20th Century Immigration | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

20th Century Immigration

The History of Modern Immigration in Wisconsin

20th Century Immigration | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeTwo immigrant women in headscarves pose with a baby and a young boy. They are both holding baskets and bundles, and are standing on a platform.

Immigrant Women and Children

Two immigrant women in headscarves pose with a baby and a young boy. View the original source document: WHI 4722

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 common when fears of communism caused some to advocate for the removal of subversives after the Russian Revolution.

A new wave of immigrants came to the United States at the turn of the twentieth century. Czechs came to Wisconsin and settled along Lake Michigan. They also lived in the north where they worked in the lumber industry or established small farms. Russians and Slovaks settled in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine where they worked as industrial laborers. Many Russians arrived in the 1890s. Many also came in the 1940s with Holocaust survivors seeking political asylum. Thousands of eastern Europeans — especially Russian Jews — left their homelands for the first time in sixty years after the fall of Communism.


Poles are Wisconsin's second largest ethnic group after Germans. They did not begin migrating in large numbers until the 20th century. They left Poland because of political oppression and poverty. Wisconsin's first Polish settlement was Polonia in Portage County. More than half of later immigrants settled in Milwaukee and worked as unskilled laborers. 

Italians and Greeks

Italians and Greeks immigrated to Wisconsin early in the 20th century in search of better jobs. They settled mainly in the southeast of the state and worked in industrial jobs. Many Greeks and Italians intended to only stay long enough to earn money to purchase land back home. But most stayed and established neighborhoods and cities, such as Greenbush in Madison.


Hispanics lived in Wisconsin before statehood. Prior to the 1950s most of Wisconsin's Mexicans were migrant workers recruited by manufacturers and agricultural contractors. They filled labor shortages caused by immigration laws that restricted the number of Europeans allowed to immigrate. Approximately 9,000 Mexicans left Milwaukee after losing their jobs in the Depression and returned home to Mexico.

The Emergency Farm Labor Program was adopted in 1943 to combat the increased need for food and shortage of workers during World War II. It permitted employers to hire foreign citizens to work in the fields. Wisconsin growers imported male workers from Jamaica, the Bahamas, British Honduras and Mexico. Over 13,000 German prisoners of war also worked in the fields. They worked in 38 camps throughout the state from 1944 to 1945. The federal Bracero program brought millions of Mexican farm workers north until it ended in 1964.


EnlargeA Mexican woman and her six children stand on the porch of the multiple-family housing provided to them by the pea cannery for which their husband and father works.

Mexican Migrant Workers, 1948

A Mexican woman and her six children stand on the porch of the multiple-family housing provided to them by the pea cannery for which their husband and father works. View the original source document: WHI 22900

Mexicans are Wisconsin's largest Latino group. They are located mostly in southeast Wisconsin. Puerto Ricans began arriving in the state in the 1940s. They were drawn to industrial jobs in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine counties. Wisconsin is also home to political refugees and immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Colombia and Nicaragua.


Few Asians immigrated to Wisconsin in the 19th century. The United States banned immigration from China, India, Japan and the Phillipines starting in 1882 and continuing until 1934. Many Japanese were interned at Camp McCoy during World War II. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed restrictions based on national origins. Most Asian immigration to Wisconsin occured in recent decades. 


Wisconsin has the third largest Hmong population in the country, after Minnesota and California. The largest communities are in La Crosse, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau and Milwaukee. The United States recruited the Hmong as guerilla soldiers in the Vietnam War. The Hmong soldiers were left in the hands of the Communists when the U.S. withdrew in 1975. Thousands fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Resettlement organizations such as the U.S. Catholic Conference and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services sponsored Hmong immigration to the United States.

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[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]