The history of large-scale immigration to America began with the Puritan settlement in what were to become the thirteen original Colonies. After the Revolution, there was a pronounced lull in immigration for nearly seventy years until the Irish started arriving in the 1840s in flight from the potato famine.
Over the next forty years, immigration alternately surged and plunged. As the nineteenth century progressed, the main source of American immigrants shifted from northern Europe to southern and eastern Europe. Transportation became cheaper as railroads penetrated every corner of Europe and steamships grew in size, thereby making the passage to America more available to the poor. Specific events, like the 1881 pogrom in Russia or regional harvest failures, were responsible for triggering temporary waves of increased immigration. In 1875 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility, and in 1891 the Immigration Service was established to deal with it.
The outbreak of World War I all but stopped the flow of Europeans into America, but mass immigration resumed upon the war’s conclusion. Jews, Italians and a new generation of Irish walked through “the Golden Door” of Ellis Island. Just as the American narrative of “a nation of immigrants” was being established, however, a concern developed among the native born that they would be swamped by the new arrivals. In 1921 Congress passed a new immigration policy commonly known as the national-origins Quota Act, which was revised three years later in the Immigration Act of 1924. In 1929 the yearly maximum, or quota, was fixed at 150,000 -- a total that still left the United States far and away the world’s largest recipient of immigrants.
The legislation of the early 1920s also addressed the issue of ethnic balance in immigration. The 1921 Act allocated, by country of origin, annual quotas equal to 3 percent of that nation’s existing ethnic stock in the U.S. as of 1910. In 1924, this was amended to 2 percent of a nation’s existing ethnic stock in the U.S. as of 1890, in order to avoid over-rewarding groups that had already benefited immensely from the great immigration wave between 1890 and 1910.
These quotas dramatically increased the number of immigrants from northwestern Europe and decreased those from southeastern Europe. (The Russian Revolution had just occurred, and American authorities feared the arrival of this contagion on native grounds.)
Immigration regulations remained stable for the next four decades until everything was radically transformed by the 1965 Immigration Act, which set the ceiling for immigrants from the Western hemisphere at 120,000 per year while earmarking fully 170,000 slots for immigrants from nations outside the Western Hemisphere. For the first time in American history, non-Europeans formed the dominant immigrant group, the new arrivals hailing predominantly from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Middle East. Between 1968 and 1993, fully 85 percent of the 16.7 million legal immigrants arriving in the United States during that period came from the Third World – including 47 percent from Latin America and the Caribbean, and 34 percent from Asia.
In the 1980s and 1990s, immigration policies were further altered when the U.S. government granted amnesty (in 1986) to illegal aliens, primarily Mexicans who had begun crossing the border in growing numbers in search of work.
Legal immigration in the 1990s exceeded that of the previous historical peak decade of 1901-1910, when 8.8 million legal immigrants came to America. Today the United States admits between 700,000 and 900,000 legal immigrants each year.
To view some key resources that explore the history of, and various trends in, legal immigration to the United States, click here.
Despite what was seen as a one-time amnesty (in 1986), illegal immigration has grown into a profound social problem that has become a significant battle in the culture war. Estimates of the number of illegal aliens currently residing in the United States range from 12 million to 20 million.
The RESOURCES column located on the right side of this page contains links to articles, essays, books, and videos that explore such topics as:
- the major trends that have characterized legal immigration over the course of American history;
- the major trends that have characterized illegal immigration in recent times;
- the costs that illegal immigration has imposed on American society in terms of crime, welfare spending, and education costs;
- how a lack of immigration-law enforcement has made it easier for terrorists to enter the United States and carry out their attacks;
- measures that can be taken not only to curtail or prevent future illegal immigration, but also to reduce the number of illegals already living in the United States;
- the provisions of a controversial 2010 Arizona law designed to curtail illegal immigration;
- the profound ramifications of Islamic immigration into Europe; and
- how Mexico -- whose officials work to undermine U.S. immigration laws -- is extremely harsh in its treatment of people who attempt to enter its territory illegally.