When the United States was first starting off as a country, most of its inhabitants had immigrated from either Western or Northern Europe. As time passed, change was bound to come. Around 1880, immigrants began coming to the country from different areas including China, Japan, and Southern and Eastern Europe.
In a matter of 20 years, the percentage of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe dropped from 93% to only 61%. Tension soon formed because of the cultural differences between early immigrants and new immigrants. Life for more recent immigrants was difficult for a multitude of reasons including employment issues, hardships at home, and the opposition of most of America’s citizens. However, the supporters of immigration lessened the hardships faced by immigrants.
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Many people came to America for employment opportunities because of economic problems in their native countries. Their hopes of finding work in the new country were not fulfilled, though. Because of the large number of people looking for work, unemployment rates were up. If new immigrants did find jobs, they would most likely be working in construction. Jobs such as these offered few advantages. Most construction companies paid their workers very little money, and the little money they were given was spent on groceries and rent. Workers were being offered as little as $1.25 a day for difficult manual labour.
Life at home for immigrants was not much better than life at work. Cities provided the most jobs, so the unemployed flocked to cities to find any work they could get. This inevitably led to the need for more housing. Tenements provided shelter for multiple families in cities. Sometimes called “dens of death”, tenements had little-to-no light or ventilation. These small, apartment-like rooms were hardly large enough for a single-family, much less multiple families. The tight space and little ventilation were unhealthy, as these two factors helped germs and diseases spread faster. These conditions were certainly different from what immigrants had hoped and dreamt about: a land full of riches and opportunity.
The dreams of opportunity were crushed by those who did not approve of having immigrants of different cultures. The difficulties started for immigrants even before entering the country. To be granted access to the US, they had to pass health inspections, literacy tests, and sometimes they were even kept overnight in a prison-like room while the decision was made. Even then, some were denied access. Once they entered the country, their obstacles were far from over. Anti-immigration groups set restrictions on the rights of immigrants. Nativists favoured people born in America over those born in other countries. This type of opposition only made life harder for the immigrants.
While immigrants faced hardships every day, there was a small sign of hope for them: benevolent, or pro-immigration, groups. These groups fought for the rights of newer immigrants. Even though the new country was not the paradise that immigrants thought it would be, it was better than their home countries. Coming to America meant an escape from starvation, oppression, and political turmoil. At least in the United States, people finally had the chance to make a life for themselves.
In summary, life for immigrants in the late 1800s was difficult. They faced challenges everywhere they went, whether at work or at home. They had to work harder for their money and fight harder for their lives than native-born Americans. Although things seemed bad, there was hope. Not all Americans were anti-immigration. Pro-immigration groups are what helped the US become the melting pot it is today. America was certainly far from the utopia that it was believed to be, but it was better than the countries that most immigrants were coming from.
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