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
The 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 manyperhaps
most immigrantsit 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
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
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
hopeoften fulfilledthat 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 enoughfrom 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