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20th-Century Immigration

From the late nineteenth century through the end of World War II, immigration policy in the United States underwent dramatic changes that helped to alter both the pace and the face of immigration. High rates of immigration in the nineteenth century sparked nativist sentiment and encouraged the introduction of restrictive legislation, particularly toward immigrants from Asia. Two World Wars and the Depression only intensified nativist and anti-immigration forces, as numerous bills in Congress advocated the suspension of immigration due to high unemployment, and even the deportation of non-Americans who experienced financial difficulties. Deportation became a particularly common theme after the Russian Revolution when fears of communism caused some to advocate for the removal of people with subversive political beliefs.

A rapidly industrializing economy brought a new wave of immigrants to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Like the rest of the nation, European immigrants to Wisconsin in the early twentieth century came from the east and the south; rather than the Irish, Norwegians, and Germans of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Poles, Russians, and Italians came to live in Wisconsin. Czechs were some of the earliest eastern Europeans to come to Wisconsin, settling along Lake Michigan and in the north where they often worked in the lumber industry or established small farms in the cutover. Russians and Slovaks came later and were more urban, settling primarily in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine, where they worked as industrial laborers. While many Russians arrived in the 1890s, a large number also came in the 1940s, along with a number of Holocaust survivors, seeking political asylum. The fall of communism in the Soviet Union in 1989 allowed thousands of eastern Europeans, particularly Russian Jews, to leave their homelands for the first time in over sixty years.

After Germans, Poles are the largest ethnic group in Wisconsin but they did not begin immigrating in large numbers until the 20th century, pushed by political oppression and poverty at home. The first major Polish settlement in Wisconsin (and one of the earliest in the United States) was Polonia in Portage County, though over half of all later immigrants settled in Milwaukee, working as unskilled laborers.

Prior to 1900, few Italians and Greeks lived in Wisconsin, but economic hardships in the early decades of the twentieth century led many to seek a better life in Wisconsin. Settling primarily in the industrial southeast, many Greek and Italian immigrants came intending to stay only long enough to earn money to purchase land back home. In the end, most stayed, establishing distinct ethnic neighborhoods in cities throughout southern Wisconsin, such as the Greenbush neighborhood in Madison.

Although Hispanic Americans have been in Wisconsin since before statehood, they did not become a sizable population until the 1950s. Prior to the 1950s, most Mexicans in Wisconsin were migrant laborers recruited by manufacturers and agricultural contractors to fill labor shortages caused by immigration laws that restricted the number of Europeans allowed to immigrate, as well as shortages caused by labor strikes. By 1925, around 9,000 Mexican Americans lived in Milwaukee but most lost their jobs during the Depression and moved back home.

The increased demand for food and simultaneous shortage of labor during World War II created a demand for agricultural workers. The Emergency Farm Labor Program, adopted in 1943, permitted employers to hire foreign workers to work in the fields. Under this program, Wisconsin growers imported male workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, British Honduras, and Mexico. Over 13,000 German prisoners of war were also used in the fields, working out of 38 camps throughout Wisconsin from 1944 to 1945. After the war, the importation of Mexicans continued, supported by the federal Bracero program that brought millions of Mexican farm laborers north until the program was discontinued in 1964.

Today, Mexicans are the largest Spanish-speaking group in Wisconsin, almost all in the southeast corner of the state. Mexicans arriving in the 1950s and after have found an established community of Mexican Americans to settle into, particularly in Milwaukee. Another fast growing group of Spanish-speakers is Puerto Ricans who began arriving in Wisconsin in the late 1940s drawn to industrial jobs in Milwaukee, Kenosha, and Racine counties. Wisconsin is also home to political refugees and other immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Colombia, and Nicaragua.

Wisconsin received little Asian immigration in the nineteenth century, particularly after the United States eliminated direct immigration from China (1882), India (1917), Japan (1924), and the Philippines (1934). During World War II, some Japanese, many of whom were American citizens, were interned at Camp McCoy. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed restrictions based on national origins in favor of a preference system that gave priority to family reunification and political refugees. Most Asian immigration to Wisconsin has occurred in recent decades, particularly among Hmong refugees from Laos.

Recruited during the Vietnam War as guerilla soldiers to fight the North Vietnamese, Hmong peoples were living literally in the crossfire during the conflict. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Hmong who had aided the U.S. were left in the hands of the communists they had fought against. Thousands fled to refugee camps in Thailand where resettlement organizations, such as the U.S. Catholic Conference and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, helped to sponsor Hmong immigration to the United States beginning in 1975. Wisconsin has the third largest Hmong population in the country, after Minnesota and California. The largest communities in Wisconsin are in La Crosse, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau, and Milwaukee.

In the latter half of the 20th century, more people from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and East Asia have come to Wisconsin, bringing new cultures and traditions to the state. U.S.involvement abroad has helped to form links between Wisconsin residents and people in other nations which has brought immigrants from all parts of the world. Federal immigration laws have come to favor people from countries that have not sent large numbers of people in the past in order to ensure cultural diversity.

[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vol. 6 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin Press); Nesbit, James W. Wisconsin: A History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1973); Kasparek, Jon, Malone, Bobbie, Schock, Erica. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "Ethnic Groups in Wisconsin: Historical Background" Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies (online at http://wiscinfo.doit.wisc.edu/mkilibrary/ethn-his.html#top)]


Original Documents and Other Primary Sources

Link to article: Selections from FutureHmong: Voice of the Hmong magazine, 2001-2004  Selections from FutureHmong: Voice of the Hmong magazine, 2001-2004
Link to article: A survey of Milwaukee's Hispanic community, 1976  A survey of Milwaukee's Hispanic community, 1976
Link to article: The Founding of a Migrant Farm Workers' Union (1966)  The Founding of a Migrant Farm Workers' Union (1966)
Link to article: A little bit of Italy in Vernon County  A little bit of Italy in Vernon County
Link to article: A rural Italian community in Cumberland  A rural Italian community in Cumberland
Link to article: Czech immigrants settle in Langlade County in the 1880s  Czech immigrants settle in Langlade County in the 1880s
Link to article: Fifty years of Polish settlement in Portage County, 1857-1907  Fifty years of Polish settlement in Portage County, 1857-1907
Link to article: A description of the early Polish immigrants to Wisconsin, 1901  A description of the early Polish immigrants to Wisconsin, 1901
Link to article: The character and activities of Bohemian immigrants, 1901  The character and activities of Bohemian immigrants, 1901
Link to article: A Made-to-Order Farm to lure settlers northward, 1921  A Made-to-Order Farm to lure settlers northward, 1921
Link to article: Polish Americans in Milwaukee start an ethnic newsletter, 1932  Polish Americans in Milwaukee start an ethnic newsletter, 1932
Link to article: An overview of Polish immigration through 1896  An overview of Polish immigration through 1896
Link to article: An assessment of the needs of minorities in La Crosse, 1987  An assessment of the needs of minorities in La Crosse, 1987
Link to article: A report looks at the needs of Hmong youth  A report looks at the needs of Hmong youth
Link to article: The history and status of La Crosse's Hmong population, ca. 1984  The history and status of La Crosse's Hmong population, ca. 1984
Link to article: A 1991 meeting on racist comments toward Hmong women  A 1991 meeting on racist comments toward Hmong women
Link to article: A guide to Hmong history and culture, 1984  A guide to Hmong history and culture, 1984
Link to article: A government newsletter explains American life to Southeast Asian refugees, 1975-76  A government newsletter explains American life to Southeast Asian refugees, 1975-76
Link to book: Wisconsin Holocaust survivors recall their experiences  Wisconsin Holocaust survivors recall their experiences
Link to book: Wisconsin Jews are asked to support settlements in Palestine, ca. 1941  Wisconsin Jews are asked to support settlements in Palestine, ca. 1941
Link to book: Working conditions in the cherry industry, 1950  Working conditions in the cherry industry, 1950
Link to book: A survey report of migratory labor in Wisconsin in 1962  A survey report of migratory labor in Wisconsin in 1962
Link to book: A resource guide to Wisconsin's Hispanic community  A resource guide to Wisconsin's Hispanic community
Link to book: A brief history of migrant labor in Wisconsin  A brief history of migrant labor in Wisconsin
Link to book: Mexican-Americans in Milwaukee, 1930  Mexican-Americans in Milwaukee, 1930
Link to book: A post-season report on farm laborers, 1960  A post-season report on farm laborers, 1960
Link to book: Human rights violations against migrant workers, 1950  Human rights violations against migrant workers, 1950
Link to images: A migrant family at a Plymouth pea cannery, 1948  A migrant family at a Plymouth pea cannery, 1948
Link to manuscript: The state examines the mental capacity of migrant children, 1950  The state examines the mental capacity of migrant children, 1950
Link to manuscript: A survey of the recreational and health services available in migrant labor camps, 1953  A survey of the recreational and health services available in migrant labor camps, 1953
Link to manuscript: A task force seeks to improve life for Wisconsin's Hispanic community, 1971  A task force seeks to improve life for Wisconsin's Hispanic community, 1971
Link to places: Golda Meir's school in Milwaukee  Golda Meir's school in Milwaukee
Link to places: Milwaukee's East Village Historic District  Milwaukee's East Village Historic District
Link to places: Photographs of a Finnish homestead in northern Wisconsin  Photographs of a Finnish homestead in northern Wisconsin

Primary Sources Available Elsewhere

Link to book: Wisconsin Blue Books  Wisconsin Blue Books
Link to book: The economic and agricultural riches of La Crosse, 1904  The economic and agricultural riches of La Crosse, 1904
Link to collections: Documents relating to The Settlement's children's programs  Documents relating to The Settlement's children's programs
Link to collections: Italian Americans remember their childhoods in Milwaukee  Italian Americans remember their childhoods in Milwaukee
Link to collections: Harvard's Online Immigration Research Collection  Harvard's Online Immigration Research Collection
Link to images: Images of life in Laos, 1957-1969  Images of life in Laos, 1957-1969

Related Links

Search our catalogs for materials on this topic that aren't yet available online.
Learn more about Wisconsin's migrant farmworkers
Watch a video clip about an African American resort area
Read excerpts from the book, "Hmong in America"

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