Skip to main content

Migration: United States

Migration: United States

Amerindians, Pilgrim fathers, immigrants, slaves, AsianAmericans, Hispanicsall denote historical population groups in the United States and in the Americas, but each group is placed in a different frame of reference. All of them arrived as migrants with norms, values, and belief systems of their ancestors and premigration society as a whole. Before immigrating they also had experienced culture-specific material ways of life. They arrived at particular historic conjunctions and developed lifeways specific to the region or city in which they settled.

First Americans

Some thirty to fifty thousand years ago, peoples from Asia migrated across a land bridge, today's Bering Strait, into North America and beyond. Distinct linguistic groups and several complex cultures emerged, such as Hohokam farming and Pueblo culture in the southwestern mesas and a mound-building culture in the Ohio Valley. After 1492 the native populations of the Americas were gradually decimated by a combination of Eurasian germs and Old World arms. By the 1830s Amerindians had been forced to vacate all lands east of the Mississippi, and the U.S. Supreme Court had designated them as domestic dependent nations without sovereignty. By the 1870s white Americans had begun to speak of a "vanishing race," imagining Amerindians as the generic horse-mounted Plains "Indian." Though Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor (1881) initiated a public debate about the denigration of native peoples' cultures, the Dawes General Allotment Act (1887) dissolved tribesa term for cultural groups that suggests a primitive stage of developmentbased on the notion (implemented in 1924) that citizenship could only be conferred on individuals. Native Americans were confined to reservations, denied self-government, and deprived of their cultural practices. European-Americans developed the idea that "Indians" were dependent on government handouts. Over the next century, however, migration to the cities by native people and resistance by the American Indian Movement led to a slow reversal of government policies by the 1970s. Armed struggle, legal action, and self-organization by and on behalf of Native Americans forced U.S. governmental institutions and public opinion to revise their notions of "Indians" and to accept varying degrees of Native American self-determination.

Old World Migrants

Europeans from Scandinavia reached North America around 1000, and transpacific contacts probably also occurred early. Lasting European contact seems to have begun with the establishment of Basque, English, and Portuguese fisheries off the Newfoundland shores. In the mid-sixteenth century invasion forces as well as settlers from New Spain had reached present-day New Mexico. The territories of the north, known for their fur economies, were targeted by numerous large European mercantile companies and dynasties. The gentlemen adventurers in Virginia and the religious colonizers in New England would eventually provide a profitable return on the investments of such companies that financed their voyages. Since demand for male and female laborers exceeded the available migrants, several European states established a system of indentured servitude by which poor men and women sold their labor for a number of years in return for passage to North American or Caribbean colonies. Such redemptioners were free after serving for a period of between three and seven years. This system of bound white labor ended in the 1820s, although "free" departure under severe economic constraints lasted.

Racial and Religious Hierarchy

To increase the labor supply in the southern colonies of North America and in the Caribbean colonies, men and women from Africa were transported to the Americas and sold as slaves. To the 1830s more Africans than Europeans arrived in the Americas. The forced migration of African people occurred in stages, thus preventing them from reestablishing their lives in terms of ethnocultural groups. African Americans were relegated to a status as domestic dependents. The American concept of e pluribus unum applied only to freeborn white Europeans, who were the model of Michel Crèvecoeur's new American man (Letters from an American Farmer, 1782). Twentieth-century scholarship reconceptualized the process of the (re)peopling of the Americas, examining not just the history of free migration but that of involuntary (economically induced) migration, forced migration, and destruction of the Amerindians.

Migration to the United States during the nineteenth century, from the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, has traditionally been divided into two stages that involved two different regions of origin and thus two different "racial" groups: an early agrarian "old" immigration from west-central and northern Europe and an urban "new" immigration from eastern and southern Europe starting in the mid-1880s. The distinction dates from the late nineteenth century, when the darker-complected "new immigrants" were considered racially inferior. The Eurocentric perspective covers the vast majority of newcomers, but importation of enslaved Africans, outlawed in 1808, continued illegally. Chinese of several cultural groups from the empire's southern provinces and other migrants from Asia arrived from the mid-1840s in Pacific Coast cities as merchants, prospectors, and credit-ticket laborers. The racial hierarchy of white America was extended to Mexican-Americans following territorial gains of the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. The process of hierarchization included religion along with race, placing non-Christian Africans, "heathen" Chinese, and Roman Catholic "papists" in categories below that of white Anglo Protestants.

Only one-third of the migrants to the United States in the 1840s were agriculturalists. Eastern European farming families first arrived in the 1840s, while the northern European industrial laborers came after the 1880s. On average the male-female ratio stood at 60 to 40. The new states in the West sought to increase their economic potential and revenues, and the fast-growing industries in the East actively recruited newcomers from Europe. Railroad construction companies did the same in Asia. An anti-immigrant or nativist movement emerged in the 1850s; exclusion of "the Chinese"a summary term for people from different cultures and dialects from the empire's southern provinceswhich was first attempted in 1879, became law in 1882. The designation immigrant, once reserved for newcomers from Europe and contrasted to sojourners from Asia, reveals a dichotomy, with emigrants as the complementary term used in Europe. Agrarian settler families, who sold their possessions before departing for America, could hardly return to their native lands, but labor migrants often came as temporary workers. Return migrants, estimated at 7 million from the 1820s to the 1930s, were not counted by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics before 1907: The image of "immigration country" captured statisticians' minds and prevented them from even looking for returnees. The emigrantimmigrant dichotomy also hides internal migrants: Europe's societies of origin experienced far more internal migration than emigration; like the North American societies, most were labor-importing ones. U.S. internal migration, rather than being merely a westward colonization and mining movement, involved west-east rural-to-urban migration, the so-called Great Migration of AfricanAmericans from southern agriculture to northern industries, as well as numerous other smaller moves.

Twentieth Century

Similarly problematic is the cultural classification of European migrants into "ethnic groups," a differentiation denied "Asians," "Indians," or "Negroes." European migrants were regionally diverse, nation-states having only come into being in the nineteenth century. Thus the nation-to-ethnic-enclave paradigm constituted an ahistoric simplification. At the end of the century biological-racist classifications (scientific racism) were increasingly applied to European newcomers from eastern Europe ("dark"), from Italy ("olive"), or of Jewish faith and excluded nonwhite populations from other continents altogether. While U.S. gatekeeper elites demanded Anglo conformity or assimilation, newcomers suggested a "melting pot" concept, a term that became popular after Israel Zangwill's play of that title of 1908. The prescription for Anglo conformity excluded by definition peoples from Europe's peripheries. Conceptual exclusion was paralleled by legal exclusion. Congress enacted restrictions on the open-door policy of admission to the United States starting in the 1880s. Further restrictions were legislated in 1917 and 1924. To access other labor reserves, men from Mexico were admitted under specific provisions covering temporary labor. With the closing of the front door facing the Atlantic, a back door on the Rio Grande was opened. The Pacific door was left ajar for merchants and students, in the interest of trade and cultural expansion. When scientific racism subsided, the paradigm of uprootedness emerged as a new hierarchization. While immigrants were recognized as "making the American people" (Handlin), immigrants in general and the Irish in particular were considered as suspended between cultures and thus in need of help with assimilation. Many European immigrants of the late 1940s and 1950s had in fact been uprooted but by war and forced labor campsearning status as displaced personsrather than by migration.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality (Hart-Celler) Act intended to end discrimination of migrants based on skin color or cultural origin. A merit-based point system favored skilled, professional, and highly educated men and women in order to boost U.S. economic performance. The underlying assumption that Europeans could meet the new immigration criteria was wrong, and the composition of migration to the United States changed totally. Transatlantic migration subsided after Europe's recovery from the devastations of World War II with the exception of departures from southern European societies and refugees from the socialist countries. In contrast, transpacific migration from developed societies in Asia with high educational performance increased and surpassed transatlantic migration by the 1970s. Wage differentialssometimes offset by cost-of-living levelsattracted men and women from low-wage societies in Asia. A humanitarian aspect of the point system and the citizenship legislation permitted highly qualified migrants to bring relatives regardless of their levels of qualification and English-language skills. U.S. soldiers stationed in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War led to the first "war bride" migration, and in the aftermath of Vietnam large numbers of refugees arrived in the United States in the mid-1970s. A further, but temporary, incentive for Chinese to migrate to the United States was the return of Hong Kong to the People's Republic of China in 1997.

Intracontinental northbound migration from Mexico and the Caribbean as well as from other Latin American states surpassed transpacific migration in the 1980s. Mexican laborers and laboring families continued to be recruited seasonally or without legal work documents. Puerto Rican (internal) and other Caribbean (external) migrants arrived in large numbers; Cuban exiles were hosted, while Haitian refugees were rejected. U.S.. governmental support for right-wing regimes in several Latin American states resulted in an exodus of political refugees. While Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Hispanics in general created civil rights movements, advocates of "whiteness" initiated another racial debate about "the browning" of the United States and generated new calls for conformity. Undocumented migrants, upon whom certain economic sectors relied, were offered legitimization, that is, were given legal status. From the mid-1960s on scholarship on the subject of migration departed from the ethnic-group and migrant-dislocation paradigms. Scholars observed the ability of migrants to function and negotiate in two cultures, to create relations between cultural groups, to fuse multiple elements into multicultural lives and hybrid forms of expression. The perspective of women's studies brought inclusion of migrant womensince the 1930s about one-half of all migrants to the United Statesinto the historical narrative (Gabaccia). However, race and culture continued to be reflected in scholarship. The experiences of African-Americans were studied separately under the heading of slavery, while research on Asian or Hispanic migrants utilized the model of European experience. Migrant origins, once nationalized, both as regards communities of origin and destinations, were regionalized as well as integrated into continental, hemispheric, or global migration systems (Gilroy; Hoerder; Ruíz; Takaki). Nation-or multicultural-state superstructures lost centrality of position in the analysis but remain important in establishing legal and institutional frames for admission (or rejection) and inclusion (or exclusion). Emphasis on exchange between cultural groups and on negotiating identities is reflected in concepts of diasporic belongings and societal embeddedness as well as in transnational or transcultural capabilities to chart life projects and develop ways of everyday life under conditions of high mobility (Portes; Rumbaut; Foner).

See also America ; Assimilation ; Black Atlantic ; Diasporas ; Slavery .

bibliography

Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian, from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Conniff, Michael L., and Thomas J. Davis. Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, eds. The Latino/a Condition: A Critical Reader. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000.

Gabaccia, Donna. From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 18201990. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Gilroy, Paul. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1951.

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 18501990. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Hoerder, Dirk, ed. Labor Migration in the Atlantic Economies: The European and North American Working Classes during the Period of Industrialization. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Jackson, James H., Jr., and Leslie Page Moch. "Migration and the Social History of Modern Europe." In European Migrants: Global and Local Perspectives, edited by Dirk Hoerder and Leslie Page Moch. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Kelley, Robin D. G., and Earl Lewis, eds. To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén G. Rumbaut. Legacies: The Story of Immigrant Second Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Ruíz, Vicki L. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Rumbaut, Rubén G., and Alejandro Portes. Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

Thernstrom, Stephan, ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Zhou, Min, and James V. Gatewood, eds. Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Dirk Hoerder

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Migration: United States." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. 12 Dec. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Migration: United States." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Encyclopedia.com. (December 12, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/migration-united-states

"Migration: United States." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved December 12, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/migration-united-states

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.