When I first started researching my Italian ancestors after spending my honeymoon in Italy, I couldn't understand how they left such a beautiful place to come and work for the railroad or live in a cramped city apartment.
If you're wondering the same thing about your ancestors, no matter where they came from, you can gain a lot of insight by reading a bit of history about your ancestors' homeland at the time they came to America. They may have come here because it was their only option for steady work. They may have been fleeing an oppressive regime or hoping to avoid a war.
My entire family came from rural Southern Italy where poverty was extreme and advancement was all but impossible. In the late 1800s it became difficult to grow crops, and waves of cholera and other diseases were increasing the death rate. America offered steady work for healthy men.
On a PBS website called Destination America, you can view an interactive map that shows the amount of emigration throughout Europe by decade, from 1851 to 1910. According to this fascinating map, the decades are characterized as follows:
- 1851–1860: The Potato Famine in Ireland made emigration a matter of life or death.
- 1861–1870: Prussia and the German states could not provide good jobs to their people.
- 1871–1880: The German Empire, ruled by Otto von Bismarck, became inhospitable to Catholic Germans.
- 1881–1890: Skilled laborers throughout the United Kingdom escaped poverty and famine to work in America's industries.
- 1891–1900: Extreme poverty in Southern Italy, along with malnutrition and disease, led to a massive exodus.
- 1901–1910: Millions of Jews had to leave Russia to escape anti-Semitic violence, army conscription, and ethnic friction.
With so many millions of people pouring into the United States, some controls were needed. According to an immigration timeline on a Harvard University website, more than three million immigrants came to America between 1891 and 1900, and that includes many of my ancestors. A whopping 5.7 million Italians came to America between 1911 and 1920, including my two grandfathers.
The overwhelming numbers of immigrants led to a series of laws that were intended to stem the flow a bit. In 1917, according to the Harvard website, Congress enacted a literacy requirement for immigrants by overriding President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The law requires immigrants to be able to read 40 words in some language and bans immigration from Asia, except for Japan and the Philippines.
Between 1921 and 1930 more than four million immigrants arrived, but several laws during this decade enforced immigration restrictions:
- The Emergency Quota Act, 1921 restricted immigration from any country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the US in 1910.
- The Immigration Act of 1924 limited annual European immigration to 2% of the number of people from that country living in the United States in 1890.
- The 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act prohibited most immigration from Asia. That same year the Border Patrol was created to help prevent illegal immigration.
- In 1929 they really clamped down on Asian immigration: The National Origins Formula institutes a quota that caps national immigration at 150,000 and completely bars Asian immigration, though immigration from the Western Hemisphere is still permitted.
I have cousins who left Italy in the 1950s but simply were not allowed to come to the United States, so they and many of their friends and relatives settled in, and still live in Niagara Falls, Canada. It would require more research, but I suspect that after the 1920s or so, it was never again as simple as getting on a boat, coming to America, and saying you wanted to stay.