Before the Wave of Mexican Immigration, There Was One From Germany

Pew Research Center

Yes, there are millions of Mexican immigrants living in the U.S.

But the wave of immigration from Mexico — the largest in our country’s history — looks an awful lot like one we experienced 100 years ago, even though migrants came from a different part of the world.


Back in 1910, the Germans were the biggest group of newcomers in America, as the Pew Research Center pointed out in a post on Tuesday.

The percentage of foreign-born was actually higher back then, with immigrants making up a bigger share of the population than today. Of those new immigrants, none were more prominent than the Germans.

Credit: Pew Research Center

Sure, the condiment of choice may have been sauerkraut instead of salsa, but some of the social issues of the time will probably sound familiar.


Germans came to the U.S. speaking, well, you probably guessed it, German. That led to battles over the mandatory use of English in places like Wisconsin. In the late 1800s, the state passed a law requiring all schools, both public and private, to give instruction in English. The law was repealed in the next legislative term, but sent a message to new immigrants: leave your mother tongue on the other side of the Atlantic.

And of course the U.S. would eventually fight two world wars with Germany on the other side of the battlefield. That led to all kinds of discrimination against German immigrants in America. During the First World War, former President Theodore Roosevelt, for instance, railed against “hyphenated Americanism,” mainly meaning German and Irish immigrants who maintained explicit connections to their heritage, referring to themselves as German-American or Irish-American.


"There is no place here for the hyphenated American," Roosevelt said in 1915, “and the sooner he returns to the country of his allegiance the better.”

President Woodrow Wilson carried the anti-hyphen language a step further in a 1919 speech. “I cannot say too often,” he said in Pueblo, Colorado, “any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.”


The flow of immigration from Germany, however, eventually cooled down. Gradually, Mexico replaced the European nation as the top sender of immigrants to America.

Here’s a look at states where either German or Mexican immigrants made up the highest percentage of the foreign-born population over the last century, via Pew.


Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.

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