History Happenings: Progressivism & Immigrants


Progressivism and the Treatment of Immigrants
ProQuest’s  Historical Newspapers


Video Overview

The influx of immigrants into the United States was greater in the decades after the Civil War than it had been at any previous time.

The majority of immigrants arriving to the industrial cities of the East in the 1870s and 1880s came from England, Ireland, and northern Europe.


© Getty Images

At the end of the century, new waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe came to escape the poverty and oppressive conditions of their homelands.

Learn about attitudes toward immigrants in the United States in the 19th century and why many people felt threatened by these new arrivals.
Compare popular anti-immigrant attitudes of the 19th century with those of today.

Mexico and Asia were the major sources of immigrants for the western United States until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many American employers recruited immigrant workers under the conditions of the Labor Contract Law, which allowed them to pay the workers in advance for their transportation to America and then deduct it from their wages.

The law was repealed in 1885, but many employers still found ways to attract foreign laborers. The arrival of so many foreigners drastically changed the major industrial cities in America. Native-born Americans encouraged the rapid assimilation of these diverse ethnic groups into the American culture.

However, some Americans reacted with fear and resentment to the foreigners. Groups such as the American Protective Association and the Immigration Restriction League tried to stop, or at least limit, the flow of immigrants. Some used the science of eugenics to try to grade or rank the various ethnic groups according to their genetic qualities. Others argued that certain nationalities were less able to be assimilated than others and should be restricted from immigrating.

Discussion Activity

  1. Ask students to read through the newspaper articles about attitudes toward immigrants in 19th-century America in the section in  Historical Newspapers (Graphical).As they read, students should take note of some of the reasons why many people of the time opposed, either actively or passively, the influx of people coming to the United States from foreign countries
  2. As a class, discuss what some of the common reasons were for opposing immigration to the United States. Help students evaluate the credibility of the arguments. Which were based on fact and which resulted more from simple prejudice?
  3. Compare the anti-immigration attitudes of 19th-century America to those of people today. In what ways are current attitudes similar to or different from the past?
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