World migration patterns Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Although the United States has had a unique immigration history, many elements of immigration into the country fit into broad patterns affecting other parts of the world, particularly western Europe. U.S. immigration history cannot, therefore, be fully understood without reference to its place in a global context.

In his 1995 study of global migration,Weiner, MyronMyron Weiner identified five distinct eras of immigration that had occurred since the Renaissance. The United States has featured centrally in each, although perhaps less so than Europe. The first two eras stretched from the seventeenth century through World War I (1914-1918). Those eras encompassed Europe’s acquisition of colonies in the Americas, Australia, and New Zealand during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and very early nineteenth centuries and the settlement of those colonies through the nineteenth century. North America in general and the United States in particular benefited from the arrival of immigrants from Great Britain, France, Ireland, Germany, Italy and their neighboring “donor” states in southern and eastern Europe.[c]Wong Wing v. United StatesDeportation;Wong Wing v. United States[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court]Due process protections;and Chinese exclusion[Chineseexclusion]Noncitizens;deportation ofCongress, U.S.;powers of[c]Wong Wing v. United StatesDeportation;Wong Wing v. United States[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court]Due process protections;and Chinese exclusion[Chinese exclusion]Noncitizens;deportation ofCongress, U.S.;powers of[cat]DEMOGRAPHICS;World migration patterns[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;World migration patterns[cat]PUSH-PULL FACTORS;World migration patterns[cat]THEORIES;World migration patterns[cat]TRANSPORTATION;World migration patterns

The same eras also saw European governments shape the travel of non-Europeans to distant regions, most aggressively through the slave trade. During Weiner’s three subsequent eras of twentieth century global migration, the United States continued to become an ever more ethnically diverse country of immigrants, and Europe itself was profoundly reshaped by immigrant flows.

The Age of Colonialism

History, and the spread of humanity across the globe, is to no small extent the story of ancient migrations. However, Weiner and most modern historians and sociologists date the Immigration wavesmodern waves of migration from those of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, when European governments in their search for wealth and power sent their peoples to remote lands, first to find goods of value and then to secure their holdings with settlements. Most of these early settlements were merely coastal affairs, under the protective cannons of their homeland’s warships. European firearms were primitive by the standards that would develop during the nineteenth century, but even the single-shot, muzzle-loading weapons that earlier empire builders brought with them from Europe were superior to most weapons of the native peoples whom they encountered in the Americas, Australasia, Asia, and Africa, and the numbers in which they eventually arrived were overwhelming to the aborigines. However, neither their numbers nor their weaponry were great enough to enable them to move far from their initial settlements and the protective cover they enjoyed there.

The numbers of settlers involved during the long initial era of modern migration were not insignificant by the European standards of the time. Before 1820, an estimated 240,000 Europeans migrated to North America alone. Some came as indentured servants, and many sought to escape the religious and political persecution they experienced in Europe. To these must be added the large number of forced immigrants who were imported into North America from Africa during the slave trade that emerged during this period. Above all, perhaps, this early wave of migration established the three patterns that were to characterize international migration into the twentieth century.

First, the flow of migrants was largely unrestricted until the consolidations of European borders during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would cut down on movements of groups within Europe. During the nineteenth century, several countries in the Americas would pass laws prohibiting the entry of the diseased and Gypsies at the same time that European states were trying to expel them. Nevertheless, for the most part, transoceanic movements of peoples were unaffected by laws restricting immigration.

Secondly, despite some settlements that were established in the Southern Hemisphere, human migrations were essentially north-north movements, in which most migrations occurring within the Northern Hemisphere across an east-west axis–most frequently, from Old World Europe to the receiving areas of the New World of North America.

Finally, the arrival of immigrant European communities frequently displaced the native populations. The latter, in turn, often found it expedient to move deeper into the interior of their lands or were forced to do so.

First Modern Era of Mass Migration

These patterns permeated global migrations through the nineteenth century. The era of forced migration of African slaves came to its conclusion in midcentury, but between 1820 and 1914 more than 44 million Europeans voluntarily migrated to the United States alone–a total number 6 million people higher than the total population of France at the time when it was the most populous country in western Europe. Still other people emigrated from Asia, this time from the East to the West, across the axis, but still within the globe’s Northern Hemispheric corridors. With their arrival, native populations shrank, not only as percentages of the total populations but also in absolute numbers, as they perished from alien diseases and were often pushed into less hospitable parts of continents they once controlled. In the United States, many Native Americans;relocation ofNative Americans were shoved westward into what was called Indian Territory during the 1830’s, ahead of incoming settlers from Europe; others were confined to reservations during the 1880’s.

The factors accounting for this mass wave of migration were both sociopolitical and scientific-technological. The middle of the nineteenth century was a particularly turbulent time in Europe, as whole societies were shaken by the revolutions of 1832 and 1848. Large numbers of people began to consider journeying to the Americas to seek better lives and greater freedom. Meanwhile, reforms introduced in Ireland by the British government combined in midcentury with a fungal infection in the potato crop to produce the Great Famine in Ireland between 1845-1852, and the beginnings of a mass flight of hundreds of thousands from that island to the United States.

Technological changes also helped further this movement. The emergence of steam-powered ships made the transportation of large numbers from Europe and Asia to American ports cheaper, safer. and above all swifter. They cut travel time for transatlantic voyages from as many as five weeks in 1700 to fewer than eight days by the advent of World War I (1914-1918). Likewise, the development of transcontinental railroads in the United States after the Civil War provided a means of moving large numbers into the American Midwest and eventually the Far West, where land was free. Industrializing cities needed laborers, and federal troops could provide safety from hostile threats on the frontier by availing themselves of the rapidly evolving weapon technologies to which these troops had easy access. In 1840, breech-loading rifles revolutionized combat by replacing muzzle-loading muskets, which for two centuries had limited soldiers to firing only one round per minute, while requiring them to stand and expose themselves to enemy fire while reloading. With breech loaders, soldiers or settlers could fire seven rounds per minute from behind cover, and the rifles were more powerful and more accurate than muskets. By the time of the Civil War, Gatling guns raised firing rates to more than one hundred rounds per minute. It was not a coincidence thatshortly afterward Indian wars came to their end in North America.

The product of all these developments was a growing tide of migration to the Americas that transformed the U.S. population from its overwhelming British-based stock at the time of independence into the multiethnic and multiracial mixture out of which the multicultural American nation would emerge in the twentieth century. Indeed, the influx reached its peak during the early years of the twentieth century, when approximately 3 million immigrants entered the United States every year. The number would have been even higher, had not the unification of Germany between 1860 and 1870, and the resultant growth there of pride and identification with Imperial Germany, slowed significantly what had previously been a major point of origin of migration to the United States.

Finally, scientific discoveries and technological changes had another noteworthy effect during the second half of the nineteenth century that would profoundly affect the nature of global migration a century later. Simply stated, these developments helped lead to the age of world empires. The revolutionary changes in weaponry allowed European forces easily to subdue native peoples armed only with spears, arrows, bladed weapons, and occasionally obsolete firearms. Moreover, the emergence of steam-powered riverboats allowed Europeans to carry their weapons deep into the interiors of regions where previously only coastal areas could be protected. The discovery of quinine as a preventative against Malariamalaria allowed Europeans to penetrate tropical regions protected from a disease that previously was a greater threat to European armies than hostile tribes.

Meanwhile, the invention and development of the telegraph and telephone, coupled with the laying of transoceanic cables, allowed heads of states, their generals, and field commanders to be in constant communication. Packaged for empire building, these discoveries, technologies, and inventions changed the nature of politics around the world, and the portion of the earth’s land surfaces peopled by Europeans or under European control jumped from approximately 30 percent in 1820 to more than 80 percent by the time of World War I. By the start of the next world war in 1939, increasing numbers of the non-European subjects of these empires would begin their own south-to-north migrations to the capitals of their imperial rulers.

World War I Through the Cold War

The shift from a predominantly north-to-north to a largely south-to-north pattern of immigration was not the only change involving patterns of global migration during the early years of the twentieth century. The door to largely unrestricted entry into the United States that was beginning to close slowly near the end of the nineteenth century was nearly completely shut. The process began with the passage of U.S. laws forbidding the admission of the Chinese and the insane. After President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901, Anarchistsanarchists were excluded. A 1917 immigration law required literacy tests. In 1921, a quota system was imposed on immigrants from individual countries, based on the percentages of people from each country who had been resident in the United States in 1910. Three years later, a new law made the quota system even more restrictive by pushing the baseline year back to 1890–a time when very few eastern and southern European immigrants had been in the country. The quota laws naturally favored future immigrants from northern and western Europe, but they also sharply curtailed the total numbers of immigrants permitted to enter the country legally. Meanwhile, by the first decades of the twentieth century, aboriginal peoples of North America and Australiano longer had to be relocated to make room for new immigrants from abroad. The Native Americans;relocation ofnative peoples still trying to live in traditional ways had long since been moved to Australia’s Outback and to tribal reservations in the United States and Canada.

Even without the enactment of U.S. quota restrictions, immigration from Europe to the United States would likely have slackened considerably during the years between the end of World War I and the commencement of World War II. Wartime dislocations, a plague that traveled through Europe after World War I, and the deprivations wrought by the Great DepressionGreat Depression contributed to widespread poverty that left few Europeans with sufficient resources to afford transatlantic passage at the same moment the Great Depression was raising unemployment levels to unprecedented heights the United States. During some Depression years, the United States actually experienced negative net immigration.

Meanwhile, within Europe and neighboring regions, the revolutions of 1917 and subsequent civil war in Russia and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I produced significant population movements within Europe. An estimated 3 million Russians, Poles, and Germans left the collapsing Russian Empire amid its political unrest. Significant numbers of Russian nationals relocated in France. Meanwhile, in the Balkans, Muslims moved in sizeable numbers to Turkey. Likewise, the postwar decision of the newly created League of Nations to make Israel;and League of Nations mandate[League of Nations mandate]Israel;refugees inPalestine a homeland destination for Jewish people led to the movement of approximately 400,000 European Jews to that British mandate territory in the Middle East.

The World War II[World War 02];displaced personsend of World War II produced even more significant movements of peoples, especially on the European continent. Many of the several hundred thousand Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust left Europe to migrate to Palestine even before the independent state of Israel was carved out of it in 1948. Still others emigrated there after 1948, stripping Eastern Europe of its once large and prosperous Jewish community. Meanwhile, under the terms of the [a]Potsdam AgreementPotsdam Agreement signed by the principal victors in World War II in 1945, massive, largely forced migrations had already occurred within Europe, when approximately 16 million ethnic Germans were sent west from CzechoslovakiaCzechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries. Millions of Poles were also driven west from what had been the eastern Kresy region of Poland, which the Soviet Union acquired as part of its 1939 nonaggression pact with Germany.

The flow of migrants within Europe was not only from east to west. During the same period, hundred of thousands of ethnic Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Estonians, and Poles were expelled from neighboring states to the Soviet Union and parts of its rapidly forming empire in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. As the Cold War developed between the Soviet Union and its former wartime allies in the West, other population movements occurred. When the Western Allies decided to unify their zones in occupied Germany and create the independent Federal Republic of Germany, approximately 7 million Germans fled from Soviet-controlled East Germany into what would become known as West Germany.

Global Migration After 1950

Turkish women praying in a community center in a predominantly Muslim district of Berlin, Germany. Like many other western European nations, Germany has experienced a large influx of Muslim immigrants since the late twentieth century.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Significant as these wartime and postwar migrations were in reshuffling the peoples of Europe, the migration that would most dramatically affect Europe, and to a lesser extent North America, and which has most profoundly broken from the pattern of previous migrations, developed elsewhere. It is the one involving the peoples who have migrated from culturally and often religiously different areas in the developing world into the economically more advanced and democratic states of Europe and North America during the second half of the twentieth century.

The origins of this development Europe lay largely in that region’s need to rebuild after World War II, which forced much of Western Guest workers;in Europe[Europe]Europe to import large numbers of workers from abroad to fill needed positions. Germany recruited its own “guest workers” in the less economically advanced states of southern Europe–most notably, secular Muslims from Turkey. France turned initially to its possessions in Africa and imported large numbers of foreign workers from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Britain looked to nations from its former empire in Asia, chiefly in India, from which former British subjects were entitled to immigrate to the United Kingdom as members of the British Commonwealth until, that is, controversy surrounding Britain’s growing “foreign population’ eventually caused Britain to pass more restrictive immigration laws.

By the 1950’s, the worldwide process of decolonization of European empires was coinciding with Europe’s sustained postwar economic recovery, and its need for still more imported labor. Consequently, ever more immigrants from Europe’s former colonial world were journeying legally to European countries in pursuit of far better earnings than they could receive in their newly independent nations. This trend continued until a worldwide recession that began in 1973 resulted in most European countries restricting further entry. However, by then, workers who had been recruited as temporary employees were becoming permanent members of many European countries’ workforces.

For the most part, the more restrictive European immigration laws did not so much stop immigrant flows as increase the numbers of immigrants entering European countries illegally. Most continued to come from developing countries in Africa and Asia, and a very high percentage of these people were Muslim immigrants;in Europe[Europe]Muslim, not Christian, in their religious faiths. By the turn of the twenty-first century, it was conservatively estimated that Europe’s Muslim population numbered more than 20 million, and was growing at a much faster rate than the indigenous population because of family unification programs that allowed immigrants’ spouses and children to join them. Moreover, the average sizes of Muslim families were sometimes were much larger than those of European families.

The population of the United States was also becoming noticeably more multicultural in the period following World War II. Many American soldiers serving in occupied Japan between 1945 and 1955 returned home with War brides;JapaneseJapanese spouses. The advent of the Korean War in 1950 had a similar social outcome, with many American service personnel returning home with Korean spouses. Still later, the Vietnam War that stretched from the mid-1960’s to 1975 further enlarged the Asian community in the United States. After the war ended, the U.S. Congress made room in the United States for large numbers of Vietnamese refugees whose service to the United States during the war placed their lives in danger after the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal of American forces.

However, it was the south-to-north pattern in later twentieth century immigration that had the greatest impact on American society. As a result of the steady emigration of peoples from Mexico and other countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean, Hispanics eclipsed African Americans as the largest minority group in the United States by the turn of the twenty-first century. Moreover, by the early years of the new millennium, the illegal Hispanic immigrant population in the United States was being conservatively estimated to be in the range of between 10 and 12 million people, making the country’s growing Hispanic population a central political issue. This new wave of immigrants from the developing world was becoming politically controversial even Terrorismbefore the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001, the attack by homegrown Muslim suicide bombers on London’s public transit system in 2005, and the attack by Muslim terrorists on the railroad system of Madrid, Spain, the previous year. The presence of these “foreign” populations in the modern Western world has become more controversial over time as their numbers have continued to grow and as the security concerns of home-grown terrorists and insecure borders have beenadded to the list of concerns that their presence entails.[c]Wong Wing v. United StatesDeportation;Wong Wing v. United States[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court]Due process protections;and Chinese exclusion[Chinese exclusion]Noncitizens;deportation ofCongress, U.S.;powers of

Further Reading
  • Barkan, Elliott Robert. From All Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870s-1952. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Ideal for advanced research on world migration, this lengthy work covers the many waves of immigrants that settled west of the Mississippi River between the last days of the frontier and the early days of the Cold War.
  • Hatton, Timothy J., and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Global Migration and the World Economy: Two Centuries of Policy and Performance. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006. Outstanding analysis of the history and economic impact of the great nineteenth century and post-1950 waves of immigration that transformed and continue to transform the developed democratic world.
  • McClain, Paula D., and Joseph Stewart, Jr. “Can We All Get Along?” Racial and Ethnic Minorities in American Politics. 5th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2009. Up-to-date edition of a widely used basic undergraduate text on American minorities and the political process.
  • Moch, Leslie Page. Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe Since 1650. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Though a briefer study, Moch’s work is for Europe very much the equivalent of Barkan’s study of the American West and is equally good.
  • Vertovec, Steven, ed. Migration and Social Cohesion. Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 1999. Collection of essays covering the developed world, from Australia to Europe to America, treating a broad range of topics related to the integration and nonintegration of immigrants into their host societies and political processes.
  • Weiner, Myron. The Global Migration Crisis: Challenge to States and to Human Rights. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Useful starting point for research on the topic, complete with an extensive bibliography of useful materials for additional reading on immigrants, refugees, and government policies toward the waves of immigrants still entering the Western world during the 1990’s.

Asian immigrants

Chinese immigrants

European immigrants

History of immigration, 1620-1783

History of immigration, 1783-1891

History of immigration after 1891

Latin American immigrants

Slave trade

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