United States—immigration survey and policy overview

From the establishment of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia (see Virginia colony), in 1607, the area now known as the United States has attracted more immigrants than any other country in the world. In the colonial period, Europe had few obvious sources of wealth, but the Spanish Empire in the New World transformed Europe’s economy in the 16th century with its production of gold and silver, and the sugar plantations of the West Indies led to unprecedented accumulations of capital. Even the fur trade of Canada was lucrative enough to lead three countries to the brink of war in the Pacific Northwest. Although the English colonies had none of these commodities in abundance, they did have good land and an equable climate, and land was still the prime commodity for most potential immigrants during the 17th and 18th centuries. With the dramatic expansion of the new republic between 1783 and 1848, the United States added not only vast expanses of land but abundant iron and coal reserves to power the coming Industrial Revolution and precious metals not found east of the Appalachians. Europeans fled their overcrowded and tradition-bound lands, flocking to the prairies and factories of America in the greatest wave of migration the world had ever seen. Between 1815 and 1930, more than 50 million people left Europe for the New World, with almost two of every three settling in the United States. Many came to escape religious or political oppression; most came to escape poverty, almost all to improve their economic condition. The same opportunities that attracted immigrants in the 19th century continued to motivate them in the 21st century. In 2002, the United States admitted almost 1.1 million immigrants from every part of the world, including more than 340,000 from Asia; 362,000 from Mexico and Central and South America; 69,000 from the Caribbean; and 60,000 from Africa—the greatest admittance rate by far of any country in the world.
Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Western Hemisphere (1607), formed the core of what would later become the royal colony of Virginia (1624). English entrepreneurs had become interested in the Chesapeake region in the 1570s but found little support from Queen Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603). The disastrous attempt to settle Roanoke Island (1584–87; see Roanoke colony) forestalled English efforts. By the early 17th century, hatred of Spain and development of the joint-stock company provided both the diplomatic motive and the financial means for launching a concerted colonial challenge. Unlike the situation in Spanish lands, English settlements were haphazard and largely uncoordinated. Plymouth and MASSACHUSETTS, MARYLAND, RHODE ISLAND, and PENNSYLVANIA, were settled first as religious havens; CONNECTICUT was the result of internal expansion; DELAWARE, NEW JERSEY, NEW HAMPSHIRE, and the CAROLINAS, along with Virginia, were settled as commercial ventures; New York was conquered from the Dutch; and Georgia was, somewhat incongruously, both a humanitarian venture and an exercise in international diplomacy. But for a thorough mixture of all these reasons, the English colonies along the Atlantic seaboard grew in population owing to immigration in a way that neither Canada nor Mexico ever would. By 1700, the population of Virginia was 65,000, of Massachusetts 56,000, and of Maryland 34,000. Pennsylvania, after less than two decades, had attracted 19,000 settlers.
Throughout much of the 18th century, American settlers were largely left to handle their own affairs. Government interference—beyond the too-frequent colonial conflicts with France that inevitably created economic disruptions— was limited, and taxes were light. With a rapidly modernizing economy in Great Britain, recurring famines in Ireland, and overcrowding and political instability in Germany, there was an abundance of interest in America. And even for those without means, indentured servitude provided an opportunity to make a new start in life. By 1720, the population was nearly 400,000 and continued to grow at an unprecedented rate, swelled by the forced migration of 250,000 African slaves, a high natural increase, and the highest rates of immigration in the colonial world. In addition to several hundred thousand English immigrants in the colonial period, there were 250,000 Scots-Irish and 135,000 Germans, as well as smaller numbers of Swiss, Scots, Swedes, and Jews. By the time of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) with France, the American population was about 1.5 million (as opposed to New France’s European population of only about 75,000). At the time of the American Revolution (1775–83; see American Revolution and immigration), it was nearing 2.5 million. Even with the loss of 40,000–50,000 Loyalists who left the new republic for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec, the American population was young, aggressive, and ample enough to substantially develop the resources at hand.
The early period of the republic saw a slackening of immigration. Great Britain, by far the largest source of immigrants to America, was now sending its immigrants to the Caribbean, South Africa, or elsewhere, and the two countries were frequently at odds until the 1820s. The ample agricultural lands of the transappalachian region, however, were inviting to the starving and dispossessed, especially as diplomatic relations gradually improved. As a result, between 1820 and 1860 immigration increased dramatically each decade: 128,000 in the 1820s, 538,000 in the 1830s, 1.4 million in the 1840s, and 2.8 million in the 1850s. The Irish, driven by starvation even before the Great Famine of the 1840s, sent almost 2 million during this period; Germany, more than 1.5 million; and England, Scotland, and Wales more than 800,000. With the Civil War (1861–65) halting most immigration, the United States consolidated itself. There were the old stock—mainly English and Scots-Irish—and the new immigrants—the Irish and Germans, who were by the 1870s carving respectable niches for themselves in U.S. society, despite the nativism of many Americans. After the Civil War, German, British, and Irish immigration continued to predominate, but a wave of Scandinavians brought new settlers for the American Midwest and prairies. Between the Civil War and World War I (1914–18) about 1.6 million Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes came to the United States, leaving a lasting mark on American culture.
Accompanying the continuing growth in immigration between 1865 and 1880 was a new immigration, a shift in the most common source countries. The term has most often been used to identify the shift in immigrant trends that occurred during the 1880s: Germany, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and other regions of western and northern Europe were no longer the primary source countries; instead, during the 1880s, the percentage of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe increased dramatically. The new immigrants came mainly from Italy, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Between 1881 and 1920, almost 24 million immigrants were admitted, with almost 1.3 million coming in the peak year of 1907 alone. Of these, 4.1 million came from Italy, 4 million from Austria-Hungary, and 3.3 million from Russia and Poland. Most of these immigrants either stayed in eastern ports or moved on to industrial northern cities like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; or Chicago, Illinois. Between 1900 and 1914, perhaps 3 million immigrants landed in New York City (see New York, New York), and by 1910 the foreign-born population of that city rose to more than 40 percent. About 700,000 mostly poor Italians composed 15 percent of New York’s population.
Established Americans had always feared immigrants and their potential influence. The first great wave of xenophobia in the 1850s—born of the massive Irish and German immigration of the previous decade—led to the formation of the Know-Nothing Party. Pleas for restricting immigration were ignored until the panic of 1871 threw thousands out of work, leading to 1875 legislation banning convicts and prostitutes (see Page Act), and eventually, in 1882, the prohibition of an entire ethnic group in the Chinese Exclusion Act. Prior to this time the United States had an open immigration policy and was willing to take almost anyone who would contribute to the development of the country. The massive wave of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were valuable workers, but they also seemed very foreign to most Americans, usually speaking no English, with few skills, and most often either Roman Catholic or Orthodox in faith. As a result, with the outbreak of World War I, the growing trend toward exclusion culminated in a major revision of immigration policy.
The war had slowed immigration to a trickle (see World War I and immigration). With growing bitterness toward the principal opponents—Germany and Austria- Hungary—and a rising fear of radical politics and labor movements with the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (1917), anti-immigration sentiment finally culminated in a series of exclusionary measures—the Immigration Act of 1917, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924—that established literacy tests and quotas based on the 1890s population in the United States, prior to the largest period of immigration from eastern Europe. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, only 500,000 immigrants were admitted but an even greater number returned to their homelands. World War II (1939–45; see World War II and immigration) led to the easing of immigration restrictions for allies such as China and the Philippines, the initiation of the Bracero Program with Mexico, and several special measures, including the War Brides Act (1945) and Displaced Persons Acts (1948, 1950), that enabled more than 400,000 immigrants to be admitted outside the quota system.
As the immediate postwar conflicts with the Soviet Union evolved into the cold war, the U.S. government needed a new strategy for dealing with both the threat of communism and the worldwide movement of peoples displaced by more than a decade of war and oppression. The expansion of Soviet political power and the Communist victory in China led many Americans to fear the effects of loosely regulated immigration. This led to passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act (September 1950), authorizing the president in time of national emergency to detain or deport anyone suspected of threatening U.S. security. New York senator Patrick McCarran, a Democrat, went on to argue against a more liberal immigration policy, fearing an augmentation of the “hard-core, indigestible blocs” of immigrants who had “not become integrated into the American way of life.” Together with Representative Francis Walter of Pennsylvania, also a Democrat, they drafted the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act (1952), which preserved the national origins quotas then in place as the best means of preserving the “cultural balance” in the nation’s population. The main provisions included establishment of a new set of immigration preferences under the national quotas, focusing on family reunification, immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, and skilled workers; elimination of racial restrictions on naturalization; and provision for the U.S. attorney general to temporarily “parole” persons into the United States without a visa in times of emergency. Allotment of visas under the McCarran-Walter Act still heavily favored northern and western European countries, which received 85 percent of the quota allotment.
United States—immigration survey and policy overview

A Polish emigrant embarks for America. Acute poverty and cultural repression drove Poles to seek opportunity in the United States. More than 1 million immigrated to America between 1880 and 1914. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)
The next major shift in American immigration policy came with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led to a rethinking of the quota system, and the new measure replaced nationality quotas with hemispheric ceilings— 170,000 annually from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 annually from the Western Hemisphere—with preference for relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. Immediate family members of citizens could enter without being counted against the quota. As the number of immigrants from Europe began to shrink, however, Asian and Latin American immigration increased. In 1978, Congress replaced the hemispheric arrangement with a single annual quota of 290,000. By the 1980s, almost 50 percent of immigrants came from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, while 37 percent arrived from Asia. Immigration from Europe and Canada declined to only 13 percent of the total.
Two factors in the 1990s led to a growing anti-immigrant attitude in the United States. In 1992, 1.1 million immigrants entered the country, the largest number since 1907, when immigration was virtually unrestricted. As a result, by 1997 nearly 10 percent of the American population was foreign born, almost double the percentage from 1970. Also, an economic downturn in the mid-1990s caused an increasing number of Americans both to fear for their jobs and to become active in opposing expensive government measures providing for the economic and social welfare of immigrants. In California, where one-third of all foreignborn Americans lived, voters ignored previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions protecting immigrants’ rights as a group to pass Proposition 187, denying education, welfare benefits, and nonemergency health care to illegal immigrants. Federal judges killed enactment of its provisions, but there continued to be a strong national movement to impose tighter restrictions on immigration and to enforce immigration laws more vigorously. In 1993, President Bill Clinton surprised supporters by continuing outgoing president George H.W. Bush’s policy of forcibly returning Haitian refugees intercepted on the high seas, approved expedited hearings for asylum seekers, and sought an additional $172.5 million for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to fight illegal immigration. This led to a series of decisions speeding the deportation process, reducing automatic admission of certain immigrant groups, and limiting the importation of foreign workers. In 1996, a presidential election year, a bill was enacted providing $12 million for construction of a 14-mile fence south of San Diego, California, a substantial increase in the number of Border Patrol and INS agents, and a mandatory three-year prison sentence for smuggling illegal aliens. The Welfare Reform Act (1996) also stopped welfare benefits to hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants. One of the few exceptions to the trend toward tighter restrictions was a decision by the INS in 1995 to grant asylum to women fleeing their homelands in fear of rape or beatings, prompted by state-sponsored terror against Bosnian women by Serb troops. While the challenges afforded by 13 million new immigrants between 1990 and 2002 led some to question the wisdom of continuing to accept new residents at such a rate, the debate was largely a reprise of the issues raised in the 1850s and the 1910s in the midst of two other great waves of immigration.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the presidency of George W. Bush saw two major initiatives with large implications for immigration policy. The first of these, designed to gain greater control over the immigration process, was the result of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001. Almost immediately the administration proposed a series of sweeping measures designed to combat terrorism, including strengthened border controls. The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act (better known as the USA PATRIOT ACT) was quickly passed and signed into law by Bush on October 26, 2001. The act provided for greater surveillance of aliens and increasing the power of the attorney general to identify, arrest, and deport suspected terrorists. The resulting evaluation of the nation’s security measures led to an extensive overhaul of the immigration service. The Homeland Security Act on November 25, 2002, abolished the INS, transferring its functions to various agencies within the newly created Department of Homeland Security. Immigration services formerly provided by the INS were transferred to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; enforcement oversight, to the Border Transportation Security Directorate; border control, to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection; and interior enforcement, to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The second of these initiatives was Bush’s determination to work in conjunction with Mexican president Vicente Fox to regularize the participation of Mexican laborers in the U.S. economy. Though negotiations were temporarily delayed in the wake of September 11, on January 7, 2004, Bush proposed the Temporary Worker Program, which would “match willing foreign workers with willing American employers, when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.” More controversially, it would provide temporary workers with legal status, even if they were undocumented. Critics voiced concerns that it did not provide a path to citizenship for those workers. With regard to the desirability of widespread immigration, the first decade of the 21st century proved to be as contentious as the last decade of the previous century.

A–Z index