Like their nineteenth-century predecessors, the new immigrants arrived imagining the United States as a land of freedom, where all persons enjoyed equality before the law, could worship as they pleased, enjoyed economic opportunity, and had been emancipated from the oppressive social hierarchies of their homelands. “America is a free country,” one Polish immigrant wrote home. “You don’t have to be a serf to anyone.” Agents sent abroad by the American government to investigate the reasons for large-scale immigration reported that the main impetus was a desire to share in the “freedom and prosperity enjoyed by the people of the United States.” Freedom, they added, was largely an economic ambition—a desire to escape from “hopeless poverty” and achieve a standard of living impossible at home. While some of the new immigrants, especially Jews fleeing religious persecution in the Russian empire, thought of themselves as permanent emigrants, the majority initially planned to earn enough money to return home and purchase land.
Groups like Mexicans and Italians included many “birds of passage,” who remained only temporarily in the United States. In 1908, a year of economic downturn in the United States, more Italians left the country than entered.
The new immigrants clustered in close-knit “ethnic” neighborhoods with their own shops, theaters, and community organizations, and often continued to speak their native tongues. As early as 1900, more than 1,000 foreign-language newspapers were published in the United States. Churches were pillars of these immigrant communities. In New York’s East Harlem, even anti-clerical Italian immigrants, who resented the close alliance in Italy between the Catholic Church and the oppressive state, participated eagerly in the annual festival of the Madonna of Mt. Carmel. After Italian-Americans scattered to the suburbs, they continued to return each year to reenact the festival.
A community settlement map for Chicago in 1900 illustrates the immigrant and racial neighborhoods in the nation’s second largest city.
An immigrant from Mexico, arriving around 1912 in a cart drawn by a donkey.
Although most immigrants earned more than was possible in the impoverished regions from which they came, they endured low wages, long hours, and dangerous working conditions. In the mines and factories of Pennsylvania and the Midwest, eastern European immigrants performed low-wage unskilled labor, while native-born workers dominated skilled and supervisory jobs. The vast majority of Mexican immigrants became poorly paid agricultural, mine, and railroad laborers, with little prospect of upward economic mobility. “My people are not in America,” remarked one Slavic priest, “they are under it.”