Most of the ‘new’ immigrants were unskilled and therefore looked for work in America’s growing industries in the cities. The poverty-stricken immigrants were often so desperate to find work that they were prepared to work in appalling conditions for very little pay. Many were employed as strikebreakers. For these reasons, labour organisations such as trade unions resented the ‘new’ immigrants. They even backed the idea of a literacy test for immigrants believing that many unskilled workers would be denied entry into the USA. Indeed the idea of the literacy test for immigrant was debated 32 times in Congress prior to its introduction in 1917.
While World War One had boosted the American economy, when the war ended wartime industries reduced production. Troops returned home seeking jobs in the already saturated labour market. The American economy seemed destined for trouble. Factories closed and people lost their jobs. In this climate of economic slump and hostility towards ‘new’ immigrants, the possibility of Europeans flocking to America to seek refuge and work at the end of the war was taken very seriously. There was a belief that those who could not speak English – immigrants – seemed to be taking American jobs. Industrialists, on the other hand, relished the abundance of cheap, unskilled labour for their factories and it was ignored that many of these jobs were so dangerous, dirty or low paid that ‘Americans’ would not do them. ‘American’ labour went on strike and because the immigrant population was desperate for money, they could be lured as strikebreakers into factories. The result was industrial discontent followed. The economic recession lasted until 1921.
Catholic immigrants from Italy, Poland, Greece, Mexico and Canada had to contend with the hostility and fear of the American predominantly Protestant population. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe faced similar hostility.
Immigrants found themselves under attack for political reasons. They were believed to be Communists or anarchists. A wave of strikes and violence after the First World War caused great alarm in the USA. The Russian Revolution in 1917 had established the first Communist state committed to spreading revolution against capitalism. Many Americans felt an acute fear that such disturbances were caused by immigrant Communists from Eastern Europe trying to provoke a similar revolution in the USA. Local police departments and the Federal Justice Department harassed those who supported Socialist or Communist ideas. So the spectre of the Russian Revolution, coupled with the economic recession set off the ‘Red Scare’ period.
Communist fears: Palmer Raids – August 1919
The house of America’s Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, was blown up. Palmer, an ambitious man who one day wanted to be President, believed that taking an anti-Communists and anti-anarchist stand would make him popular. He said the bombing was the work of a radical element and pledged to purge it by whatever steps were necessary. Palmer thought he would find many of these radicals in the immigrant community.
He set up the General Intelligence Division within the Department of Justice, run by his assistant J Edgar Hoover. This division spied on Communists and others considered dangerous. In January 1920, Hoover’s agents and local police organised raids on Communists in 33 cities, arresting 6,000 ‘foreign radicals’ and putting them in jail without trial. They were held in filthy conditions, were beaten up and forced to sign confessions. 600 people were deported. Most had to be released due to lack of evidence. Palmer then warned of a May Day demonstration, organised police and special troops but the riot did not happen. People lost faith in him. The hysteria passed almost as suddenly as it began. The Bolshevik threat had been exaggerated.
Most immigrants were too preoccupied with adjusting to their new environment to consider subversive political activity of any kind.
On May 5th 1920, Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacchio and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in Massachusetts and charged with murdering two men during an armed robbery. They were anarchists, spoke no English, but were found carrying guns. Their lawyer put forward the defence that they were elsewhere when the robbery took place and claimed they were being persecuted for their well-known political beliefs. There was little concrete evidence against them. The judge in the case privately called them ‘those anarchist bastards’ and they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Many people believed that the two men were innocent and despite serious doubts and a massive worldwide campaign, they were executed in the electric chair in 1927. This shocked many people in the liberal minded north of the USA but many in rural America supported the executions. They were coming to believe that the cities were filled with ‘foreigners’ who would not adopt the American ways and were determined to overthrow the American way of life.
Did the new immigrants have any political clout?
Immigrants had little influence in the political system until they became naturalised US citizens and gained voting rights. Even then they were not all equally enthusiastic about exercising their right once granted. The immigrant population helped increase the number of Congressmen who represented states such as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio but the American-born population continued to determine the Congressional and Presidential politics of their respective states.
Immigrants who became eligible to vote did not do so en bloc. They expressed party preferences in different states. In 1920, Poles tended to back Woodrow Wilson who was advocating the creation of the new nation of Poland, whereas the Italians, East Europeans, Irish and Germans did not. Therefore the immigrant vote was too divided.
At the state and local levels, party bosses understood the political potential of the new immigrants. In cities, their machines protected immigrants from hostility and urban politicians plotted to capture the immigrant vote.