The busiest day at Ellis Island was April 17, 1907, when 11,747 immigrants passed through the processing center to enter the United States. Nearly 1.3 million immigrants came to the U.S. that year—a record for highest volume of immigrants that held until 1990. Like immigrants today, these people came in search of a better and safer life. Yet compared to immigrants in 2017, immigrants back then were much less likely to speak English or be skilled workers, according to new research.
Most immigrants in 1907 came from Europe, and many white, Protestant Americans feared these immigrants couldn’t “assimilate.” Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were supposedly too culturally different. And German immigrants, then America’s largest non-English-speaking group, were establishing German-language schools and newspapers across the U.S. instead of integrating themselves into English-speaking institutions.
“Those same fears are echoed today, just about a different group of immigrants,” says Andrew Lim, the director of quantitative research at New American Economy. Lim recently published a study comparing immigrants in 1907 to those in 2017.
In 1907, immigrants from Russia accounted for 19 percent of U.S. immigration, more than any other country. Next after Russia were Italy and Austria, which accounted for 15 percent each. Of the top 10 countries that immigrants came from, only two were outside of Europe: Canada (5.7 percent) and Mexico (2.7 percent). At the time, discriminatory policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement barred almost all immigration from China and Japan.
One fourth of these immigrants settled in New York and New Jersey, close to the major entry point of Ellis Island. In general, 1907 immigrants were much more geographically concentrated than immigrants today. Some moved west to states like Pennsylvania, Illinois and Ohio, but they didn’t settle evenly across the U.S.
In 2017, the top three states where immigrants settled were California, Texas and Florida, but “every state received or welcomed new immigrants,” Lim says. In a vast shift from 1907 when rules prevented Chinese people from immigrating, China was one of the top sources of U.S. immigrants in 2017, along with India, the Philippines, Brazil and South Korea.
Only about half of immigrants spoke English when they entered the country in 1907 (for comparison, 84 percent of immigrants in 2017 spoke English). They were also less educated and less skilled than immigrants today. Only 1.3 percent held a professional occupation, such as lawyer, teacher, engineer or doctor. The largest portion of immigrants were manual laborers who might work in warehouses or perform outdoor tasks like woodchopping. Nearly a quarter were machine operators who might drive delivery trucks or work at a laundry service.
But lack of English or work skills weren’t the only reasons immigrants faced discrimination. There was also a general feeling that immigrants were too culturally foreign to live in the U.S. German-speaking immigrants who came over in 1907 faced a lot of backlash a decade later, when the U.S. entered World War I. Germany was an adversary in the war, and immigrants from there suddenly became “hyphenated Americans” for practicing their own cultural traditions. President Woodrow Wilson declared that “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.”
In addition, Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe became associated with drinking and crime. White Protestant men in the Anti-Saloon League—many of whom would go on to join the new Ku Klux Klan after 1915—argued that the U.S. needed to pass a Prohibition amendment before these new immigrants acquired more voting power. During the 1920s, the KKK gained millions of members by advertising itself as a vigilante police force that would keep Catholic immigrants from countries like Italy in line.
The U.S. tried to reduce this type of immigration with the 1924 Immigration Act, which introduced numerical caps or quotas based on country of origin. These quotas gave enormous preference to people from northern and western Europe over those from southern and eastern parts of the continent. But despite intense fears that the latter type of immigrants could never really be American, they and their descendants became an important part of the country.
“There are inherent challenges to coming to a new country and finding your way,” Lim says. Even so, “if you look at things that are critical to the idea of integration or assimilation,” like language or job skills, “immigrants today actually perform better on paper” than those who came to America over a century ago.