The period from the end of the nineteenth century to the early twenty-first 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. A large part of the country’s population growth, throughout its history, had occurred through 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.
Ship carrying European immigrants to ellis Island, c. 1905.
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
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 native-born 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 from places 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
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
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.
At the beginning of the federal period in American immigration history, Congress passed the
Following World War I, Congress enacted laws that would reduce immigration dramatically for three decades. The
Restrictive legislation brought a drop in immigration. The
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
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.
In an effort to respond to undocumented immigration, Congress enacted the
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.
Illegal immigration also grew at a rapid pace, with the largest number of illegal immigrants arriving from Mexico. 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
The United States classifies “refugees,” or people admitted to the United States because of conflict,
America’s anticommunist refugee program expanded after
Following the end of the
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.
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
World War II