Most of the poor traveling to the United States in the early 1900s were not traveling as tourists, but immigrants. Most traveled by sea, the more affluent in staterooms, the poorest of the poor in steerage. Many would “buy” their passages, contracting as indentured servants for a specific length of time, some forced by circumstance. Involuntary indentured servitude was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. However, many laws were not changed until nearly a century later.
Airline travel changed the way many poor traveled to the United States, especially in the latter part of the 20th century when price wars among airlines made air travel affordable for most travelers. The advent of no-frills airlines made travel it even more attainable.
Can you live on $2.50 a day? Almost half of the world’s poor–over three billion people–do. Many of those poor travel to the United States in search of work and a better life. How do they do that if they make less a day than what it costs for cup of coffee?
Those immigrating to the United States include both legal and illegal immigrants. Most tourists arguably do not qualify as poor, unless you arguably count some students into the mix. And it depends on your definition of poor and economists haven’t changed this definition much since the turn of the 20th century, only the minimum levels of poverty, which many argue are set way too low.
Today, Mexicans overwhelmingly make up 56 percent of illegal immigrants journeying across the border into the United States with most settling in California, Texas, Florida, New York, and Arizona. Some are smuggled across the southern border in hot semis during the spring and summer; in many instances, people died along the way from the close proximity and the heat. Central and South Americans make up the next tier at 22 percent, Asia, 13 percent; Europe and Canada, six percent and just three percent come from Africa.
Before 9/11, borders were considerably less secure and immigrants fleeing oppression sometimes traveled by homemade boat or rafts from nearby islands such as Cuba. Some rafts break apart or sink if they have too many people on them, making such travel toward the Florida coast an often-deadly mistake.
Today, to enter by air or sea into the U.S., you have to show proof of income or sponsorship, have documentation such as itinerary, travel insurance or travel medical insurance in case of emergency; whereas in the 1900s you just had to show identification, so it is more difficult to be penniless and enter the United States.
Still, the Statue of Liberty quietly proclaims:
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
And the poor continue to come.