History of US Immigration

At Meyer Law Group, we understand and appreciate the historical context of immigration to the United States. We recognize that the historical immigration experience differed greatly based on one’s home country and ethnic background.

Click the drop-down menus below to learn more about the history of immigration from Europe, Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America.

European Immigration to the United States

Immigration to the United States began after the “discovery” of the Americas by European explorers. In 1607, the first successful English settlement was established in Jamestown, Virginia. This marked the beginning of the first and longest wave of immigration to North America, lasting until the American Revolution.

British Immigration

British immigration to the United States began after the establishment of Jamestown, the first American settlement. The second successful settlement was Plymouth, founded in 1620 by the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims, and many other groups of English settlers, did not adhere to the teachings of the Church of England. They fled their homeland in order to practice their faith freely in the New World. Over time, the settlements grew in both number and size. British established the Thirteen Colonies in the United States and ruled from the mid-17th century until the American Revolution.

After America gained its independence, immigration from Britain fluctuated greatly. In the 19th century, emigration from Britain far outweighed immigration. “Between 1815 and 1914, approximately ten million people emigrated from Britain—about 20 percent of all European emigrants.” Many British citizens still chose to immigrate to America for better financial opportunities. As technology improved, immigration increased as the trip across the Atlantic Ocean became less dangerous. During the 19th century, more than half of British emigrants settled in the United States,.

After 1900, immigration to the United States from Britain decreased dramatically. WWI and WWII hugely reduced the number of British immigrants to the US. British citizens instead chose to immigrate to other British colonies such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Today, British immigrants make up less than 0.2% of the US immigrant population.

Irish Immigration

Irish immigrants were the second largest population in the first wave of immigration to the US, during the colonial era. These early Irish immigrants left Ireland due to religious conflict and dire economic conditions in hope of a better future in the United States. However, the Potato Famine of 1845 caused the second major wave of Irish immigrants to the US. Half a million Irish fled the devastating famine to start a new life in the United States. Between 1820 and 1930, an estimated 4.5 million Irish arrived in the United States.

“The Irish immigrants who entered the United States from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries were changed by America, and also changed this nation. They and their descendants made incalculable contributions in politics, industry, organized labor, religion, literature, music, and art.”

German Immigration

German immigrants were among the first settlers in North America. They helped the British establish Jamestown, the first successful colony in the New World. Like many other ethnic groups, the German settlers were drawn to America by the promise of economic opportunity and religious freedom.

By the mid-18th century, German immigrants accounted for 1/3 of the population of the colonies. Life in the United States seemed bright for Germans, “who were forced to endure land seizures, unemployment, increased competition from British goods, and the repercussions of the failed German Revolution of 1848.” In the 19th century, more than five million Germans left for the United States. The United States also became a refuge for German Jews fleeing antisemitic violence.

Today, more than 40 million Americans claim German ancestry and German culture heavily influences the American lifestyle. “German immigration to the United States continues to this day, though at a slower pace than in the past, carrying on a tradition of cultural enrichment over 400 years old—a tradition that has helped shape much of what we today consider to be quintessentially American.”

Italian Immigration

Although some Italian immigrants arrived in the US during the early colonial era, most Italians arrived between the early 1880s and the late 1920s. Disease, natural disasters, economic stagnation, ethnic division, and weak governance pushed millions of people from the Italian peninsula to take the journey to start a new life in America. By 1920, 4 million Italians lived in the United States.

Most Italian immigrants took their first steps on American soil at Ellis Island – a legendary location in New York in which more than 12 million immigrants entered the United States. WWII saw Italian Americans permanently join American culture – as 5% of the Italian American population served in the US military and even more worked to support the war efforts.

Scandinavian Immigration

Long before the 19th century, Scandinavian travelers first set foot in North America over a thousand years ago. In the 7th century, a group of Vikings led by Leif Erikson founded a settlement off coastal North America – centuries before the arrival of other European explorers.

By the 17th and 18th centuries, Scandinavian people felt oppressed by the limited religious and political freedoms in their homeland. They were encouraged to immigrate to the United States for a chance at a new life where they could practice their religion in peace. Each group of Scandinavian immigrants, such as those from Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Denmark, began arriving in the United States.

Most Scandinavian immigrants came from Sweden. However, Norway sent a larger percentage of its population than any other country other than Ireland. Most Scandinavian immigration stopped after the Immigration Act of 1924. Since then, Scandinavian immigration slowed to a few thousand a year and has remained largely unchanged.

Australian and New Zealand Immigration

Most immigrants from Australia and New Zealand are of British, Scottish, and Irish descent. The number of immigrants from these countries is minimal, as both enjoy high standards of living and are places people typically immigrate to rather than from. However, since the 1970s the number of immigrants from the continent has increased.  

Australian culture is very similar to that of the United States. Therefore, immigrants from Australia and New Zealand easily assimilate into American culture. Many immigrate for better business or work opportunities in the US. The United States has a strong relationship with both states and offers citizens the E-2 Visa for immigration.

African Immigration to the United States

The history of African American migration is not one of a voluntary search for a better life or to escape religious persecution. Instead, most Africans who arrived in North America from the 17th through the 19th century arrived involuntarily – caught in a merciless and inhuman system of slavery and human exploitation.

However, since the 1960s, the United States has seen a sharp increase in voluntary immigration from all over the continent of Africa. Many African immigrants are drawn to the United States to escape political turmoil and access better economic opportunities, just like most immigrants of the past. Between 2000 and 2019, the immigrant population of African descent grew 246%, from about 600,000 to over two million. This number is estimated to reach almost 10 million by 2060.

Caribbean Immigration

In recent decades, immigration from the Caribbean islands increased substantially. A large population of these countries are descendants of Africans who were taken to those islands during the era of slavery. Jamaica and Haiti account for the largest origin region for immigrants of African descent in the last 20 years and accounted for 31% of the Black immigrant population in 2019.

Sub-Saharan Immigration

Foreign-born African immigrant communities in the US are fairly new. In the 1970s, less than 1% of the immigrant population in the United States were born in Africa. Further, over 1/2 of the African-born population in the United States arrived after 2000. Immigration from Africa to the United States increased drastically after the Immigration Act of 1965. This law “replaced the nationality quota system with a new law that prioritized skilled labor, family reunification, and humanitarian concerns.”

Today, 53% of sub-Saharan African immigrants come from Nigeria, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, or Somalia. As of 2019, 4.6 million or one-in-ten Black people in the US were born in a different country. The US Census predicts that by 2060, this number will jump to 9.5 million. African immigrants are one of the largest growing immigrant populations in the US.

Asian Immigration to the United States

Asian immigrants played a major role in the development and industrialization of the United States. However, the vital role of Asian immigrants was not always recognized or appreciated in the United States. From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese Internment camps, Asian immigrants faced a long history of exclusion, inequity, and discrimination on the basis of race.

By 1924, all Asian immigrants (with the exception of Filipino nationals), “were fully excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization, forbidden from owning land, and prevented from marrying Caucasians.” Restrictions on Asian-Americans were only lifted in the mid-20th century.

Today, life in the United States is drastically different for Asian-Americans than it was in the past. According to a recent nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center, “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances, and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work, and career success.”

Chinese Immigration

Chinese immigration to the United States began in the mid-1850s when young men were recruited from Southern China to work as laborers, primarily in the West Coast. By 1870, 20% of California’s labor force was Chinese, even though they only made up .002% of the entire population. In 1882, Congress passed the “Chinese Exclusion Act,” which banned immigration and naturalization for Chinese citizens for over 60 years. This was the first law that explicitly restricted immigration for a specific racial group in US history. Chinese immigrants already in the United States were banned from gaining citizenship, thus forcing them to remain in the country as aliens. As a result of the exclusionary laws, Chinese Americans congregated in urban living areas where they formed strong, self-reliant communities commonly known as “Chinatowns.”

However, WWII brought Chinese immigrants further into US society as Chinese Americans joined the military and worked in war industries. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally removed from law and Chinese immigrants were again eligible for citizenship and immigration. The Chinese American population in the US doubled within ten years of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965.

Since then, the Chinese American community has changed. Instead of rural areas, today most Chinese immigrants come from urban hubs like Hong Kong. As of 2019, Chinese Americans are the third-largest immigrant group in the US. Today, immigration from China is increasing – almost half a million Chinese immigrants came to the US between 2015 and 2019.

Vietnamese Immigration

Beginning in the 1970s, Southeast Asian refugees immigrated to the United States after fleeing war, discrimination, and economic hardship. The first wave of Vietnamese immigration began in 1975 when the United States evacuated over 125,000 Vietnamese refugees. These refugees “fled communist re-education camps and the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam.”

After this initial group, more Vietnamese refugees and their families arrived. The Vietnamese foreign-born population in the US doubled every decade between 1980 and 2000. With a population of over 2 million, Vietnamese Americans represent one of the largest foreign-born groups in the country. 52% of all Vietnamese Americans live in either California or Texas. Vietnamese Americans are the fifth-largest immigrant group in the country.

Indian Immigration

Indian immigration to the US was very minimal before the 20th century due to India’s colonization by England. Only 523 Indians immigrated to the US between 1820 and 1898. However, after WWII and newfound independence in India, a large wave of Indian immigration began. During this time, Indians could move to the US, own land, and eventually become American citizens. Strict quota laws severely restricted the number of Indian immigrants allowed in the US per year. For example, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946 established a yearly quota of 100 Indian immigrants. After the implementation of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, all quotas were lifted and thousands of Indians immigrated to the US to pursue professional and educational opportunities.  

As of 2020, Indian Americans account for 6% of the US foreign-born population and are the second-largest immigrant group in the country. India currently accounts for the largest source of immigration to the US. Indian immigrants are 3x as likely to have a college degree than the general population, making Indians the best-educated ethnic group in the country. Despite Indians being the largest source of immigration to the US, the US is the second-most-popular destination for Indian immigrants behind the UAE.

Korean Immigration

Before the 1900s, immigration from Korea was minimal. Some students, workers, and politicians immigrated after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and Korea. Others, primarily laborers, immigrated to Hawaii to work on sugar and pineapple plantations. However, it was not until the Korean War that the largest wave of Korean immigrants arrived.

In the 1950s, the Korean War divided the peninsula into a battleground between the Soviet-backed North and the US-backed South. During this time, over 15,000 Koreans fled the ideological conflict. Most immigrants were the wives and children of US servicemen, students, businessmen, highly-skilled professionals, or politicians. An overwhelming number of Korean immigrants came from the South, as the strict dictatorship in the North prohibits immigration outside of the state. However, some North Koreans managed to successfully escape and defect to the United States.

Today, the number of Korean immigrants in the United States is on a sharp decline. Although, Korean immigrants are the fifth largest immigrant group from Asia and represent over 2% of the foreign-born population. Early waves of Korean immigrants in the US were predominantly low-skilled workers. However, more recent arrivals are typically highly educated with high incomes compared to the overall American population.

Latin American Immigration to the United States

The history of Latin American immigration to the United States begins with the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century. “Even as they forged indelible Hispanic imprints in large swaths of the American Southwest, Spanish settlers Hispanicized the South American continent. [It was an] epochal movement that poured the occidental nations of Europe over the New World.”

Whether from South America, Central America, or the Caribbean, Latin Americans comprise a large percentage of the US immigrant population.

Mexican Immigration

Although Mexico gained independence in the early 19th century, its weak military and political system made it vulnerable to American aggression. Eventually, Americans settled on land claimed by Mexico, leading to the US-Mexican War. The war ended with the United States acquiring about half of Mexico’s land, including modern-day Texas. The impact of the US-Mexican War was vital to the future of immigration from Mexico to the US. Social and “economic ties were deepened as Mexican workers were recruited to satisfy chronic and temporary labor shortages during the 19th and 20th century—an asymmetrical exchange that was facilitated by the maintenance of a porous border.”

Since then, Mexico has been one of the top sending countries for immigrants to the US. Mexican immigration over the last two centuries can be characterized by “manual laborers pushed northward mostly by crime, poverty, and unemployment and pulled into American labor markets with higher wages.“

Mexican immigrants also make up the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants. One of the largest factors that influenced unauthorized immigration from Mexico was the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The intention of NAFTA was to improve the relationship and economies of Canada, the US, and Mexico. However, NAFTA resulted in an increase in unemployment and a shrinkage of the labor force in Mexico, pushing more Mexicans to seek a more prosperous future in the US.

Mexican Americans previously made up Mexican immigrants make up the largest foreign-born immigrant group in the United States. However, the population decreased dramatically over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2019, the population declined by over 7% “due in part increased immigration enforcement and in part to a strengthening of the Mexican economy.” Since 2013, China and India surpassed Mexico as the top country of origin for immigrants to the United States.

South American Immigration

Immigrants from South America represent a very small fraction of the US immigrant population. Historically, the US was not the preferred destination for immigrants from South America. Most South American immigrants arrived in the Cold War era when authoritarian governments, poor economic conditions, and violent conflict drove immigration to the North.

Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru are the major immigrant sending nations in South America. All these countries experienced rapid increases in immigration during the 1970s. Most South American immigrants came to the US before the year 2000. Today, most South American immigrants immigrate through family reunification programs. In 2020, 68% of the South Americans who became permanent residents did so as immediate family or relatives of US citizens.  

Unauthorized immigration from South America is minimal compared to other states. However, Venezuela’s current economic and humanitarian crisis has pushed millions of people to flee the country. Most Venezuelan refugees fled to nearby states, such as Colombia and Peru. However, many have made the journey through Central America, to Mexico, and into the US.

Central American Immigration

Although some small immigrant groups from Central America immigrated to the US long before the 1970s, most immigration from this region occurred after. Political turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s, specifically in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, resulted in hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing the violence of their homelands.  

Most undocumented migrants at the US border today are from Central America. Poverty, violence, and food insecurity are the three major factors that push Central Americans to migrate North. Much of the violence in the region is driven by US drug consumption. Drug trafficking to the US passes through South and Central America, increasing the wealth and influence of gangs and corruption. Although these states are somewhat more stable than they were in the past, the long-term consequences of the economic disruption and violence caused a continuing growth of this population.

The Caribbean

In the 1960s and 1970s, immigration from the Caribbean soared. Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic became major sources of immigration to the US.

In Cuba, the largest wave of immigration began in 1959 after Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara overthrew the dictator Batista. Castro ruled Cuba under Marxist principles, leading to a mass arrival of nearly 100,000 Cubans by 1960. Between 1965 and the 1970s, Castro allowed Cubans to leave the state and reunite with family members abroad. This triggered a second wave of Cuban migration – nearly 300,000 arriving in the US. The exodus of Cubans forced the United States government to adhere to international refugee policy to accommodate the thousands of Cubans arriving. In the 1980s and 1990s, immigration from Cuba was severely restricted. However, this did not stop the thousands of Cubans who risked their lives and crossed the Straits of Florida. Very few Cubans successfully immigrated legally to the United States until diplomatic relations between the two states were restored in 2015.

In the Dominican Republic, immigration began after the death of Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo in 1961. The first waves of immigrants were relatively well-off, middle-class people escaping the political and economic turmoil of the dictatorship. The Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s pushed many Dominican immigrants to search for economic security in the United States. Since the 1980s, the vast majority of Dominican immigrants have been female. Today, more than 1 million immigrants from the Dominican Republic, represent about 2.5% of America’s foreign-born population.

For more than 100 years, Puerto Rico has been a US Territory. Puerto Ricans are US citizens and are free to move around the 50 states freely. Therefore, Puerto Ricans moving to the US are not considered immigrants, as they are migrating internally. At first, few Puerto Ricans left their home for the mainland US, despite severe poverty. However, at the end of WWII migration from Puerto Rico increased dramatically. Today, Puerto Ricans are one of the largest Hispanic-ethnic groups in the US. Furthermore, many are calling for statehood for Puerto Rico and the right to vote for Puerto Ricans.

Middle Eastern Immigration to the United States

Immigration to the United States from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has a long history – primarily tied to religious persecution and political conflict. The first documented immigrants to the United States from the MENA region arrived in the late 1800s, fleeing economic insecurity and religious persecution against Christians. However, this flow of migration ended abruptly after the government implemented harsh immigration restrictions in the 1920s.

A second major wave of MENA immigrants was triggered by the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. These migrants were primarily Palestinian, followed by Egyptians, Iraqis, and Syrians. However, this wave of migrants was significantly smaller than in the past, due to the restrictive nationality-based quota laws in place.

After the end of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, MENA immigration increased. Today, MENA immigrants migrate to the United States for a majority of reasons. For example family reunification, economic and educational opportunities, and humanitarian protection. Furthermore, the majority of Arab Americans today are Muslim, as compared to earlier periods of significant MENA immigration.

Due to the numerous humanitarian crises, an increasing number of immigrants from the MENA region arrived in the US as refugees. Primarily from Afghanistan and Syria, these migrants resettle in the United States through resettlement programs.

Sources for Additional Research

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