Immigration waves

The Events: Periods that experienced large and enduring increases in immigration to the United States

Significance: With each immigration wave that the United States has experienced, the culture and context of life in the United States have changed considerably. Such changes have continued into the twenty-first century.

 Immigrants registering at New York City’s Castle Garden reception center in 1866.

Immigrants registering at New York City’s Castle Garden reception center in 1866. (Library of Congress)

The first immigrants to settle in what is now the United States were the ancient ancestors of modern Native Americans. The precise routes of those first North American immigrants are disputed, but there is no uncertainty about the fact that every human being on the continent is either a recent immigrant or a descendant of earlier immigrants. Since the first immigrants came here from Asia more than thirteen thousand years ago, there have been four large and easily recognizable modern waves of immigrants into the United States.

During the seventeenth century, the first wave of European colonists began arriving. Most of them came from England and northern Europe. This wave peaked shortly before the American Revolution of 1776-1783. The second wave lasted about fifty years, through the mid-nineteenth century, and brought mostly Irish and Germans to the United States. That period was followed by the third wave, which lasted about forty years and brought in millions of Asians and southern and eastern Europeans. Finally, after U.S. immigration law abolished quotas based on nationalities in 1965, the fourth major wave began. It has continued into the first decade of the twenty-first century and has been the largest immigration wave in U.S. history. The majority of immigrants it has brought into the United States have come from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean islands of the West Indies.

Native American Origins

Whether they came by way of a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia or crossed the ocean in junks or on rafts, it is generally agreed that the first Americans arrived on the continent at least thirteen thousand years ago. Some authorities put that date back as far as fifty thousand years. The ancestors of modern Native Americans either entered North America in more than one location or they migrated widely after arriving. Their descendants were eventually spread out over North, Central, and South America and the West Indies and had a total pre-Columbian population of between 10 and 50 million people.

As these first Americans adapted to the changes in their environment brought about by significant climate change and their own travels, they developed rich cultures, and many had what some people have viewed as an almost ideal way of life. Although the frequent presence of wars, slavery, and many other social injustices mar that idealistic view, the more human scale of the problems and the closeness to nature make the life of the early Americans very attractive to many citizens of the modern world.

First Modern Immigration Wave, 1609-1775

Quests for adventure, flights from religious persecution, and hopes for brighter economic futures induced almost one-half million Europeans to leave their homeland and come to America between 1609 and 1775. Many of these new arrivals were indentured servants, under contract to work for masters from four to seven years merely to pay the costs of their transatlantic passage. The first black Africans to come to America during this period also came as indentured servants. However, almost all the Africans who followed came as chattel slaves.

Most immigrants who came during the seventeenth century were from England, with smaller numbers fromFrance, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and other countries. By the turn of the eighteenth century, they had raised the population of Great Britain’s North American colonies to 250,000. After 1700, the numbers of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and Germany increased dramatically, while those from England decreased. Between 1700 and the start of the American Revolution in 1775, the colonial population almost doubled, to 450,000. During that period, the principal port of entry was Philadelphia, but immigrants also entered through Baltimore, Maryland, and Charleston, South Carolina.

Second Immigration Wave, c. 1820-1870

After a lull in immigration during the American Revolution and wars in Europe, a second wave of immigrants began arriving around 1820. Most of these newcomers entered the United States through New York City, instead of Philadelphia. In 1855, Castle Garden was opened at the southern tip of Manhattan Island in New York City as the nation’s first immigration station.

A majority of immigrants arriving on the East Coast during this second wave were Irish and Germans. A potato famine hit Ireland during the 1840’s, and as much as one-third of the immigrants during this time were Irish fleeing that famine. The newly arrived Irish tended to remain near the East Coast. Many of them arrived penniless and lacked the resources to travel further inland. Almost equalnumbers of Germans arrived during the same period. However, unlike the Irish, they tended to continue inland. Many of them bought farms in the Midwest.

Gold was discovered in California in 1848, and the transcontinental railroad was begun in 1862. Both the lure of gold and the prospect of work on the railroad brought a wave of Chinese immigrants to theWest Coast of the United States that dried up in 1882, only after the U.S. Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act that year. That law made immigration for practically all ethnic Chinese illegal. Meanwhile, most Chinese immigrants entered the United States through the port of San Francisco. Most of them were single men who planned to make their fortunes and return to China. However, a large proportion of them ended up spending the rest of their lives in the United States, where most of them worked in low-paying jobs.

In response to fears of native-born Americans about job competition, concerns about religious and political differences, and simple, blatant racism, a political party was formedcalled the America Party or the Know-Nothing Party. During the 1850’s, supporters of this party and other nativist movements demanded laws that would reduce immigration, particularly fromAsia. The state of California, where most of the Chinese immigrants worked, enacted its own laws to discourage Chinese immigration. During the 1870’s, the United States suffered an economic depression at the same time Germany and Great Britain were enjoying relative prosperity. Thanks to the combination of restrictive legislation and economic problems, immigration went through another period of decline.

Third Immigration Wave, 1881-1920

During the 1880’s, American states seeking to increase their populations and railroad companies seeking laborers began sending agents across the Atlantic to recruit immigrant workers. By the late nineteenth century, transoceanic transportation had become significantly cheaper and less arduous, making it easier for poor Europeans to immigrate to the United States. The period between about 1881 and 1920 brought more than 23 million new immigrants from all parts of the world, but mostly from Europe, to the United States. The first decade of this period saw most of the immigrants coming from northern and western Europe; after 1890, the majority came from southern and eastern Europe. Meanwhile, restrictive U.S. immigration laws continued to keep the numbers of immigrants from Asia very small.

Like the Chinese immigrants of the previous wave, many of the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe encountered a good deal of hostility in their new homeland. Again feeling threatened by job competition, and concerned about racial, religious, and political differences, native-born Americans directed their new hostility primarily against Jewish immigrants, Roman Catholics, and Japanese. Before long, a general distrust and resentment of all new immigrants began to grow. Anti-immigrant sentiment found its way into federal government, and the U.S. Congress enacted a new series of restrictive immigration laws between 1917 and 1924. The Immigration Act of 1917, for example, required immigrants to demonstrate their ability to read and write. The same law also created the "Asiatic Barred Zone” to halt immigration from most of Asia.

Nevertheless, despite their chilly reception, immigrants continued to pour into the United States in search of better lives. In 1921, the U.S. Congress passed a new immigration law that set ceilings on the numbers of immigrants permitted from individual countries. Using a formula designed to slow immigration from southern and eastern Europe, the new law had the effect of ensuring that most new immigrants would come from northern and western European nations.

Immigration into the United States was further curtailed by the onset of the Great Depression of the 1930’s. During the Depression years, more people emigrated from the United States than immigrated. Between 1931 and 1940, only about onehalf million new immigrants arrived in the United States. After the United States entered World War II at the end of 1941, the federal government made its immigration laws less restrictive, particularly for citizens of the country’s wartime ally China. Nevertheless, the third great immigration wave was already over.

Fourth Immigration Wave, After 1965

In 1965, passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act ended the system of quotas based on nationality. In their place was a new, far less restrictive quota system based on hemispheres. The new system permitted 120,000 immigrants per year from the Western Hemisphere and 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere. In 1978, even these quotas were replaced by a single, worldwide quota of 290,000 immigrants per year from all parts of the world. From 1992 to 1994, this figure was raised to 700,000 immigrants before being reduced to 675,000 in 1995. None of these quotas placed any limits on the numbers of immediate family members of U.S. citizens who could enter the country. As a consequence, the actual numbers of immigrants who entered the United States legally were higher than the quota figures.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the United States was still in the midst of the largest wave of immigration in its history. One million immigrants entered the country legally every year. By the first decade of the twenty-first century, fully one-tenth of all residents of the United States were foreign born. In addition to these approximately 30 million legal immigrants in the country, the U.S. Census estimated that about 8.7 million immigrants were in the country illegally. Most new immigrants, both legal and illegal, were Hispanics fromMexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Between 1990 and 2000, the Hispanic population of the United States increased 63 percent—from 22.4 million to 35.3 million residents. Indeed, the largest and longest-enduring movement of laborers between any two countries in the world has been from Mexico to the United States.

Wayne Shirey

Further Reading

Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Comparison of the great wave of Jewish Russian and Italian immigrants to New York City around 1900 with the late twentieth century wave of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Katz, Michael B., and Mark J. Stern. One Nation Divisible: What America Was and What It Is Becoming. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006. Examines the effect of large-scale immigration on American society and the economy.

Lippert, Dorothy, and Stephen J. Spignesi. Native American History for Dummies. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2007. Despite its title, this volume offers a very intelligent discussion of the immigration of the earliest Americans.

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: Economic consequences of immigration; Great Irish Famine; History of immigration, 1620-1783; History of immigration, 1783-1891; History of immigration after 1891; Illegal immigration; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

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