The movement of people from one land to another, from one continent to another, has marked history since antiquity, and today is one of the most notable realities of a world in a steady state of enormous change. Entire societies have moved from one place to another; millions of individuals change the place where they live, the environment in which they work and learn, even the language they speak, every year. The age of empire and colonialism spurred two enormously important movements, one of Africans as slaves to the New World, the other of south Asians throughout Southeast Asia, East Africa, the West Indies, and into the Pacific; and by the twentieth century both groups were entering western Europe and North America. No one can know how many people have immigrated, for only in relatively recent times have there been governmental bureaucracies to keep reasonably accurate records; further, such records tell us only of legal, not of unrecorded or illegal, immigration.
Still, we have some figures that are revealing. Between 1815 and 1932 some 60 million people left Europe, largely to new areas of settlement in the Americas, the southwest Pacific, and Siberia. As Europeans had a higher birth rate in the nineteenth century, Europeans and people who had originated in Europe grew from 22 percent of the world’s population to 38 percent by 1914. The United States received just under half the European immigrants, but Europeans accounted for a much higher proportion of the populations of Canada, Argentina, and Brazil by 1914. Some were migrants—that is, they returned home after living elsewhere—but Irish, Italian (to Argentina and the United States), Jewish, and later Asian immigrants remained.
Most immigrants found themselves forced into the least well-paid jobs, the poorest housing; as each succeeding wave achieved some measure of success, they moved into better jobs and housing, and the next ethnic community to arrive would begin anew at the bottom. Thus suspicion and hostility between groups became commonplace, and immigrant communities chose either to live compactly and to retain their customs and language, in part as protection against others, or took the opposite path, as in the United States, and until the 1950s abandoned their original languages and many of their customs.
To leave one’s home for a foreign land, where one has neither friend nor, as yet, job, and whose language one cannot speak, requires enormous courage. The thousands upon thousands of people, largely from Europe (after 1870 increasingly from southern and eastern Europe), who journeyed to the United States and Canada, were not received with open arms. The attitudes shown in the following letter, written by the medical superintendent of a receiving station for immigrants, were representative:
Out of the 4,000 or 5,000 emigrants that have left this island since Sunday, at least 2,000 will fall sick somewhere before three weeks are over. They ought to have accommodation for 2,000 sick at least at Montreal and Quebec, as all the Cork and Liverpool passengers are half dead from starvation and want before embarking; and the least bowel complaint, which is sure to come with change of food, finishes them without a struggle. I never saw people so indifferent to life; they would continue in the same berth with a dead person until the seamen or captain dragged out the corpse with boathooks. Good God! what evils will befall the cities wherever they alight. Hot weather will increase the evil.