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How the Immigrants Who Came to Ellis Island in 1907 Compare to Arrivals Today

April 19, 2019 in History

By Becky Little

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During the late 19th and early 20th century, large groups of people from northern and western Europe immigrated to the United States, like this Slavic woman. An Ellis Island Chief Registry Clerk, Augustus Sherman, captured his unique viewpoint of the influx by bringing his camera to work and taking photos of the wide array of immigrants entering from 1905 to 1914.

View the 20 images of this gallery on the original article

But lack of English or work skills weren’t the only reasons immigrants faced discrimination. There was also a general feeling that immigrants were too culturally foreign to live in the U.S. German-speaking immigrants who came over in 1907 faced a lot of backlash a decade later, when the U.S. entered World War I. Germany was an adversary in the war, and immigrants from there suddenly became “hyphenated Americans” for practicing their own cultural traditions. President Woodrow Wilson declared that “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.”

In addition, Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe became associated with drinking and crime. White Protestant men in the Anti-Saloon League—many of whom would go on to join the new Ku Klux Klan after 1915—argued that the U.S. needed to pass a Prohibition amendment before these new immigrants acquired more voting power. During the 1920s, the KKK gained millions of members by advertising itself as a vigilante police force that would keep Catholic immigrants from countries like Italy in line.

The U.S. tried to reduce this type of immigration with the 1924 Immigration Act, which introduced numerical caps or quotas based on country of origin. These quotas gave enormous preference to people from northern and western Europe over those from southern and eastern parts of the continent. But despite intense fears that the latter type of immigrants could never really be American, they and their descendants became an important part of the country.

“There are inherent challenges to coming to a new country and finding your way,” Lim says. Even so, “if you look at things that are critical to the idea of integration or assimilation,” like language or job skills, “immigrants today actually perform better on paper” than those who came to America over a century ago.

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