Immigration to the United States

From Academic Kids

The United States of America has had a long history of immigration, from the first Spanish and English settlers to arrive on the shores of the what would become the United States to the waves of immigrants from Europe in the 19th century to immigration in the present day. Throughout American history immigration has caused controversy.


Historical immigration

Colonial-era immigration to North America

Early immigration laws prevented Asians and Africans from entering the USA legally (except as chattels in the latter case). For most Europeans, however, immigration was relatively free and unrestricted until the 1800s and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Voluntary migration from Europe

The population of the colonies that later became the United States grew from zero Europeans in the mid-1500s to 3.2 million Europeans and 700,000 African slaves in 1790. At that time, it is estimated that 3/4 of the population were of British descent with Germans forming the second-largest free ethnic group and making up some 7% of the population.

Between 1629 and 1640 some 20,000 Puritans emigrated from England, most settling in the New England area of North America. In an event known as the Great Migration, these people became the Yankees of New England, who later spread out to New York and the Upper Midwest.

From 1609 to 1664, some 8,000 Dutch settlers peopled the New Netherlands, which later became New York and New Jersey.

Between 1645 and 1670, some 45,000 Royalists and/or indentured servants left England to work in the Middle Colonies and Virginia.

From about 1675 to 1715, the Quakers made their move, leaving the Midlands and North England behind for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The Quaker movement became one of the largest religious presences in early colonial America.

Germans migrated early into several colonies but mostly to Pennsylvania, where they made up a third of the population by the time of the Revolution.

Between about 1710 and 1775, around 250,000 Irish left Ulster (the northern province of Ireland) and settled in western Pennsylvania, Appalachia and the western frontier: these places later would become Kentucky and Tennessee.

See also: European colonization of the Americas

Unfree labor: Slave trade, indentured servitude and convict shipments

The majority of African slaves came to the future United States before it gained independence. The numbers remain less than clear, but it is believed that some 300,000 slaves arrived in the British North American colonies before Independence, and some 100,000 were imported in the period between the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. The slave trade was made illegal in 1808, upon the expiration of a constitutional clause prohibiting such a law (Article 1, section 9).

A large number of indentured servants, from the British Isles, Ireland and Continental Europe (especially Germany), came to the future United States during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the bulk arriving in the half-century before 1776. Most served terms of four to fourteen years and arrived in the colonies of Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia.

And while history tends to emphasize the British shipment of convicts to its Australian colony, some 50,000 European convicts also crossed the seas to North America in an earlier penal transportation system between 1700 and 1770.

About 1.8 million  immigrated to North America during the
About 1.8 million Irish immigrated to North America during the Great Potato Famine

Immigration 1776 to 1849

Germans made up almost one-tenth of the population of the country by the end of the 18th century. At least 500,000 Germans immigrated in the first half of the 19th century. 20,000 came in the years 1816-1817, fleeing a famine. Some 61,000 fled to America after the failed Revolutions of 1848.

Immigration 1850 to 1930

The 1850 United States census was the first federal U.S. census to query about the "nativity" of citizens—where they were born, either in the United States or outside of it—and is thus the first point at which solid statistics become available.

Between 1850 and 1930 about 5 million Germans immigrated to the United States with a peak in the years between 1881 and 1885, when a million Germans left Germany and settled mostly in the Midwest.

Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians left Canada to emigrate to the United States and settled mainly in New England. Given the French-Canadian population at the time, this was a massive exodus. 13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestry in the 1980 census. Indeed, a large proportion of them have ancestors who emigrated from French Canada.

The years 1910 to 1920 were the highpoint of Italian immigration to the United States. Over 2 million Italians immigrated in those years, with a total of 5.3 million immigrating between 1820 and 1980.

About 1 million Swedes immigrated to the United States within this period, due to famine, poverty and religious oppression in Sweden. This accounted for around 20% of the total population of Sweden at that time. Most of them where from the southern parts of Sweden and settled mainly in the Midwest after their arrival in America. Minnesota in particular has a large proportion of people with Swedish ancestry.

Many Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany were denied access to the United States, highlighted by the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis, The Tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis (

Laws concerning immigration and naturalization

The first naturalization law in the United States was the 1795 Naturalization Act which restricted citizenship to "free white persons" who had resided in the country for five years. The next significant change in the law came in 1870, when the law was broadened to allow both Whites and African-Americans, though Asians were still excluded from citizenship. Immigration was otherwise unlimited.

In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically forbid Chinese immigration, overturning the 1868 Burlingame Treaty which had encouraged it. The "temporary" ban was extended repeatedly and made permanent in 1904. It was the culmination of decades of agitation, particularly by Californians, who had passed their own Anti-Coolie Act in 1862. The ban was deeply resented but was not repealed until 1943, and only then to reward a wartime ally. In order to avoid the same humiliation, the Empire of Japan negotiated the Gentlemen's Agreement in 1907, a protocol that required Japan to prevent her citizens from emigrating to the U.S. in exchange for better treatment of those already living there.

Congress also banned persons because of their health, beliefs, or lack of education. An 1882 law banned entry of "lunatics" and infectious disease carriers, and the 1901 Anarchist Exclusion Act kept people out because of their political beliefs. A literacy requirement was added in Immigration Act of 1917.

On May 19, 1921, the United States Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act establishing national quotas on immigration. The quotas were based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality who were living in the United States as of the 1910 census. A more complex quota plan replaced this "emergency" system under the Immigration Act of 1924. One major change was that the reference census used was changed to that of 1890, which greatly reduced the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Immigrants from most of the Western Hemisphere, however, were admitted outside the quota system.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act) revised the quotas again, basing them on the 1920 census. For the first time in history racial distinctions were omitted from the U.S. Code. Nevertheless, most of the quota allocation still went to immigrants from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany. Its anti-subversive powers are still in force and have been used to bar the entry of countless individuals based upon their political expressions.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (the Hart-Cellar Act) abolished the system of national-origin quotas. There was for the first time a limitation on Western Hemisphere immigration (120,000 per year), with the Eastern Hemisphere limited to 170,000. Most of these numbers were allocated to immigrants who were relatives of United States citizens.

By one account, the actual number of annual legal immigrants was estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 in 1989, subsequently increased and is now well over 1 million, not including illegal migration or temporary work visas.

Several pieces of legislation signed into law in 1996 marked a turn towards harsher policies for both legal and illegal immigrants. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act vastly increased the categories of criminal activity for which immigrants, including green card holders, can be deported and imposed mandatory detention for certain types of deportation cases. As a result, well over 1,000,000 individuals have been deported since 1996.

See also: List of United States Immigration Acts

Contemporary immigration

Contemporary immigrants settle very predominantly in six states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey and Illinois. The combined total immigrant population of these six states formed 70% of the total foreign-born population as of 2000.

There are a number of discernable categories of immigrants to the United States, each with unique and shared issues.

Legal immigration

Advocates of reduction in legal immigration include both those that want an overall reduction in immigration and those that want the U.S. to adopt a skills or economically-based immigration policy more similar to that of Canada or New Zealand, as well as others that want the U.S. to return to an immigration policy that focuses more on immigrants from European countries of a more similar cultural basis or level of economic development as the United States.

Work visas

At the dawn of the 21st century, the controversy revived when many high-tech and software-engineering workers started to arrive from India on "H1" visas. H-1b expansion was widely unpopular, but was supported by extremely generous campaign donations from corporate interests. Critics claimed that these visas decreased the wages of American citizens, displaced American citizens, enabled corporations to enforce extreme workplace discipline and get around laws concerning working conditions, created national security problems and increased the risk of transmitting new diseases to the United States. Some economists saw H-1b expansion as an assault on the American middle class that benefited the wealthy and made it impossible to maintain traditional American standards of living, or provide incentives to improve productivity as rapidly as nations like Japan with more restrictive immigration policies.

The companies who imported the workers usually argued that the U.S. lacked enough American citizens to do the work. A few economists argued that, whatever the truth of that assertion, importing the workers provided more benefits to the U.S., and otherwise the recruiting companies would simply offshore the entire operation to India itself. It was claimed this would likely prove worse for the U.S. economy as a whole, because in the first scenario Indian workers living in the United States would at least spend money in the United States, while the multi-national corporations that would purportedly export the jobs to India would probably not pass down as much of the savings to the U.S. consumer who purchased for them.

Political asylum

In contrast to economic refugees, who generally do not gain legal admission, other classes of refugees can gain legal status through a process of seeking and receiving political asylum, either by entering as asylees or by entering illegally and receiving asylee status thereafter. Advocates of this practice claim that for the most part, such persons are fleeing warfare; escaping persecution based on political or religious beliefs; or are victims of torture in their countries of origin. Critics claim the process has been widely abused and large numbers of people claim persecution simply to obtain the benefits of living in the United States. Some asylum cases have been also granted based on sexual orientation or gender, where cultural norms of the home country create and sustain conditions that make life unsafe or unbearable for the individual. As of 2004, recipients of political asylum faced a wait of 14 years to receive permanent resident status after receiving their initial asylee status, because of an annual cap of 10,000 green cards for this class of individuals.

Miscellaneous legal immigration

Member of Congress may submit private bills granting residency to specific named individuals. A special committee vets the requests, which require extensive documentation. Congress has bestowed the title of "Honorary Citizen of the United States" to six people. The only two living recipients were Winston Churchill and Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa), the other instances were posthumous honors.

The Central Intelligence Agency has the statutory authority to admit up to one hundred people a year outside of normal immigration procedures, and to provide for their settlement and support. The program is called "PL110" after the legislation that created the agency, Public Law 110, the Central Intelligence Agency Act.

Illegal immigration

One consequence of laws restricting the number and ethnicity of persons entering the USA is a phenomenon referred to as illegal immigration, in which persons enter a country and obtain work without legal sanction. In some cases, this is accomplished by entering the country legally with a visa, and then simply choosing not to leave upon expiration of the visa. In other cases—most notoriously Latin Americans in the USA without legal sanction—people enter the country surreptitiously without ever obtaining a visa. Often, people entering in this fashion are economic refugees—a class of refugee not recognized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service); these persons have left their home country in a desperate bid to provide financial support for themselves and/or their families. This is particularly true in cases where "minimum wage" in the U.S. is several times what the average laborer earns in a given country; such immigrants often send large portions of their income to their countries and families of origin.

Much of the controversy today with immigration to the U.S. involves an increasing number of activists calling for a reduction in illegal immigration. Critics of these activists say that those who call for an end to "illegal immigration" really advocate an end to all immigration, but do not realize it. Two claims made against immigration reduction activists by those opposed to restrictions on immigration are:

  1. All the problems associated with illegal immigration (race to the bottom in wages, etc.) also apply almost equally to legal immigrants.
  2. They allegedly misunderstand the immigration process and do not realize that many immigrant workers who they see as replacing American citizens in jobs they can do have immigrated completely legally, albeit without citizenship (this number exceeds the number of illegal immigrants on a per-country basis).

Political issues surrounding immigration

Debates over immigration numbers

In recent years a debate has arisen over the effect of high immigration levels into the United States on such issues as labor, wages, and ecology. A movement has emerged which supports lower levels of legal and illegal immigration into the U.S. The most important of these groups is the Federation for American Immigration Reform. See: immigration reduction. There is also the issue of illegal immigrants coming to the US and giving birth, thus having children who are American citizens. This further taxes already overburdened services.

Immigration in popular culture

The history of immigration to the United States of America is, according to the claims of some, the history of the United States itself and the journey from beyond the sea is an element found in the American myth, appearing over and over again in everything from The Godfather to "The Song of Myself" to Neil Diamond's "America" to the animated feature An American Tail.


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See also

External links


Immigration policy

Current immigration


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