Throughout the history of the United States, quests for economic betterment have been a driving force behind the decisions of immigrants to come to the United States. Most immigrants remain permanently after they arrive, but an estimated 30 percent of them eventually return to their original homelands. Most who return do so after saving the amounts of money they have set as their goals.
Before the late eighteenth century American Revolution, the vast majority of immigrants to what became the United States came from the British Isles. Although many of these early immigrants sought new homes in which they would create communities that shared their religious beliefs without government hindrance, they also sought something else that had become difficult to obtain in their homeland: ownership of freehold land–land without overlords. Some immigrants came hoping to become big landlords themselves and profit from producing crops not readily available in England, such as tobacco, for which the climate and soil of colonies such as Virginia were particularly suitable. By the eighteenth century, a new economic motive helped drive immigration: opportunities to prosper from the international trade in which the American colonies were beginning to participate.
Another sizeable contingent of immigrants came involuntarily–Africans imported as slaves. Although they came unwillingly, their labor made possible the development of large landholdings in British North America’s southern colonies, thereby helping many European immigrants to realize their own dreams of becoming agricultural entrepreneurs. Along with these involuntary immigrants were many Europeans who voluntarily endured
By the time of the American Revolution, the lands up and down the eastern seaboard, between Massachusetts and Georgia, had become well settled, and a more diverse society was beginning to develop. The first cities to emerge were nearly all seaports, which offered many economic opportunities for employment and trade. Colonial society was then still overwhelmingly made up of people earning their livings from cultivating the land, but it also included many people who made their livings by providing services to the urban dwellers that were needed to support international trade.
U.S. Census records of immigration into the United States began in 1820, but estimates from the years between the Revolution and about 1815 show that immigration was slowing down. However, it accelerated during the 1820’s and continued until the U.S. Civil War began in 1861. The acquisition from Great Britain of most of the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River meant that the United States had a vast, undeveloped region that would be open to agriculture. After most of the Native American peoples were driven out, the land was largely unoccupied and began attracting settlers from coastal areas eager to buy superior farming land from the federal government cheaply. It also opened up land for new waves of immigrants from Europe.
Vietnamese-Chinese grocery store in New York City’s Lower Manhattan.
The first great wave of immigrants to come were the Irish, most of whom were young men who were coming to work. One of the first great projects to employ Irish immigrants was New York State’s
Most of the Irish immigrants, particularly those who came during the time of the Great Irish Famine of the late 1840’s, eventually settled in the growing cities. Not a few found work in the
Meanwhile, changing economic developments in Europe impelled people from other countries to emigrate. Many European farmers were becoming unable to make their livings from the ever smaller plots of land that members of each succeeding generation inherited. Moreover, it was becoming increasingly difficult for them to supplement their meager farm income with seasonal labor in the form of handwork as spinners and weavers. Emigration to go to America offered the hope of finding opportunities while none existed at home. Significant numbers of farmers left peasant villages in southwestern Germany and traveled to America. Many of them settled in the midwestern states of the Old Northwest–Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Like the Irish, they tended to congregate in communities made up primarily of fellow European immigrants, giving their neighborhoods a distinctively German character.
A major technological development that contributed to the increased flow of immigrants was the shift from sailing vessels to steam-powered ships. Prior to the Civil War, the overwhelming majority of immigrants crossed the Atlantic Ocean in sailing vessels, but this changed shortly after the war, making oceanic travel faster, cheaper, safer, and more comfortable. Europeans willing to travel in steerage class could cross the Atlantic for as little as twenty-five dollars. Companies that owned the steamships drummed up business by actively recruiting people in Europe to go to America.
During this same period, the ethnic mix of immigrants was changing. By this time, Italians, Poles, Greeks, Slavs from the Balkans, and, in particular, large numbers of Jews from eastern Europe were making up the bulk of immigrants to the United States. As with the Irish before the war, members of each of these groups tended to cluster together in
The outbreak of World War I in 1914 put a stop to the great flood of immigration. Meanwhile, however, that flood had engendered a backlash among many native-born Americans. Aside from laws specifically prohibiting Chinese immigrants on the West Coast, the first comprehensive immigration legislation was passed in 1891. This law created the
Federal rules governing U.S. immigration changed dramatically after passage of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Under the new rules, family unification became a primary goal, and most new immigrants came from countries in the Western Hemisphere, particularly those in Latin America. During the 1970’s, substantial numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians began immigrating. With this next ethnic mix, the traditional emphasis on assimilation was somewhat modified, partly because members of second and later generations of earlier immigrants had shown that members of immigrant families gradually abandon the cultures from which they originate. Greater tolerance was now shown for immigrants who retained their old cultures, so long as they also learned to speak English.
The latest waves of immigrants, however, have tended to remain longer in low-wage jobs requiring only limited skills. Nevertheless, controversies have arisen during periods of economic downturns as some people have argued that immigrant workers are depriving American citizens of industrial jobs. Meanwhile, another controversy over the “off-shoring” of manufacturing jobs to Latin America and Asia has arisen, and this, too, has cooled down the welcoming of new immigrants.
Bodnar, John. The Transplanted: A History of Immigration in Urban America. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1985. Major work on the experience of immigrants in transitioning to American capitalism, emphasizing employment opportunities. Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy. New York: Basic Books, 1990. Examination of the effect of U.S. immigration laws on the employment of immigrants. Also looks at job competition among members of different immigrant groups. Hareven, Tamara K., and Randolph Langenbach. Amoskeag: Life and Work in an American Factory-City. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Collection of interviews with a host of immigrant workers at a textile mill in New England. Millman, Joel. The Other Americans: How Immigrants Renew Our Country, Our Economy, and Our Values. New York: Viking, 1997. Exploration of immigrant entrepreneurship, showing how many immigrant business people have helped save declining communities. Morawska, Ewa. Toward Assimilation and Citizenship. New York: Palgrave, 2003. Broad study of recent immigration trends that pays special attention to the cultural factors surrounding them. Smith, James, and Barry Edmonston, eds. The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1997. The product of a year-long study by a panel of social scientists examining the effects of California’s Proposition 187 and welfare reform in 1996, this volume provides insights into the impact of immigration on American society in general and on the national economy in particular. Wyman, Mark. Round Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880-1930. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. Detailed discussion of immigrants who returned to their home countries after sojourns in the United States.
Economic consequences of immigration
Great Irish Famine
Iron and steel industry
Natural disasters as push-pull factors