Old and New Immigrants in the US: Definition & Overview

There were two waves of European immigration to America in the late 1800s. Learn about the push and pull factors that contributed to these two major influxes of immigrants and the impact they had on U.S. policy.
A Nation of Immigrants
The United States is a nation of immigrants. Every American is either an immigrant or has ancestors who were immigrants. Even the Native Americans are immigrants, their ancestors having traveled to North America over the Bering Strait more than 50,000 years ago.
One of the greatest periods of immigration occurred during the 1800s to the 1920s, when two waves of immigrants came to American shores from Europe. The old immigrants arrived in the mid-1800s, coming mostly from northwestern Europe, while the new immigrants arrived a generation later, traveling mostly from southeastern Europe. Immigrants migrated to escape problems in their native countries and in search of new opportunities in America.
Push and Pull Factors
People often moved due to push factors, something happening in the home country to push people out, and pull factors, a draw towards a new place.
In the nineteenth century, Europe underwent a transformation due to the Industrial Revolution. Economic expansion followed, but the rapid changes also caused political dissention and social revolution in industrialized nations. Some people wanted to leave their native countries due to unemployment, repressive governments, or a lack of opportunity. Others were trying to avoid compulsory military service or escape religious persecution. People were also attracted to the possibility of a better life in the United States.
American settlers wrote letters to family members and friends abroad describing the streets as paved with gold. Many immigrants were pulled to America with visions of wealth and the promise of freedom, equality, and opportunity.
Old Immigrants
Most of the old immigrants migrated from England, France, Ireland, and Germany. Many of these immigrants were culturally similar to each other, literate, and had some wealth. Most were Protestant, believed in democracy, and resembled each other physically. Due to the similarities among these groups, old immigrants were able to adapt to America more easily.
A sharp increase in immigration from northwestern Europe occurred in the 1840s and 1850s. In the 1840s, a disease destroyed a majority of the potato crop in Ireland. The Irish relied on the potato as a staple food, and the destruction of this crop resulted in a widespread famine across the nation.
The Irish Potato Famine led to the mass exodus of Irish citizens to America. Most of these immigrants settled along the East Coast since they were too poor to buy land or travel elsewhere. They initially encountered discrimination, but eventually they were able to overcome prejudice by working their way into politics and assimilating into local communities.
In Germany, a failed revolution in 1848 and economic hardship caused more than a million Germans to migrate to America in the following decade. Many Germans had enough money to travel to the Midwest and purchase farmland, settling in places like Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Milwaukee.
New Immigrants
Immigration to America reached a high point between 1880 and 1920. Many of the new immigrants who migrated during this period were from southern and eastern European nations, such as Greece, Italy, Poland, and Russia. They were culturally different from the old immigrants, and this made it more difficult for them to assimilate into American life. They settled in urban ethnic neighborhoods, often living in poor housing called tenements, where they could speak their native language, observe their own traditions, and freely practice their religion. Unlike the earlier immigrant groups, the new immigrants were poorer, often illiterate in their own language, and had fled from countries that were undemocratic.
Tensions Between Old and New Immigrants
As more immigrants flooded into America, hostilities increased among various groups. The increase in immigration coincided with a revolution in industry, and more Americans left the farms to live and work in the cities. This led to overcrowding and competition for jobs and resources. Many people who had been born in America resented the influx of new immigrants because they often worked for lower wages. Tensions also occurred due to cultural differences between old and new immigrants.
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