Destination America
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line of immigrants on the U.S. border

Mexican Immigrants
Illegal or legal, Mexican immigrants do the hard, low-paying jobs that other Americans are increasingly unwilling to do, and they are a major part of the workforce not only in California, Texas and the Southwest, but in parts of the Midwest and in New York.

"Men and women go to America and come back less deferent, less
subservient, less humble." — Donna Gabaccia, historian

Watch the VideoThe Golden Door

For every immigrant who came to America fleeing political or religious persecution, thousands more came in hopes of a better quality of life for themselves, for their families, and for their descendants. Still, the distinction between immigrants who came for economic reasons and those who came to live in a free society is a blurry one. For many—perhaps most immigrants—it was a combination of freedoms that drew them to America.

From the perspective of the 21st century, when the majority of Americans live in towns and cities and work at non-agricultural pursuits, it is hard to comprehend what a big role the availability of cheap, or even free, land played in spurring immigration. But for much of human history, status was linked to land ownership. In societies as geographically and culturally distinct as Scandinavia and Japan, owning a plot of land meant that a family had the means to survive and, with luck, prosper. Those without land were often condemned to a precarious existence at the whim of a landlord.

When the great period of immigration began in the 19th century, population growth in both Europe and Asia outstripped the available farmland, displacing millions and sending many to America, where the tide of white settlement was opening up the vast American West.

In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, a generous law that gave 160 acres of federal land to any settler who could successfully farm it for five years. For those who could not homestead, there were still large tracts of affordable land, including the hundreds of millions of acres granted by the federal government to the railroads that were knitting the country together in a web of steel, and which the railroads in turn sold to immigrants.

Workshop of the World

The great period of immigration also coincided with America's rise as an industrial power. Fueled by abundant natural resources, industrial output grew from relatively modest beginnings until, around the turn of the 20th century, the United States was the world's leading manufacturing nation. Except during economic downturns, immigrants were always needed to dig the canals, lay the railroad tracks, and work the mills, mines, and factories. Conditions were harsh and wages low, but to most immigrants it was still better than what the "Old Country" offered, and there was always the hope—often fulfilled—that their children would be able to step up into the middle classes. America's rapidly expanding economy also offered entrepreneurial immigrants the chance to go for the Big Money.

The Huddled Masses?

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." Emma Lazarus's poem, inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, may be great literature, but it is not an accurate description of most immigrants. The truly tired, poor, and huddled usually did not have the energy or resources to make the journey to America. In many instances it was the ambitious, skilled, and educated who elected to leave their homelands in the hope that those skills would be in greater demand in the United States. This is especially true of many of those who arrived in the post-1965 waves of immigrants. Still, throughout the nation's history, there have been plenty of people who came to America fleeing poverty so desperate that the hope of just making enough money to feed themselves (and to send some to the family back home) was motivation enough—from the Irish victims of the Potato Famine in the 1840s to the Mexicans and other Latin Americans of the 21st century.

Source: Destination America by Charles A. Wills, Bibliography

Sources: Union Pacific-National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument-Christopher Columbus-The Granger Collection, Book & Series: Destination America

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