Latin American immigrants Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Throughout U.S. history, Latin Americans have immigrated in waves to North America. Halfway through the first decade of the twenty-first century, about 44 million residents of the United States traced their ancestry to Hispanic immigrants; of these, about 17.7 million had been born in Latin American nations. Early Hispanic immigrants tended to congregate in western and southwestern states in the U.S. However, by the turn of the twenty-first century, Latin American immigrants were settling throughout the entire country–in large urban centers, suburban areas, and small towns–and they were becoming one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States.

In response to changing historical conditions, immigration from Latin America to the United States ebbed and flowed through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The late twentieth century surge in Hispanic immigration was a product of many factors, including the increasing economic globalization of labor markets, the long shared border between the United States and Mexico, and increasingly attractive economic opportunities for immigrants in the United States.Latin American immigrantsLatin American immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Latin American immigrants[03160][cat]LATIN AMERICAN IMMIGRANTS;Latin American immigrants[03160]

Any consideration of “Latin American” immigration must keep in mind the wide diversity and heterogeneous nature of the many Hispanic, or Latino, peoples living in the United States. Immigrants have come to the United States from nineteen Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries of the Western Hemisphere, bringing with them a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. They have settled in almost every region of the United States, doing so under a variety of circumstances and for different reasons.

Pre-Twentieth Century Trends

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most Hispanics lived in the southwestern region of what is now the United States. This region constituted the northern part of Spain’s New World empire until Mexico became independent in 1821. Afterward, it was part of Mexico until the Mexican War of 1846-1848, when the region passed to the United States. Most of the Hispanic residents of the region remained after 1848 and became American citizens. Initially, Mexicans and other Hispanics continued their historical patterns of moving back and forth between Mexico and the American Southwest in order to work and conduct trade, but they had to cross a new international border to do so. That border would later become the major crossing point for new Hispanic immigration into the United States.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the United States began receiving Hispanic immigrants from other countries. After the Spanish-American War of 1898, small numbers of Puerto Rican immigrantsPuerto Ricans and Cuban immigrantsCubans began coming to the eastern United States to work temporarily and later return home. These two patterns of nineteenth century immigration would frame, to a large extent, the continued movement of Latin Americans into the United States during the twentieth century.

Twentieth Century Developments

Immigration from Latin America continued steadily into the twentieth century, a pattern due to changing political and economic conditions in Latin America. During the first decades of the century, Latin Americans came to the United States in search of work. As jobs grew scarce in their own countries, U.S. economic stability drew them into the large urban centers of the Northeast, Midwest, and Southwest. While immigration levels dipped slightly during the Great Depression of the 1930’s, they began to rise again immediately after World War II ended in 1945. At that time, the U.S. government began playing an active role instituting policies to encourage an already cyclical migration pattern in which Latin Americans traveled to the United States on a temporary basis to earn money and later return to their home countries. As a result, the already existing movement from regions such as Mexico and the Caribbean continued, with the majority of immigrants being men who worked to support families whom they left at home. Upon finishing their job contracts or seasonal work, some settled in the United States and others returned to Mexico.

A turning point in twentieth century immigration came about when the U.S. Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;and Latin American immigrants[Latin American immigrants]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation, combined with late modifications in U.S. immigration policy, including tighter control of the U.S.-Mexican border, and changing political relations between the U.S. and other hemispheric governments, fundamentally transformed the nature of Latin American immigration. Whereas Hispanics had historically tended to immigrate to a limited number of U.S. urban regions, they were now spreading out all over the United States. Moreover, because the 1965 immigration law placed more emphasis on the reunification of families, increased numbers of women, children, and entire families were beginning to enter the United States to work and settle permanently. In a process known as Chain migration“chain migration,” Hispanic communities developed strong Social networks;Latin American immigrantssocial networks linking their new American communities with their home regions in other countries. Latin American began organizing andparticipating more fully in the civic and political lives of their new communities, and were becoming visible at both the local and national levels.

Many Latin American immigrants have maintained Dual citizenshipdual citizenship, which allows them to vote in elections in both the United States and their home countries and to continue to remain connected with the social and cultural facets of life in their home countries. Latin American immigrants have tended to travel frequently to their home countries, and many of them send Remittances of earnings;Latin Americansremittances, primarily monetary, to family members outside the United States.

Large-scale Latin American immigration has had a measurable impact on the demographic structure of the United States. Hispanics are, on average, younger than the general population. Moreover, they are adding significant numbers of young people to labor forces in regions of the United States where native-born populations are aging. By expanding the pool of those who work labor-intensive and, typically, low-wage jobs, they have helped to reinvigorate parts of the United States that had been experiencing net population losses. Because many of them are also settling in rural, as well as urban, areas, their sheer numbers are causing local communities to rethink how they will integrate the newly arrived groups into the civic and cultural lives of their towns and cities. Increased Hispanic participation in political processes has helped to shift emphases to issues important to immigrant communities and to change voting patterns in many regions.

Push-Pull Factors

The reasons why Latin Americans have immigrated to the United States have changed since the early nineteenth century. In the past, and particularly during the mid-nineteenth century, educated upper- and middle-class Latin Americans tended to migrate to the United States either to work as professionals and then return home or to send their children to U.S. schools. This was especially true among Hispanics in the island countries of the Caribbean. During the late nineteenth and twentieth century, however, members of other socioeconomic classes began arriving in the United States, a trend that has continued up to the twenty-first century. Latin America can be viewed as divided into four distinct zones:


•Caribbean basin, or West Indies

•Central America

•South America

Mexican Immigrants

Historically, most Latin American immigrants have come from Mexico. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, movement across the U.S.-Mexican border was fluid; people from both sides could cross with little obstruction. Consequently, Mexicans could travel north to work and return home easily. During the first decades of the twentieth century, the numbers of people moving north across the border began to increase significantly, and larger numbers of immigrants from Mexico’s lower and middle classes began arriving on the U.S. side in search of political stability and economic opportunity.

During the 1940’s, the U.S. and Mexican governments negotiated agreements such as the bracero program in order to create more orderly systems of bringing workers into the United States. Under these programs, large numbers of Hispanic migrant workers traveled north to the United States to work in the construction and agricultural sectors of the U.S. economy. After completing their contracts, they generally returned home; however, some remained permanently in the United States. Contract labor programs continued into the 1960’s, and through these programs, the U.S. government recognized and formalized an already existing migration pattern.

The border between the United States and Mexico extends approximately 1,920 miles along the southern edges of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and the northern edges of the Mexican states of Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coauila, Nuevo León. and Tamaulipas. The border runs through mostly arid terrain ranging from sandy flatlands to rugged mountains.

Caribbean <index-term><primary>West Indian immigrants</primary></index-term>Immigrants

The West Indies islands of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hispaniola–which is shared by the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic and French-speaking Haiti–constitute the second region of Latin America. Though separated by open expanses of sea, these islands share a geographic proximity to the United States that accounts in part for the movement of many West Indians to the U.S. mainland. During the nineteenth century, upper- and middle-class Hispanic islanders traveled in small numbers from the Caribbean to the United States. By the beginning of the twentieth century, their numbers had gradually increased but still remained small in actual numbers. The 1920’s and 1930’s saw an increase in West Indian immigration as job opportunities were becoming scarcer in the Caribbean.

During the mid-twentieth century, West Indian immigration numbers increased substantially. The economic and political circumstances varied among the Hispanic islands, but all these islands were experiencing growing populations and shrinking job bases. People from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rican immigrantsPuerto Rico–which by then was a U.S. dependency–continued to go to the United States primarily to work, and they formed large communities, primarily in the Northeast. Cuban immigration surged during the 1960’s as a result of the island’s communist revolution, and it continued to be strong into the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Central American Immigrants

Significant immigration from Central American nations did not begin until the late twentieth century, but immigrants from those nations have dispersed over a wide area of the United States, particularly the South, Midwest, and Far West. Political upheavals during the 1970’s and 1980’s impelled many people from Guatemala, Salvadoran immigrantsEl Salvador, and Nicaragua to migrate north. A large part of these immigrants were members of the working classes and had less education than other Latin American immigrants. Consequently, they have tended to experience higher levels of poverty after settling in the United States. In contrast, immigrants from the more politically stable Costa Rica have tended to be more highly educated and better equipped to find success in the United States. Even after political unrest had largely abated in Central America by the early twenty-first century, immigrants continued to come to the United States in large numbers.

South American Immigrants

Although South America has the largest population of any of the four Latin American zones, it has historically supplied the fewest immigrants to the United States. However, during the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first, the rate of immigration from South American nations more than doubled. The countries sending the most people to the United States have been Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombian immigrantsColombia. The numbers of immigrants from Colombia have been particularly high because of political instability in that country. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of immigrants have come from Argentina, Venezuela, Chile, and Bolivia. Immigrants from South America have settled throughout the United States, but they have tended to concentrate in the Northeast and along the East Coast. Among Latin American nations, the countries of South America are the most distant from the United States. Because of the great distances immigrants from those countries travel to reach the United States, the immigrants have worked especially hard to develop social and support networks to facilitate their journey.

Protestor waving a Honduran flag at a Miami, Florida, demonstration that was one of many across the United States during a national day of protest against government crackdowns on illegal immigration on May 1, 2006. The predominantly Latin American protestors sought to call attention to the positive economic contributions that undocumented immigrants make to the United States.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

South American immigrants have traditionally brought higher levels of education, and their emigration from their homelands has created serious "Brain drain"[Brain drain];and South America[South America]“brain drains” in their home countries. However, by the early twenty-first century, increasing portions of immigrants were coming from the working classes of their countries. Chilean immigrantsChilean immigrants have generally had higher levels of education and professional skills, while Paraguayan immigrantsParaguayan and Bolivian immigrantsBolivian immigrants have tended to be less educated. Paraguay’s high rate of population growth has made the immigrants coming from that country younger than those of most other Latin American nations.

Changing Patterns in Immigration

With the large increase of Latin American immigration to the United States after the 1960’s, extended family and kinship networks have grown apace. They, in turn, have facilitated the development of Chain migrationchain migration links. Whereas in the past, most Latin Americans coming to the United States were men planning to work and save money before returning home, the late twentieth century saw a large increase in the numbers of women, children, and families following established migration routes to live and work in American communities in which Hispanic family and social contacts were already established.

These social and kinship networks have also led to generally more participation in local civic organizations, clubs, and churches, as well as a renewed use of mutual aid societies to assist and support new immigrants. At the same time, the Spanish-language media and press have become increasingly important disseminators of news, culture, entertainment, and advertising to Spanish-speaking markets.Latin American immigrants

Further Reading
  • González, Juan. Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. New York: Viking Press, 2000. Useful general historical overview of the many Hispanic peoples who have immigrated to the United States from all regions of Latin America.
  • Mahler, Sarah J. American Dreaming: Immigrant Life on the Margins. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995. Close study of Central and South American immigrants in New York’s Long Island, who might be viewed as a microcosm of Latin American immigrants in the United States.
  • Meier, Matt S., and Feliciano Rivera. Mexican Americans/American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos. 2d ed. Toronto: HarperCollins Canada, 1993. Thorough overview of Mexican immigration into what is now the United States, from the time of early Spanish conquests to the modern American Chicano movement.
  • Rodriguez, Gregory. Mongrels, Bastards, Orphans, and Vagabonds: Mexican Immigration and the Future of Race in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 2007. Broad overview of Mexican immigrants that attempts to assess its implications for future American developments.
  • Rodríguez, Havidán, Rogelio Sáenz, and Cecilia Menjivar. Latinas/os in the United States: Changing the Face of America. New York: Springer, 2008. Broad study of Hispanic communities in the United States, emphasizing their diversity.
  • Suro, Roberto. Strangers Among Us: Latino Lives in a Changing America. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. Balanced view of immigration by Latin Americans.

Brazilian immigrants

Chain migration

Colombian immigrants

Cuban immigrants

Dominican immigrants

Ecuadorian immigrants

Guatemalan immigrants

Honduran immigrants

Japanese Peruvians

Latinos and immigrants

Mexican immigrants

Nicaraguan immigrants

Puerto Rican immigrants

Salvadoran immigrants

Spanish-language press


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