Ancestry® Family History
1900s U.S. Immigration
During the 1900s, immigrants arrived in the United States by sea, land—and even air in the second half of the century. Many reasons motivated people to leave their country of origin: to flee persecution or violence, to escape dire poverty, and to fill wartime labor needs, for example.
As with the 1800s, the 1900s saw fluctuating numbers of U.S. immigrants from Europe, Asia, and other places around the world. U.S. immigration peaked in 1907 with more than 1.2 million arrivals that year alone. Other high levels of arrivals occurred in the 1910s through early 1920s and between roughly 1940 and 1960.
With millions coming to America during the 1900s, many in the U.S. today have ancestors who arrived in this country just a few generations ago.
Was U.S. Immigration in the 1900s Different From Earlier Times?
More than in the 1700s or 1800s, federal immigration laws implemented and enforced throughout the 20th century restricted certain populations from entering the U.S. Other laws opened immigration to specific groups. As you’re exploring your ancestors’ immigration story, keep in mind that any of these laws could have impacted the timing of your ancestors’ arrival in the U.S.
Two major changes in transportation also impacted how people traveled to the United States during the 1900s.
- Advances in steamship technology during the late 1800s made journeys to America in the 1900s faster and less expensive, although many could only afford to travel in crowded steerage compartments.
- The start of commercial air travel in the 1950s meant that entry was no longer restricted to seaports or the northern or southern U.S. borders. Immigrants could arrive at airports throughout the Midwest, for example.
Turn-of-the-Century Immigration: Who Came?
The large numbers of U.S. immigrations that began in the 1880s continued into the early 1900s. Poor economic conditions and violence in Europe were significant factors in driving turn-of-the-century immigration.
Between 1900 and 1915, more than 15 million immigrants, largely from Eastern, Central, and Southern Europe, arrived on U.S. shores. These new immigrants mostly settled in large cities, as that’s where jobs could be found.
Among the new arrivals were Italian and Mexican men dubbed “birds of passage.” They often traveled alone or with teenage sons to the U.S., seeking work, but left other family members behind. Families could be separated for years. While some men returned permanently to their country of origin, others eventually sent for their families and then settled in communities with people from their homeland.
Many European Jews came to the U.S. in the early 1900s to escape violent anti-Semitism in their home country. Rioting and the massacres of pogroms had intensified, particularly in Eastern Europe and Russia. Jewish immigrants typically settled in New York and the surrounding states.
Between 1910 and 1920, large numbers of Mexican immigrants fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution arrived in the U.S. The 1930 U.S. Census recorded more than 600,000 Mexican immigrants in the U.S.—triple the number in the 1910 census. These new immigrants helped to meet the growing need for industrial workers, miners, construction laborers, and seasonal agricultural laborers.
By the late 1910s, others who came to the U.S. included European refugees from World War I, Russians who fled the Russian Revolution, and Armenians escaping genocide.
Could Early 1900s Immigration Laws Have Affected Your Ancestors?
Many laws renewed or passed at the turn of the century continued to target Asian immigrants, mainly those from China. But new laws also singled out other ethnic populations.
- In 1902 the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed with no ending date. But there were exceptions, including for Chinese Americans who claimed birthright citizenship. This exception was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1898. After the destruction of records during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, Chinese petitioners sought to legally affirm native-birth citizenship, which then allowed their real or purported children, for example, to claim “derivative citizenship” as “paper sons and daughters.” Between 1920 and 1940, over 71,000 Chinese immigrants entered the U.S. as derivative citizens.
- A 1907 Gentleman's Agreement between the U.S. and Japan restricted Japanese immigrant laborers. Family migration, however, was allowed, so many Japanese men living in the U.S. sent for their wives and children.
- The 1917 Immigration Act expanded exclusions for most of Southeast Asia, including India and the Middle East. Exceptions were made for those from Japan and the Philippines, as Filipinos had been made American nationals after the Philippine-American War. The 1917 Act had a literacy requirement, but it didn’t require the ability to read in English. A “head” tax of $8 per immigrant was imposed.
- The 1924 Immigration Act (Johnson-Reed Act) made permanent the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which capped annual immigration into the U.S. at 150,000. Its “national origins” provision established quotas based on representation at the time of the 1890 U.S. Census. Because most immigrants living in the U.S. in 1890 were from Northern and Western Europe, this ended up restricting immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and all of Asia.
Slower U.S. Immigration in the 1930s
The extremely restrictive 1924 Immigration Act and the economic crisis of the worldwide Great Depression both significantly reduced the number of U.S. immigrants in the 1930s.
But Depression-era repatriation programs also forced people out of the country. Mostly administered by counties in the Southwest and Midwest, these programs were born out of officials’ calculations that it would cost less to deport Mexican people than it would to pay for needed relief. Approximately two million Mexicans were sent to the border during this time, including those who were American citizens by birth.
U.S. Immigration Booms Again in the 1940s through the 1960s
The years during and after World War II once again saw increases in immigrant arrivals. Agricultural labor shortages, accumulated because of the wars, prompted the federal government to create programs to bring workers in from outside the country. Jobs through these programs were typically low-paying and physically demanding. Guest workers often experienced substandard housing and lack of sanitation resources.
- The Bracero Program of 1942 saw more than four million temporary agricultural and railroad workers recruited from Mexico through 1964. It was the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. At the same time, roughly a million braceros and other Mexican immigrants were deported in the early 1950s as a way to address uncontrolled migration across the southern border.
- The British West Indies Temporary Alien Labor Program, created to support the Florida sugar cane industry, operated from 1943 to 1947. The U.S. government recruited about 70,000 workers, primarily from Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas, to cut sugar cane.
Did Mid-Century Immigration Laws Impact Your Ancestors?
U.S. immigration laws passed during the 1940s through 1960s focused on preferences for specific populations and eventually the lifting of quotas based on national origins.
- The 1943 Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was prompted by the relationship between China and the U.S. as World War II allies. However, this repeal was mostly symbolic, as Chinese immigrants were still subject to existing national origins quotas.
- The 1945 and 1946 War Brides Acts admitted spouses and families of returning veterans, including women from Asian countries previously excluded.
- The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act established preferences for skilled workers as well as relatives of citizens and permanent residents.
- The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act) ended the national origins quota system. While it allowed unprecedented immigration from non-European countries, it also capped immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere. For the first time there was a limit on immigrants from Mexico.
The cumulative impact of exclusionary and preferential immigration laws throughout the 1900s is striking: By 1960, 84% of the nation’s foreign-born immigrants were from Europe or Canada, but by 1970, that share dropped to 68%.
Becoming a U.S. Citizen: Naturalization and Citizenship Laws During the 1900s
Naturalization, part of an immigrant’s path toward U.S. citizenship, became standardized after the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906. Courts across the country, for example, were required to use standard naturalization forms. Also, for the first time, applicants for naturalization were required to speak English.
Throughout the 1900s, new laws were also passed regarding U.S. citizenship: some granted it to certain populations and others revoked it.
- Under the Expatriation Act of 1907, an American woman who married a foreign national would lose her citizenship. The 1922 Cable Act partially repealed it, but American women who married Asian nationals would still lose their citizenship.
- The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans, enabling them to pursue economic opportunities anywhere in the U.S.
- Supreme Court rulings in 1922 and 1923 established that Asian immigrants could not become naturalized U.S. citizens regardless of factors like level of assimilation or military service.
- The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 changed the status of all Native Americans born in the U.S. Some Native Americans opposed it, however, for fear it would overrule U.S. recognition of tribal sovereignty. But even after gaining citizenship, Native peoples’ did not automatically have the right to vote, as that was governed by state law.
- The Tydings-McDuffle Act of 1934 granted independence to the Philippines, but stripped Filipinos of U.S. citizenship. The 1935 Filipino Repatriation Act then offered repatriation to laborers on the U.S. West Coast; ultimately, only about 2,000 chose to leave.
Busiest Immigration Entry Points During the 1900s
Arrival records—passenger lists and border crossing records—can be a boon for family historians. Records for the most popular immigration entry points during the 1900s are listed below, but they’re only a small sampling of what’s available on Ancestry®. Keep in mind that air travel options that began in the 1950s means you may discover your immigrant ancestor landed at an airport in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, rather than a New York seaport.
- New York was by far the busiest seaport destination for turn-of-the-century immigrants. More than 12 million immigrants were processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. During its peak years between 1900 and 1914, as many as 1,900 thousand immigrants were processed at Ellis Island every day.
- Angel Island Immigration Station, near San Francisco, California, processed up to a million people between 1910 and 1940. Most were from Asia, but it's estimated that immigrants from over 80 countries were seen by island officials. High restrictions on Asian immigrants, especially Chinese travelers, however, meant that their experiences were very different from those who entered the country in other places. Asian immigrants often spent weeks or months detained on Angel Island and were subject to rigorous screenings and interrogations.
- Philadelphia’s port saw its busiest period before 1900, but at the height of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, between 1910 and 1914, Philadelphia was the country’s third most important port.
- Galveston, Texas was a major entry point for Jewish people escaping Russian pogroms between 1907 and 1914. It’s estimated that 10,000 Jewish immigrants passed through Galveston during this period.
Border crossings by land include many entry points across the U.S. southern and northern borders. These two collections can be searched by specific entry points.
- Border Crossings, From Mexico to U.S., 1895-1964: Look for people who entered via El Paso or Brownsville, Texas; San Ysidro, California; and Nogales, Arizona, for example.
- U.S., Border Crossings from Canada to U.S., 1895-1960: Find records for ancestors who entered the U.S. in places like St. Albans, Vermont; Sweet Grass, Montana; or Blaine, Washington.
More Sources of 1900s Immigration Information on Ancestry®
Citizenship and Naturalization Records and U.S. Passport Applications (available through 1925) can also contain clues about your ancestors’ immigration story. Bonus: Passport applications for the early 1900s may include the applicant’s photograph.
Ellis Island Oral Histories features about 2,000 first-hand accounts from 1892 to 1976. Sampling stories of immigrant experiences may help you envision what it was like for your ancestor to come to America on a ship, be processed at Ellis Island, and adjust to life in the U.S.
Check Ship Pictures and Descriptions to see if you can find the vessel named on the passenger list that recorded your ancestor’s arrival.
Search Tips for Finding Your Family’s Immigration Story
- Look for alternate spellings. Immigrants from non-English-speaking countries may have originally used a different spelling for a first name or surname—one that’s different from later records.
- Be aware of border and country name changes. Your ancestor’s birthplace may be “Bohemia” in the 1910 U.S. Census, but “Czech Republic” or “Czechoslovakia” in records after 1918.
- Families didn’t always travel together. Family members may have traveled separately, with some coming over earlier to settle in before sending for the rest of the family. This was historically known as chain migration.
- Use census records to narrow down an arrival period. U.S. censuses from 1900 through 1930 also asked for the year of immigration, as did some state censuses.
- Check multiple ports. Ancestors who made more than one trip may have arrived at different ports.
Start Your Journey Into Your Family History
Did the 1900s see your immigrant ancestors pass through a port like Ellis Island? Cross the border in El Paso, Texas or Detroit, Michigan? Land at an airport in Honolulu, Hawaii or Seattle, Washington? Each immigrant arrival represented a leap of faith and the promise of a fresh start in the U.S. Search for your family's immigration story on Ancestry today.
References (Accessed August 28, 2023)
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