Immigration to the USA From Eastern Europe

Gregory Finkelson

March 30, 2023

Eastern Europe

European immigrants have constituted the most prominent foreign-born residents in the United States for over a century. Their numbers have been relatively stable since the 1960s, but Eastern Europe immigration has slowed.

Historically, immigrants from Europe came to the United States by ship. A potential immigrant negotiated with a shipping company agent in their home country and boarded a ship for America.

It’s Big

One of the most significant sources of immigration to the United States is from Eastern Europe, namely Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Poland. Millions of immigrants have flooded into the country over the last several centuries. While most came here looking for greener pastures, others sought a better life or to nab some extra dough. The big news here is that many of them made it. 

The emigration fad of the nineteenth century saw millions of Czechs, Slavs, and Ukrainians heading south for various reasons. The most popular reasons were economic, as they sought a better life in the West. The same thing happened during World War I, and in the interwar years, many Russians also went West. The most recent wave of Eastern European immigration to the USA is a testament to this trend and the swell of opportunity and goodwill that has come to the country in the past half-century.

It’s Exciting

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the borders of many Eastern European nations changed drastically, emigrants from Czechs, Slavs, Slovaks, Polish, and other countries migrated to the United States. They came to escape persecution, violence, or political upheaval at home, improve their economic circumstances, and provide for their families here.

In 2016, approximately 42 percent of European immigrants aged 25 and over held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to about 32 percent of U.S. born and 30 percent of all immigrants. The highest share of immigrants from Belarus, Bulgaria, and Russia (67 percent) and Finland (60 percent) were college graduates. Countries with a high share of foreign-born college graduates included Belgium, France, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Slovakia, Latvia, and Ukraine.

It’s friendly

The first wave of eastern European immigrants, including Poles and Slovaks, arrived in the late 19th century. They left their homelands for various reasons, including poverty or repression, and hoped for a better life in America.

The second wave, which occurred during the first years of the twentieth century, brought in many Jews from Russia and Austria-Hungary. This group of immigrants came to the United States for various reasons, but they were all looking for work and wanted to raise families here.

Although this group of immigrants stayed in the United States, they did not always find work. Many left their jobs to care for their children or families back home, and they were often forced to move around to find work that paid well enough.

It’s Affordable

The United States was the top destination for immigration from Eastern Europe in the 20th century, with more than five million people entering the country. The influx was driven by economic, military, and political shifts throughout Europe and elsewhere that displaced millions of people.

During the 19th century, the national borders of countries in Eastern Europe changed dramatically. This included the establishment of new nations like Poland and the collapse of others such as Austria-Hungary and Russia. The migration from these countries to the USA was a massive undertaking, but it did not come without challenges. Some immigrants opted to return home, but many emigrated to the U.S. to improve their lives or provide for their families in the old country. In the end, the most successful immigrants were those who embraced the American dream.

It’s Diverse

The United States has long been a land of immigrants. This tradition began with the Pilgrims, who fled England in 1620 and was boosted by European immigration from southern and eastern Europe in the nineteenth century.

During this time, the national borders of nations in Europe changed drastically, dislocating millions of people in eastern and central Europe. Unlike the Pilgrims, who left their homelands seeking freedom from religious persecution, most Eastern European immigrants fled poverty or political oppression.

The first wave of Polish immigration to the United States occurred in the early 1800s and was referred to as the “old emigration.” Most were young men who came to America looking for a better life so that they could save up their money. About 30 percent returned to Poland, but most stayed in the United States.