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European Immigration to America

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European Immigration to America

European immigration to America began with British settlers in the 17th century. Later generations of these colonists would become the first American citizens following the American Revolution. From there on, any Europeans who crossed the Atlantic to America were considered immigrants, rather than native-born Americans.

European Immigration to America: Introduction and History

In American history, there were two waves of European immigration. Immigrants from Northern and Western Europe, part of the first wave of immigration, came in hoards during the 19th century. As the 19th century carried on into the twentieth century, a second wave of immigrants, known as the new immigrants, began to flood into American cities.

In contrast to the old immigrants, these new immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe. They didn’t speak English and their customs were less familiar. Additionally, many of them were Catholic and Jewish, at odds with the primarily Protestant native-born population. As a result of this and the perception that they were stealing jobs, these immigrants faced particular xenophobia.


a fear and dislike of immigrants

European Immigration to America: Reasons

There were two main reasons for the second wave of European immigration to America: the promise of economic opportunity and religious persecution. Generally, the reason went hand-in-hand with where in Europe the immigrants were coming from. Immigrants from Southern Europe, such as Italy and Greece, often fled economic turmoil in their own countries. Many of the immigrants from Eastern Europe, such as Russia and Poland, were Jewish and seeking religious freedom.

European Immigration to America: Map and Numbers

Below, we can get a better idea of the numbers:

[graphics for graph and map requested]

European Immigration to America: The Journey to America

The advent of the railroad and the creation of better ships made immigration a more realistic feat for the average European. Immigrants from the center of Europe could simply take a train ride to a port city, where they could purchase a ticket for much less money than in the past.

The Padrone System

In the padrone system, financiers, called padrones, offered Europeans passage to America through contract labor agreements. The padrones would have a job ready for the immigrants, and in exchange, the immigrants would give a portion of their wages to the padrones. This system was common among Greeks and Italians and often exploitative.

Upon their arrival, immigrants went to processing centers, where federal agents detained them before granting them access to America. Many immigrants went through the infamous Ellis Island in New York. Federal agents subjected them to probing question before they had to undergo dehumanizing doctor’s examinations. Agents could turn immigrants away for a host of reasons, including suspected criminal activity or disease.

European Immigration to America Ellis Island StudySmarterEllis Island, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

European Immigration to America: Life in America

America was not the utopia that many European immigrants imagined. The streets were not paved with gold, but they were filled with garbage and human waste. Many immigrants settled in cities, contributing to overpopulation and overcrowded conditions. Oftentimes, immigrant families found themselves living in tenement houses in the slums.

Ethnic neighborhoods developed where immigrants could preserve and practice their customs, as well as join ethnic organizations, such as mutual benefit associations. These associations would collect a membership fee so that if a member or family fell on hard times, there would be funding to support them.

Chinatown and Little Italy in New York City are examples of ethnic neighborhoods.

When it came to employment, European immigrants took the jobs that native-born Americans did not wish to take, ranging from work in the coal mines to steel mills. They worked long hours for little pay, and often under dangerous conditions. A memoir of a Russian-Jewish immigrant reads:

‘Father, does everybody in America live like this? Go to work early, come home late, eat and go to sleep? And the next day again work, eat, and sleep? Will I have to do that too? Always?’

Father looked thoughtful and ate two or three mouthfuls before he answered. ‘No,’ he said smiling. ‘You will get married.’”

- Rose Cohen, Out of the Shadow, 1918

European Immigration to America: Anti-Immigration Policies

In 1907, immigration hit an all-time high with 1.3 million immigrants entering the country. But, as we discussed earlier, not all Americans welcomed them with open arms. During World War I, the flow of immigration from Europe declined, and the federal government wanted to ensure that immigration rates remained low after the war was over. This prompted an era of anti-immigration policies.

The Immigration Act of 1917 instituted literacy tests for all immigrants over the age of 16, purposely targeting the low literacy rates in Southern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1924 took it a step further with a quota that reduced the number of immigrants allowed to 2% of the given nationality’s population in America.

If a certain nationality had 100 individuals living in America, the federal government’s quota would be two immigrants.

Similar to the Immigration Act of 1917, this Immigration Act of 1924 specifically targeted the so-called new immigrants. The government used data from the 1890 census rather than the more recent 1910 census, meaning immigrants from Northern and Western Europe (the more favorable immigrants) had higher quotas.

The Immigration Act of 1924 did not allow any immigrants from Asian countries.

European Immigration to America - Key takeaways

  • There were two waves of European immigration to America. The first wave was in the 19th century and included immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. They were known as the old immigrants.
  • The second wave was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These new immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe. They faced particular xenophobia because they did not speak English and had fewer familiar customs.
  • Generally, these immigrants came to pursue economic opportunity or to escape religious persecution.
  • Both the journey to America and life in America were difficult for immigrants. They found solace in ethnic neighborhoods.
  • Immigration rates declined during World War I and the government instituted anti-immigration policies such as the Immigration Act of 1917 and the Immigration Act of 1924.

Frequently Asked Questions about European Immigration to America

European immigrants went to America to pursue economic opportunities and to escape religious persecution. 

Most European immigrants came to America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (e.g. Italy, Greece, Poland, and Russia) made up the majority immigrants to America during the early 20th century.

Most European immigrants entered the United States through New York City.

European immigration to America began with the first British settlers in the 17th century. 

Final European Immigration to America Quiz


Which Europeans were not considered new immigrants?

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What were two main reasons for European immigration?

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the promise of economic opportunity

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Why did Americans prefer old immigrants from Northern and Western Europe.

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They spoke English.

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What was the name of the immigrant processing center in New York?

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Ellis Island

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Where did most European immigrants settle?

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large cities

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Which year saw the peak of immigration?

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How did the Immigration Act of 1924 discriminate against new immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe?

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They used the census from 1980, rather than 1910 to set the quota.

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European immigration decreased naturally during:

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The Progressive Era

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When did European immigration to America first begin?

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the 16th century

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Those seeking religious freedom generally came from:

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Eastern Europe

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