History of Immigration in New Jersey

The history of immigration traces back to before the first Americans inhabited the country.  Narrowing in on New Jersey itself is still representative of immigration throughout the nation as a whole.  Before individuals make the decision to leave their origins, they already have a set of established cultural values, beliefs, and languages that they bring to their new homes.

Background: Beginning in 1830, Europeans began to migrate to America on a larger scale, most having Irish and German descent. They left for reasons such as employment opportunities, devastation faced with their crops, as well as political and religious freedom.   More than half of those who left Europe chose to come to America. This large immigration occurred at the beginning of the industrialization period, and the influx of immigrants increased the speed of industrialization. Since 1840, New Jersey remains a state with some of the highest proportions of residents from other countries.  Because New Jersey is right across from New York City, immigration has always had a major impact on the economics and population within the Garden State. Most immigrants chose to migrate to Hudson, Essex, and Passaic county. Within seventy years from 1850 to 1920, the percentage of immigrants living in these counties went from 57% to 58%. At the same time, less than 2% of immigrants lived in Sussex, Warren, and Hunterdon counties.  The distribution of immigrants remains relatively the same; about 256,000 arrived in the U.S. between 1970 and 1980, and by 1980, the 51% majority of immigrants still inhabited Hudson, Essex, and Passaic counties.  History experienced three major periods of immigration: the “old” immigration, the “new” immigration, and the third wave of immigration.

“Old” Immigration (1840-1880): The “Old” Immigration categorized migrants as being from western Europe.  This immigration wave impacted New Jersey’s urbanization and industrialization so much so that the state became so diverse that one side of the state was city-like and tightly packed, while the other side was a rural country-side.  Because there were so many different immigration populations moving to New Jersey, natives and immigrants developed tensions concerning issues ranging from the use and availability of alcohol, the distribution of political power, and the role of Catholicism and the Catholic church in education and public affairs.  By 1860, a majority of Jersey City’s adult male population was made up of foreign-born males.  Irish immigrants composed one-third of the population, while the British and German immigrants composed one-quarter of the population. During this time, the occupations of male workers determined social placement and household income. More than 75% of the unskilled workers in Jersey City were Irish. On the other hand, even though the British and German immigrants were not as wealthy as natives, they were not as poor as the Irish immigrants.  The population distribution seen in Jersey City represented other cities’ populations throughout New Jersey, such as Paterson, Newark, and Trenton, while other areas experienced more German and British populations moving in. Many Americans opposed the increasing diversity, and tensions rose between Catholics and Protestants. Some saw immigrants as a threat to the social order that they established already. During this era, the Order of United Americans (O.U.A.) became implemented to prevent foreign influences on American culture and society.  They spread their sentiments among the public, ranging from Anti-Catholicism to economic nativism.  As a result, no institutions could have relations to religious societies, and a line was drawn to semi-permanently divide Americans and immigrants.

“New” Immigration (1880-1920): By 1880, the immigrants belonging to the “old” immigration grew older, and the “new” immigration began.  Children from the first wave of immigration grew up and entered American society independently.  In the new wave, immigration from southern and eastern European countries, such as Italy, Poland, and Russia, began to increase. This wave of immigrants left their home nations to escape dislocation experienced by population growth and economic change.  Many brought their families while others (often single men) came alone and wanted to stay temporarily to work, save money, and return home with more money for a more promising future in their native land.  Immigrants docked at Ellis Island where they endured questioning and inspections before admittance into America.  These immigrants were younger, healthier, and more skilled than those left at home. This second wave of immigrants changed New Jersey’s populations and demographics. The population of foreign-born residents went from 20% to 26% from 1880 to 1910.  Despite World War I interrupting New Jersey’s immigration, by 1920 more than 60% of New Jersey residents were immigrants or children of immigrants, while 38% were native whites with native parents.  Italians were the largest immigrant group, followed by Polish.  The new immigrants worked in factories of Jersey City, Newark, and Trenton.  Eventually, Italians replaced Irish people at unskilled labor jobs.  Because unskilled work could not support a family, women often worked from the home.  At one point, children began to work in their teenage years, and sons helped their fathers at their jobs.  In this period, the population of Italians in Newark went from 400 to 27,000 and made up 15% of Newark’s population.  Most of the Italians emigrated from Sicily and southern Italy, where my family is from.  Typical of many immigrant groups, people of the same village in Italy emigrated to the same areas.  Italians tried to recreate in Newark what they left behind in their villages with culture, religion, and social lives.  This eased Italian immigrants’ transitions into America because there was comfort in surrounding oneself by those of the same culture.  While this was helpful, it also became disadvantageous because it prevented them from venturing out and acclimating to society better.  As a result, many did not learn English because they worked with fellow Italians, shopped from Italian stores and vendors, and did not stray from their Italian culture whatsoever.

The Third Wave (1960-Present): The third period of immigration saw many Hispanic and Asian individuals moving to New Jersey.  Puerto Ricans were the first major Hispanic group to migrate; because of the devastation suffered from in World War II, many of the more educated and better-skilled Puerto Ricans went to America.  Once many made their journeys, relatives and friends began their own.  It was easier to migrate when people knew of individuals who already made the trip.  Between 1950 and 1980, the Puerto Rican population increased by over 230,000.  Spanish quickly replaced the Italian language.  Similar to the previous immigrant groups, many moved to Hudson, Essex, and Passaic counties. Many blacks also migrated to New Jersey; populations went from 190,000 to 980,000 within fifty years.  They faced the same challenges as the Puerto Ricans.  Both groups held low-paying jobs because of their lack of schooling.  Many Puerto Ricans faced unemployment: 27% of families lived below the poverty line. In the 1970s, Puerto Ricans faced major discrimination which heavily influenced their high unemployment and poverty rates.  Despite wanting to decrease poverty, it rose by 10.5% in just ten years.  More about current immigration and past legislation can be found here.