Ellis Island Immigrants – photo courtesy of the Library of CongressCredit: photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

In the current climate of politics surrounding the issue of immigration, there are intense feelings regarding what the United States should do.  Many believe this nation was built on and by immigrants.  Could the answer lie in the history of immigration to America? 

The Colonial Era of Immigration 

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants.  It is believed even the Native Americans migrated across the bridge between Asia and North America.  In the 1500s the first Europeans establish settlements in what would become the United States.   The English founded their first permanent settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony in 1607. 

In 1620, about 100 Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution in Europe arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts.  They were followed by the Puritans, who were also seeking religious freedom and who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  It is estimated 20,000 Puritans migrated to the area between 1630 and 1640. 

Other immigrants came to America seeking economic opportunities.  The passage from Europe was too expensive for at least half of the immigrants, and thus they became indentured servants in order to make the voyage.  Not all of the people who were indentured volunteered; many were kidnapped off the streets and forced into servitude in America.  In addition, England shipped thousands of convicts to America as indentured servants. 

During this period another group of immigrants were forced to come to America against their will.  This group was the Africans who were brought as slaves from West Africa.  The earliest record of slavery in America includes approximately 20 Africans who were forced into indentured servitude in Jamestown in 1619. By 1680 the number of slaves increased to about 7,000.  Some estimate by 1790, the number had increased to 700,000.  Even though congress outlawed the importation of slaves to the United States in 1808, it continued.  It is estimated approximately four million slaves were emancipated by the Civil War. 

Immigration in the 1800s 

The potato blight in Ireland caused a famine which brought thousands of Irish immigrants to the United States.  They accounted for approximately one-third of all new arrivals between the years 1815-1865.  Most of the immigrants settled along the East Coast.  An estimated 4.5 million Irish immigrants came to the U.S. between 18Immigration to America – photo by Kevin LevickCredit: Immigration to America – photo by Kevin Levick20 and 1930. 

Another large group migrated from Germany.  Approximately five million Germans came to the U.S. and most settled in the mid-west near cities such as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati.  Many of these immigrants bought farms in the mid-west. 

By the early 1850s, about 25,000 Chinese had migrated to California, lured by news of the gold rush.  Around this time, anti-immigration sentiment became much more prominent.  In 1882, the federal government signed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned Chinese laborers from coming to America.  California was the staunch supporter behind this legislature. 

Ellis Island: the Immigration Station 

Until Ellis Island Immigration Station opened in 1892, the federal government left immigration policy to individual states. Once opened, the station processed more than twelve million immigrants to America until it closed in 1954. Beginning in the 1890s, the majority of arrivals were from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe.  More than four million Italians entered the U.S. by 1920 along with over million Jews fleeing religious persecution. 

1907 marked the peak year for admission of new immigrants with approximately 1.3 million entering the U.S. legally.  World War I caused a decline and in 1917 Congress enacted legislation requiring immigrants over the age of 16 to pass a literacy test.  In 1921 President Warren G. Harding signed the Immigration Quota Act into law; also known as the Emergency Quota Act.  This law restricted entry to immigrants to three percent of the total population of each nationality already in America.  In 1924 the Immigration Act of 1924 decreased the number to two percent.   The numbers of both acts were based on the 1890 national consensus. 

Immigration declined during the depression of the 1930s and during World War II.   According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of foreign-born in America decreased from 11.6 to 6.9 percent of the total population. After the war, Congress passed special legislation allowing refugees from Europe and the Soviet Union to enter U.S.  After the revolution in Cuba in 1959, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Cuba migrated to the U.S. 

Immigration after 1965 

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act; thus ending quotas based on nationality and allowed Americans to sponsor relatives from their countries of origin. This act and subsequent legislation produced a shift in America’s immigration patterns. U.S. immigrants increasingly came from Latin America, Africa and Asia rather than Europe. Instead of using quotas according to nationality, the new Act used categories such as relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, skilled laborers deemed useful to the U.S. or refugees of violence and unrest.  The new system did place caps on per-country and total immigration, as well as caps on each category. 

In the years between 1965 and 1975, the immigration to America from Asian countries more than quadrupled.  During the 1960s and 1970s the Cold War conflicts led to millions fleeing communist regimes to seek fortunes in the U.S. During the three decades after the Immigration and Nationality Act passed, more than 18 million immigrants entered the U.S. legally.  By the year 2000 4.3 million immigrants came from Mexico and 1.4 million from the Philippines.  The Dominican Republic, Korea, Cuba, India, and Vietnam each sent between 700,000 and 800,000. 

Current Immigration Debate 

Since the 1980s, illegal immigration has been a constant source of political debate.  The Immigration Reform Act of 1986 attempted to address the issue.  The major portions of the act:

  • required employers to confirm their employees' immigration status.
  • made it illegal to knowingly hire or recruit unauthorized immigrants.
  • legalized certain seasonal agricultural illegal immigrants.
  • legalized illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. before January 1, 1982 and had resided there continuously with the penalty of a fine, back taxes due, and admission of guilt. 

Through this about three million illegal immigrants were granted legal status.  In addition to the reform act, in 1990 the Immigration Act was modified and expanded the 1965 act, increasing the total level of immigration and providing admission of immigrants from underrepresented countries. 

In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA).  This act was designed to address border enforcement and the use of social programs by immigrants. Sections of the reform include inadmissibility for an alien unlawfuIllegal Immigration Controversy – photo by Kyle Moore(129301)Credit: photo by Kyle Moorelly present for more than 180 days but less than one year, and who left the United States voluntarily before removal proceedings began. Bans occur for aliens ordered deported or who left the U.S. while an order of deportation existed for the individual. Bans range from five years to 20 years depending on the circumstance. 

Another section of the reform imposes a permanent bar to admission for illegal immigrants who were unlawfully present for an aggregate period of more than one year or who have been ordered deported, and who subsequently entered or attempted to enter the United States without being lawfully admitted. 

As part of the IIRIRA, the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents was increased and additional fences along the US.-Mexican border south of San Diego were built.  Though the measure was intended to provide tougher penalties for those engaged in fraudulent documentation, illegal immigrant smuggling, and greater control over welfare provided to illegal immigrants, the measure has come under great under criticism about its fairness, especially regarding detention and deportation hearings. 

Since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security has taken over many of the immigration service and enforcement functions formerly performed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).  Currently, the debate is heated as some states have enacted laws to curb illegal immigrants coming across their borders; advocates support amnesty for those already in the U.S.; and those opposed advocate for tougher controls.  



en.wikipedia.org (accessed February 6, 2013)

www.history.com (accessed February 6, 2013)

www.americanlaw.com (accessed February 6, 2013)

immigration-online.org (accessed February 6, 2013) 



The copyright of the article “History of Immigration to America” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.