From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration

From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration

by Nancy Foner

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In the history, the very personality, of New York City, few events loom larger than the wave of immigration at the turn of the last century. Today a similar influx of new immigrants is transforming the city again. Better than one in three New Yorkers is now an immigrant. From Ellis Island to JFK is the first in-depth study that compares these two huge social changes.

A key contribution of this book is Nancy Foner’s reassessment of the myths that have grown up around the earlier Jewish and Italian immigration—and that deeply color how today’s Asian, Latin American, and Caribbean arrivals are seen. Topic by topic, she reveals the often surprising realities of both immigrations. For example:

• Education: Most Jews, despite the myth, were not exceptional students at first, while many immigrant children today do remarkably well.

• Jobs: Immigrants of both eras came with more skills than is popularly supposed. Some today come off the plane with advanced degrees and capital to start new businesses.

• Neighborhoods: Ethnic enclaves are still with us but they’re no longer always slums—today’s new immigrants are reviving many neighborhoods and some are moving to middle-class suburbs.

• Gender: For married women a century ago, immigration often, surprisingly, meant less opportunity to work outside the home. Today, it’s just the opposite.

• Race: We see Jews and Italians as whites today, but to turn-of-the-century scholars they were members of different, alien races. Immigrants today appear more racially diverse—but some (particularly Asians) may be changing the boundaries of current racial categories.

Drawing on a wealth of historical and contemporary research and written in a lively and entertaining style, the book opens a new chapter in the study of immigration—and the story of the nation’s gateway city.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300137880
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Nancy Foner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Who They Are and
Why They Have Come

Emma Lazarus was wrong. Or to be more precise, she took modest amount of poetic license. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"—the words of her poem, engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, have a strong resonance today as America welcomes a new wave of immigrants to its shores. Although immigrants still often come to escape oppressive governments and poor economic conditions, much has changed. Emma Lazarus's characterization of immigrants as "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" and "the homeless, tempest-tost" was overdrawn for the past. It is even less appropriate today, when so many newcomers are from the ranks of their home country's professional and middle classes.

    Obviously, today's arrivals are no longer mainly European, and they come from a much wider array of nations and cultures than their predecessors. But because most immigrants are from relatively poor and developing nations does not mean, as many Americans believe, that the immigrants themselves are uniformly poor and uneducated. Although many now arrive, as before, with little education and few skills, significant numbers of the newest New Yorkers enter with college degrees and technical expertise.

    The reasons why millions have left their homelands to come to America are complex and multifaceted. It has always been too simple to see immigration to this country as a quest for liberty and freedom. Nor is the move inevitably an escape from hunger and want, as the occupational backgrounds of manyof today's newcomers make clear. An analysis of the underlying causes of immigration shows that the forces historians have identified as important in the last great wave—population growth, persecution, chain migration, and the globalization of capitalism—still operate, although additional factors are also involved. Changes in U.S. immigration policy have affected the magnitude and shape of the latest wave; they have also altered the immigration process itself.

    A hundred years ago, immigrants arrived at Ellis Island dirty and bedraggled, after a long ocean journey in steerage; now they emerge from the cabin of a jet plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport, often dressed in designer jeans or fashionable attire. Because of the new barriers to legal entry, many end up living in New York without proper documents. Illegal aliens, of little concern at the turn of the past century, have become a dominant theme in public discourse and debates about the latest wave, although fears about their numbers and threat to society have been vastly overblown.

Who Has Come

In the years just before and after 1900, New York City's new immigrants were overwhelmingly Russian Jews and Italians. They came two by two, to use Glazer and Moynihan's apt analogy, much like the Irish and Germans who dominated the immigrant flow in the mid-nineteenth century.

    In 1880, just before the mass migration began, only 12,000 foreign-born Italians lived in New York City; by 1910, the number had soared to 341,000. The growth of the city's Russian Jewish immigrant population was even more astounding, going from around 14,000 in 1880 to 484,000 in 1910. Bear in mind that New York City was then a much smaller place, with a little under 5 million people in 1910. In that year, Russian Jewish and Italian immigrants together accounted for close to a fifth of the city's population; all the foreign-born made up 41 percent of the citywide total. The heavy concentration of Jews and Italians was a New York phenomenon. According to the 1910 census, a quarter of the Italian-born population and about a third of the Russian-born Jews in the entire country lived in New York City. No other big city came close: the next most popular destination for Italians, Philadelphia, had 45,000 Italian immigrants, while Chicago, the second choice for newly arriving Russians, had 122,000 Russian Jews.

    Today no two immigrant groups dominate New York that way, and most immigrants come not from Europe but from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Never before has the United States received newcomers from so many different countries—all of which seem to be represented in New York. From a nationwide perspective, the city stands out for its remarkable ethnic diversity. In Los Angeles, the nation's other premier immigrant capital, more than half of the post-1965 adult immigrants counted in the 1990 census came from just three countries: Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Miami's immigrant arrivals are overwhelmingly Cuban, Haitian, and Nicaraguan. New York City is a different story. The top three groups in 1990—Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans—were just under 30 percent of all post-1965 arrivals there. No other foreign country accounted for more than 5 percent, and there were substantial numbers of nearly all European as well as most Asian, West Indian, and Latin American nationalities. Altogether, in 1990, post-1964 immigrants constituted a significant chunk—22 percent—of the city's 7.3 million residents. That year all of the foreign-born constituted 28 percent of the city's population; by 1998, the Census Bureau estimated that the proportion had gone up to 37 percent—an astounding 2.8 million immigrants.

    The Caribbean connection is especially strong, In 1990, one out of every three immigrant New Yorkers was Caribbean born, with Dominicans heading the list (see tables 2 and 3). In fact, they are the largest new immigrant group in the city, accounting for just over 200,000, or about 12 percent. of the post-1964 arrivals tallied in the 1990 census. Their number keeps growing. With increases in annual immigration after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, and more visas available to spouses and children of permanent resident aliens, the number of legal Dominican immigrants arriving in New York City went from an annual average of 14,470 in the 1980s to over 22,000 in the 1990-94 period. By 1998, according to the Current Population Survey, some 412,000 foreign-born Dominicans were living in the city.

    The city's black population is increasingly West Indian. Almost a third of the non-Hispanic black population is now foreign born. Jamaica is a major source of immigrants, as are Haiti and Trinidad. Guyanese, who were barely noticed in the 1960s, ranked as the city's sixth largest immigrant group by 1990. That year the fourteen Commonwealth Caribbean nationalities, if considered as one category, were the largest group in the city. From a national perspective, what is striking is how heavily Caribbean immigrants are concentrated in New York. Over half of the Haitians, Trinidadians, and Jamaicans and close to three-fourths of the Dominicans and Guyanese who legally entered the United States between 1972 and 1992 settled in the New York urban region.

    There has also been a huge Latin American influx. Although New York City is home to only a tiny proportion (3 percent) of the country's Mexican immigrants, they are newly emerging players in the immigration picture. The city's Mexican population grew by a striking 173 percent between 1980 and 1990 and continued to mushroom in the 1990s. By 1998, according to Census Bureau estimates, Mexicans were the third largest immigrant group in New York City. The number of foreign-born Ecuadorians, about sixty thousand at the time of the 1990 census, had more than doubled eight years later.

    The days when Hispanic meant Puerto Rican are over. Puerto Ricans first started arriving in large numbers after World War II, the migration to New York peaking in the 1940s and 1950s. (As U.S. citizens by birth, Puerto Ricans born on the island of Puerto Rico are not classified as immigrants when they move to New York.) Although since 1970 more Puerto Ricans have left than entered the city, they are still one of New York City's largest ethnic groups, accounting for 12 percent of the population in 1990. The growing number of Central and South Americans and Dominicans, however, has dramatically changed the city's Hispanic population. At the time of the 1990 census, 897,000 Puerto Ricans accounted for only about one-half of the city's Hispanics, down from 61 percent in 1980. Their proportion shrunk even further during the 1990s. Dominicans are now the second largest Hispanic group, making up about a quarter of all Hispanic New Yorkers; a combination of Ecuadorians, Colombians, and Mexicans represent about another quarter.

    Asians are also a major presence in the new New York; in 1990 they made up close to a quarter of the city's post-1964 foreign-born population. The Chinese lead the list. Indeed, in 1990 New York had the largest Chinese population of any American city. By 1998, an estimated 193,000 foreign-born Chinese (mainly from China but also from Hong Kong and Taiwan) lived in the city, more than twice the number of any other Asian immigrant group.

    Yet in New York, Asian does not mean only Chinese, as any visitor to the city knows well. The largest Asian Indian population in the country is now in the New York area. Most Indian immigrants live in the suburbs, but in 1998 a sizable number, close to fifty thousand, resided in the five boroughs. Although New York and its suburbs may not be as popular a destination for Filipinos and Koreans as West Coast cities, the New York region attracts significant numbers of these groups, too. According to the 1998 Current Population Survey, the city was home to about eighty thousand Koreans and thirty-eight thousand Filipinos.

    Nor has European migration disappeared. Once more, New York City is home to thousands of Russian immigrants. (Whereas Southeast Asians are the dominant refugee population in many other parts of the country, most refugees in New York are from the former Soviet Union.) In the 1970s, about 35,000 Soviet Jewish refugees moved to the New York metropolitan area, although the number slowed to a trickle when the Soviet Union slashed the number of exit visas in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the immigration picked up again. Average annual immigration from the former Soviet Union rose tenfold from the 1980s to the 1990s, with some 66,000 arriving in New York City between 1990 and 1994 alone. By 1998, immigrants from the former Soviet Union were the second largest foreign group in the city, some 235,000 strong. A special diversity visa program established in 1990 to allow immigration from underrepresented countries benefited Irish and Polish immigrants, whose numbers had also been on the rise in the 1990s. By 1998, about 74,000 Polish immigrants lived in the city. Migration from Italy, by the same token, slowed to a trickle of about 400 a year in the early 1990s; most foreign-born Italian New Yorkers arrived before 1965.

    The extraordinary ethnic diversity of today's immigrants is matched by the variety of their occupational and class backgrounds—from poor farmers and factory workers to physicians, engineers, and scientists. There are immigrants like Pradip Menon, born into a wealthy professional family in Poona, India, who arrived in New York with a college degree in engineering from a prestigious university and an M.B.A. from an equally prestigious management school. And there are those like Benjamin Velasquez, a poor farmer in El Salvador who worked on his family's parcel of land growing corn and beans. A century ago, the immigration to New York was not marked by the same extremes—or by anywhere near the current proportion of professionals and executives.

    This does not mean that the "old" Jewish and Italian immigrants were from the depths of their societies. An exceptionally high proportion of Jewish immigrants had worked in skilled trades before they emigrated. No other eastern or southern European group came close. Whereas Jews accounted for only 9 percent of all immigrants with work experience who entered the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century, they constituted 29 percent of all skilled immigrants. "Who leaves for America?" went a common saying among Russian Jews. "The tailors, shoemakers, and horse thieves." Fully two-thirds of the Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States between 1899 and 1910 who reported an occupation were skilled workers, the largest group being tailors, followed by carpenters, dressmakers, and shoemakers.

    The Italian immigration was strikingly different. It was primarily a peasant migration from the agricultural regions of the south. Only 16 percent of the Italians who came to America between 1899 and 1910 who reported prior work experience were skilled workers. Three-quarters were farm workers or common laborers. Even so, those most likely to leave Italy for America were in the middle and lower-middle levels of the peasantry rather than day laborers with no land at all.

    Then, as now, immigrants were positively selected in terms of ambition, determination, and willingness to work and take risks. Immigration, Rubén Rumbaut observes, requires both restlessness and resourcefulness. "On the whole," he writes, "the main reason the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor do not immigrate is because they are, respectively, unmoved or unable to move."

    Although yesterday's newcomers were more skilled than we may recall, professionals were scarce. Of those arriving in America between 1899 and 1910, only 1.3 percent of previously employed Jewish immigrants were professionals, and only .5 percent of the Italian immigrants.

    This is a far cry from today. Enormous changes in educational and occupational structures throughout the world have produced growing numbers of professional, technical, and white-collar workers. A substantial number who move to the United States—and New York—are so-called brain-drain immigrants. In the 1980s, 23 percent of working-age male immigrants and 20 percent of female immigrants entering New York City who reported an occupation to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) were professionals, executives, or managers. In the early 1990s, the proportions were even higher: 27 percent for men, 36 percent for women. According to the 1990 census, 10 percent of the working-age immigrants living in New York City were college graduates; an additional 6 percent had a master's degree or more.

    Large numbers of professional and highly educated newcomers are a modern-day phenomenon, but huge numbers of low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants also continue to arrive. In 1990, 18 percent of the working-age immigrants in New York City had less than a ninth grade education. Another 22 percent had gone beyond the eighth grade but had not graduated from high school. The disparities in some groups are especially striking. One out of five of the working-age post-1965 Chinese immigrants had a college degree or more, whereas one out of four had less than a ninth grade education.

    Just as Italians and Jews had strikingly different occupational backgrounds, so, too, there are marked differences among today's groups. In the current wave, Caribbean and South and Central American arrivals have the lowest proportions with college degrees and experience in professional and managerial positions. At the time of the 1990 census, under 10 percent of New York City's Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Haitians. Guyanese. Trinidadians, and Colombians over the age of twenty-five who had arrived in the 1980s were college graduates. This compares to a third or more from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and western Europe, who also, not surprisingly, often held high-level jobs before they emigrated: more than 30 percent of the Asian, western European, and African immigrants entering New York City in the 1980s who reported an occupation to the INS were professionals, executives, and managers. Indians, Filipinos, and Taiwanese stand out with extraordinarily high levels of educational attainment: in 1990, about half or more who arrived in the 1980s had college degrees, putting them ahead of non-Hispanic white New Yorkers, for whom the figure was 42 percent. Again, as one would expect, these groups also had high proportions with professional backgrounds.

    What about the background of undocumented immigrants? This is a relevant question today, but not for turn-of-the-century European arrivals. A hundred years ago, the nature of immigration restrictions and immigrant travel meant that very few newcomers lived in New York "illegally."

    Then, as Alexander Aleinikoff puts it, "a diligent foreigner could sell the family farm and cow, buy steerage tickets to the U.S. and take up residence here (provided he or she was not infected with a contagious disease or offensive foreign political ideology)." Until the 1920s, there were no numerical limits on European immigration-and no immigrant visas or special papers that had to be secured from the United States. Europeans were excluded only on qualitative grounds; criminals, prostitutes, and the physically and mentally ill were prohibited entry, as were those likely to become public charges. In 1917, illiterate immigrants were added to the list with the imposition of a literacy test, basically a simple reading test in the language of the immigrant's choice. Since nearly all newcomers to New York came by boat and were processed through Ellis Island, they had no way to avoid immigration inspections intended to weed out the unhealthy and undesirable. Even before this, steamship companies had their own examinations in the port of origin; immigration legislation of 1891 made these companies responsible for returning deportees to their homeland and for providing food and lodging while they were detained in the United States.

    Admittedly, some Italians whom America would not accept for medical or criminal reasons resorted to illegal strategies. According to one account, "There was no document or stamp essential to emigration that could not be expertly forged, including ... health certificates. In addition, legitimate documents sometimes changed hands repeatedly.... For 50 lire one could rent American citizenship papers that had been brought to Italy by repatriated emigrants. Fifteen lire would be refunded if the person returned them after use." A number of Italians were smuggled on ships, like Matteo, who, in 1913, was turned away at the medical screening by the ship's doctor in Palermo because of an injured eye. For the price of eight hundred lire, he soon managed to board a New York-bound cargo ship as a seaman, shoveling coal in the boiler room? New York's small Chinese community was also home to some who had entered illegally, despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned the immigration of Chinese laborers. The "paper son" strategy, the main illegal route to entry, became common after Supreme Court cases in 1915 and 1916 ruled that foreign-born children of Chinese who were American citizens were entitled to American citizenship. A Chinese American returning from a trip to China would report to the immigration authorities that he and his wife had produced a son during his stay in China. He would then sell the legal papers to someone who wanted to come to America.

    The number of these illegal immigrant New Yorkers at the beginning of the twentieth century was minuscule, however. Today, limits on the number of available immigrant visas, combined with the continuing desire of many to move to the United States, have created a climate in which undocumented immigration flourishes. Nevertheless, fears about the numbers involved are exaggerated. Illegal aliens are not flooding the New York area. At any one time, a relatively small proportion of New York City's immigrant population is undocumented. A widely accepted figure from the Immigration and Naturalization Service put the number in New York State at about 540,000 for 1996—an estimated 80 percent of whom live in New York City. California has the lion's share—some 40 percent of the nation's illegal immigrants, compared to 11 percent in the state of New York.

    The overwhelming majority of the undocumented in the New York area have not snuck secretly across the border or hidden out in boats. Most enter the United States legally on temporary visas and become illegal immigrants—or visa overstayers, in immigration parlance — by failing to leave when their visas expire. According to INS estimates, nine out of ten of New York State's illegal residents in 1996 had overstayed their visas. The undocumented rarely come from the ranks of the very poorest in their home countries. Available studies show that, like their legal counterparts, unauthorized immigrants are self-selected in terms of ambition and willingness to work. They tend to have above-average levels of education and occupational skills in comparison with their homeland populations.

    Indeed, a study of Dominican immigrants in New York City in the early 1980s found that the undocumented held more prestigious jobs before emigrating than did the documented immigrants; they were far more likely to have been professionals and managers in the Dominican Republic. Another survey of some two hundred undocumented immigrants in New York and New Jersey concluded that they often came from lower-middle- and middle-class households in their home countries.

    The various seams and schemes to get into the United States described later in the chapter do not come cheap. Getting a tourist visa—the way most undocumented New Yorkers initially enter—requires resources. Applicants have to prove to consulate officials that they have a job and accumulated assets in their home country and have the incentive to return home after a brief visit to the United States. If they do not actually have the assets, it is expensive to purchase false documents to show they do. It helps to have confidence and a sophisticated sense of how bureaucracies work, something often associated with high levels of education. Other schemes, from buying false passports to coming through Puerto Rico or Mexico, can cost thousands of dollars, which means that the undocumented often come from the ranks of the more economically secure or have relatives abroad willing to underwrite their expenses.

Why They Come

To uproot oneself and move to another country is a major, often traumatic decision. Why did hundreds of thousands move to New York in the past—and why do they keep coming? At first glance, the differences in their reasons are striking. After all, if so many professionals and highly skilled people are coming today, it seems logical to assume that their motivations differ from those of Italian peasants and Jewish artisans a century ago. Indeed, contemporary immigration has a lot to do with America's political and economic penetration worldwide and the diffusion of a modern culture of consumption, a culture out of the reach of most people in developing countries. Also, liberalized U.S. immigration policies in the past few decades have opened America's doors to many groups who were once shut out.

    Yet if the causes of immigration in the two eras differ, closer examination also shows many broad underlying similarities. As Douglas Massey and his colleagues put it, in a review of international migration theory, individuals and families emigrate in response to changing circumstances set in motion by political and economic transformations of their societies. Population growth and economic disruptions, attendant upon industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural development, set the stage for large-scale migration from Europe in the past and still operate as underlying causes of migration in many developing countries today.

    At the end of the nineteenth century, the incorporation of eastern and southern Europe into the orbit of the expanding capitalist economy had a devastating impact on Russian Jews and southern Italians. A hundred years later, a globalizing market economy set populations in developing regions on the move. In both eras, immigrants have sought to raise their incomes, accumulate capital, and control economic risks by moving to New York, where higher-paying jobs may be had.

    But migration is not simply a matter of rational calculations in response to market forces, as neoclassical and new economic theory would suggest. If Russian Jews a century ago were escaping political oppression, so, too, many of today's immigrants are in a flight to freedom. Whatever the initial causes, once set in motion, immigration movements become self-perpetuating, so that today, as in the past, migration can be thought of as a process of progressive network building. "Networks developed by the movement of people back and forth in space," Alejandro Portes and Rubén Rumbaut write, "are at the core of the microstructures that sustain migration over time." Historians use the term chain migration to describe the way past migration encourages present migration: migrants encourage and sponsor friends and relatives to join them. Contemporary social scientists theorize about the role of network connections in lowering the costs, raising the benefits, and reducing the risks of international migration. Among the mechanisms involved in what has been labeled "cumulative causation" is the emergence of a culture of migration; migration becomes integrated into the structure of values and expectations so that it is seen as a part of the normal course of events.

Going to "LaMerica" and the "Golden Land"

Thomas Archdeacon has observed that at the end of the nineteenth century the pressures of overpopulation, the prospects of economic mobility, and the availability of rapid transportation set people all over the world on the road. Italians were especially likely to move, and most Italians who came to the United States between 1876 and 1930—about 80 percent—were from the regions south of Rome known as the Mezzogiorno.

    Dislocations in the nineteenth century caused by rapid population growth and the expansion of capitalist agriculture left southern Italians worse off than before. Although the population of Italy increased by 25 percent between 1871 and 1905, the economy slackened. Population growth put greater pressures on the land, especially in areas where the pattern of inheritance led to fragmentation of holdings. Many peasants, according to one account, were left barely clinging to their fields and hence vulnerable to any agricultural setback.

    With the end of feudalism, peasants faced a growing need for money to pay rent on the land they worked or to pay interest on loans extended by landowners and contractors at the beginning of the growing season. Oppressive taxes were an added burden. Making a living, or supplementing the family income, as an artisan or craftsman became less promising as cheaper manufactured goods flooded rural markets. Peasants hungered for land. The breakup of church, state, and communal property meant that land was for sale in many areas, but peasants lacked the cash to buy it. According to one account, emigration rates were higher from regions of small properties, where land was for sale and farmers were in competition, than from regions dominated by large estates that gobbled up the land on the market.

    The changing world market for southern Italy's agricultural products brought more troubles. In the 1880s, wheat prices plummeted as cheap American grain entered European markets on a mass scale; the southern Italian citrus industry suffered when the emerging North American citrus industry in Florida and California led to cuts in American imports of Italian fruit. Between 1888 and 1898, a Franco-Italian tariff war reduced the French importation of Italian wines, and the Italian protective tariff on wheat raised bread prices, placing an added burden on peasants. Organizations by peasants in Sicily to agitate for lower rents and higher wages were suppressed in the 1890s. And natural calamities, such as a phylloxera epidemic that destroyed Sicilian grape vines, major earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of Vesuvius and Etna in the early 1900s, added to the level of human misery.

    For eastern European Jews, political and religious persecution aggravated economic hardships. A combination of industrialization, the overcrowding of the cities, and rampant anti-Semitism, including discriminatory laws, created a severe crisis in the already oppressive conditions of Jewish life. By 1880, the number of Russian Jews had risen to about 4 million, up from 1.6 million in 1825. As the century came to a close, the pressure of numbers on a limited range of occupations had become intense.

    Russian Jews were confined to the Pale of Settlement, a region stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea (in what is now Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine). The May Laws that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 imposed additional constraints. Jews were now prohibited from owning or renting land outside towns and cities of the Pale, and wholesale expulsions of Jews from villages of the Pale, on the grounds of illegal residence, became common.

    Even before the May Laws, however, Russian Jews had been moving into industry and trade. The services they traditionally offered peasants, as middlemen and moneylenders, were less in demand owing to improvements in communication and transportation. Plus they faced increasing competition from a growing Christian middle class. As the principal buyers of the peasants' produce and sellers of finished products, Jews were hurt by the peasantry's increasing poverty. With the prohibition of rural residence, the May Laws added to Jews' economic difficulties by cutting them off from their customers, the peasants.

    In the cities and towns where Jews now had to live, overcrowding and overcompetition were the rule. As Moses Rischin graphically puts it, "The bulging cities and withered towns rivaled one another in their raw poverty." In the four-year period 1894-98, the number of Jewish paupers increased by almost 30 percent, and large numbers of Jews in many communities depended on charity. Growing up in the town of Polotzk, Mary Antin experienced the overcrowding of occupations and physical confinement typical of many places within the Pale during the last years of the nineteenth century: "It was not easy to live, with such bitter competition as the congestion of the population made inevitable. There were ten times as many stores as there should have been, ten times as many tailors, cobblers, barbers, tinsmiths. A Gentile, if he failed in Polotzk, could go elsewhere, where there was less competition. A Jew could make the circle of the Pale, only to find the same conditions as at home."

    In 1891, thousands of Jews were expelled from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev. In 1897 thousands more were deprived of a livelihood as restaurateurs and innkeepers when the liquor traffic became a government monopoly. The introduction of the "percentage rule" in 1886, which restricted the proportion of Jewish students admitted to secondary schools and universities within the Pale, made it more difficult for Jews to enter the professions.

    Worse still was the anti-Semitic violence. The assassination of Alexander II set off a wave of pogroms, massacres of Jews, and destruction of shops and synagogues that was encouraged, and perhaps even organized, by the czarist government. "I remember sitting by the window," Mollie Linker recalled. "When it got dark, you close the shutters, you were afraid. You were actually always in fear because of big pogroms.... I remember that scare ... was in us all the time."

    Unwanted and unprotected, Russian Jews saw little hope for improvements in their native land. Indeed, the czarist government pointed to emigration as a solution open to Jews. "The Western borders are open to you Jews," said Count Ignatiev, author of the May Laws. The Russian government relaxed its rigorous rules forbidding emigration, giving Jews the right to leave, under obligation of abandoning Russian citizenship forever.

    America, with its expanding industrial economy, job opportunities, and higher wages and standard of living, beckoned to Jews and Italians. For Jews, there was also the promise of a less hostile government, without official anti-Semitic restrictions—and the knowledge that earlier Jewish immigrants, largely from Germany, had found freedom and economic success in the "Golden Land." "I heard so much about America," said Fannie Shapiro, "a free country for the Jews."

    By the end of the nineteenth century, travel to America had become quicker and cheaper. Railroads made German ports accessible to the towns of eastern Europe, and steamships penetrated ports deep in the Mediterranean basin. More steamships were now crossing the ocean, and the newer ones were bigger, faster, and safer than before.

    Greater speed meant that each ship could make more transatlantic crossings annually; with greater size, as many as two thousand to three thousand people could be crammed into steerage sections, where most immigrants traveled. To recruit immigrants, steamship companies advertised with posters showing the prices and sailing dates. Tickets could be paid for in installments. In 1880 a transatlantic passage in steerage from Naples cost fifteen dollars; by 1899 it was twenty-eight dollars, and the fare from the port of Bremen was between thirty-six and thirty-eight dollars.

    Once migration from southern and eastern Europe got under way, it had a self-sustaining, indeed, a cumulative effect. Relatives in New York sent back money and prepaid tickets for the transatlantic voyage so that more and more family members could afford to come. Networks reduced the risks as well as costs of migration; relatives in New York could provide help with housing and getting a job. In one Italian village, a cobbler was nicknamed "Cristoforo Colombo" for being the first to migrate to the New World. When he heard by chance that a worker in New York could earn in a single day what it would take a week to earn in the village, he sailed from Naples. Within a year of landing in New York, he had saved enough money to send for two of his brothers, thereby initiating a chain of migration that eventually brought more than half of the population of his village to the new land.

    "America letters" and remittances spread the news of opportunities and inspired prospective emigrants. "The most effective method of distributing immigrant labor in the United States ... is the [international and domestic] mail service," concluded an early twentieth-century report prepared for the U.S. Bureau of Labor on southern and eastern European unskilled workers in American factories. Mary Antin felt a "stirring, a straining" while reading a letter from her father, who had gone to America ahead of the family. "My father was inspired by a vision. He saw something—he promised us something. It was this 'America.' And 'America' became my dream." In Italy, "birds of passage" who returned from America for a visit or short stay were also important sources of information and inspiration. Returning emigrants were called "americanos," a word meaning "someone who got rich, no one knows how."

    Over time, a culture of migration developed as migration became ingrained in the repertoire of people's values and behaviors. "America was in the air," Mary Antin recalled of her home in Russia. "Businessmen talked of it over their accounts; the market women made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall; people who had relatives in the famous land went around reading their letters for the enlightenment of less fortunate folk.... Children played at emigrating."

    In Italy, "America fever" became an epidemic. "Going to America has become so popular recently," wrote the prefetto of the province of Cosenza in 1894, "that young men feel almost ashamed if they have not been overseas at least once. Ten years ago America evoked images of danger and distance. Now people feel more confident about going to New York than to Rome." The mayor of one southern community officially greeted visiting dignitaries: "I welcome you in the name of the five thousand inhabitants of this town, three thousand of whom are in America and the other two thousand preparing to go."


Table of Contents

1 Who They Are and Why They Have Come9
2 Where They Live36
3 The Work They Do70
4 Immigrant Women and Work108
5 The Sting of Prejudice142
6 Transnational Ties169
7 Going to School188
8 A Look Backward—and Forward224

What People are Saying About This

Douglas S. Massey

Through her masterful comparison of the experience of immigrants in two historical eras, Foner challenges the doomsayers among us who argue that today's newcomers are somehow 'different:' poorer, more desperate, less educated, racially distinct, and ultimately less assimilable. On the contrary, her analysis reveals a remarkable continuity in the underlying causes of immigration, the mechanisms that sustain it, and the motivations of those who cross boundaries in search of better lives. She shows that today's immigrants, as a group, are better-educated, better-housed, and more prepared for the challenges of U.S. life than those of the past. Her lucid account suggests that the differences, to the extent that they exist, stem more from the changed nature of American society than from any transformation in the character or aspirations of immigrants.
—(Douglas S. Massey, Dorothy Swaine Thomas Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania )

Richard Alba

Nancy Foner's From Ellis Island to JFK demonstrates the essential truth at the core of Santayana's famous dictum: those who fail to understand the past are condemned to misunderstand the present and future. With incisive analysis and telling examples, she brilliantly illuminates not only the ways in which the contemporary immigration to New York by groups such as Koreans and Dominicans may recapitulate some of the early 20th-century experiences of Italians and Jews but also the ways in which it is genuinely novel. The book's many surprises include forgotten aspects of the European-American experience that Foner has unearthed with the skill of a detective.
—(Richard Alba, Professor of Sociology and Public Policy, State University of New York at Albany)

Reed Ueda

A fascinating guide to the place of immigrants in American society and history—unusually objective, lucid, and nuanced.
—(Reed Ueda, Tufts University)

Herbert Gans

By comparing the two big waves of immigration in New York City, Foner has found a distinctive and enlightening way of describing the country's recent racial and ethnic history. Her subject may be New York City, but Foner's book is really about America. It should thus become essential reading for scholars, students, public officials and everyone else concerned with immigration as well as race and ethnicity in American life.
(— Herbert Gans, author of Popular Culture and High Culture)

Herbert J. Gans

Foner's new book is a thorough, comprehensive and carefully comparative analysis of the experience of the two big waves of immigration in NYC. The book will be essential reading for scholars, students, public officials and everyone else concerned with immigration as well as race and ethnicity. Her subject may be NYC, but since the city is one of the country's two major centers of immigration, Foner's book is really about America. It should thus become a basic reference on immigration, race and ethnicity in American life. By comparing the two waves of immigration, Foner has found a distinctive and enlightening way of describing the country's recent racial and ethnic history.
—(Herbert J. Gans, Robert S. Lynd Prof. of Sociology at Columbia University. Author of Popular Culture and High Culture)

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From Ellis Island to JFK : New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago