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Immigration patterns shifted dramatically in the late 1880s and 1890s. Before then, most European immigrants coming to the United States came from northern Europe, with large numbers coming from England, Ireland, and Germany. A large segment of these immigrants were English speakers; although assimilation into American society was difficult, the commonality of language made it less so. Starting in the late 1880s, most immigrants arrived from non-English-speaking areas, such as Eastern Europe, Russia, and Italy. Many of these “new immigrants” were poorer that those who had arrived in America earlier. This and the language barrier made their assimilation into American society more difficult.

From 1870 to 1920 nearly 28 million immigrants arrived in the United States (peak years for immigration were from 1900 to 1910). Ellis Island opened in 1892, and Europeans desiring to settle in America first had to undergo the physical, psychological, and political testing that was given there. In 1910 Angel Island in San Francisco was completed; this was the West Coast’s version of Ellis Island.

Nearly 14,000 Chinese laborers had been recruited to build the transcontinental railroad. Many Chinese avoided racial hostilities by moving to sections of cities like Chinatown in San Francisco. The fear existed that Chinese workers would work for lower wages than “our” workers would, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited any new Chinese laborers from entering the country (those who were already here were permitted to stay). After the United States acquired Hawaii in 1898, many Japanese living in Hawaii came to California to work in vegetable and fruit fields there. The Japanese faced many of the same prejudices that the Chinese had faced. In 1906 the Board of Education in San Francisco ruled that separate schools would have to be established for white and Asian students. The 1913 California Webb Alien Land Law prohibited Asians who were not citizens from owning land anywhere in the state.

The majority of immigrants on both the West and East Coasts initially settled in coastal cities. Eastern and southern Europeans on the East Coast had come to America to escape oppressive governments, religious persecution, rising taxes, and declining production on their farms. The transformation for many from working in agriculture in Europe to working in a factory in America was massive. To survive, many clung to their old European customs, spoke their native languages at home, lived in neighborhoods dominated by their own ethnic group (thus the development of Chinatown and Little Italy in New York City), became members of mutual benefit associations or other ethnic organizations, or sent their children to religious instead of public schools.

The initial intent of many of these immigrants was to come to America, make money, and then return to their homeland. Some did return, yet those who remained were a crucial component of the economic growth of the era. Eastern and southern Europeans worked in many factories on the East Coast but also provided the manpower for the economic growth of cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago as well. Some immigrants did become involved in agriculture; a small number of Europeans continued on to the mining towns of the West. The one part of the country where few immigrants went was the South; few jobs opened up for them there.

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