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The American Dream: Immigration

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The American Dream: ImmigrationIn 1931 James Truslow Adams came up with the phrase, “the American Dream,” meaning that everyone should receive a fuller and richer life with opportunities for achievements (Foster, Kirk, Rank, and Hirschl). The American Dream was made possible through the aspects of peace, prosperity, and opportunity. After the coining of this term, many immigrated to the United States in pursuit of the Dream because of opportunity. They did this by coming through Ellis Island or deciding to homestead.

The American Dream is explained in Epic of America written by James Truslow Adams. In this literary work Truslow Adams states, “the American Dream of a better, richer, and happier life for all our citizens of every rank” was the, “greatest contribution we have made to the thought and welfare of the world,” (Truslow Adams). The American Dream has been a fundamental part of our nation’s identity. However, the components of reaching the Dream are similar, but the specifics to what the dream entails is different for each person.

There are three main elements involved in the effort to reach the American Dream. These components are evaluated through a literary work written by Foster, Kirk, Rank, and Hirschl entitled Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes. In this book Foster, Kirk, Rank, and Hirschl discuss the elements as follows: 1) freedom to pursue life goals and aspirations, 2) economic security, which also entailed knowing that hard work lead to economic well-being, and 3) the three elements of hope, optimism, and personal progress.

Immigration was one way in which people involved themselves with the three main elements as mentioned above. To begin, immigration is “the action of coming to live permanently in a foreign country,” and many immigrants journeyed from their country to the United States in pursuit of goals and aspirations, the American Dream (Bell). The immigration law in the United States says, “any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of 21 years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the US… be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated land,” (Bell). The immigration laws can vary by state. Each state determines who may enter, why the immigrants are entering, how long the immigrant may stay, and when they must leave.

All of these factors are dependent on the reasons of entering (Bell). More specifically, the immigration laws in each state can be classified as restrictive if they seek to limit or deny entrance, or they as accommodating if they seek to encourage entry (Bell). In the end, the immigration laws provide ways that certain foreigners can become naturalized citizens with full rights of citizenship.

In 1892, the historical site called Ellis Island opened its gates as an immigration station and over twelve million immigrants entered the United States. The immigrants were mostly Europeans who poured in from the southern and eastern areas of their country (History) (Icreon Tech.). The spark of this immigration is thought to have begun through the creation of Ellis Island and after the event of World War I since this is when the United States was beginning to be noticed as a potential world power (Icreon Tech.). With United States embassies being established in many countries around the world, immigrants began applying for their visas at American consulates.

The immigrants journeyed from Europe because the country included many unwanted things such as war, drought, famine, and religious persecution. More specifically, according to History.com Jews were escaping from political and economic oppression and Italians were escaping poverty (History). Europeans immigrated into the United States because they had high hopes in reaching greater opportunities in this country. Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to get through the immigration station, for medical and legal inspections were needed in order to determine if the immigrants were fit to enter the New World (History). Eighty percent of immigrants successfully made it through the inspections in a few short hours whereas others waited for days and even weeks to pass inspections.

A majority of people who did not make it through was because authorities did not believe that the immigrants would be able to support themselves and gain economic security, the second component as discussed by Foster, Kirk, Rank, and Hirschl. In 1921 a Immigrant Quota Act was passed as well as the National Origins Act three years later. These acts limited the number of immigrants of certain nationalities allowed into the United States.

During these years the Acts successfully ended the era of immigration. However, the immigration station still remained open. Ellis Island continued to detain people who wanted to immigrate, but couldn’t due to problems with paperwork. They could also be detained if they were war refugees or displaced persons (Icreon Tech.). In the year 1954 the last detained person, who was a Norwegian merchant seaman named Arne Peterssen, was released resulting in the official closing of Ellis Island (Icreon Tech.). In the end, 2.3 million immigrants passed into the United States through Ellis Island (History). Ellis Island was important because it was built in order to fulfill the request of the US Bureau of Immigration and this place allowed immigrants to come to America in pursuit of life goals and aspirations. Moreover, this Island has an iconic status of representing the beginning of immigration in America.

Another concept tied with immigration was the desire to homestead by immigrants. Even so, long before the knowledge and creation of Ellis Island, many people had already imagined immigrating into the United States with the idea of homesteading. This concept was pushed in order to receive liberal lands, for homesteading potentially resulted in free land. Homesteading was supported mainly by eastern labor reformers who thought of free land as a way by which industrial workers could break free from low wages and atrocious working conditions (Bradsher).

In 1862 Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law (Gambino.) He believed, “that the wild lands of the country should be distributed so that every man should have the means and opportunity of benefiting his condition,” (qtd. in Bradsher). Therefore, this law granted homesteads to actual settlers on the public domain (PBS). According to the Articles of Confederation, land outside of the thirteen colonies was owned by the government, so there was much debate over the allocation of the land (Tansill). This was until Lincoln, for he signed a law granting homesteads to settlers on the public domain settling the dispute over land.

In fact, less than a month after the signing of the act, The New York Times reported that the immigration rates had increased because the Homestead Act was the first reasonable immigration law that encouraged people to come to the United States while simultaneously providing the mandatory essentials for citizenship such as the availability of studying history and our laws, the naturalization test, and the government papers stating their citizenship (Nat’l Park Service). This meant that the act essentially encouraged Western migration by providing settlers with 160 acres of public land. To receive this land the homesteaders needed to fulfill two requirements: the payment of a small filing fee and the completion of continuous residence for five years. The continuous residence required the homesteader to stay with the area if they expected to receive ownership of the land that was originally homesteaded upon (Bell). Many immigrants decided to homestead in America since they came in search of what the American Dream had to offer.

The first person to take advantage of the Homestead Act was Daniel Freeman. Freeman traveled from Illinois to Nebraska to build a variety of structures on the land. These structures included a small log cabin, a barn, a two-story brick house, and other traditional farming outbuildings. In fact, all homesteaders were given one-hundred and sixty acres of given land because it was a quarter of a square mile and when the Homestead Act was passed, the maximum amount, 160 acres, was the realistic amount that a family could farm (Nat’l Park Service). In regards to the Homestead Act, Bell states that the act basically said, “to any individual who is willing to move to the public domain and make a home there and work the land, produce something through agricultural means and after the end of five years they’d give you the land.” In sum, this meant that a homesteader needed to be the head of their household, be at least twenty one years old, and be a citizen of the United States (PBS).

If these requirements were met, the homesteader could claim a 160 acre parcel of land. The National Park Service also acknowledges that, “settlers from all walks of life including newly arrived immigrants, farmers without land of their own from the East, single women, and former slaves came to meet the challenge of ‘proving up’” so that they could keep this “free land” (Nat’l Park Service).

However, there were some confusions that arose in their pertinence to the Homestead Act. In the June 26, 1862 issue of The Summit County Beacon newspaper, it brought up a common question in relation to soldiers. The inquiry wondered if a soldier who was currently in the service could employ someone else to locate and work on “proving up” for the him or whether the soldier had to wait until he was no longer enlisted. This question arose since the soldier was not able to homestead himself because he was serving. The consensus was that if the soldier’s legal residence was with his wife, then she could establish land that she wished to one day prove up.

To go through with the concept of homesteading, the homesteaders had to go through a filing process. As mentioned earlier, the first person to do this was Daniel Freeman on January 1, 1863. He was a Union Army scout who filed a land claim shortly after midnight after meeting some local Land Office Officials; he convinced the Office Officials to open their office so that he could take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Homestead Act (Potter and Schamel).

The first step of this simple process was going to a Land Office and filing one’s intentions to homestead. Next, one was checked for previous ownership claims, and lastly the homesteader paid a fee of ten dollars to claim the property and another two dollars to the land agent (Nat’l Park Service). When the homesteader made it this far, they then went on to begin the process in order to prove up.

“Proving up” meant that the homesteader completed the ownership requirements in order to fully receive the land and title to the property (Nat’l Park Service). The homesteaders also had to live on the land, build their home, make improvements, and farm for at least five years before the homesteader was allowed to prove up. However, there was one more step before the homesteader could take legal possession, and that was finding two neighbors or friends to vouch for the homesteader’s statements about the improvement of the land since the inhabitancy of the homesteader (Nat’l Park Service). The government required this vouching because they needed to know that the homesteader was not lying about the work they had done for the land.

The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976 by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, but Alaska was was given ten more years to homestead. Even though the Homestead Act remained in action until this time, most homesteading slowed down and didn’t occur much after the 1930s. This is due in part to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl because these events drove many away from farming. Another reason that homesteading slowed by the 1930s is because the of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which withdrew much of the land that was still available for homesteading. This was because the government wanted to slow the overgrazing and soil deterioration on much of the land that was available for homesteading (History).

In relation to our local area today, homesteading all the way from the 1860s pertains to us. An estimated amount of 93 million Americans today can trace their roots back to homesteaders who filed claims under this Act. Descendants of these homesteaders can be found in places such as South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas (Schleicher).

Today the Homestead Act is recognized as one of the most revolutionary concepts for distributing land in America, which makes this historical occurrence a big part of defining the American experience. Furthermore, the immigration station was put into use by many and today people can go to the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. Through these two monumental places and concepts, many people were able to immigrate into the United States in search of the American Dream, for they came for opportunities in order to create an American experience for themselves. Eventually immigration came to be the definition of what it meant to be American since without it people would have never come to America.

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