A Threat and a Blessing: What German and Irish Immigrants to Milwaukee Can Teach Us about the Current Immigration Debate

By Anthony Padovano

Aerial view of nineteenth-century Milwaukee

In Milwaukee, as across the country, the current debate about immigration issues facing the United States rages in the comment section of local publications like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Milwaukeeans and Wisconsinites express concern about crime committed by immigrants, about immigrants being a drain on public resources, about immigrants refusing to assimilate, and about immigrants taking American jobs. This debate is fueled by emotions and sensationalism, but rarely is it grounded in historical context. This essay will attempt to add some historic context about immigration to Milwaukee by Germans and the Irish in the nineteenth century that might help shed new light on the concerns expressed by Wisconsinites about twenty-first century immigration.

Immigrants and Crime

One of the largest apprehensions held by Milwaukeeans about immigration is crime. An August 7, 2017 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sparked considerable debate about immigrants and crime. The article explains that new bills introduced in the Wisconsin legislature would require local law enforcement to detain people charged with a crime who are also suspected of being in the country illegally for an additional 48 hours in order to allow for a review of the individual’s immigration status. The article garnered particular notice from Wisconsinites concerned about crimes committed by illegal immigrants. While many commenters expressed sympathy about the inability of the state’s powerful dairy industry to operate without immigrant labor, other commenters took a hard line on illegal immigration, drawing particular attention to anxieties about crime. One commenter wrote:

So that’s your logic. Let people break the laws so they can milk the cows. Where do you draw the line? If at all. Do we let them steal from our citizens? (Oh they already are). Do we let them rape our women? Or kill people?[1]

Fears like this are peppered throughout the commentary on this article and others. Another article from September 5, 2017 about the status of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program urged Congress to pass legislation that “assures those entering… are not criminals.”[2] Many of today’s Wisconsinites have deep suspicion of immigrants in the state particularly tied to fears about crime.

Frederick Miller’s Plank-Road Brewery

Fears about immigrant crime and bad behavior have seemingly always plagued Milwaukeeans. Indeed, the Irish neighborhood of the mid to late nineteenth century was characterized by historian Kathleen Conzen as full of “colonies of squatters’ shanties,” “the largest single aggregation of saloons in the city,” and regular “drunken brawls.”[3] Thus, the Irish neighborhood in the city’s third ward was “somewhat disreputable” and occasionally nicknamed the “Bloody Third.”[4] The prevalence of crime and poverty in the Irish section of the city earned the Irish a reputation for being rowdy, drunken, and dangerous. Yet the Irish were not the only immigrants to Milwaukee who consumed large amounts of alcohol. Conzen also found that German taverns and beer gardens “offered beer that was both good and cheap, food which was often free, stimulating conversation, music, perhaps a singing host; it was little wonder that a visitor reported that ‘he who has a thirsty throat… will find an earthly paradise in Milwaukee.’”[5] Milwaukee’s German immigrants escaped much of the criticisms levied at the Irish, however, suggesting that accusations of criminality of immigrants aren’t necessarily tied to immigration, but to something else.

Still, the Nativist sentiments expressed here led to Wisconsin’s adoption -despite opposition from Irish and German immigrants – of a Whiskey Law. Such a law, it was thought, would curtail the intemperance of Milwaukee’s immigrants and thus the disruptions caused by alcohol by “requiring every liquor dealer to post a $1,000 bond to cover all possible damage done on the day or day after a person became inebriated in his place of business.”[6] Opposition to the Whiskey Law and a proposed Maine Law which would have prohibited that sale of intoxicating liquors excepts for medicinal purposes became watershed moments in political participation for the Germans and the Irish in the city who saw these laws as “equally at odds with their accustomed lifestyle.”[7] Unease about crime led to the criminalization of behavior specifically targeted at the Germans and Irish. In this way, angst about crime seems not to be so much about the actual dangers of crime, but about the concern over immigrant culture. Native-born Americans may have pushed for greater acculturation by the city’s immigrants, but the Germans and the Irish weren’t so ready to give up deeply-engrained cultural practices.

The Pabst Theater

Today, Milwaukeeans are probably glad they didn’t. German success in brewing “came to achieve popular identification with the city itself.”[8] When Jacob Best and his sons came to Milwaukee from Germany, they likely didn’t know that their brewery would transform into some of the most celebrated brands in brewing history. Both the Miller Brewing Company and the Pabst Brewing Company have connections to this early German immigrant family.[9] Thus, while fears about bad behavior and crime perpetrated by immigrants is nothing new in Milwaukee, it’s hard to imagine what Milwaukee would be like if the Nativists had successfully curtailed these bedrock aspects of German and Irish culture. While it’s unclear if concerns about crimes committed by the immigrants arriving in Wisconsin currently are legitimate, exaggerated, or symbolic of less tangible fears about immigrants, it would be prudent to remember that the bad behavior of the German and Irish immigrants of the mid-nineteenth century is now celebrated as central to the identity of the city.

Immigrants and Public Resources

Milwaukeeans also express deep distress about the effects of immigration, particularly illegal immigration, on public resources. Commenting on a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article from October 18, 2017 describing plans by Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera’s student group Youth Empowered to protest a speech by Wisconsinite and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan at the Al Smith Dinner because of their concerns over the fate of the DACA program, a Milwaukee woman wrote, “What the taxpayers have paid because of illegal immigration is the real crime… It’s not the responsibility of the citizens of this country to support [and] educate citizens from other countries.”[10] Restlessness about immigrants being a drain on public resources is common. Another commenter on an earlier article about DACA from September demanded Congress “assures those entering can support themselves.”[11] Many Milwaukeeans believe immigrants to be a drain on public resources and that many immigrants become dependent on public support.

Again, these concerns are nothing new. Conzen’s research explains that the Irish and German immigrants to Milwaukee in the nineteenth century often performed dangerous casual labor where “frequent accidents on the job meant, if not death, then considerable pain and injury for the hapless worker.”[12] Such accidents could put immigrant families in precarious spots, leading even “to begging or raiding backyard swill barrels for garbage and grease to feed the hogs.”[13] Forced into dangerous work, immigrants who ended up disabled from accidents could become dependent on begging or public support. The fear was that this dependence on public support would drain the wealth of the city or even encourage dependency.

Turner Hall, Original Home of the Socialist Turnverein, One of the Many Associations Formed by Milwaukee’s Immigrants

Yet, these concerns were largely unfounded. Injuries from work or sickness were often ameliorated by mutual benefit associations. German immigrants in Milwaukee were particularly successful in supporting mutual benefit association and other types of associations that “encourage[d] a sense of community and, in the words of one pastor, ‘rescue[d] wandering sheep and protect[ed] the remainder from the rapacious wolves of worldliness and modernity.”[14] Indeed, the “growing public concern for” caring for immigrants with serious ailments “was met in 1848 when the Sisters of Charity… opened Milwaukee’s first hospital.” The hospital was supported mainly by public subscription and only limited government aid. Thus, immigrants, in tune with the dangers of becoming dependent on others, preferred to take care of each other rather than depend on government support.[15]

Recent immigrant groups to Milwaukee have also created associations to support immigrant causes. Milwaukee’s Voces de la Frontera “is a membership-based community organization led by low-wage workers, immigrants, and youth whose mission is to protect and expand civil rights and workers’ rights through leadership development, community organizing and empowerment.”[16] Voces de la Frontera offers English classes, worker’s centers, and legal help which help immigrants in Milwaukee support each other through community. Immigrants in Milwaukee have a long history of self-support, and Milwaukee’s recent immigrants seem to also be adopting these strategies to navigate life in the city.

Immigrants and Assimilation

Many in Milwaukee, however, accuse groups like Voces de la Frontera of being an impediment to assimilation. An article in the Journal Sentinel from May, 2017 illustrates the concerns some Milwaukeeans have about acculturation. While John Gurda celebrates the growing number of Latinos in Milwaukee since the 1880s, he also writes that it can be “occasionally unsettling.”[17] Gurda writes, “Latinos now dominate parts of the south side that were once heavily eastern European. ‘I bury in Polish and I marry in Spanish,’ a local Catholic priest told me years ago.”[18] The prevalence of Spanish in Milwaukee’s south side is further illustrated by Spanish language signs that have “steadily replaced those printed in English.”[19] Likewise institutions owned by European immigrants on the south side have transitioned into Spanish-language institutions. While Gurda sees the expansion of Latino culture in Milwaukee as a largely positive force, not all Milwaukeeans see it this way.

Leon’s Frozen Custard

Indeed, a story that spread nation-wide in May, 2016 about Leon’s Frozen Custard, a Milwaukee institution on the city’s Latino south side, detailed the restaurant’s “English only” policy. The owner of Leon’s, Ron Schneider, despite being Latino himself, told Milwaukee’s ABC Affiliate WISN, “It is America. We’ve spoken English for a long, long time.”[20] The persistence of Spanish on the south side in Milwaukee is often seen as a reluctance to assimilate into American society. One comment of the almost 3000 left on the Washington Post’s reporting is representative of much of the sentiment expressed: “I’m an American. In America, I order in English. If I go to a Spanish speaking country I will learn to order in Spanish. Anyone who doesn’t like it needs to grow up.”[21]

Unsurprisingly, Conzen describes that German and Irish immigrants to Milwaukee in the nineteenth century faced similar misgivings. While the Irish did not face the same language issue the Germans did, both struggled with English. The Irish illiteracy rate “meant that a fifth to a quarter of Irish heads of household arrived without a fundamental prerequisite for real economic mobility or much effective community participation in Milwaukee.”[22] The inability to read English essentially alienated the Irish from integrating into a community that actually spoke the same language. For the Irish, literacy was a barrier to assimilation.

Mader’s Restaurant. The prevalence of German institutions in the city meant a German immigrant could live a whole life without speaking English.

Meanwhile, Conzen found that “the inability of most Germans to speak English upon arrival was probably less crucial in the long run, as their numbers made English initially less necessary while their literate orientation aided its ultimate acquisition.”[23] While German immigrants did eventually learn English, their large numbers meant the German language was a persistent presence in Milwaukee. The Wisconsin Banner, for instance, was a popular German language newspaper and “by 1850 its 4,000 weekly and 1,400 daily subscribers reportedly made it second only to the Sentinel (the English language paper) among Milwaukee newspapers.”[24] The ability of the German community to support a daily newspaper suggests that not only was German a prominent feature of life in Milwaukee, but also that the German language was a uniting factor for German immigrants. However, institutions like the Wisconsin Banner, the numerous German beer halls and the cultural importance of Vereinswesen likely also created barrier to German assimilation. It would be all too easy to read in German, socialize in German, and work for a German employer and never have to assimilate into American society.

Much like the Germans, the Latino immigrants of today have a strong connection to their mother tongue which makes it a persistent presence in the city. Concerns over language and its significance to a reluctance to assimilate into American society will likely persist just as Spanish has in Milwaukee. Strong communal bonds, particularly those of language, have been and still are a powerful mechanism for coping with the dislocation of immigration.

Immigrants and Work

Perhaps the largest apprehension about immigration in Milwaukee, however, is the fear of immigrants and jobs. Columnist Christian Schneider, for instance, dedicated his August 8, 2017 column to President Donald Trump’s proposed merit system for immigration. Schneider contends that the primary strength of the plan is that it “would help low-skilled American workers by curtailing immigration among those who would compete for those entry-level, low-skilled jobs.”[25] It is a commonly held belief that immigrants take jobs that could otherwise be filled with American workers. A commenter on an October article of the Journal Sentinel wrote, “The MSM (main stream media) and Democrats would have us believe that all 800 thousand are not taking jobs Americans want (we’ve heard that lie for many years now.) This is another falsehood told to the American people.”[26] Milwaukeeans regularly express distress at the prospect of significant numbers of immigrants working jobs that they believe could go to Americans.

Immigrant Dairy Workers in Wisconsin. Photo Credit: Jacob Kushner, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Conzen highlights how Irish and German immigrants in the nineteenth century faced the same economic pressures. The Irish in particular were suspected of undercutting the labor market in Milwaukee for low-skill jobs. By 1850 the Irish were “clustered” in “unskilled labor” and “were underrepresented in every other category.”[27] The Irish were clustered in these jobs not only because of their “initial handicaps,” but also because of a stigmatization of unskilled labor and the Irish.[28] For most Irish immigrants, unskilled labor and domestic labor would be the only careers open to them. Thus, the issue may not have been so much that the Irish were taking the employment native born Americans believed could be filled by other native borns, but how to ensure that the Irish remained a ready source of unskilled labor. In this way, the Irish lacked upward mobility and remained the backbone of the Milwaukee labor force.

The German immigrants, meanwhile, had much more upward mobility. German immigrants were most heavily represented in the middle occupations, but achieved greater upward progress between their arrival and 1860.[29] The Germans could, however, also be much more threatening. Indeed, the large number of Germans in Milwaukee meant “high visibility at all levels of the city’s economic ladder.”[30] This visibility likely contributed to a higher probability of contempt for Germans in positions that native-born Americans wanted. What employment German and Irish immigrants landed became an important measurement of economic stratification. For native born Americans, then, it was important to stay on top. Thus, the greatest threats from immigrants came from upward mobility, not from taking unskilled jobs that native born Americans wanted filled by other native born Americans.

Latino immigrants face different concerns about employment than the German or Irish immigrants did, but the broad strokes remain remarkably similar. Immigration stokes fears about social hierarchy. Those who are established in the country seek to hold the new wave of immigrants at the lowest level of society.


Irish and German immigrants to Milwaukee in the nineteenth century faced a number of challenges. Both faced stereotyping and discrimination. Both created strong communities. The experiences of the Irish and German immigrants in Milwaukee are not a perfect analogy for the current situation, but can offer a guiding light on broad issues that face immigrants. By studying these experiences, hopefully this essay has illuminated some common threads for immigration. These common threads offer perspective that is further removed from the emotional and sensationalist commentary found on the Internet and allows us to assess immigration from a better standpoint.

About the Author:

Anthony Padovano is a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. His research focuses on the development of transportation infrastructure in Wisconsin and Michigan during the early to mid-nineteenth century.




[1] Reader comment on Lillian Price, “Immigration bills resurface in Wisconsin Legislature as opponents eye worker walkouts,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Aug. 7, 2017. http://www.jsonline.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/07/bill-would-end-sanctuary-cities-wisconsin/508423001/

[2] Reader comment on Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, “Editorial: With DACA ending, Congress needs to do its job,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Sept. 5, 2017. http://www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/09/05/editorial-end-daca-congress-needs-do-its-job-immigration/633400001/

[3] Kathleen Neils Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860: Accommodation and Community in a Frontier City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), 142.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, 157.

[6] Ibid, 210.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 103.

[9] Ibid, 104.

[10] Reader comment on Bill Glauber, “Wisconsin ‘dreamers’ to demonstrate outside Paul Ryan speech in New York, Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Oct. 18, 2017. http://jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2017/10/18/wisconsin-dreamers-demonstrate-outside-paul-ryan-speech-new-york/777936001/

[11] Reader comment on Ernst-Ulrich Franzen, “Editorial: With DACA ending, Congress needs to do its job,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Sept. 5, 2017. http://www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/editorials/2017/09/05/editorial-end-daca-congress-needs-do-its-job-immigration/633400001/

[12] Conzen, 90.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 162.

[15] Ibid, 163.

[16] Voces de la Frontera, “About Us,” http://vdlf.org/about-us/

[17] John Gurda, “Gurda: The long-established, and growing, Latino family in Milwaukee,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), May 12, 2017. http://www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/columnists/john-gurda/2017/05/12/gurda-long-established-growing-latino-family-milwaukee/101591176/

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Katie Mettler, “’We can’t be the United Nations’: Milwaukee frozen custard shop defends ‘English only’ policy,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), May, 19, 2006. Http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/19/we-cant-be-the-united-nations-milwaukee-frozen-custard-shop-defends-english-only-policy/?utm_term=.bc05cac55cce

[21] Reader comment on Katie Mettler, “’We can’t be the United Nations’: Milwaukee frozen custard shop defends ‘English only’ policy,” Washington Post (Washington, DC), May, 19, 2006. Http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/05/19/we-cant-be-the-united-nations-milwaukee-frozen-custard-shop-defends-english-only-policy/?utm_term=.bc05cac55cce

[22] Conzen, 60.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 184.

[25] Christian Schneider, “Schneider: Points-based immigration bill a good start,” Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Aug. 8, 2017. http://www.jsonline.com/story/opinion/2017/08/08/schneider-points-based-immigration-bill-good-start/549152001/

[26] Reader comment on Bill Glauber, “Wisconsin ‘dreamers’ to demonstrate outside Paul Ryan speech in New York, Journal Sentinel (Milwaukee, WI), Oct. 18, 2017. http://jsonline.com/story/news/local/milwaukee/2017/10/18/wisconsin-dreamers-demonstrate-outside-paul-ryan-speech-new-york/777936001/

[27] Conzen, 66-7.

[28] Ibid, 65.

[29] Ibid, 69.

[30] Ibid.