Immigrants to North America

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Immigrants to North America






An immigrant is a migrant who crosses an international boundary in the process of entering a new country and eventually establishing residence there. Immigrants differ from tourists because they eventually settle in the foreign country, whereas tourists eventually return home without establishing any settlement. The individual does not have to enter the country with the intention of settling, nor does the individual have to permanently settle. In some cases the migrant may move back and forth between one or more countries and the home country. Although in this case the migration is not permanent, the individual is considered a migrant. In contrast, an emigrant is a migrant who crosses an international boundary in the process of leaving a country with the intention of establishing residence elsewhere. A person who crosses an international boundary and enters a new country without establishing a new residence is a tourist or a visitor.

In every international migration, a migrant is simultaneously an immigrant and an emigrant. A key element in the definition of an immigrant is the establishment of a permanent residence in the new country. This usually means residence in the country of destination of at least one year, and is referred to as long-term immigration. The number of long-term immigrants in the world has increased steadily in recent decades, from 75 million in 1965, to 120 million in 1990 (Martin 2001), to 190 million in 2006 (United Nations 2006). Approximately 3 percent of the worlds population in 2006 was composed of long-term immigrants.

The motivations for immigration vary, but the most common is economic. Migrating for economic reasons is particularly important for persons moving from less developed countries to more developed countries (defined as all the countries of Europe and North America, plus the countries of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan). Most immigration is to the more developed countries. Of the 190 million long-term immigrants in the world in 2006, 115 million resided in more developed countries (United Nations 2006).

Regarding the net gain or loss of international migrants, between 1995 and 2000 the United States had a net gain (immigrants minus emigrants) of more than 6.2 million immigrants, far surpassing the nearly 2 million net gain received by Rwanda, the country with the second-largest number. China experienced the largest net loss of immigrants during the period 1995 to 2000, with almost 2 million more emigrants than immigrants. Mexico had the second-highest net loss, more than 1.5 million more emigrants than immigrants (United Nations 2003).


There are push and pull conditions facilitating migration in all countries of the world. In order for an individual or group to decide to migrate there typically needs to be a push from the mother country and/or a pull to the receiving country. These factors can be occupational, financial, or a variety of personal reasons. Other than these individual factors that encourage immigration, there are also contextual factors that pull migrants to the receiving countries. Once in these countries many migrants are pulled into so-called ethnic enclaves (Borjas and Tienda 1987). Such communities help individuals transition into life as immigrants by providing support and environments much like those in their mother countries.

Migration is most likely to happen between countries that are geographically close together. For the United States this means that most immigration comes from Mexico and Central America, due to proximity. Recently, however, a large number of migrants have come to the United States from China. Even though China is geographically distant from the United States, making migration difficult and expensive, the push and pull factors of China and the United States are strong.


More than 98 percent of the residents of the United States are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. In the United States in 2000, only 4.3 million people, or 1.5 percent, identified themselves as American Indians or Alaska Natives (Ogunwole 2006). Native Americans and Alaska Natives have resided in North America for as many as 40, 000 years before the arrival of the first immigrants. They populated areas throughout North and South America, and many coexisted with European settlers until the eighteenth century, when most were eliminated through either disease or war. These conflicts continued through the late 1800s, when only a fraction of Native Americans remained (Purcell 1995).

In 1598 Spanish settlers first came to the United States for the purpose of colonization. They exploited the land and the indigenous peoples, but differed from earlier explorers in that most remained permanently in the United States. They settled mainly in the present-day southwestern United States and throughout Florida (Purcell 1995).

The first major influx of European immigrants to the United States was from England, with settlement mainly along the east coast in the present state of Virginia (Purcell 1995). The first permanent English settlement was Jamestown in Virginia, established in 1607. These early immigrants mainly lived off the profits from tobacco crops. Tobacco proved to be a profitable but labor-intensive pursuit and eventually spearheaded the immigration of British indentured servants and African slaves. Indentured servants usually came voluntarily to escape the economic downturns in England. The landing of the pilgrims on Plymouth Rock in 1620 marked the beginning of a great influx of English migrants who came to settle in the New World for religious freedom (Purcell 1995). These early immigrant groups of the 1600s and 1700s established the basic context of American society. English was the dominant language in America; English legal and government documents were the norm; and culture was for two centuries copied after English literature, drama, and art (Purcell 1995, p. 5). This early British model of American society would serve as the basis for future discrimination and exclusion of some immigrants over the next two centuries.

The forced migration of hundreds of thousands of Africans as slaves also occurred during this period. The first African slaves in the United States were purchased in Jamestown in 1619. This initial forced migration of Africans included only twenty persons, and the slavery of Africans was slow to develop in the colonies because of the use of Native Americans and white indentured servants for slave labor. However, by 1690 there were more African slaves in the United States than white indentured servants (Purcell 1995). The exploitation of African slaves in early America enabled the United States to compete in and eventually dominate the world market. The slave trade ended in 1807, but slavery persisted in the United States until the end of the Civil War (18611865). However, the system of racism upon which slavery was founded is engrained in the United States and remains a hurdle for African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities in the United States.

The Dutch came to America in the 1600s and claimed much of present-day New York (Purcell 1995). Swedish immigrants also came to the New World during this era, but were less successful than the British and Dutch settlers. These early European settlers created a stable life in America, which eased the immigration of others from Europe.

Scotch-Irish immigrants came to America for economic reasons and settled mainly in Pennsylvania. The seventeenth century also saw an influx of German immigrants who were largely motivated by war in Germany. The Germans were the largest non-British and non-English-speaking immigrant group to come to America, and they retained much of their culture. These cultural differences made the Germans one of the first European immigrant groups to experience discrimination from earlier settlers.

Before 1830 the contribution of immigration to population growth in the United States was small. Between 1821 and 1825, for example, the average number of immigrants every year was only about 8, 000. This figure increased to almost 21, 000 between 1826 and 1830. From 1841 to 1845 immigrants to the United States each year numbered more than 86, 000. In the eight years between 1850 and 1857, the total number of immigrants to the United States was 2.2 million. In sum, between 1790 and 1860 the total number of immigrants to the United States was almost 5 million, and most of these were from Europe (Taeuber and Taeuber 1958).

The combination of pro-immigration campaigns and the reduced cost and ease of transcontinental transportation increased immigration drastically during this period. There was a second influx of German and Irish immigrants. German immigrants came to the United States and found work in established industry, aiding in the overall development of U.S. commerce. Irish immigrants, mostly Catholics, suffered severe discrimination that reached a peak in the mid-1850s with the emergence of the Know-Nothings, an anti-Catholic organization dedicated to maintaining the dominance in the United States of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. The end of the nineteenth century also saw immigration from Scandinavian countries. These immigrants sought land for farming and developed the mostly unsettled Midwest.

Chinese first entered the United States shortly after the beginnings of the California Gold Rush in 1849. An estimated 288, 000 Chinese entered the United States during this period, although many returned to China before 1882 (Black 1963). Like most immigrants, the Chinese first came to the United States as laborers in search of work and wages. The port of entry for most Chinese immigrants during this first period was San Francisco, and to this day the Chinese name for San Francisco is Jiu Jin Shan, or Old Gold Mountain. The Chinese were subjected to hostile discrimination because many American workers were threatened by the low wages the Chinese were willing to take. With the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Chinese immigration tapered off, eventually halting by the end of the twentieth century (Pedraza and Rumbaut 1996).

Overlapping with early Chinese immigration was increased immigration from eastern and southern Europe. These immigrants were not as welcome as the previous European immigrants because the old immigrants thought these new immigrants would take their jobs (Purcell 1995). The new immigrants were Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Slavs who spoke different languages and had slightly different physical features than western Europeans. They were subjected to discrimination, but were able to assimilate into white American culture with passing generations.

Currently the largest numbers of immigrants to the United States are from Asia and Mexico. These immigrants come to the United States for many of the same reasons the European immigrants came in earlier years. Population booms and increased industrialization combined with the economic opportunities of the United States created the push and pull factors that increased emigration from Asia. The Asian immigrants are able to move into ethnic enclaves where they find jobs and homes among people from their countries of origin. They are often criticized for not assimilating into mainstream white American culture (Portes and Rumbaut 1990).

The end of the twentieth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century has seen the immigration of millions of Mexicans to the United States. Like many newcomers to the United States, Mexicans come to find work and higher wages. Mexican migrants are subjected to the same discrimination as earlier immigrants groups (Hay 2001). Americans of Mexican descent vary in their levels of assimilation, based mostly on how long they or their forebears have been in the United States.


Immigration was not a concern in early America, and no laws or policies regulated it on a national level, but the new U.S. Constitution did deal with the issue of naturalization, that is, the process by which an individual becomes a citizen (Purcell 1995). The Articles of Confederation allowed aliens to naturalize as American citizens after two years in the United States, something that was not previously allowed under British rule (Gabaccia 2002). These policies, however, did not apply to white indentured servants or to blacks. This was especially reflected in the Aliens Acts of 1798, which required aliens to register and allowed the president to deport any individuals deemed dangerous. The laws expired in 1801 when Thomas Jefferson took office, and the citizenship waiting period increased to five years (Purcell 1995). estrictions on certain groups based on race, ethnicity, or national identity continue to influence immigration policy in the United States even today.

One of the most notable laws restricting immigration to the United States was the Chinese Exclusion Act of May 6, 1882, which reflected the public concern about the large numbers of Chinese who had come to the United States to provide inexpensive labor for the construction of the transcontinental railroad. This law suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years; permitted Chinese who were in the United States as of November 17, 1880, to stay, travel abroad, and return; prohibited the naturalization of Chinese; and created the so-called Section 6 exempt status for Chinese teachers, students, merchants, and travelers, who were admitted on the presentation of certificates from the Chinese government.

The next significant exclusionary legislation was the Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States of May 1892, better known as the Geary Act. It allowed Chinese laborers to travel to China and reenter the United States, but its provisions were otherwise more restrictive than preceding immigration laws. The Geary Act required Chinese to register and to secure a certificate as proof of their right to be in the United States; those who failed to do so could be put into prison or deported. Other restrictive immigration acts affecting citizens of Chinese ancestry followed (King and Locke 1980). The Chinese Exclusion Act and later exclusionary laws were the first to use the concept of an illegal alien (Pedraza and Rumbaut 1996).

The next major policy relating to immigrants was the Immigration Act passed in 1917 that increased the head tax on immigrants to $8.00 and required incoming immigrants to pass literacy tests. The Immigration Act also established several new categories for exclusion, including vagrants, alcoholics, and the psychopathically inferior (Purcell 1995, p. 82). This law required the potential immigrant to be able to read a passage in English or another language. It also extended the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese to all Asians.

In 1921 further restrictions were passed setting quotas based on nation of origin. In 1924 Congress took this one step further by passing the National Origins Act, which restricted the total number of immigrants to 150, 000; the division of the quotas reflected the American population enumerated in the 1890 census. This was done in an effort to restrict immigration mainly to those from Great Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany while reducing immigration from all Asian countries and severely restricting the immigration of Italians, Slavs, Jews, Greeks, and other southern and eastern Europeans (Purcell 1995).

From the 1920s to the 1950s immigration in the United States changed. The Great Depression and World War II (19391945) ushered in a period of slow, and sometimes negative immigration, resulting in a net loss. The only significant immigration was from Mexico under the Bracero Program, which admitted Mexican male workers while Americans were overseas. In 1952 the Immigration and Naturalization Act was passed, maintaining most of the quotas set forth by the National Origins Act of 1924 (Hay 2001).

The next major law regarding immigration policy was the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which became law in 1968. This act ended the national origins quota and allowed the immigration of family members of those already living in the United States, as well as individuals in certain occupations. It also ended the restrictions on Asian immigration and limited immigration from the Western Hemisphere as a whole to 120, 000 (Hay 2001). The change in law produced an influx of immigrants from previously unrepresented countries such as many in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.


Immigrants have been subjected to discrimination from individuals and from institutions in the United States (Feagin and Eckberg 1980) that have limited their access to the means of success in the United States. Because patterns of discriminationindividual and institutionalserved to exclude some groups from full participation in the society, their access to the historical moments of opportunity that presented themselves over time also varied (Pedraza and Rumbaut 1996, p. 17). The experiences of discrimination that immigrants have endured vary by race, ethnicity, nationality, and time of immigration.

Assimilation is the process by which individuals become a part of the greater American culture. In order to succeed in America, common thought has dictated that individuals must assimilate into the dominant culture, thought to be composed of white, Protestant individuals of European descent. Cultural pluralism, or multiculturalism (Gordon 1964), the accepted notion of assimilation in the United States today, entails that all groups retain their uniqueness but come together to form a diverse and distinct American culture. However, immigrants are not given the same opportunities to assimilate based on their ethnicity, race, or the circumstances surrounding their immigration. In the early centuries of the United States, assimilation into white dominant culture was an easier task because of the racial, ethnic, and national similarities that were shared among immigrants from Europe. Their transitions into the dominant culture were not necessarily effortless or quick, but were less difficult than those of later generations of foreign immigrants.

In many ways, immigration to the Americas introduced the concept of whiteness and what it meant to be considered white or nonwhite. [T]he founding fathers drew a boundary around the nation and its citizens with unequal access to naturalization by race and nationality (Gabaccia 2002, p. 60). The distinction between whites and nonwhites was evident and was even spelled out in government documents. Nonwhites were said to be biologically inferior to whites, and scientific arguments were developed to show that whites were smarter, healthier, and altogether stronger. The dominant culture held that Africans, Jews, Italians, and Slavs were inferior to British, German, and Scandinavian immigrants from earlier generations (Gabaccia 2002). Unfortunately, this sentiment was very popular throughout the United States during the end of the 1800s and into the 1900s, and groups such as the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 helped to bring these ideas to the American public. Subsequent laws restricting the immigration of certain groups were not surprising given the racist attitudes of the time.

Some believe that immigrants can have negative impacts on their receiving countries, although a considerable literature shows the opposite (Bean and Stevens, 2003). Immigrant workers sometimes affect the wages of natives (Engerman and Jones 1997): Generally, immigrants are willing, or are forced, to work for lower wages than natives. Accordingly, some lower-prestige occupations disproportionately hire immigrants for lower wages rather than pay natives the higher wages they demand. These issues have the greatest impact in areas of high ethnic concentration (Borjas and Tienda 1987). Immigrants since the 1970s tend to have lower levels of education than previous generations of immigrants, and educational achievement is not likely to increase substantially with time because immigrants typically need to concentrate on earning income rather than education (Martin and Taylor 1998).

From the African slaves working on farms, to the Chinese immigrants building the railroad and working in the gold mines, to the European immigrants participating in the development of American industry, the contribution of immigrants is evident in every aspect of American life. Although their contribution is undisputable, much immigration policy is still founded on the restriction and exclusion of different groups. U.S. immigration has increased steadily over time, with immigration from European countries declining, and immigration from Asian and Latin American countries increasing. Presently, U.S. immigration legislation deals largely with issues of undocumented immigrants and refugees. Efforts to control immigration during the past three decades have included the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which aimed to control undocumented immigrants, and the second Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1990, which reduced the numbers of family-related admissions and focused on immigration for those in professional occupations, such as doctors, professors, and other highly educated individuals. In 2006 laws were proposed to stop and control undocumented immigration, mostly from Mexico. The study of immigration shows clearly the undeniable role that immigration has had on America and American culture. The contribution of immigrants is a major foundation of the United States and will continue to be important in every aspect of American life.

SEE ALSO Assimilation; Colonialism; Migration; Xenophobia


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Rachel Traut Cortes

Dudley L. Poston Jr.

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Immigrants to North America