America was built by immigrants. From Plymouth Rock in the seventeenth century to Ellis Island in the twentieth, people born elsewhere came to America. Some were fleeing religious persecution and political turmoil. Most, however, came for economic reasons and were part of extensive migratory systems that responded to changing demands in labor markets. Their experience in the United States was as diverse as their backgrounds and aspirations. Some became farmers and others toiled in factories. Some settled permanently and others returned to their homeland. Collectively, however, they contributed to the building of a nation by providing a constant source of inexpensive labor, by settling rural regions and industrial cities, and by bringing their unique forms of political and cultural expression.
The volume of immigration before the 1960s was staggering. Figures for the colonial period are imprecise, but by the time of the first census of 1790 nearly 1 million Afro-Americans and 4 million Europeans resided in the United States. The European population originated from three major streams: English and Welsh, Scotch-Irish, and German.
After 1820, the data became exact enough to document the volume of immigration more reliably. From 1820 to 1975 some 47 million people came to the United States: 8.3 million from other countries in the Western Hemisphere, 2.2 million from Asia, and 35.9 million from Europe. The stream was relatively continuous from 1820 to 1924 with only brief interruptions caused by the Civil War and occasional periods of economic downturns such as the depression of the 1890s, the panic of 1907-1908, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. World War II, of course, also greatly reduced the numbers emigrating. In fact, 32 million of the 35.9 million Europeans who came to the United States between 1820 and 1975 came prior to 1924.
Immigration on such a large scale resulted in greater ethnic diversity from the earlier colonial structure. In the century prior to World War I, the major sources of immigrants were Germany, Italy, Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Great Britain, but Canada also supplied 4 million newcomers, including a large number of French-Canadians, and Mexico sent some 2 million. These emigrant centers supplied the largest ethnic concentrations in American society before the 1960s.
Immigrants to colonial America were welcomed because of its acute need for inexpensive labor. Proprietors seeking to develop large colonies and planters in such areas as the Virginia Tidewater trying to grow crops for a world market needed a constant stream of settlers and workers. Probably over half of all white laborers drawn to the colonies before 1776 were indentured servants, impoverished English persons who worked in the colonies for a fixed period of years to pay off their debts and gain their freedom. But indentured servants, if they didn''t die because of bad living conditions, eventually completed their obligations and left their employers. Thus, the need for labor was continuous. African labor was one solution that Virginia planters turned to in 1619. Although most Afro-Americans were not legally slaves when they first arrived, a system of slavery had been imposed upon these involuntary immigrants by the 1660s.
The English and Afro-Americans were quickly joined by Scotch-Irish, Scots, and German settlers. As many as 250,000 Scotch-Irish immigrated to the colonies before 1776. Although their decision to move was influenced by Protestant ministers in Ulster, they began leaving in 1717-1718 primarily because of a dramatic increase in their rents. They were joined after the 1760s by artisans and laborers from the Scottish Lowlands who, facing hard times at home, moved to the tobacco colonies as indentured servants. Germans started to arrive in Philadelphia in 1683, owing in part to William Penn''s promises of religious toleration. By the 1760s over 60 percent of Pennsylvanians were of German origin. Other religious sects seeking religious toleration included Quakers, who settled in Pennsylvania, Moravians in Georgia and Pennsylvania, and Catholics in Maryland.
Immigrant streams to America often grew as extensions of European population movements. In the century between 1650 and 1750, rural workers were constantly on the move because of poverty and land shortages. Agents hired by land speculators and proprietors in the colonies could tap into these migratory streams and entice these mobile individuals to move across the ocean. This is essentially what happened between 1630 and 1642 when twenty-one thousand emigrants moved out of the migratory patterns of the East Anglia region of England and sailed to Puritan New England.
But the levels of colonial immigration were dwarfed by the figures of the nineteenth century. From 1815 to the start of the Civil War, 5 million people moved to the United States, about half from England and 40 percent from Ireland. Between the end of the war and 1890 another 10 million came, mostly from northwestern Europe - England, Wales, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. And finally, about 15 million immigrants arrived in the relatively brief period between 1890 and 1914 when the outbreak of war in Europe temporarily arrested the flow. This later group came mostly from eastern and southern Europe and consisted of new immigrant groups - Poles, Russian Jews, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Croatians, Slovenes, Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, and Greeks.
These people came largely for the same reasons that colonials had. The American economy had needed both unskilled and skilled workers through much of the nineteenth century. But after the 1880s, the demand was almost exclusively for unskilled workers to fill the growing number of factory jobs. Coinciding with this were conditions in some areas of Europe, which were undergoing substantial economic changes in the 1880s. Southern and eastern Europeans, dislocated from their land and possessing few skills, were attracted to the burgeoning industries in the United States.
Four major factors had altered their society in Europe: a dramatic population increase, the spread of commercial agriculture, the rise of the factory system, and the proliferation of inexpensive means of transportation such as steamships and railroads.
Agricultural regions, the crucibles in which these factors were mingled, had become linked to cities by the new transportation routes. The increasing need of growing cities like London, Budapest, and Berlin for foodstuffs encouraged farmers to acquire more land in order to expand production for distant markets. But commercial rather than mere subsistence farming stimulated the rise of large estates and increased the overall price of land. Small owners or aspiring owners found it increasingly difficult to acquire sufficient land to support themselves. The problem for these smaller owners and tenants was compounded by the dramatic rise in Europe's population after the Napoleonic Wars. Food supplies became more plentiful, diets improved, and life expectancy increased. Population pressures were further heightened because, with less land to transmit, young people had less reason to wait for the landed inheritance once needed to start a family. Many simply went ahead and married. Earlier family formations, in turn, meant that women gave birth over a longer portion of their lives and more children were born. People of modest means then began to move in search of opportunities at home and in the United States.
The crisis in agriculture produced movement not only among farmers but also among craft workers. Skilled artisans such as Bavarian clock makers in southern Germany were destroyed economically: the transportation lines that took foodstuffs from their regions to the cities returned loaded with factory-made goods that could be sold more cheaply than their products. So Scottish weavers, Swedish potters, and British textile workers also joined the exodus to America.
Immigrants who were modest farmers in Europe had often attempted to become farmers in the United States prior to the 1880s, although some did settle in cities. But immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, especially Jews, Italians, and Slavs, almost invariably settled in cities. Regardless of their point of origin or their destination, they all developed a set of strategies that would facilitate their settlement and adjustment in a new land. Ethnic differences aside, immigrants were usually pragmatic people who acquired much information about America before they arrived. Letters from relatives in the United States told them something about land costs, wages, and job openings. Promotional literature from railroads and states unfortunately offered exaggerated descriptions of opportunities.
It took a great deal of planning to start an agricultural enterprise over again, and those going into farming, such as Swedish, German, and Norwegian farmers in the upper Middle West, had little intention of returning to their homeland. Between 1868 and 1873, when crop failures devastated their country, over 100,000 Swedes, hearing of the Homestead Act and its promise of virtually free land in America, moved across the ocean. Other Scandinavians were equally informed and adaptable and quickly learned what crops would bring a greater profit. Thus, Norwegians in Wisconsin in the 1860s reaped rewards by planting wheat, and Mennonite arrivals in Kansas brought with them from Russia hardy wheat strains that would flourish on the plains.
Those moving to cities exhibited a similar degree of advance knowledge of conditions and a fair amount of flexibility in adjusting to their new life. Jews, Slavs, Italians, Romanians, and Greeks, all of whom concentrated in industrial cities such as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Boston where the number of unskilled jobs was increasing, moved to the United States within well-established family and ethnic networks that provided transportation fees, wage information, access to jobs, and housing. Italians heard of the harsh conditions in meat-packing plants in Chicago and shunned them in favor of outdoor work that was more seasonal and would allow them to return to Italy periodically. Similarly, large Irish immigrant families who needed their children's income as well as that of the parents to survive moved to textile towns that employed large numbers of young women. The existence of networks that supplied this type of information and access to work resulted in ethnic clustering throughout the American economy. By 1920 Jewish women were concentrated in garment trades in New York and 93 percent of the females doing hand embroidery were Italians. Sixty-nine percent of Slovak males were coal miners.
But the ability to move into urban economies and create institutions did not ensure that adjustment to a new society would be smooth. Immigrants tended to hold dangerous jobs that could result in injury or death. Steelworkers, for instance, readily contracted pneumonia from the daily move between the extremes of intense heat in the mills to the cold of a winter evening. Immigrant women had high rates of infant mortality stemming partially from their need to work incessantly at home for their families and boarders. All suffered from both poor nutrition and cramped and unsanitary housing. Labor protests often resulted in bloody retribution at the hands of law enforcement officials such as those at Lattimer, Pennsylvania, in 1897 and Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914.
American society reacted to the foreign-born in a variety of ways. During the Progressive Era, settlement house workers such as Lillian Wald and Jane Addams operated centers in urban neighborhoods to teach newcomers domestic and civic lessons and help them with problems of adjustment. Other Americans, however, were less humane. Fearing the newcomers would destroy American institutions or take away land and jobs from those already in the United States, many tried to restrict the rights of immigrants as well as the numbers entering the country. The American Federation of Labor, for example, supported immigration restriction. In 1920 Californians denied Japanese newcomers the right to own land, and in Illinois native-born citizens turned on Italian settlers, beating them and burning their homes.
Reflecting this bias was the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which curtailed immigration by establishing annual quotas that favored newcomers from northern Europe over those from the continent''s southern and eastern regions. The Great Depression and World War II also kept immigration rates low; some 500,000 Mexican workers were deported during the early 1930s because it was thought that they took jobs away from the native-born.
In 1948 Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act that eventually admitted some 400,000 Europeans uprooted by war, although displaced people from Palestine, China, and India were ignored. Congress also responded to the requests of agricultural interests in the Southwest and allowed "braceros," or temporary workers from Mexico, into the country after 1952.
In 1965, immigration quotas were established according to who applied first; and national quotas were replaced with hemispheric ones. Preference was given to relatives of U.S. citizens and immigrants with specific job skills.
But regardless of the varying climate awaiting them in America, immigrants made lasting contributions to their new society. They gave the country its major religious strains - Protestant, Catholic, Jewish - and, in the case of British coal miners and German, Italian, and Jewish socialists, brought traditions of social justice that resulted in better wages and improved working conditions for millions. Major American business ventures, such as the Bank of America and Steinway Pianos, were founded by immigrants. And important works of American literature, often about the immigrant experience, were written by foreign-born authors such as Ole Rölvaag and Mary Antin. Immigrant groups brought such a variety of foods with them that ethnic restaurants constituted one of the key ways in which newcomers entered the American economy. Despite their contributions, however, the immigrant encounter with America produced uneven results. Although some were rewarded for their labor, others found economic stability and cultural adjustment more elusive.
Parts taken from: Bernard Bailyn, The Peopling of North America: An Introduction (1986); John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (1985); Maldwyn Allen Jones, American Immigration (1960).
immigration: sources 
|Country of Origin||Numbers|
|Soviet Union/Russia||3.3 million|
|West Indies||1.4 million|
The character of American immigration underwent a significant transformation with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. The legislation abolished the discriminatory quotas based on national origins that had favored northwestern Europeans and substituted a system based on family preference. Only 170,000 people would be allowed to enter from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western, but close relatives of individuals already in the United States would be exempt from these quotas. Thus, once immigrants became citizens, they could bring their relatives and reconstitute their families. This provision resulted in a much larger number of newcomers than legislators had imagined. Skilled workers and refugees stood in line after kin, but they also gained ready admittance.
Congress had anticipated that most immigrants would continue to be Europeans. But a general improvement in the European economy, worsening conditions in Latin America, the war in Vietnam, and the system of family preference resulted in a drastic shift. Newcomers from Asia and Latin America quickly began to outnumber Europeans, with 3 million of 4 million immigrants coming from those areas in the 1970s. Between 1951 and 1965, 53 percent of all immigrants came from Europe and only 6.6 percent from Asia. In the twelve-year period after 1966 Europeans represented only 24 percent of the total, and Asians, 28.4 percent. The Philippines, for instance, sent 6,093 people in 1965 and 41,300 in 1979. Legal Mexican immigrants totalled 37,969 in 1965 but over 92,367 in 1978, an amount that exceeded the annual Mexican quota of 20,000 because of the family preference rule.
Although there had always been some immigrants with strong educational and skill backgrounds, their numbers increased after 1965. Many urban professionals now immigrated to the United States with skills that were in demand. Between 1965 and 1974, 75,000 foreign-born physicians entered the country in response to an increased need for medical services resulting from the establishment of Medicare programs. After newspapers in Korea published discussions of the 1965 law, over 13,000 Korean medical professionals, a majority of them female nurses, entered the United States. Thousands of other Koreans also came and opened shops and small businesses in the cities. These immigrants were doing what immigrants to America had always done: entering niches in the economy abandoned by better-established residents. By 1977 over 4,500 Korean-Americans operated small businesses in southern California. Finally, skilled newcomers from Central and South America, especially El Salvador and Argentina, entered but had difficulties finding skilled work, and many returned home.
Not all immigrants after 1965 possessed skills or the inclination to become entrepreneurs. Large numbers of Arabs entered Detroit auto plants; Mexicans in southern California moved primarily into the service economy; but Haitian immigrants in southern Florida in the 1980s encountered more serious problems of adjustment. Fleeing poverty and political repression, these Haitians, most of them under thirty, were kept in government detention centers by Florida officials who feared they would become public charges. Even those who were free found it difficult to secure jobs with few relatives to help and little in the way of skills or education. By 1985 about one-third of Haitian men in southern Florida were jobless. To survive in a strange land, they were forced to rely heavily on female household members who could earn a minimal wage or secure some form of public assistance.
A sizable portion of the immigrants after 1965 were refugees - people with widely diverse skills and educational and cultural backgrounds. The largest refugee group, the Cubans, came in three stages. About 200,000, mostly well educated and middle class, fled the island after the assumption of power by Fidel Castro in 1959. A second, more socially diverse wave of over 360,000 came when they were allowed to leave the island in 1965. And finally about 130,000 - the "mariel group" - left when Castro let many working-class Cubans emigrate in 1980-1981. Some came to Florida in boats operated by relatives already in the United States. By 1980, Cuban-Americans made up the largest single nationality of the post-World War II refugee stream.
Indochina was the second major source of refugees after 1965. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States immediately accepted 130,000 Vietnamese. As communist power spread through Southeast Asia, sharply increased numbers of ethnic Chinese, Cambodians, and Laotians sought asylum in the United States as well. By 1985 over 700,000 Indochinese had entered the country, many of them resettled with the help of churches and other sponsoring agencies rather than relatives and friends. Although large numbers of Vietnamese possessed skills and strong educational backgrounds, many Cambodians and Laotians were peasants who could not enter the American economy as easily. By 1985 Indochinese refugees in southern California, where most of them settled, were 15 percent less likely to be employed than the population as a whole and were relying on low-wage jobs and public assistance to survive.
The largest immigrant group after 1965 came from Mexico, averaging over 60,000 a year in the 1970s. After Congress in 1964 eliminated the "bracero" program, which had allowed the hiring of temporary workers from Mexico, there was a large increase in the number of undocumented (illegal) workers migrating to Texas and California to enter manufacturing jobs. In the 1970s employment expanded by 645,000 jobs in Los Angeles County, and about one-third of those openings were filled by Mexicans. By 1980 nearly 1 million aliens from Mexico were apprehended annually by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But the influx continued in large part because of the willingness of employers to ask the Mexicans no questions. In an attempt to stop this practice, the Immigration Reform Act of 1986 was passed. It imposed penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants, but offered amnesty to those immigrants who had been in the United States continuously since 1982.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that some 5 million people are living in the United States without permission, and the number is growing by about 275,000 a year.
By the 1980s the pattern of immigrant adjustment was a mixed one. Those with skills, education, and family connections frequently did reasonably well. The median family income of Cubans was nearly 30 percent higher than that of other Latin-American immigrants because they entered the well-developed Cuban-American economy in southern Florida. Asian immigrants arriving between 1970 and 1980 earned incomes that nearly equaled those of the native-born. On the other hand, Mexican-Americans forced into unskilled jobs in the service sector of the economy earned mean family incomes well below those of Asians and native whites.
In 1978, Congress abandoned hemispheric quotas and established a worldwide ceiling. The United States accepts more immigrants than any other country; in 1998, its population included 25.2 million foreign-born persons (that is 9.3 % of the total population.) The revised immigration law of 1990 created a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants each year, with certain categories of people exempted from the limit. That law attempts to attract more skilled workers and professionals to the United States and to draw immigrants from countries that have supplied relatively few Americans in recent years.
Nathan Glazer, ed., Clamor at the Gates: The New American Immigration (1985); David M. Reimers, ed., Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (1985).
immigration: sources 
|Country of Origin||Numbers|
Parts are taken from: The Reader's Companion to American History, Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright© 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.