A “Nation of Immigrants” in the “Good Old Days”


Jane Hall Art School Drawing 1933

Jane Hall’s experiences in Arizona and California before she became an orphan in 1930 did not expose her to as many people from other nations as  New York City. Although her guardians introduced her to an exclusive social world, when she went to art school at The Cooper Union on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, she met a much broader spectrum of young people from all over the world. One of her best friends was Ruth Gikow whose parents had come to New York from the Ukraine in 1920 when she was five years old.  Ruthie and Jane took many of the same classes; a prodigious worker, she would become a well-known artist whose works were exhibited in major museums.

In light of the current and constant debate on who we are and whom we should be as Americans, it helps to  take at least a brief look at immigration in Jane’s world in the first half of the twentieth century. For example, I certainly did not know that, at the end of the 19th-century, 9% of the total population of Norway emigrated to America.

Some Perspective on Immigration From the Liberty Ellis Island Foundation Website

“By the 1880’s, steam power had shortened the journey to America dramatically. Immigrants poured in from around the world: from the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern Europe, and down from Canada.

The door was wide open for Europeans. In the 1880s alone, 9% of the total population of Norway emigrated to America. After 1892, nearly all immigrants came in through the newly opened Ellis Island.

One immigrant recalled arriving at Ellis Island: “The boat anchored at mid-bay and then they tendered us on the ship to Ellis Island…We got off the boat…you got your bag in your hand and went right into the building. Ah, that day must have been about five to six thousand people. Jammed, I remember it was August. Hot as a pistol, and I’m wearing my long johns, and my heavy Irish tweed suit.”

Families often immigrated together during this era, although young men frequently came first to find work. Some of these then sent for their wives, children, and siblings; others returned to their families in Europe with their saved wages.

The experience for Asian immigrants in this period was quite different. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, severely restricting immigration from China. Since earlier laws made it difficult for those Chinese immigrants who were already here to bring over their wives and families, most Chinese communities remained “bachelor societies.”

The 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan extended the government’s hostility towards Asian workers and families. For thousands, the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay would be as close as they would ever get to the American mainland.

For Mexicans victimized by the Revolution, Jews fleeing the pogroms in Eastern Europe and Russia, and Armenians escaping the massacres in Turkey, America provided refuge.

And for millions of immigrants, New York provided opportunity. In Lower New York, one could find the whole world in a single neighborhood.

Between 1880 and 1930, over 27 million people entered the United States – about 12 million through Ellis Island. But after the outbreak of World War I in 1914, American attitudes toward immigration began to shift. Nationalism and suspicion of foreigners were on the rise, and immigrants’ loyalties were often called into question. Through the early 1920s, a series of laws were passed to limit the flow of immigrants.

In the 1930s the Great Depression had begun, leaving few with the means or incentive to come to the United States. Many recent immigrants returned to their native lands, including hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, many against their will. The restrictive immigration policies of the 1920s persisted.

In the late 1930s, with World War II accelerating in Europe, a new kind of immigrant began to challenge the quota system and the American conscience. A small number of refugees fleeing Nazi persecution arrived under the quota system, but most were turned away.

Once the US declared war against the Axis Powers, German and Italian resident aliens were detained; but for the Japanese, the policies were more extreme: both resident aliens and American-born citizens of Japanese descent were interned. Congress would officially apologize for the Japanese Internment in 1988.

After the war, the refugee crisis continued. President Truman responded: “I urge the Congress to turn its attention to this world problem in an effort to find ways whereby we can fulfill our responsibilities to these thousands of homeless and suffering refugees of all faiths.”

Congress answered with the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, offering hundreds of thousands entry into the United States. But millions more were left to seek refuge elsewhere.

Between 1956 and 1957, the US admitted 38,000 Hungarians, refugees from a failed uprising against the Soviets. These were among the first of the Cold War refugees.

In this era, for the first time in US history, more women than men entered the country. They were reuniting with their families, joining their GI husbands, taking part in the post war economic boom.

By the early 1960s, calls for immigration reform were growing louder. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Act into law. Gone was the quota system favoring Western Europe, replaced by one offering hope to immigrants from all the continents. The face of America was truly about to change.”

And half a century later we see the controversial results of this change debated every day.