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A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life Essay

America is largely a land inhabited by immigrant. Prior to the world wars, it is estimated that millions of people left their homelands in Europe, Asia and Africa to find a place in the new land which was America. According to Bodnar, most of the people immigrating to America did so in an attempt to flee disorder and poverty in their homelands (xvi). On reaching the new land however, most of them weakened from the inhospitable cities and climate in America in addition to the back-breaking labor most of them had to undertake in order to survive.

The life

According to Bodnar, life for immigrants was always full of challenges, “Their fate was one of a life in insulated ethnic ghettos, continual struggle, and an eventual but precarious attachment to the new economy” (xvi). Not all immigrants however found it extremely hard to adapt. Some successfully used their long-established traditions to organize new lives thus easily transitioning from the lives they had been used to in their homelands, to the new economic, social and political realities of the new land.

It is however notable that the immigrants experience was not similar to all. This was especially so because different immigrants had different ideologies and cultures. When the different people from different cultures met, it was a recipe for speculation and mistrust amongst each other especially when the different parties did not share a language (Daniels 309).

As Portes and Rumbaut notes, immigrants lacked sufficient knowledge of the English language, and this meant that they failed to fully understand what was happening around them and also could not “explain themselves effectively” (119). More to this, immigrant parents who did not want their children to learn the new language (English) often picketed schools that insisted on using English as the sole mode of communication. This meant that English acquisition among the younger generation at the time was also delayed.

The lack of a “voice” in the first generation of immigrants meant that there was an enforced positivity which entrenched the native fears in some communities. In return, lucrative demagoguery and active hostility flourished in some of the communities. Since the fears in most of the immigrant communities were just illusionary, they had no political consequence thus meaning that they were never successful even where the communities had specific goals.

Notably, groups of immigrants sharing the same culture and norms underwent the “process of reactive formation”, which according to Portes and Rumbaut, gave birth to some for of ethnic resilience (120). Notably, this was not a deliberate effort by the immigrants to carry on with the culture they had been used to in their homelands; rather, it was a reaction to the discrimination, views and the situations they faced on arrival to America. Accordingly, most social solidarity in the immigrant groups was not defined by social class but by the place of origin.

Motives of the Immigrant

In order to understand the motives of the immigrants, it is important to highlight why they left their original countries in the first place. With the exception of slaves who were involuntary immigrants, Portes and Rumbaut identify four reasons why immigration occurred as it did. According to the two authors, the lack of peace in some countries made people flee to countries perceived as more peaceful; hostile stets where dictatorships and other forms of undemocratic rule which oppressed the population also made people migrate to other countries; indifferent countries that cared less if part of the population moved to other countries or not also saw a high number of the population therein leave; and finally, countries that encouraged their populations to move abroad in order to serve the interests of their countries from the new outposts (Daniels 289-302).

With America being a reflection of good governance, capitalism, peace and abundant opportunities to the rest of the world, it is apparent why most immigrants choose to immigrate to the country. Besides this, America was a country whose economy relied more on knowledge and skills from the immigrant population, it had its doors open to the immigrants. This begs the question- were the motives of the immigrants fulfilled? Well, this essay holds the opinion that some were while others were not.

Portes and Rumbaut observe that the flow of immigrants into America mainly comprised humble people who served the country well by fulfilling it labor needs (121). However, most immigrants were uniformly in a disadvantageous position mainly because they lacked the education and skills necessary to get good jobs and hence lead better lives. In addition, while the US governing administration allowed them easy access into the country, it did not take any responsibility for their welfare. This meant that employers were at will to employ them for whatever wages they deemed fit. Worse for the immigrants was the perception that some of the earlier immigrants who had already settled and established businesses in America had of them. They were accused of docility, organizational incapacity and inertia in addition to being labeled uncivilized, desperate and poor (Portes & Rumbaut 122).

The situation was worsened by the massive problems that occurred by the huge influx of people into the country. At the height of the immigration for example, New York suffered a cholera outbreak. Emerging slums made the situation no better and stereotypes emerged that pitted the wealthy Americans against the middle-class immigrants. Xenophobic tendencies targeting the immigrant communities were common. This kind of denunciation of the immigrants meant that most if them experienced the harshest side of American capitalism.

This led to political socialization among the immigrant communities. Notably however, those who participated in the socialization organizations were mainly peasants. The literate skilled minority did not participate in party politics. As noted above, there were a category of immigrants who sought to make the most money while working in America, with the view of investing in their home countries. As Portes and Rumbaut observe, some of such immigrants realized their intentions albeit more slowly than they had initially anticipated, but others did not or changed their minds about going back to their countries (125).

Religious obstacles were also part of the struggle that immigrants had to undergo in their new found land. Bodnar observes that while immigrants hurdled together in religious groups every so often especially when the realities of the capitalist America was too harsh for them, they found much comfort in such groups especially in a society which favored being secular (144). Holding on to religion was especially comforting to people who feared the thought of dying in a foreign land but knew that going back home would be worse of than dying in America. However, religious groupings suffered outside influence in America often causing members to protest. This affected even the religious leaders who “felt threatened in the Industrial America by others who also competed for the immigrant’s mind and soul” (Bodnar 159).

Conflict among the immigrant communities was attributed to different cause. Smith (cited by Bodnar 247) for example says the conflict was caused by voluntarism in different groups, while Portes & Rumbaut (302) cite different faiths as a main cause of violent conflicts among the migrant communities.

The effect of the war and depression on immigration

Human beings by their very nature like keeping off troubled areas. This explains why America always had low immigration rates whenever there was war. When the First World War broke for example, the US Immigration Support notes that the immigrants to the United States declined significantly. This was especially the case on immigrants from Europe (1). Soon after the war was over however, the immigration from Europe to America resumed in high number causing the US congress to introduce the National Origins Quota Act that specified that only 3 percent an ethnic makeup that already lived in the US could be allowed into the country.

But perhaps the biggest decline in immigration was witnessed during the Great Depression. According to the Immigration Support, the US registered zero population growth from immigration during the depression. While the wars had immigrants away from the US due to the physical dangers and insecurities of warfare, Immigration Support notes that no immigrant wanted to travel to a country where the harsh economic realities were apparent (1). Besides, it was still unclear how much longer the US economy would take to rebound. Having been dubbed a country of opportunities, most immigrants went to the US with the hope of having a better life. When this illusion was shattered by the Great Depression, then the need to travel to the new land was no longer there (Daniels 287-302).

The World War II soon followed and while people had started migrating to the US after the economic depression was over, the war halted the immigration once again. According to the Immigration Support, the low immigration statistics lasted 20 years from the end of the Second World War in 1945 (1).


According to Daniels, while it would have been easy to loose their cultural identity in the melting pot that was the American society, most immigrants held onto the small communities that gave them identity. The black slaves for example found unity in communities especially those formed around religion (302). Jones observes that the American government knew that the only way to establish a national identity was through “concentration and isolation” (42). Assimilating the minority communities in dominant communities also succeeded in establishing a sense of national identity much faster. The cutting of ties between the immigrants and their home countries further served to erase any trace of cultural identities that the communities tried to preserve.


The diverse American culture as we know it today can be traced to the different immigrants who came to the country in different phases. By living together, ethnicity or any unique cultural trait did not live beyond the second or third immigrant generation. Traces of the culture which were shared from one generation too another may have been fused with other cultures to form the unique American culture, which is in itself hard to define.

Works cited

Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: a History of Immigrants in Urban America. Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987. Print.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A history of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1990. Print.

Jones, Malwyn Jones. American Immigration: The Chicago history of American Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Print.

Portes, Alejandro & Rumbaut, Ruben. Immigrant America: a portrait. California: University of California Press, 1996. Print.

US Immigration Support. “Immigration to the United States.” 2010. Web.

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"A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life." IvyPanda, 27 June 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/a-history-of-immigration-and-ethnicity-in-american-life/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life." June 27, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/a-history-of-immigration-and-ethnicity-in-american-life/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life'. 27 June.

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