Matters of Education

Learning Happens Everywhere

The Immigrant Experience

Original Publication Date: May 2004


Scholarship written in the last thirty years on the history of the immigrant experience in America reflects the tendency to create heroes of those long deemed victims. Newcomers to this country were not ‘wretched refuse’ but men and women who exercised power and control. They did not abandon their ethnicity by assimilating but used their cultural heritage to adapt to life in this country. Most immigration historians used the approach of the community study with the resulting literature containing studies of Irish women to Boston, Germans to Milwaukee, Italians to San Francisco, etc. In addition to division by ethnic group, there has been also separation by subject matter — education, women, labor, community activism, family life and leisure activities.[2]

In the broader scope of historical scholarship, these micropscopic endeavors have enabled us to see what we never would have with the telescope of a discipline geared towards presidents and national politics. Yet by looking only at the bottom, we missed as much as we did when we focused all of our attention to the top. Indeed we have replaced one set of myths with another. Immigrants were neither completely uprooted victims nor able to live ‘lives of their own.’ In a similar way, focusing on individual strands of the immigrant’s life — schooling, family, job — distorts the reality of his or her life. People do not compartmentalize their lives so abruptly. People live within many arenas at once and each role a person plays informs all others.

Immigration historians have begun to see the need for a more integrated approach, and balance that which recognizes and applauds diversity while attempting synthesis. The process of migration was anything but simple and while millions of individual stories exist, scholarship over the last few decades has generated patterns which pervade time and place about the immigrant experience. Most immigrants to the United States since the early nineteenth century did not come looking for freedom from persecution, nor did they expect to find streets paved with gold. In the majority of cases, emigration was undertaken as a strategy to achieve economic goals at home. The onset of industrial capitalism altered the way people earned their living. The enclosure movement and the mechanization of agriculture accompanied this shift in rural areas as cities rose as the site of factories and manufacturing. Certainly political and religious upheaval as well as natural disaster prompted movement throughout history, but historians continually see that the locus of emigration largely was from places where the economy shifted and dislocated persons from traditional livelihoods. Most emigrants came from an agricultural setting and hoped to return to achieve economic success in a mode most familiar to them. Many came with the intention of returning home, hence the high incidence of single rather than family migration. Repatriation, or return migration was also common. Even Jews, who came primarily as part of a family migration and left Eastern Europe because of both economic dislocation and political persecution, repatriated at the rate of 20% in the years 1880-1900.[3]

These two factors, varying rates of industrialization and the persistence of a family economy, had a large impact on patterns of migration. The economic transformation was sporadic and different places, even within the same nation, reflected the varying rates of the onset of industrial capitalism. It is, therefore, more accurate to focus on region rather than nation of origin. The transition from a household to a market economy occurred in ‘fits and starts’ and affected movement of people in a similar mode. As more people no longer produced all that they consumed within their households, they were increasingly linked to market as both producers and consumers. Despite this shift, family economy remained mode of operation, where all members contributed labor and when linked to market, wages to family efforts.[4]

An additional impact of the uneven rate of change that resulted in emigration is that transatlantic migration was often preceded by either seasonal and/or internal migration. Families would send sons/daughter/ fathers a few months a year to local markets, and these sojourns might become year round. As opportunity and demand presented themselves, migrants made their moves permanent and/or extended the scope of the market where they sought to find demand for their labor. Those who came to the United States were not the ‘dregs’ of their society but rather those who could both afford the price of a boat ticket and had reason to believe they would enhance their chances of economic security by migrating.

Migration was part of a family strategy. Sons and fathers and daughters came and sent money back home, either to acquire land or send for other members of the family.   In the pre-industrial and industrial world, the notion of individual accomplishment is usually an anachronism. This notion of family first is still persistent among contemporary immigrant groups, where all members of the family contribute and collective decisions within the extended kin network reflect the need for participation of all members. Historically, the decision to sacrifice a child’s wages so that he or she could attend school, only occurred when there was a perceived economic gain from the short-run sacrifice. Until 20th century, most economic success did not require a formal education and children were more beneficial to the family as wage earners.[5]

In addition to economic concerns, the entire migration experience was not one of individual efforts but of networks or chains of kin and friends from the area of emigration who assisted each other at every step from departure to arrival, including finding places to live and work. For most groups who did not speak the language of the host country, it is crucial to have a place to work where people literally and figuratively spoke their language. The phenomenon of immigrants working and living amongst one another reflects both the base of adjustment that the immigrants provided for one another as well as the desire on the part of the native born not to associate with these newcomers in such primary associations as marriage and residence. Living and working amongst those from their area of origin led to the creation of ethnic economic enclaves that served as an enormous resource for immigrant adjustment. Immigrants adopted some aspects of their host society over time, such as language and dress, but retained many of their most important values and behaviors, especially regarding marriage, child rearing, and religion. Immigrants used their culture as needed as a resource and buffer against the harsh realities of new environment.[6]

Once here, the immigrants established their own communal organizations whose purposes ranged from mutual aid to recreation. In addition to these formal organizations, there were informal networks based in the neighborhood. These were especially important to immigrant women as they relied on one another and often served as the foundation for community protest. Immigrants received support in adjustment from those more established members of their own group as well as charitable organizations established by the native born. Immigrants certainly preferred that assistance which understood their cultural values. Progressive Era efforts in the early twentieth century, for example, to ‘improve’ immigrant diet was met with resistance and hostility. Classes designed to provide education in procedures of naturalization and citizenship were highly attended. The immigrants created many of their own organizations. While these initially provided mutual economic, cultural, and social support networks, over time they would begin to look beyond the new place and provide support for those back home. This shift in charitable perspective was an indicator of the solidification of the groups success in their new home.[7]

Through these networks and organizations, as well as workplace and neighborhood interaction, these newcomers began seeing themselves not only as having come from a specific town or village, but from a country. This process of ethnicization, seeing oneself as part of larger group with common interests and identity, is an important step in immigrant history. It is also a process that reflects the fluid nature of ethnic identity as well as the dialectic between behavior of a specific group and its interaction with the dominant or host society as well as other ethnic groups. Frequently distinctions made within group were lost on those outside of it and the nature of ethnic group construction reflects this ongoing dynamic. Indeed recent theories of pan-ethnicity, reflect this ‘lumping’ of distinct groups from different ethnic heritages by the host society.[8]

Living in these ‘ethnic enclaves’ enables immigrants to withstand many of the hardships and traumas associated with emigration. Their culture is an important resource. Historians and sociologists have long debated whether the traditions and customs, i.e. culture, of the immigrants was primordial or resulted from the structural conditions of their lives here. While neither theory is wholly inaccurate, both view ethnicity as a fixed rather than fluid quality. Immigration historians have recently adapted the concept of situational ethnicity from folklorists and anthropologists who have long understood the relational nature of intergroup contact. While immigrants did not invent their cultural characteristics, they used them in various ways and to varying degrees, depending on the circumstances. Assimilation and ethnicity are no longer mutually exclusive. Generations subsequent to the immigrant one would continue to shape this ethnic group identity or persona. Historians describe the notion of situational ethnicity, or ethnic options to describe this reality for white Americans of selecting when they wish to be ethnic.[9]

Nor are we to assume that the immigrant generation adopted the values of the host society immediately. The early mobility studies defined success as advancement up the occupational ladder to white collar jobs. The implicit presumption was that the immigrants shared the attitudes of the native-born middle class. Historians must consider the immigrants’ values and the processes that went into shaping these opinions. We may not distinguish between various types of unskilled labor, but to those who performed the tasks, they represented very real differences. Evelyn Glenn informs us that based on their experiences in their native country, Japanese immigrant women preferred domestic labor to other forms of work because they were free from direct oppression. This form of labor also enabled them to meet their responsibilities to their own families. Conversely, according to Nancy Sinkoff, Jewish immigrant women preferred factory to domestic employment and felt that this option provided them with a greater sense of autonomy.[10]

The immigrant experience is a rich and varied one. The arrival of newcomers to the United States continues to shape our nation. Noting these overarching patterns does not minimize the experience of each person who has arrived at our shores but provides a valuable context to understand them fully.

[1]Scholarship on immigration implies a voluntary journey. Forced migration, such as the slave trade, does not reflect general patterns of migration, although some of the macro processes of adjustment and assimilation may apply to those brought here in chains.

[2] For an example of this literature, see Josef Barton, Peasants and Strangers (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,1975), Dino Cinel, From Italy to San Francisco (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), Hasia Diner, Erin’s Daughters (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), Ewa Morawska For Bread With Butter (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), and Virginia Yans McLaughlin, Family and Community (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).

[3]The two best overviews of the literature on reason for emigration are John Bodnar The Transplanted (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), Chapter 1 and Ewa Morawska “The Sociology and Historiography of Immigration” in Virginia Yans-McLaughlin, ed., Immigration Reconsidered (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 192-196.   Jonathan Sarna, “The Myth of No Return: Jewish Return Migration to Eastern Europe, 1881-1914,” American Jewish History, Volume 70, 1981. Simon Kuznets, “Immigration of Russian Jews to the United States: Background and Structure” in Perspectives in American History Volume 9, 1975,

[4] Bodnar, 1985, Chapter 1 and Morawska.

[5] This claim is made in made works on the immigrant experience. See, for example, Ewa Morawska, For Bread with Butter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

[6]Morawska, 1990.

[7]For Protestant philanthropic efforts, see for example, Paul Boyer Urban Masses and Moral Order in America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). For immigrant assistance, see Debra Block, “Virtues out of Necessity: Jewish Immigrant Philanthropy, 1890-1918” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1997), Miriam Cohen “Italian-American Women in NYC, 1900-1950” in Cantor and Laurie, eds., Class, Sex and the Women Worker (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977), Kathleen Conzen, “Immigrants, Immigrant Neighborhoods and Ethnic Identity: Historical Issues” in Journal of American History, Volume 66, December 1977, Donna Gabaccia “Kinship, Culture and Migration” Journal of American Ethnic History Volume 3, Number 2, Spring 1984, and Paula Hyman, “Immigrant Woman and Consumer Protest” Journal of American Jewish History, September 1980.

[8] For these views of ethnicity, see Werner Sollors, Introduction to The Invention of Ethnicity, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Mary Waters, Ethnic Options (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); and Kathleen Conzen, David Gerber, Ewa Morawska, George Pozzetta, and Rudolph Vecoli, “The Invention of Ethnicity: The View from the U.S.A,” Journal of American Ethnic History 12 (Fall 1992): 3-41. On the role of the dominant society in this process, see Yen Le Espiritu, Introduction to Asian-American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

[9] For a comprehensive overview of the way historians and sociologists have considered the development of ethnic identity, see Russell Kazal, “Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept in American Ethnic History,” American Historical Review 100 (April 1995): 437-471.See Herbert Gutman’s pathbreaking essay, “Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America” in Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America (New York: Vintage, 1977) for a discussion of culture as a resource.

[10]It has not been a constant approach but some historians have underscored the criteria of the immigrants as diverging from those in the host society in their work. See Herbert Gans, Urban Villagers (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1962), Diner 1983, Evelyn Glenn “The Dialectics of Wage Work: Japanese American Women and Domestic Service 1905-1940” Feminist Studies Volume 6, Number 3, Fall 1980, Gutman, Morawska, 1985, Barbara Myerhoff Number Our Days (New York: E.P. Dutton and Sons, 1978), and Yans-McLaughlin, 1977.