Social Question

LuckyGuy's avatar

What support was given to the refugees who came to the US before 1930?

Asked by LuckyGuy (38417points) November 23rd, 2015

All of my grandparents came to the US from Russia between 1900 and 1910. My father was born not long after and, sadly, both of his parents died a few years later. He was taken in by an “uncle”.
He used to say he was working as long as he could remember: shining shoes, selling candy, painting,... anything.
All of my grandparents and parents are long gone so I cannot ask them. (Oh, why didn’t I ask when I had the chance?!)
It seems immigrants had to hit the ground running to survive.
What support network did they have? Did the government supply housing, food, language assistance, cash payments, etc.?
How did they manage?

Please spend a few minutes with your grandparents and ask them to tell their story.

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35 Answers

jca's avatar

My grandparents are dead so I can’t ask them, but from what I know about local history (NYC history), the government did not provide anything in the way of social service programs. Social services were provided by community groups and religious groups. Catholic homes for unwed mothers,Catholic orphanages, Italian American societies like Knights of Columbus, Jewish community centers, Irish/Gaelic societies (and then the Irish moved into government, police work, labor unions. These groups all helped other immigrants find housing and jobs and things like that.

JLeslie's avatar

I don’t know if there was government assistance. My grandfather came with his siblings. An uncle living in America took them in at first. My assumption is they all started working right away. My grandpa worked at a slipper factory. Factory jobs were plentiful, but conditions were quite bad. One of his sisters wound up hospitalized her entire adult life. I assume a ward of the state. The census shows my grandpa lived with his other sister for a while. I’ve heard she helped look after him.

When my husband sponsored his parents 15 years ago he had to sign a paper saying he would be responsible for them, including financially responsible. I’m not sure exactly what that means in technical terms. Were they not eligible for assistance? That’s what I had assumed.

jca's avatar

@JLeslie: A friend of mine who married a woman from another country wanted me to sponsor the wife. I looked in to it and it involved providing 5 years of tax returns, providing all kinds of financial proof that I could support her if necessary, and if she needed to return to her home country, I would be willing to pay for the trip. She could have worked – this had nothing to do with her needing support, it was the requirement for the government to allow her to stay. I said hell no. Not that I have anything to hide (obviously if I filed the tax returns, the government knew the details anyway, and I work for the government so nothing is a secret), but I was not willing to say I’d support her and I’d pay to send her back. She was from the country Georgia. so that flight would be major bucks.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

Welfare was a hodgepodge of local religious, ethnic, or fraternal organizations that assisted them as much as they could—or it was up to the family members or friends who came before them. Otherwise, they were on their own. A lot of people fell through the cracks. It was kind of like how medical care is distributed now in states whose legislatures have refused support for the Affordable Care Act.

Remember “The Thousand Points of Light”? That was the plan to bring that “system” back .

JLeslie's avatar

@jca I remember the papers being rather scary, I skimmed them over, but since it was my husband’s parents of course he signed everything with barely a read.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I think of the poem on the Statue of Liberty
”....Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,...”

I’m guessing the only support they got from the government as getting their names anglicized. They had to find work an
d a place to stay ASAP.
They had to be strong and special.

JLeslie's avatar

@LuckyGuy I wonder how many came without some sort of sponsor already here in the states? Manufacturers like Kohler brought in immigrants to work and housed them. What is now the hotel and spa in Kohler was basically the barracks for immigrant labor back in the day. My grandfather who I spoke if before, his uncle has sent for them. On my other side of the family I don’t know the situation regarding work and housing, except that my grandmother’s father came with his entire nuclear family. Most people they knew the men came first and then sent for his wife and children once they had work and a place for them.

LuckyGuy's avatar

I don’t know if my grandparents had anyone else here before their trip. They must have had something in mind before they got on that ship.
It seems like the government welcomed everyone in with open arms – but not with open wallets. “Come on over! Just don’t ask me for food, shelter or cash.”
I wish I could ask them how they managed.

JLeslie's avatar

I wish I could ask more questions too. :(

LuckyGuy's avatar

Russia had just had a war with Japan, WWI was looming, prejudice was everywhere. It seems similar to the Syrian refugees. Except now each family requires (deserves?) so much more support. Estimates are as high as $60,000 per year per family of 4 and I have heard no mention of a time limit.
Oh! And my grandparents only spoke Russian and Yiddish. How the heck did they manage? Was it really so easy to find a job or set up a business back then?

jaytkay's avatar

Immigrants were eligible for free land under the 1862 Homestead Act.

“Signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862, the Homestead Act encouraged Western migration by providing settlers 160 acres of public land. In exchange, homesteaders paid a small filing fee and were required to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. The Homestead Act led to the distribution of 80 million acres of public land by 1900.”

Cruiser's avatar

Though not a refugee…my great grandfather was sent here by the German Government to be the lead carpenter to build the German Exposition for the 1893 Worlds Fair. He like many others at the time who came here had a job, family or other relatives to help them settle down when they got here.

@LuckyGuy AFAICT it seems it was easy for my Great Grandfather as he built and sold two homes then built a Beer Garden. When Prohibition put him out of business, he hitched his horse to his wagon and moved north and bought and subdivided some land and opened a Real Estate Office.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

I don’t bother looking, I am sure if I go back far enough I will find none of my great grandparents, and such immigrated here, certainly not by choice, and they were working from jump street to the grave..

Dutchess_III's avatar

I think my grandfather came ahead of Gramma, and stayed with a relative for about a year, then brought Gramma over. That poor woman came over on a boat, by herself, with 4 children under the age of 5. She didn’t speak English.
Any time I want to feel sorry for myself, I think of that.

jca's avatar

Re: The Homestead Act of 1862: (from ourdocuments.gov):

The act, however, proved to be no panacea for poverty. Comparatively few laborers and farmers could afford to build a farm or acquire the necessary tools, seed, and livestock. In the end, most of those who purchased land under the act came from areas quite close to their new homesteads (Iowans moved to Nebraska, Minnesotans to South Dakota, and so on). Unfortunately, the act was framed so ambiguously that it seemed to invite fraud, and early modifications by Congress only compounded the problem. Most of the land went to speculators, cattlemen, miners, lumbermen, and railroads. Of some 500 million acres dispersed by the General Land Office between 1862 and 1904, only 80 million acres went to homesteaders. Indeed, small farmers acquired more land under the Homestead Act in the 20th century than in the 19th.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@jaytkay The Homestead Act sure was a sink or swim operation. “Here’s your land now make something of it.” (And it helped solidify ownership from the Indians.)
If you failed, you starved.
@Cruiser It certainly seems your grandfather hit the ground running – and did well.

Could we expect Syrian refugees to do the same?

jca's avatar

I think if Syrian refugees don’t know English, that’s one big barrier to their working successfully in the US. Also, if they can’t work legally, that’s another big barrier. If there’s a mother with several children (not sure what the average number of children per Syrian family is), and the mother doesn’t speak English and can’t work legally, and has no husband here, it seems welfare is going to be the only way for her. If she has several children, as any of us know who pay for childcare, if you pay for too many kids in child care, you may as well not work. I pay 400 bucks per month for 4 days per week for one child. Even with a discount for multiple children, it would be close to impossible for the mom to pay for child care, rent, food, energy, transportation, clothes, without government support.

Cruiser's avatar

@LuckyGuy Other than a language barrier, I don’t have any good reason(s) why they couldn’t make a go of it. Germany is waving in as many as they can get as it ensures them an ample supply of cheap labor ensuring their ability to be competitive in the manufacturing sector.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I bet they’re very willing to work, too.

jaytkay's avatar

Could we expect Syrian refugees to do the same?

I meet A LOT of immigrants in my job. They own businesses, homes, and income property. (We work on real estate sales and taxes)

I know very well-off and even wealthy small-business people from (off the top of my head) Romania, Egypt, Iran, Ukraine, India, China, Taiwan, Palestine, Mexico, Serbia, Greece, Poland, Lebanon and Ireland.

Plus we have a lot of comfortably middle-class immigrant clients. Again, off the top of my head, I can think of people from Mexico, Vietnam, China and the Philippines.

The West European and Indian immigrants I know are mostly doctors and professors.

My observation is that the immigrants I know work harder than the average native-born American. They have to.

Dutchess_III's avatar

Seems like an overwhelming proportion of hotels and motels are owned by Indians.

The is a guy here who owns a convenience store, and he’s from India. His whole family works for him. It’s my favorite store, too.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

All my grandparents were born here and passed away in the 1960’s. But both my parents were diligent gatherers of family lore. The most recent immigrants in the family came here around 1871. One of my paternal great-great-grandfathers was a young boilerman, a kind of steam engine technician, aboard a German merchantman when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. He’d received his draft notice aboard ship in Montevideo notifying him that he was to report for infantry duty immediately upon arriving in Hamburg at the end of the voyage. When they pulled into Baltimore, he jumped ship. He knew no one in America and spoke no English. But within days he’d gotten on with the B&O Railroad as a boilermaker and worked for them for the rest of his life. He was lucky. His skills were in demand.

He settled in a German neighborhood in Baltimore and married a woman who had recently emigrated from Germany. She was nineteen and he was twenty-two the year they were married in a civil ceremony. They stayed married until he died in 1916. She never remarried and died in 1922. We know very little about her or her family other than they were Jewish and from city of Kiel. Her children were raised in the Catholic Church and later married into Catholic families in Baltimore. She is buried in a private cemetery that was owned by a family named Cohen. The rest of the Baltimore family, including her spouse, is buried in the family plot in a Catholic cemetery nearby. I believe her history was purposely buried with her.

My mother tried to find information on this woman, but my father’s parents said that their parents never talked about her. Her grandson, my father’s grandfather, said that he’d only found out that she was Jewish when the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow her to be buried in the family plot. Diocese records show that she was not to be allowed to be buried in consecrated ground next to her husband nor with her seven children that would eventually join him because she had refused to convert.

I’ve asked my cousins in Baltimore, but they say they were never told anything. It seems her history died with my paternal great-grandparents.

Cruiser's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus You may have to dig deeper and go back further. My brother has pursued our families past and got in touch with a 3rd cousin removed in Sweden that has been a treasure trove of stats from the 1800’s forward at least on my dad’s mother/my grandmothers side.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@Cruiser Yes, you’re right. I haven’t pursued this enough. I’ll check synagogues in Kiel online for her family name and see what comes up. But I don’t have a lot to go on to separate her family from others if there were a lot of families with the same name. We’ll see. And it all depends if those records have survived the Nazi regime and our bombings. Kiel was one of the cities that was producing the V-1 and V-2 rockets. We bombed the shit out of it.

Cruiser's avatar

@Espiritus_Corvus Finding out your relatives history may not reveal what you expect or want to find out. I have stopped digging on my dad’s side as when he passed a few years back I found Nazi SS medals and officers dress knives in his keep sake drawer. With a wife who is Jewish who lost many relatives to the Holocaust…I am no longer going out of my way to find out more about that time in history for my family. I can say with certainty that none of my direct descendants served in WWII on either side, but why and how these items are in my dad’s possession I will now never know.

Espiritus_Corvus's avatar

@Cruiser Wow. I was thinking as I read that that it was just another soldier bringing home souvenirs. Wow. That’s inexplicable. I can understand why you stopped looking. That’s a drawer you want to shut forever.

Buttonstc's avatar

My Uncle came over first at the beginning of Hitler’s regime. He was an engineer and there was no way he was going to hang around waiting to be drafted by the army headed up by that lunatic.

He got a job at Grummans and worked there all his life. A year or so after he arrived he brought over his Mother and sister (my mother) and my mother began working immediately as a waitress (even tho she was trained in nursing).

My impression was that most immigrants had family already here or were the first one in their family paving the way for others. No government assistance of any kind.

They worked hard at whichever jobs they could find.

Even nowadays there are lots of cab drivers from other countries with college degrees unable to find jobs in their field so taking whatever they can find to support themselves.

When I was a child I didn’t fully realize how fortunate my uncle was in being able to work in his field, but as an adult I certainly appreciate it.

JLeslie's avatar

@Buttonstc Even 30 years ago I knew immigrants who were doctors and engineers working as busboys, waiters, janitors. I think it has to do with everything being relative. When you flee from a place that is in ruins or where your life is being threatened, just being safe becomes very attractive.

Buttonstc's avatar

Yup. You do whatever you need to do to survive.

JLeslie's avatar

Places like NYC had good education for the children of the immigrants. My parents were born in the early 40’s and by the time they were in school (I don’t know when it started) there were accelerated programs for kids that were very good academically, magnet public high schools for science and the arts, and free college for those who made it in. Other states and cities didn’t have all of that. Since a lot of immigration came into NY the immigrant families benefitted from it. I don’t know what the education was like in the old countries at the time. This was free, so that is at least one thing the government provided.

I think at least some of the parents (new immigrants) were able to focus on the potential for their children in the new country to help them through.

LuckyGuy's avatar

@Cruiser That is so interesting! It is history. .
My Dad had a Japanese sword (pre-pre- WWI) that belonged to one of his older relatives. It was in the basement of our house back in the 1950s. I should have asked about it then.
I figure it came over to the US when my grandparents emigrated but I will never know.
I took it to an expert to have it dated and had planned on having it sharpened and polished. They advised me to leave it as is.

I took it to the office and ran some analyses and took photomicrographs of the edge. There is a spot where another blade hit it at about a 45 degree angle and penetrated the edge about 1 mm deep. This blade survived. . A deep story lies hidden in that metal.

JLeslie's avatar

The grandfather of a friend of mine had all sorts of books and periodicals regarding the Holocaust and how it didn’t happen. When he died my girlfriend was in the house as her grandmother was sorting through stuff and she was throwing tons of things right into the garbage from his study. Her grandma at one point stopped, took a breath, and said out loud, “finally all that crap is in the garbage.” My girlfriend didn’t know until then her grandfather’s quasi obsession with it, and how disgusted her grandmother was by it all of those years they were married.

jca's avatar

A friend of mine is married to a German whose grandparents were Nazis and my friend sees some of the grandparents’ friends (Nazi sympathizers now in their 90’s). One of them, a very sweet old man, was talking to us about growing up in Germany and how it wasn’t just the concentration camp prisoners who were starving, they were all starving because there was a food shortage. I didn’t want to point out to him that they may have been hungry but not skeletal like the prisoners.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca And, maybe he should remember that ⅔rds of the European Jews weren’t hungry like him, they were dead.

Dutchess_III's avatar

No point in telling him that now, though @JLeslie.

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