History of immigration after 1891

Significance: The period from the end of the nineteenth century to the early twentyfirst saw the federal government taking control over immigration policy. It also saw the two greatest immigration waves in the nation’s history, as well as a period of highly restrictive immigration laws during the decades between those two waves.

During the century following the first U.S. Census in 1790, the population of the United States grew by nearly 60 million people, from just under 4 million to almost 63 million. During the next century. between 1890 and 1990, the population grew by close to 186 million, adding about three times as many people in the second century as in the first. By 2007, the nation had added another 45 million in just seventeen years.Alarge part of the country’s population growth, throughout its history, had occurred through immigration.

Era of Federally Controlled Immigration

Until the end of the nineteenth century, immigration to the United States was under the loose control of the individual states. In 1875, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws regulating immigration were unconstitutional because they were inconsistent with the exclusive power of the U.S. Congress to regulate foreign commerce. This recognition of the exclusive power of Congress over immigration opened the way to immigration policy and therefore to the establishment of procedures and locations for federal control of immigration. The construction of the Ellis Island federal immigration facility during 1891 symbolized the beginning of the modern period in American immigration history.

The Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, originally in the Department of the Treasury, took charge of immigration issues in that same year, 1891. This became the Bureau of Immigration in 1895. The bureau was transferred to the Department of Commerce and Labor in 1903 and became the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in 1906. This was moved to the Department of Labor in 1913 and split into the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization. In 1933, these bureaus were joined as the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved to the Department of Justice in 1940. In 2003, President GeorgeW. Bush established the Department of Homeland Security and reorganized the INS as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) under the authority of this new department.

First Modern Immigration Wave

The growth of the American population through immigration was primarily a result of the growth of the American economy, which provided new opportunities. That economy had been growing rapidly throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The U.S. CivilWar caused disruption, but it also stimulated production in the North, and it ultimately created a more politically and economically unified nation. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 meant not only that people could travel relatively quickly from the East Coast to the West Coast but also that goods from one part of the country could be shipped and sold to other parts of the country. This completion of the transportation infrastructure spurred rapid industrialization in the decades following the Civil War. By 1890, the United States had outstripped the leading industrial nations of Europe to become the world’s foremost producer of manufactured goods. The quickly developing industrial economy required workers, and the availability of jobs drew immigrants to American shores in unprecedented numbers.

As a result of the flow of new workers into the country, the nation’s new industrial working class rapidly became disproportionately foreign born. The Dillingham Commission, set up by Congress in 1907 to study the perceived immigration problem, looked at twenty-one industries and found that 58 percent of the workers in these industries were immigrants. The commission found that immigrants were particularly significant in construction work, railroads, textiles, coal mining, and meatpacking.

Transportation systems had linked the United States, and they also made it easier to reach North America from Europe. Train systems in Europe by the late nineteenth century enabled Europeans to reach their own coastal cities. The replacement of sailing ships by steamships cut travel time over the ocean from one to three months during the 1850’s to ten days by the 1870’s.

During the first decade of the period of federal control of immigration, 1891 to 1900, 350,000 newcomers reached the United States. In the decade after, from 1901 to 1910, this number more than doubled to 800,000 new arrivals. Although the absolute number of foreign-born people was greater at the end of the twentieth century, immigrants made up a larger proportion of the American population during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when 15 percent of Americans were immigrants. Because of continuing immigration, moreover, by 1910 another 15 percent of native-born Americans were children of two immigrant parents and 7 percent of nativeborn Americans had at least one immigrant parent, so that immigrants and children of immigrants made up more than one-third of the U.S. population.

The large immigrant population of the United States came fromplaces that had sent few people in earlier years. America’s population at its beginning consisted mainly of people from northern and western Europe and people of African heritage, and newcomers in the first century of the nation’s existence continued to come primarily from northern and western Europe. As recently as 1882, 87 percent of immigrants came from the northern and western European countries. By the end of the century, though, economic hardship in southern Europe and political oppression combined with poverty in eastern Europe, together with the improved transportation, led to a geographic shift.

By 1907, 81 percent of immigrants to the United States came from southern and eastern Europe. According to the statistics of the Dillingham Commission, of the 1,285,349 foreign-born people who arrived in the United States in 1907, 285,943 (22 percent) came from the Russian Empire and 338,452 (26 percent) came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eastern European Jews, fleeing persecution in the two empires, made up many of these arrivals. Italy alone sent 285,731 people (22 percent of total U.S. immigrants) during that year, most of them coming from impoverished southern Italy.

The southwestern part of the United States had been part of Mexico until the middle of the nineteenth century, and many Spanish-speaking people of the same ethnic backgrounds as Mexicans lived in that part of the country. However, the United States had been attempting to anglicize the Spanish-speaking parts of the country since it took possession of this area. After the Mexican Revolution began in 1910, refugees from south of the Rio Grande began to move northward. Between 1910 and 1920, more than 890,000 legal Mexican immigrants arrived in the United States.

Increasing numbers of immigrants arriving from countries that were alien to many native-born Americans and to English-speaking officials raised concerns in the public and among policy makers. Many of those reaching American shores settled in low-income sections of the growing cities in the traditionally rural nation. Perceptions of immigration as a social problem led to a string of new laws, resulting, by the 1920’s, in highly restrictive immigration policies.

Ship carrying European immigrants to Ellis Island
Ship carrying European immigrants to Ellis Island, c. 1905. (The Granger Collection, New York)

Legislative Responses to the First Wave

At the beginning of the federal period in American immigration history, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1891, which enabled federal inspectors to examine people on arrival and to reject entry to those who were diseased, morally objectionable, or whose fares had been paid by others. The year after that, Congress renewed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which had banned new Chinese immigration and Chinese eligibility for citizenship. Thus, federal legislative responses to immigration from the beginning were guided by the idea of keeping out undesirable immigrants and by the idea that some national origin groups were less desirable than others. The Immigration Act of 1903 not only consolidated earlier legislation, it also barred those who were politically objectionable, such as anarchists. Extending this line of action, a new immigration act in 1907 added more categories of people to the list of those to be excluded, and it restricted immigration from Japan. The Immigration Act of 1917 expanded exclusions still more by identifying illiterates, people entering for immoral purposes, alcoholics, and vagrants as classes that would not be allowed into the country.

Following World War I, Congress enacted laws that would reduce immigration dramatically for three decades. The Immigration Act of 1921, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act, attempted to reduce southern and eastern European immigration by limiting the number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of the number of people from that country living in the United States in 1910. In 1924, a new immigration act carried the quota concept further by limiting immigrants from any country to 2 percent of the number from that country living in the United States in 1890.

Restrictive legislation brought a drop in immigration. The Great Depression of the 1930’s helped to maintain low immigration, since massive unemployment meant that the United States had fewer jobs to offer. Foreign-born people obtaining legal permanent residence status in the United States decreased from a high of 8,202,388 in the peak years 1909-1919 to 699,375 in 1930-1939.

Hmong refugees learning about life in the United States in a cultural orientation class in a Thailand refugee camp in 2004
Hmong refugees learning about life in the United States in a cultural orientation class in a Thailand refugee camp in 2004. A great change in U.S. immigration patterns that began during the late twentieth century was a huge increase in the numbers of Asians coming to the United States. (Getty Images)

Legislative Changes

Immigration continued to be low during the World War II years, but there were some indications of a loosening of American immigration law. The United States and China, then under the Chinese Nationalist government, were allies against Japan, and this alliance encouraged American lawmakers to pass the Immigration Act of 1943, which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and allowed Chinese to become naturalized citizens, although only 105 Chinese were actually allowed to immigrate each year. Worker shortages in the United States due to the war led the U.S. government to establish the bracero program in 1942 to bring in Mexican agricultural laborers.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, retained the national origin criterion of 1924. It set an overall ceiling for immigrants and within that ceiling gave each country a cap equal to 1 percent of the individuals of that national origin living in the United States in 1920. The new immigration law, enacted at the height of the Cold War, placed new ideological restrictions on immigration, denying admission to foreign communists. The McCarran- Walter Act also added a series of preferences to the national origins system. The preference system became the basis of a major shift in American immigration policy in 1965.

The Hart-Celler Act, also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, revised the McCarran-Walter Act and turned U.S. immigration policy in a new direction. Acting in the spirit of recent civil rights legislation, Congress removed the national origins quota system and instead emphasized the preference system. Family reunification became the primary basis for admission to the United States, followed by preferences for people with valuable skills.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 went into effect in 1968, and its liberal provisions made possible another great wave of immigration at the end of the twentieth century. Along with those classified as immigrants, the United States also received large numbers of refugees, leading to the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 to accommodate this additional group of arrivals. By the end of the twentieth century, new concerns over immigration, especially growing undocumented immigration, led the nation to attempt to control the flow across the borders.

In an effort to respond to undocumented immigration, Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which granted amnesty to immigrants who had entered illegally before 1982 but made it a crime to hire undocumented immigrants. Ten years later, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 made it easier to deport undesirable immigrants, and it increased the size and activities of the U.S. Border Patrol.

Total Recorded Immigration to the United States, 1890-2008

Total Recorded Immigration to the United States, 1890-2008
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

Second Modern Immigration Wave

The 1965 change in immigration policy helped produce the greatest immigration wave in U.S. history in terms of sheer numbers of immigrants reaching American shores. After decreasing since the 1920’s, the foreign-born population of the United States suddenly began to grow during the 1970’s, increasing from 9,619,000 (4.7 percent of the total population) in 1970 to 14,080,000 (6.2 percent) in 1980, reaching 19,767,000 in 1990 (7.9 percent), and then 31,108,000 (11.1 percent) in 2000. By 2007, the foreign-born population had reached an estimated 38,060,000, or 12.6 percent of all people in the United States.

The places of origin of America’s immigrants also changed. While earlier immigrants had come primarily from Europe, those in the post-1965 immigration wave came mainly from Latin America and Asia. From 1820 to 1970, 79.5 percent of immigrants had arrived from countries in Europe, 7.7 percent from countries in the Americas other than Canada, and only 2.9 percent from Asia. During the period 1971 to 1979, only 18.4 percent of immigrants to the United States were from Europe, while 41 percent came from countries in the Americas and 34.1 percent came from Asia. Latin Americans and Asians continued to make up most of this wave of immigration. As a result, only 13 percent of foreign-born people living in the United States in 2007 had come from Europe, while 27 percent had been born in Asia and 54 percent had been born in Latin America. Mexicans had become by far America’s largest immigrant group, constituting 31 percent of all immigrants in the United States in 2007.

The heavy immigration from Mexico was a consequence of economic problems in that country, as well as a result of opportunities and relatively liberal immigration policies in the United States. More than 70 percent of Mexico’s export revenues came from oil at the beginning of the 1980’s. As the price of oil declined beginning about 1982, Mexico had less revenue coming in, provoking a debt crisis, and the country’s already existing problems of poverty became worse. Legal immigration from Mexico began to move upward rapidly, from a little over 621,000 in the decade 1970-1979 to over one million during the 1980’s.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 encouraged some undocumented Mexicans in the United States to remain by offering amnesty, and it encouraged others to move into the United States on a long-term basis by intensifying control of the border, making it more difficult to move back and forth. The longer-term orientation led many workers to move further north, away from the border. In 1994, a second economic shock hit Mexico, with the devaluation of the peso, which caused dramatic inflation and a decline in living standards. In response to the economic problems, legal migration grew even more during the 1990’s, with more than 2.75 million Mexicans entering the United States. From 2000 to 2005, the United States received an average of 200,000 legal permanent residents from Mexico every year.

Illegal immigration also grew at a rapid pace, with the largest number of illegal immigrants arriving fromMexico. Undocumented immigration into the United States rose from an estimated 130,000 undocumented immigrants each year during the 1970’s to an estimated 300,000 per year during the 1980’s, and their numbers continued to go up. By January, 2007, the estimated undocumented immigrant population of the United States was 11,780,000. A majority (59 percent) were from Mexico, and 11 percent were from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, having arrived by way of Mexico.


The United States classifies “refugees,” or people admitted to the United States because of conflict, natural disaster, or persecution in their homelands, separately from “immigrants,” people admitted to legal residence in the country. Refugees have, however, been a significant part of the immigration wave that began during the late twentieth century. U.S. refugee policies began before the 1965 change in immigration law. In 1948, Congress enacted the Displaced Persons Act to admit people who had been uprooted during World War II. The beginning of the ColdWar gave added motivation to the American refugee program, and the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 granted admission to people fleeing countries that had fallen under communist domination. The Soviet occupation of Hungary in 1956 resulted in new refugees, and the Refugee Escape Act of 1957 explicitly defined refugees as people fleeing communism. In theory, though, refugees were to be counted under the per-country ceiling established by the McCarran- Walter Act, and the added numbers were charged against future ceilings or admitted under special presidential paroles.

America’s anticommunist refugee program expanded after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba at the beginning of 1959 and Cubans opposed to Castro, who soon declared himself a communist, began to flee their island nation. President John F. Kennedy’s administration established a program of assistance for Cubans, and this program was institutionalized by the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962. The first wave from Cuba left the island nation between 1959 and 1962. A second wave followed from 1965 to 1974, when the Cuban and U.S. governments agreed to arrange flights between the two countries for Cubans who wished to leave. The Cuban refugee flow slowed substantially after the halting of the flights. In 1980, though, the Cuban government faced internal unrest. This led to a third wave of Cuban refugees. Hoping to ease public unrest on the island, the Cuban government decided to open the port city of Mariel to unrestricted emigration. Vessels from Mariel brought more than 125,000 refugees from Cuba to the United States over a six-month period.

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Southeast Asian refugees began to resettle in the United States. Largely in response to movement of Southeast Asian refugees, the U.S. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, which was the most comprehensive piece of refugee legislation in U.S. history. As a result, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were resettled in North America during the early 1980’s. In 1980, more than 170,000 people from these three countries entered the United States. The flow of refugees continued so that by the year 2007, the United States was home to an estimated 1.5 million people who described their ethnic background as Vietnamese, close to 220,000 people who described themselves as Cambodian, 200,000 people who identified as Laotian, and more than 200,000 who identified as Hmong, a minority group fromLaos.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

  • Alexander, June G. Daily Life in Immigrant America, 1870-1920. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2007. Detailed study of the diverse immigrants who arrived in the United States during one of the nation’s great immigrant waves. It approaches the topic through thematic chapters that look not only at daily lives but also distribution and settlement patterns, temporary and permanent residency, and individual and family migrations. 
  • Martínez, Rubén. The New Americans. New York: New Press, 2004. Written as a companion book to a PBS television miniseries, this presents five portraits of new immigrants to the United States. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1880-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. An exploration of how political trends and issues in the United States have shaped American immigration policy over time. 
  • Suro, Roberto. Strangers Among Us: How Latino Immigration Is Transforming America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Readable portrait of late twentieth century Latino immigrant life with discussions of how the nation has been changing as a result of large-scale Latino immigration. 
  • Waters, Mary C., and Reed Ueda, eds. The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007. Collection of descriptive essays on the various immigrant groups that have made up the post-1965 immigration wave and on the key topics concerning this wave. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Dillingham Commission; Ellis Island; History of immigration, 1620- 1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965; Immigration waves; Refugees; World War II.

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