19th Century US Immigration

Portrait of Italian Immigrant in Ellis Island facility, c. 1900.

Immigration to America was largely unregulated through the 18th and most of the 19th century. Following the Civil War, restrictions began to be placed upon immigrant entry to the US. A large influx of German, Irish and English immigrants came to America in the 1870s and 1880s. They, like most immigrants at the time, fled their home countries in search of economic prosperity and freedom from religious and political persecution. Many Chinese immigrants also came to America, largely settling in California in hopes of attaining wealth in the Gold Rush, though Chinese immigrants were later excluded from entry to the US following federal law banning them.

         Once immigration became a federal concern in 1875, new laws followed like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Alien Contract Labor Laws of 1885 and 1887, and the Immigration Act of 1882 which levied a 50 cent tax on all immigrants. This act excluded those with mental illness, disability, criminal convictions, or those “likely to become a public charge,” which allowed for exclusion of the poor or those who could not earn livable wages in America, like women travelling alone. First- and second-class passengers aboard ships were given a preliminary inspection before boarding in their homeland, and upon arrival to the US, did not require further inspection at immigration centers unless they were sickly or found to be criminal. All lower-class passengers, referred to as “steerage,” were not afforded this luxury, and awaited potentially lengthy stays in immigration centers where they fulfilled required inspections.

         Though many millions of immigrants were allowed into the US, these federal bans validated some already existing prejudices against immigrants, who were often victims of poverty, low wages, poor healthcare and rampant discrimination. While employers sought immigrant labor, particularly in inland states where immigrant populations were lower, many natives to the area felt immigrants were saturating the job market by accepting unlivable wages, making it much more difficult for non-immigrants to retain employment. Unfortunately, these prejudices can still be seen in the US today.


“Early American Immigration Policies.” USCIS, 30 July 2020, www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/overview-of-ins-history/early-american-immigration-policies.


“Immigration to the United States, 1851-1900  :  Rise of Industrial America, 1876-1900  :  U.S. History Primary Source Timeline  :  Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress  :  Library of Congress.” The Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-tim....

Associated Place(s)

Event date:

1 Jan 1800 to 1 Jan 1900