Ehrich Weisz, born in 1874 in Budapest, Hungary, moved to America with his parents when he was a child. His father, a rabbi, had such a hard time finding work in the New World that he ended up in Wisconsin, thousands of miles from most Jewish communities. He lost the job he found there, and Ehrich sold newspapers to support the family and then ran away when he was 12. In his teens he was back with his family, now in New York, enduring what he later called “hard and cruel years when I rarely had the bare necessities of life.”
Ehrich had enormous luck, though. He discovered as a child that he was gifted as an athlete and gymnast. He took up magic, and before he was out of his teens he changed his first name to Harry and then his last name to Houdini—and he became the most famous magician who ever lived.
Ehrich Weisz was just one of 36 million people who poured into the United States in the century between 1820 and 1920. At the beginning of that period, the U.S. had a population of only 10 million. The newcomers dwarfed that number, and America became a land populated largely by recent arrivals and their descendants. Its culture and its character were remade by what those immigrants brought with them and what they created after they were here.
The immigrants came mostly in two great waves, first from northern Europe—places like Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia—and then from southern and eastern Europe—Italy, Russia—but they also came from China and Japan and Mexico and Canada and almost everywhere else on earth. They shaped the nation with their collective independent, pioneering spirit, for it was not easy or inexpensive to abandon all you knew and travel around the globe to a new land, and those who made the journey tended to be stubborn and ambitious. They also shaped the nation with the fortitude they showed after they got here, for almost all of them had to strive long and hard to rise to prosperity, and most of them faced discrimination and disdain from the moment they arrived. As we struggle with the burdens we sometimes feel placed on us by our latest immigrants—especially illegal ones—it can be heartening to remember what struggles there were before, in a time when there were virtually no limits on who could come to America or what hardships they could be forced to put up with.
Around the same time Ehrich Weisz arrived in the U.S., Luigi Giannini traveled from Italy to try to succeed as a farmer in the lush lands of California, but he wasn’t there long before he was murdered by one of his farmworkers over two dollars in wages. His son, Amadeo, dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work for a wholesale produce business. Amadeo proved so good at buying and selling that by 1904 he was able to open a little bank in a former saloon in San Francisco’s Italian neighborhood to serve immigrants who most banks wanted nothing to do with. He called it the Bank of Italy, and under his guidance it opened branches even through the earthquake of 1906 and the Panic of 1907. In the 1920s, he changed its name from the Bank of Italy to the Bank of America. It remains today one of the nation’s great financial institutions.
There are countless stories like those, because to be an immigrant at all you almost had to have unusual resourcefulness, imagination, and drive. The first big group to arrive was the Irish in the late 1840s. More than two million of them—around a quarter of Ireland’s population—sailed to the United States to escape mass starvation caused by the potato disease known as the “blight.” They were so hated by some Americans that they weren’t even considered white—a cartoon in Harper’s Weekly in 1876 showed a black man and a just-as-black Irishman above the caption “The Ignorant Vote.” Yet by the 1880s they were the master politicians of many of the cities in which they dwelled. More than five million Germans came to America during the century of immigration as well; today, Germany remains Americans’ top place of ancestral origin—above England or anywhere else. Germans and Scandinavians tended to move to rural areas in the Midwest, establishing farming communities. By 1890, the United States was a nation of lager beer drinkers and lovers of German food, and there were 800 German-language newspapers across the land. Most large U.S. cities fostered sizable German-speaking communities until the start of World War I, when all things German suddenly came to be considered unpatriotic.
Chinese began arriving on the West Coast in the late 1840s, imported to do grueling labor such as building railroads and mining, work not many whites wanted to do. Often they were the bulk of the population in the mining camps of the West, and in San Francisco in 1870 there were estimated to be two white people and one Chinese person for every job. The Chinese were the victims of especially virulent discrimination, seen as an inferior race that put “real” Americans out of work. In 1882 a law was passed that almost completely stopped them from coming to America. It was the first time there was even a concept that immigration could be illegal. Until then the door had been open to everybody.
The second big wave of immigration began in the 1880s. More than 4 million people left Italy for the United States between 1880 and 1920, and about as many Jews came from eastern Europe, especially Poland and Russia—about a third of all the Jews in those countries. The Jews were driven from their homelands principally by religious persecution, the Italians by unending grinding poverty. At the beginning, both groups stayed mainly in the cities of the eastern seaboard, packed together in crowded, desperately poor neighborhoods. In 1910 there were 500,000 Jews living on the Lower East Side in New York City, which one person called “the filthiest place in the Western Continent.” By 1920 New York was home to 400,000 Italian immigrants.
Jews found that they hadn’t escaped anti-Semitism at all by coming to the New World, although it almost never threatened their lives as it had in the Old. As for Italians, The New York Times once ran an editorial that said, “Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they.” As the twentieth century dawned and poor new arrivals from abroad made up more and more of the population of America’s biggest cities, pressure grew to put limits on immigration.
Where were the laws to control the great influx? They barely existed. In 1790, Congress ruled that any “free white persons” who were in the country for two years could become citizens. In 1868, after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment affirmed that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen, protecting not only former slaves but every child of an immigrant. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, putting an end to immigration from China. In 1892, the federal government opened Ellis Island in New York Harbor, but it turned away only “idiots, insane persons, paupers,” criminals, and people “suffering from a loathsome or contagious disease.” In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to establish a commission to study immigration, and the commission delivered a report that stated that recent arrivals, especially Italians and Jews, were “far less intelligent” than earlier ones with an “absence of family life.” That gravely unfair assessment led to the passage of laws in the 1920s that almost completely stopped immigration. The century of immigration ended. Large numbers of new Americans wouldn’t begin to enter again until President Lyndon Johnson—standing beneath the Statue of Liberty—signed a new law reopening the nation’s doors in 1965.
All through the century of immigration there were fears that the hordes of newcomers from exotic lands would never assimilate into American society. But of course they did—and in so doing they enriched American society immeasurably. To state just the most obvious, imagine Boston without Irish politicians or New Orleans without Cajun (originally French-Canadian) food and music or an entertainment world without Jewish humor or San Francisco without Chinatown. Still far worse, imagine the land without all the people who brought those things. You can’t, because they—and their ideas and hopes and dreams and all of their descendants—became America. America became them. They are no less us than are the original settlers who trekked over the land bridge from Asia to Alaska tens of thousands of years ago, no less us than the first few English who settled a few scattered spots on the coastline or the millions of Africans who were taken across the ocean in chains. It is a cliché, but it is a true one, that America is defined by people who came from elsewhere, what they brought with them, and the new things they created after they got here.
It is encouraging to remember as we face the immigration struggles of the present moment that not only have we seen it all before, but that the history of immigration in America is almost all a story of heroic, difficult struggle—and that it is finally a story of triumph.