Birds of Passage

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BIRDS OF PASSAGE is a term used to describe temporary migrants who move so they can fill jobs that are often viewed as beneath native-born laborers. The term was used in the United States as early as the 1840s to refer to British immigrants and remained in use through the late twentieth century to refer to Asian, European, and Latin American immigrants. The phenomenon of temporary or return migration can be traced back to the early decades of industrialization. Improvements in technology had an impact on the number of birds of passage moving to the United States and other countries that welcomed immigrants. In particular, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the steamship made travel easier and moving back and forth all the more possible. Industrial expansion, economic opportunities, and the possibility of returning to their homelands motivated birds of passage. Statistics vary depending on national origin and era; return rates could be as low as 10 percent or as high as 80 percent. Birds of passage were a crucial part of the U.S. economy during the height of mass immigration (1880–1920), when more than 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States. Before the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States, the phenomenon of birds of passage was used by both sides to argue for and against restricting immigration.


Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

Piore, Michael J. Birds of Passage: Migrant Labor in Industrial Societies. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Wyman, Mark. Round-Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880–1930. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Caroline WaldronMerithew

See alsoImmigration ; Immigration Restriction .

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Between 1881 and 1920 a wave of immigration brought more than 23 million new arrivals to the United States. They were largely from eastern and southern Europe. But not all of them planned to stay. "Birds of passage," also known as round-trippers, were usually young male immigrants who intended to make money in the United States and then return to their native countries. After leaving their families behind they traveled to the United States in search of employment, most often during the summer. They were usually hired to work on farms, in mines, and in construction. If work was scarce (as it was following the Panic of 1907) the temporary immigrants often lacked money to pay for the return trip. If work was plentiful the young migrant workers chose to settle in the United States. They became naturalized citizens and brought their families over from their home country. Between 1908 and 1914 U.S. immigration recorded nearly seven million new arrivals and just over two million departures. Many of the two million who departed were considered birds of passage.

See also: Immigration

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