Today, the United States welcomes more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined. Illegal immigration is also an important social and economic phenomenon. It is impossible to exaggerate the role immigration has played in American history and American society.
Immigration from the British Isles to America during the colonial and early nationhood period of American history in the 17th and 18th centuries numbered considerably less than one million. This settlement was enough to establish a largely Protestant, English-speaking culture with some pockets of German speakers, also largely Protestant. Immigrants trickled in during the early years of the 19th century, but by about 1830, the pace began to quicken, due to political unrest in Europe. Germans and Irish began to arrive in significant numbers. Because of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, nearly three quarters of a million Irish people, almost all Catholic, arrived on American shores. Germans, even if Catholic, were able to assimilate rather well into American society, but the Irish people suffered discrimination and persecution for the remainder of the century.
Throughout the latter half of the 19th century, immigrant workers from China and Japan came to the United States, only to suffered severe persecution. Special laws were enacted specifically banning further east Asian immigration, at certain junctures, and specifically disabling these people from attaining permanent residency or citizenship.
Toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th, a different flood of immigrants came into the United States on steamships. These 25 million people came from Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland and the other Slavic countries. Some three million among them were Jews (who identified more with their religion that with the countries from which they had emigrated). Most of these people crammed into the large cities of the east and mid-west, forming their own neighborhoods, competing with each other, and gradually assimilating into the American mainstream. New York Harbor’s Ellis Island, a famed station for processing immigrants during this era, is the iconic representation of the immigrant experience. Swedes, Norwegians, and hundreds of thousands of French-Canadians also moved to the United States during this period.
In 1924, Congress passed an act that severely restricted immigration by establishing a quota system based on the percentage of population from individual countries as it stood in 1890, just before the big European wave. The Great Depression of the 1940s and World War II saw no mass immigration. The racially and ethnically restrictive laws stood until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act abolished national quotas and instead set a general limit of 170,000 immigrant visas a year, with preference to immigrants with family connections in the United States, and certain job skills. This precipitated a flood of immigration, legal and illegal, from all over the world, which is still going on.
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