immigrants from Europe. Initially most came from the British Isles, including Ireland, but as the nineteenth century wore on, many more came from continental Europe. Early sales of public lands were intended for citizens of the United States, but over the course of the nineteenth century sales were opened to immigrants who began the naturalization process, thereby affirming their intention to become American citizens. Although U.S. debts from the Revolution and theWar of 1812 had been paid off with the proceeds from land sales by the 1830’s, Congress continued to seek revenue from further sales.

The large number of land laws passed by Congress indicates that the federal government continued to view selling public lands as a major source of revenue. One obstacle to sales was quickly changed: the need to bid at a single, central auction place. As early as the year 1800, Congress designated several on-the-ground sites for land auctions in Ohio— Cincinnati, Chilicothe, Marietta, and Steubenville. Afterward, auctions were held near the sites of the land being sold. Special officials were appointed to handle the sales, and rules spelled out how payments were to be made to the U.S. Treasury. Initially, land was sold for one to two dollars per acre under four-year payment plans. In later years, the prices and payment systems were regularly changed. In 1820, Congress acknowledged that a great deal of land had been occupied by "squatters” and allowed them to "preempt” title to the lands they occupied by paying part of their costs in advance of the auctions.

Meanwhile, Congress often tied land grants to other government programs. For example, by the mid-nineteenth century, its policy of awarding lavish land grants to railroads was becoming notorious. Congress granted large tracts of land to the railroads in the hope that the railroads would pass the land along to settlers. In the 1862 Homestead Act, Congress gave both citizens and prospective citizens a "preemption” right, enabling them to settle on public lands and secure title to those lands after five years for payments of two dollars per acre. TheTimber Act of 1873 gave settlers up to ten years to claim title to the land they occupied if they planted substantial numbers of trees on the land. Homesteaders willing to develop desert lands in theWest that were unsuitable for agriculture could buy title to their lands for only twenty-five cents per acre.

By the 1890’s, Congress was beginning to recognize that public lands suitable for homesteading were becoming scarce, restricting purchasers to those who had not previously claimed land under the Pre-emption or Homestead Acts. It was still unclear to what extent the availability of public land was drawing foreign immigrants. During the early nineteenth century, the attraction of land was no doubt great, and immigration from Germany and Scandinavia undoubtedly was encouraged by the availability of cheap land.

Much of the public land was actually taken up by speculators who had no intention of settling it themselves; they planned to sell it to latecomers. News also got out that the costs of turning public land into useful farms could be high, which meant that immigrants with limited capital would have difficulty developing any land they could afford to purchase. Most immigrants who came to the United States to farm probably arrived during the first half of the nineteenth century; however, major settlement ofWisconsin and Minnesota did not begin until after the U.S. Civil War. Many Europeans who immigrated during the 1850’s and 1860’s settled in the Upper Midwest.

The goal that propelled many immigrants to come to the United States was the prospect of acquiring land for themselves. The federal land acts strengthened that resolve, by making vast tracts of land available at low cost to those prepared to settle and take up farming. Creating farms out of wild lands, however, was not an easy task, and many immigrants who tried failed. Consequently, many immigrants who left farms in Europe to farm in the United States wound up as industrial workers in cities.

Nancy M. Gordon

Further Reading

Dunham, Harold J. "Some Crucial Years of the Land Office, 1875-1890.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Long the primary source of material on the public lands, the many useful articles remain relevant.

Freund, Rudolf. "Military Bounty Lands and the Origins of the Public Domain.” In The Public Lands: Studies in the History of the Public Domain, edited by Vernon Carstensen. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1968. Close study of the vexing problem that Congress faced in dealing with military bounty lands.

Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. Agriculture in History. 3 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2010. Collection of essays on specific historical events, including many relevant to U.S. land issues.

Rasmussen, Wayne D., ed. Agriculture in the United States: A Documentary History. 4 vols. New York: Random House, 1975. Reprints the land laws of the United States, mostly contained in volume 1.

Rohrbough, Malcolm J. The Land Office Business: The Settlement and Administration of American Public Lands, 1789-1837. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. Exhaustive account of how American public lands were sold to settlers.

See also: Alien land laws; Economic opportunities; Empresario land grants in Texas; European immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Homestead Act of 1862; National Road; Railroads; Settlement patterns; Westward expansion.

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