Immigration Laws and the Immigrant Woman: 1885-1924
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a massive influx of immigrants to the United States. Lured by tales of prosperity, droves of immigrants flocked to America seeking a better life. Immigration laws during this time reflected concerns about labor market needs, family unification, the proper roles of men and women, and the exclusion of undesirable immigrants.
Industrialization in the U.S. brought about economic opportunities for immigrants and a demand for cheap labor. Immigrants provided the labor as well as a market for consumer goods that helped fuel the economy and increased the demand for labor. Industrialists encouraged immigration after the Civil War, seeking skilled and unskilled labor. They widely recruited employees abroad until the practice was outlawed in the fitfully enforced Immigration Acts of 1885 and 1891. Many laborers came from Eastern and Southern Europe and were willing to work in worse conditions and at lower wages than native-born Americans. As a result, many citizens and labor unions pressured Congress to slow the influx of immigrants. The immigration laws had exceptions for some professions, such as ministers, artists, lecturers, skilled laborers filling positions left vacant because of shortages in the work force and domestic servants. Despite increasingly restrictive laws passed in the early twentieth century, immigrants kept flowing into the U.S. The pace slowed after the onset of World War I and dropped sharply when Congress imposed literacy requirements and higher head taxes in the 1917 Immigration Act. Finally in 1921, Congress slowed immigration to a comparative trickle and imposed ethnicity limitations on immigration by imposing quotas based on country of origin.
As immigration laws changed during the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Congress took steps to keep immigrant families together. The legislators viewed the family as a safety net for poor relatives and a social structure worthy of preservation. Exceptions to immigration limits were carved out in 1903 and 1907 that gave all members of an immigrant family the same immigration status as the (male) head of the family and allowed relatives to pay for the passage and provide jobs to other family members. These laws reflected a view of the family as an economic unit, with the man as the breadwinner and the woman as homemaker and mother. These distinctions were embedded in rules making it easier for wives of male citizens to emigrate than for husbands of female citizens. Furthermore, since women were not viewed as breadwinners, wages for women, especially immigrant women, were considerably lower than those for men. Women often needed to join the work force to ensure their family's survival. Many married immigrant women did garment work at home or took in boarders, and single women went to work in factories or as domestic servants until they married.
Congress also wanted to bar entry to those who would be a financial burden or moral detriment to the country. The 1891 legislation, for example, excluded criminals, prostitutes, the insane, birds of passage (seasonal workers who took their money back home), transients, and those "likely to become a public charge." This latter category was used to exclude many single women who had no families to support them. Congress feared that because women were paid such low wages they would turn to prostitution. Immigrants who fell into any of these categories were sent back to their native countries immediately upon arrival or deported.
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