Polish Immigrants in the USA

Term Paper, 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The American Immigration Issue
2.1 Historical Context of Immigration
2.1.1 Ellis Island
2.2 The Current Situation

3. Historical Background of Polish Immigration Waves
3.1 The “Great Emigration”
3.2 Immigration before World War I

4. The America Polonia
4.1 Chicago – the Capital of the America Polonia
4.2 Polish Nationality and Divided Identity in the America Polonia
4.2.1 Community and Religion
4.2.2 Polish-American Press
4.2.3 Polish-American Literature
4.3 The Influence of the Solidarność on Polish Immigrants in the USA

5. Summary

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

The ‘land of immigrants’ or the ‘melting pot’ – as the United States of America are often called – where many different cultures meet and are combined with each other, is also the home for several million immigrants from East European countries, especially from Poland. Polish immigrants came to the USA in two larger immigration waves to pursue the same dreams all other immigrants had when coming to the New World, mainly to live a better life.

This paper deals with Polish immigrants in the United States, their history, their original community around Chicago, and also with their identity they have kept in the foreign country until today. Firstly, I will give an overview on the American immigration issue, describing the development of immigration from the discovery of America until the beginning of the 20th century. This is followed by a short passage on the most famous entry point to the United States – Ellis Island. I will not go into further detail on immigration during and between the World Wars because this topic will be treated on the background of Polish immigration later on. However, a short overview on how the United States deals with immigration – and especially illegal immigration – in current times will be added.

The two major immigration waves, which were already mentioned above, will be the topic of chapter three, in which the reasons for immigration, meaning the political and the economical context in Poland, will be described. The subsequent chapter deals with the city of Chicago, which is the place many Polish immigrants settled at and enlarged their families. In this context, I will portray the living and working conditions for Polish Immigrants in the 19th and 20th century, describe the Polish nationality and identity in the United States, and take a look at the influence political happenings in their home country had on Polish immigrants and their successors in the United States.

2. The American Immigration Issue

2.1 Historical Context of Immigration

The United States of America have a long tradition of immigration: The first people to settle in America – the native ‘Indians’ – were believed to have come from Asia[1], while the first European immigrants landed shortly after the discovery of America in 1492, and were namely Spaniards and French. In 1620, the ship ‘Mayflower’ brought the first settlers to Plymouth, Massachusetts. After 1620, there is no exact number of immigrants that came from European countries, since the government did not start counting the people who came to America until the year 1820.[2] Until then, the newly arrived immigrants were called ‘aliens’ – the term ‘immigrant’ did not develop until the end of the 19th century – for their lack of the American citizenship, which was voluntary then.[3]

People from Europe were attracted to the “promised land” by low property costs, economic benefits and also by the granted right of freedom of religion (“Statue of Religious Freedom”, 1786). In the context of the movement called the “first Great Awakening”, which began in the 1740s and lasted until the middle of the 19th century, new churches were founded and people who had left their home countries for reasons of religious persecution could practise their religion freely in America. Above all, the religious issue created a collective religious identity for the settlers in America even before the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – the independence from Great Britain.[4]

In the beginning of the 19th century, the immigration to America stagnated. In Europe, a longer period of a rather modest time of peace and prosperity commenced, while in the thirteen colonies in America the consciousness for the people’s ancestors declined. The population growth at that time was due to a high-birth rate, rather than to high immigration numbers. In those times, – since 1619 until the abolition of slavery after the Civil War in the end of the 19th century – the people who came to the New World were mostly blacks, who were brought from Africa to be sold as slaves to work on, for example, cotton and tobacco farms in the southern colonies.[5] From 1820 on, immigration numbers increased and were, as already mentioned above, recorded for the first time. In the following decades, many more immigrants arrived in the United States, especially those who had come from Ireland in the 1840s, fleeing from death and poverty which was due to the Great Famine, 1845-1849.[6] Another reason for this drastically increasing number of immigrants was especially the high population growth, in particular on the countryside, from which young people escaped with the hope to find better life conditions and more economical opportunities in the United States.[7] Harbours like Liverpool, Hamburg or Bremen became crowded with people who wanted to leave their motherlands and immigrate to America, where they entered the country at Castle Garden or later at Ellis Island.[8]

At the turn of the century, especially people from Slavic countries like Poland and Russia, immigrated to the United States, and created their own communities around cities that offered them jobs in the industry, such as Cleveland and Chicago. The Polish community in Chicago and its historical development will be looked upon more closely in chapter four.

2.1.1 Ellis Island

Immigrants who arrived in the United States between 1855 and 1890, entering it through the State of New York, were processed at the immigration centre of Castle Garden. Due to the constantly rising number of immigrants and the bad conditions that awaited the people at Castle Garden, the United States closed it down and opened a new federal immigration centre on January 2nd, 1892, namely Ellis Island.[9]

Here, the inspectors checked the newly-arrived for their physical and mental conditions. Many were rejected for reasons of illness. However, in the years between 1892 and 1924 more than eleven thousand people entered the United States through Ellis Island.[10]

In the year 1924, the United States restricted immigration for European immigrants, as they had already done in 1907 with Mexicans to ensure “national unity, national security, and economic prosperity.”[11] Although immigrants were still allowed to enter the United States to join their families, others were denied entry when they did not possess a visa. As a result, the numbers of immigrants decreased rapidly, and Ellis Island partly lost its function of an immigration centre in favour of a Coast Guard Station. Today, the building contains a museum with information on immigration and the family histories of those who arrived there many decades ago.[12]

2.2 The Current Situation

The United States – among other countries like Spain and France – nowadays face the problem of illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, South American and Asian countries. In the years between 1966 and 1993 over seven million immigrants arrived in the United States for the same reasons as many Europeans did in the 18th and 19th century, but also as political refugees.[13] Although skilled and well-educated workers were preferred to enter the country – and only those receive the permission to work, the Green Card – mostly people from rural and poor backgrounds tried to obtain an entry-permission, or simply entered illegally.

The United States as a country of immigration have become unattractive in the last decades for Western-Europeans because of the development of their own economy and the prosperity they enjoy in their own countries. In contrast, much more immigrants in the United States have their origins in Asian countries, and develop small communities in the United States in which they live their own culture and identity.[14]

Due to restricted immigration laws, it is harder especially for people from South America and Mexico to enter the country. Not just laws protect the United States from a wave of immigrants, who are considered as ‘illegals’ and therefore as criminals if they are not in the possession of a residence permission, also the overall supervision of routes illegal immigrants use to enter the country has forced those who still want to try it, to depend on guides who lead them through challenging terrain – many immigrants do not survive.[15]

In the context of the debate on new immigration laws in the year 1995, the US government agreed on legalizing those persons residing in the US without permission, and further granting them the possibility to obtain the American citizenship. Family reunions are also still possible.[16]


[1] Freese, Peter [ed.]. From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: ‘E pluribus unum’? Viewfinder Topics New Edition. München: Langenscheidt, 3rd rev. ed., 2007, p. 4.

[2] Gabaccia, Donna. Immigration and American diversity. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002, p. 3.

[3] Cf. Gabaccia, p. 48.

[4] Gabaccia, p. 57.

[5] Cf. Freese, p. 4.

[6] Cf. Breuer, Rolf. Irland. München: Fink, 2003, p. 103f.

[7] Cf. Gabaccia, p. 76.

[8] Gabaccia, p. 124.

[9] See <http://www.ellisislandimmigrants.org/ellis_island_history.htm>.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Gabaccia, p. 179.

[12] See <http://www.fortunecity.com/littleitaly/amalfi/100/ellis.htm>.

[13] Cf. Gabaccia, p. 236.

[14] Cf. Gabaccia, p. 239.

[15] Cf. Gabaccia, p. 258.

[16] See <http://www.immigration-usa.com/debate.html>.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Polish Immigrants in the USA
University of Paderborn
From Melting Pot to Quilt
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Polish, Immigrants, From, Melting, Quilt, Chicago
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Eveline Podgorski (Author), 2007, Polish Immigrants in the USA, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/119434


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