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Absorption by Industry

As the United States progressed into an industrial and transportation powerhouse, immigrants often did much of the work. Irish and Chinese laborers built the great railroads of the western United States. Eastern European immigrants worked the steel mills of the mid-west, the slaughterhouses of Chicago, the automobile factories of Detroit, and the mines of Appalachia. Immigrants of every nationality worked in construction, putting up buildings, bridges, and paving city streets.

Jewish immigrants had a profound effect on the garment industry, on the medical and legal professions, as well as on the entertainment industry (which has seen much participation from Italian-Americans as well). Italians in turn were instrumental in developing the American wine industry, while Germans dominated beer brewing. As the largest immigrant group of them all, Germans in fact affected the broad range of American industry. Germans and Scandinavians also often went into farming and related food-based businesses. In California, Armenian immigrants showed particular skill in the grape and raisin industries. Today’s American agriculture, however, would not be economically viable without the skilled labor provided by immigrants from Mexico and other countries in Latin America.

Of course, all American industries have wide participation from nearly every ethnicity, but some corners of American enterprise have special ethnic connections. In Tarpon Springs, Florida, for example, people of Greek origin run the local sponge diving industry. In the eastern United States a kind of popular general-menu restaurant called the diner has a strong association with Greeks. Americans of Indian origin have wide representation in many businesses and professions, but have a distinct presence in the hotel and motel industry. Basques from northern Spain have for generations been involved in the raising of sheep. In some American cities, Koreans are notable for their involvement in the retail food industry, especially delis and fruit stands, while Vietnamese run nail salons (nearly half of all nail salons in the nation). In the Gulf Coast states, Vietnamese are particularly active in the shrimp fishing business. In eastern cities, immigrants from Afghanistan have carved their own niche in the fried chicken business. Throughout the United States, people of Philippine background are extremely active in the healthcare industry. Immigrants of all origins are also the backbone of the restaurant industry, at all levels of work, whether the restaurants are ethnically-related or not.

Immigrants have fueled American industries in some cases, saved them in other cases, and created them in yet others. They have been, and are now, an essential component of the American economy. By taking part in the American economy, immigrant groups have, in successive waves, transformed themselves from foreigners into Americans.

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