Immigration—Almost Four Hundred Years of U.S. History

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Chapter 1
ImmigrationAlmost Four Hundred Years of U.S. History

From its beginning the United States has been a land of immigrants. People have come from all nations seeking free choice of worship, escape from cruel governments, and relief from war, famine, or poverty. All came with dreams of a better life for themselves and their families. The United States has accommodated these people of diverse backgrounds, customs, and beliefs, although not without considerable friction along the way.

On the eastern shore of the peninsula that is now Florida, Spanish conquistadors established a settlement in 1565. The city of St. Augustine survived to become the oldest continuously occupied settlement of European origin in North America. However, the series of northern colonies gained far more attention in history. In Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island (2002), Dennis Wepman chronicles the immigrants who built the United States. Not long after English settlers established the first permanent colony on the James River in 1607, the French developed a settlement on the St. Lawrence River in what is now Canada. Dutch explorers soon built a fur trading post along the Hudson River. Swedes settled on the Delaware River. German Quakers and Mennonites joined William Penn's experimental Pennsylvania colony. Jews from Brazil, Protestant Huguenots from France, and Puritans and Catholics from England all came to escape persecution of their religious beliefs and practices.

During the colonial period many immigrants came as indentured servantsmeaning that they were required to work for four to seven years to earn back the cost of their passage. To the great aggravation of the colonists, some were convicts who accepted being shipped across the ocean as an alternative to imprisonment or death. Wepman estimates that as many as fifty thousand British felons were sent to the colonies. The first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants, but other Africans were soon brought in chains to be slaves.

A continual flow of immigrants provided settlers to develop communities along the Atlantic coast, pioneers to push the United States westward, builders for the Erie Canal and the transcontinental railways, pickers for cotton in the South and vegetables in the Southwest, laborers for U.S. industrialization, and intellectuals in all fields. Together, these immigrants have built, in the opinion of many people, the most diverse nation in the world.

The 1790 census in the United States showed a population of 3.2 million white people and 757,000 slaves, according to Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung, in Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1790 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Division, and States (September 2002, All were immigrants or descendants of earlier seventeenth- and eighteenth-century arrivals. The population was predominantly English but also included people of German, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, French, and Spanish descent. Native Americans were not counted.


Even though immigration was the way of life in the country's first century, negative attitudes began to appear among the already settled English population. Officially, however, with the major exception of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the United States encouraged immigration. The Articles of Confederation (drafted in 1777) made citizens of each state citizens of every other state. The U.S. Constitution (written in 1787) made only one direct reference to immigration. Article I, Section 9, Clause I provided that the "Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person." Article I also gave Congress power to establish "a uniform rule of naturalization" to grant U.S. citizenship.

Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798

Early federal legislation established basic criteria for naturalization: five years' residence in the United States, good moral character, and loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. These requirements were based on state naturalization laws. In 1798 the Federalist-controlled Congress proposed four laws, collectively called the Alien and Sedition Acts:

  • The Naturalization Act lengthened the residence requirement for naturalization from five to fourteen years.
  • The Alien Act authorized the president to arrest and/or expel allegedly dangerous aliens.
  • The Alien Enemies Act allowed the imprisonment or deportation of aliens who were subjects of an enemy nation during wartime.
  • The Sedition Act authorized fines and imprisonment for acts of treason including "any false, scandalous and malicious writing."

The Sedition Act was used by the Federalist administration to arrest and silence a number of newspaper editors who publicly opposed the new laws. The strong public outcry against the Alien and Sedition Acts was partly responsible for the election of Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican presidential candidate, in the election of 1800. Jefferson pardoned the individuals convicted under the Sedition Act. The Naturalization Act was repealed by Congress, and the other three laws were allowed to lapse.


In the early 1800s U.S. territory more than doubled in size with the addition of 828,000 square miles of land, which came to be known as the Louisiana Purchase. Reports of rich farmland and virgin forests provided by explorers such as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark drew struggling farmers and skilled craftsmen, merchants and miners, laborers, and wealthy investors to leave Europe for the land of opportunity. The Office of Immigration Statistics reports in 2005 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (November 2006, that in 1820, the year when immigration records were first kept, only 8,385 immigrants entered the United States. During the 1820s the number began to rise slowly, an increase that generally continued for more than a century, until the Great Depression in 1929.

Wave of Irish and German Immigration

Europe suffered from a population explosion in the 1800s. As land in Europe became more and more scarce, tenant farmers were pushed off their farms into poverty. Some immigrated to the United States to start a new life. This situation was made worse in Ireland, when a fungus that caused potato crops to rot struck in 1845. Many of the Irish were poor farmers who depended on potatoes for food. They suffered greatly from famine when their crops rotted, and epidemics of cholera and typhoid spread from village to village. The Irish Potato Famine forced people to choose between starving to death and leaving their country. In the ten-year period between 1830 and 1839, 170,672 Irish people arrived in the United States. (See Table 1.1.) Driven by the potato famine, between 1840 and 1849 the number of Irish immigrants rose more than 284% to 656,145. The flow of emigrants from Ireland peaked at more than 1,029,486 in the 1850s.

Also affected by a potato famine and failed political revolutions, increasing numbers of German immigrants paralleled that of the Irish. Between 1850 and 1859 the number of German immigrants (976,072) was not far behind the Irish (1,029,486). (See Table 1.1.) The influx of Germans continued to rise to a peak of more than 1.4 million immigrants between 1880 and 1889.

Immigration, Politics, and the Civil War

This new wave of immigration led to intense anti-Irish, anti-German, and anti-Catholic sentiments among Americans, many of whom had been in the United States for only a few generations. It also triggered the creation of secret nativist societies (groups professing to protect the interests of the native-born against immigrants). Out of these groups grew a new political party, the Know Nothing movement (later known as the American Party), which claimed to support the rights of Protestant, American-born voters (and by implication, men, as women were not allowed to vote in federal elections until ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920). The American Party managed to win seventy-five seats in Congress and six governorships in 1855 before the party dissolved.

Felix S. Cohen explains in Immigration and National Welfare (1940) that in contrast to the nativists, the 1864 Republican Party platform, written in part by Abraham Lincoln, stated, "Resolved, That foreign immigration, which in the past has added so much to the wealth, development of resources, and increase of power to the nation, the asylum of the oppressed of all nations, shall be fostered and encouraged by a liberal and just policy."

In 1862 Lincoln had signed the Homestead Law, which offered 160 acres of free land to any adult citizen or prospective citizen who agreed to occupy and improve the land for five years. Wepman notes that between 1862 and 1904 more than 147 million acres of western land were claimed by adventurous citizens and eager new immigrants. In addition, efforts to complete a transcontinental railroad during the 1860s provided work for predominantly Irish and Chinese laborers.

Immigration by region and selected country of last residence, 18202005
Region and country of last residencea1820 to 18291830 to 18391840 to 18491850 to 18591860 to 18691870 to 18791880 to 18891890 to 18991900 to 1909
Austria-Hungaryb, c, d3,37560,127314,787534,0592,001,376
    Austriab, d2,70054,529204,805268,218532,416
Germanyc, d5,753124,726385,434976,072723,734751,7691,445,181579,072328,722
Russiac, k862805204231,67035,177182,698450,1011,501,301
United Kingdomh, m26,33674,350218,572445,322532,956578,447810,900328,759469,518
Other Europe34079495901,070145514
Hong Kong
Other Asia311111632481,0464,4079,215
Canada and Newfoundlando, p2,29711,87534,28564,171117,978324,310492,8653,098123,067
Mexicop, q3,8357,1873,0693,4461,9575,1332,40573431,188
    Dominican Republic
    Other Caribbeanr3,06111,79211,80312,4478,75114,28527,32331,480100,960
Central America5794297512701732796497,341
    Costa Rica
    El Salvador
    Other Central America5794297512701732796497,264

The Civil War (186165) seemed to have little impact on immigration. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in 2005 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (2006,, notes that even though the number of immigrants dropped from 153,640 in 1860 to just under 92,000 in both 1861 and 1862, there were 176,282 new arrivals in 1863, and the numbers continued to grow.

Immigration by region and selected country of last residence, 18202005 [continued]
Region and country of last residencea1820 to 18291830 to 18391840 to 18491850 to 18591860 to 18691870 to 18791880 to 18891890 to 18991900 to 1909
South America4059571,0623,5691,5361,1091,9541,38915,253
    Other South America4059571,0623,5691,5361,1091,9541,38915,253
Other Americat
South Africa3548239
Other Africa144256773252425743636,326
New Zealand392112
Other Oceania16121511871,0275,0901,5941,164
Not specifiedt, u19,52383,5937,36674,39918,24175479014,11233,493
Region and country of last residencea1910 to 19191920 to 19291930 to 19391940 to 19491950 to 19591960 to 19691970 to 19791980 to 19891890 to 1999
Austria-Hungaryb, c, d1,154,72760,89112,53113,574  113,015   27,59020,38720,43727,529
    Austriab, d589,17431,3925,3078,393   81,354   17,57114,23915,37418,234
    Hungaryb565,55329,4997,2245,181   31,661   10,0196,1485,0639,295
Belgium32,57421,5114,01312,473   18,885    9,6475,4137,0287,077
Bulgariae27,1802,8241,062449       97     5981,0111,12416,948
Czechoslovakiaf101,18217,7578,475    1,624    2,7585,6545,6788,970
Denmark45,83034,4063,4704,549   10,918    9,7974,4054,8476,189
Finland16,9222,4382,230    4,923    4,3102,8292,5693,970
Franceg60,33554,84213,76136,954   50,113   46,97526,28132,06635,945
Germanyc, d174,227386,634119,107119,506  576,905  209,61677,14285,75292,207
Greece198,10860,77410,5998,605   45,153   74,173102,37037,72925,403
Irelandh166,445202,85428,19515,701   47,189   37,78811,46122,21065,384
Italy1,229,916528,13385,05350,509  184,576  200,111150,03155,56275,992
Netherlands46,06529,3977,79113,877   46,703   37,91810,37311,23413,345
Norway-Swedeni192,445170,32913,45217,326   44,224   36,15010,29813,94117,825
    Norwayi79,48870,3276,9018,326   22,806   17,3713,9273,8355,211
    Swedeni112,957100,0026,5519,000   21,418   18,7796,37110,10612,614
Polandc223,31625,5557,577    6,465   55,74233,69663,483172,249
Portugalj82,48944,8293,5186,765   13,928   70,568104,75442,68525,497
Romania13,56667,8105,2641,254     914    2,33910,77424,75348,136
Russiac, k1,106,99861,6042,463605     453    2,32928,13233,311433,427
Spainl53,26247,1093,6692,774   6,880   40,79341,71822,78318,443
Switzerland22,83931,7725,9909,904  17,577 19,1938,5368,31611,768
United Kingdomh, m371,878341,55261,813131,794195,709220,213133,218153,644156,182
Yugoslavian49,2156,9202,039   6,966 17,99031,86216,26757,039
Other Europe6,52722,4349,9785,584  11,756  6,8455,2453,44729,087
Asia269,736126,74019,23134,532 135,844358,6051,406,5442,391,3562,859,899
China20,91630,6485,87416,072   8,836 14,06017,627170,897342,058
Hong Kong 13,781 67,047117,350112,132116,894

Post-Civil War Growth in Immigration

Post-Civil War America was characterized by the rapid growth of the Industrial Revolution, which fueled the need for workers in the nation's flourishing factories. The number of arriving immigrants continued to grow in the 1870s, dominated by people from Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway. (See Table 1.1.) Opposition to immigration continued among some factions of established citizens. Secret societies of white supremacists, such as the Ku Klux Klan, formed throughout the South to oppose not only African-American suffrage but also the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and rapid naturalization of foreign immigrants.

Immigration by region and selected country of last residence, 18202005 [continued]
Region and country of last residencea1910 to 19191920 to 19291930 to 19391940 to 19491950 to 19591960 to 19691970 to 19791980 to 19891990 to 1999
Other Asia7,5005,9946,0167,85414,08440,494174,484483,601637,116
Canada and Newfoundlando, p708,715949,286162,703160,911353,169433,128179,267156,313194,788
Mexicop, q185,334498,94532,70956,158273,847441,824621,2181,009,5862,757,418
    Dominican Republic1,0264,80210,21983,552139,249221,552359,818
    Other Caribbeanr120,86070,7136,22914,59321,03750,443127,712120,725131,243
Central America15,69216,5116,84020,13540,20198,560120,374339,376610,189
    Costa Rica4311,9654,04417,97512,40525,01717,054
    El Salvador5974,8855,09414,40529,428137,418273,017
    Other Central America15,65216,2262,660
South America39,93843,0259,99019,66278,418250,754273,608399,862570,624