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The history of immigration to the United States deals with the movement of people to the United States since the first European settlements in about 1600. Starting around 1600 British and other Europeans settled primarily on the east coast. Later Africans were brought as slaves. The United States experienced successive waves of immigration which rose and fell over time, particularly from Europe, with the cost of transoceanic transportation sometimes paid by travelers becoming indentured servants after their arrival in the New World. At other times, immigration rules became more restrictive. With the ending of numerical restrictions in 1965 and the advent of cheap air travel immigration has increased from Asia and Latin America.
Attitudes toward new immigrants have cycled between favorable and hostile since the 1790s.
The first successful English colony started in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Once tobacco was found to be a profitable crop, many plantations were established along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland.
This began the first and longest era of immigration, lasting until the revolution in 1775; during this time settlements grew from initial English toe-holds in the New World to the British America. It brought northern European immigrants primarily of British, German and Dutch extraction. From the mid-17th century the British ruled and were by far the largest group of arrivals. They were not exactly "immigrants" for they remained within the British Empire. Over 90% became farmers.
Large numbers of young men and women came alone, as indentured servants. Their passage was paid by employers in the colonies who needed help on the farms, or shops. They were provided food, housing, clothing and training but did not receive wages. At the end of the indenture (usually around age 21) they were free to marry and start their own farm.
A few hundred English Pilgrims, seeking their religious freedom in the New World, established a small settlement near Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Tens of thousands of English Puritans came to Boston, Massachusetts and adjacent areas from about 1629 to 1640 to create a land dedicated to their religion . The earliest New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire were established along the northeast coast. Large scale immigration to this region ended before 1700, but a small steady trickle of later arrivals continued.
The peak New England settlement occurred from about 1629 to about 1641 when about 20,000 Puritan settlers arrived mostly from the East Anglian parts of England (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, and East Sussex). In the next 150 years, their "Yankee" descendants largely filled in the New England states and parts of upstate New York.
The New England colonists were the most urban and educated of all the colonists and had many skilled farmers as well as tradesmen and skilled craftsmen among them. They started the first college, Harvard, in 1635 to train their ministers. They mostly settled in small villages for mutual support (nearly all had their own militias) and common religious activity. Shipbuilding, commerce, agriculture and fisheries were their main income sources. New England's healthy climate (the cold winters killed the mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects), small widespread villages (minimizing spread of disease) and abundant food supply resulted in the lowest death rate and highest birth rate (marriage was expected and birth control was not, and a much higher than average number of children and mothers survived) of any of the colonies. The eastern and northern frontier around the initial New England settlements was mainly settled by the descendants of the original New Englanders. Immigration to the New England colonies after 1640 and the start of the English Civil War decreased to less than 1% (about equal to the death rate) in nearly all years prior to 1845. The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~900,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate (>3%) and low death rate (<1%) per year.
The Dutch established settlements along the Hudson River in New York starting about 1626. Wealthy Dutch patroons set up large landed estates along the Hudson River and brought in farmers who became renters. Others established rich trading posts for trading with the Indians and started cities such as New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Albany, New York. After the British took over and renamed the colony New York, Germans (from the Palatine) and Yankees (from New England) began arriving.
Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware formed the middle colonies. Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers from Britain, followed by Ulster Scots (Northern Ireland) on the frontier and numerous German Protestant sects, including the German Palatines. The earlier colony of New Sweden had small settlements on the lower Delaware River, with immigrants of Swedes and Finns. These colonies were absorbed by 1676.
The middle colonies' settlements were scattered west of New York City (established 1626; taken over by the English in 1664) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (established 1682). The Dutch-started colony of New York had the most eclectic collection of residents from many different nations and prospered as a major trading and commercial center after about 1700. The Pennsylvania colonial center was dominated by the Quakers for decades after they emigrated, mainly from the North Midlands of England, from about 1680 to 1725. The main commercial center of Philadelphia was run mostly by prosperous Quakers, supplemented by many small farming and trading communities with a strong German contingent located in several small towns in the Delaware River valley.
Starting in about 1680, when Pennsylvania was founded, many more settlers arrived in the middle colonies. Many Protestant sects were encouraged to settle there by freedom of religion and good, cheap land. Their point of origin was about 60% British and 33% German. By 1780, in New York, about 27% of the population were descendants of Dutch settlers, about 6% were black and the rest were mostly English with a wide mixture of other Europeans. New Jersey and Delaware had a majority of British with 7-11% German-descended colonists, about 6% black population, and a small contingent of Swedish descendants of New Sweden. Nearly all were at least third-generation natives.
The colonial frontier was mainly settled from about 1717 to 1775 by mostly Presbyterian settlers from northern England border lands, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, fleeing bad times and persecution in those areas. The fourth main colonial center of settlement is the western frontier in the western parts of Pennsylvania and the South which was settled in the early-to-late 18th century by mostly Scots-Irish, Scots and others mostly from northern England border lands. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the 18th century. The Scotch-Irish soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Areas where people reported 'American' ancestry were the places where, historically, northern English, Scottish and Scots-Irish Protestants settled in America: in the interior of the South, and the Appalachian region.
The mostly agricultural Southern English colonies initially had very high death rates for new settlers from malaria, yellow fever and other diseases as well as Indian wars. Despite this, a steady flow of new settlers, mostly from central England and the London area, kept the population growing. The large plantations were mostly owned by friends (mostly minor aristocrats) of the British-appointed governors initially. Many settlers arrived as indentured servants who had to work off their passage with five to seven years of work for room and board, clothing and training, but no cash wages. After their terms of indentures expired, most of the indentures settled small farms on the frontier. The Southern colonies were about 55% British, 38% Black and roughly 7% German. The international slave trade mostly ended after 1775 and was outlawed in 1808, although some slaves were smuggled in.
The initial areas of settlement had been largely cleared of Indians by major outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and plague starting decades before the settlers began arriving in large numbers after 1630. The leading killer was smallpox, which arrived in the New World around 1510-1530.
While the 13 colonies had differences in detail on how they were settled and by whom, they had many things in common. Nearly all were settled and financed by privately organized groups of British settlers or families using private free enterprise without any significant English Royal or Parliamentary government support or input. Nearly all commercial activity in the colonies was run in small privately owned businesses with good credit both at home and in England being essential since they were often cash poor. Most settlements were nearly independent of trade with Britain as most grew or made nearly everything they needed—the average cost of imports per most households was only about 5-15 English pounds per year or less. Most settlements were done by complete family groups with several generations often present in each settlement. The population was typically rural with close to 80% of the families owned the land they lived and farmed on. As the Industrial Revolution progressed after 1700 more of the population started to move to the cities—just like what happened in Britain. Initially, the Dutch and German Americans, spoke their dialects brought over from Europe as their primary languages with English used as the main "trading" language. The governments at all levels were primarily copied after English governments and laws. The only British institution that was not copied was the aristocracy—noted by its nearly universal absence. The settlers generally established their own popularly elected governments and courts on as many levels as they could and were nearly all, within a few years, self-governing, self-supporting and self replicating. This self ruling pattern became so ingrained that almost all new settlements by one or more groups of settlers would have their own government up and running shortly after they settled down for the next 200 years.
Scots Irish American immigrants, were Scots from Scotland that had initially settled in Ireland. They were heavily Presbyterian, largely self-sufficient, and generally hostile to Indians and Catholics. They had little interaction with the mostly Catholic native born Irish culture before they immigrated. The Scots Irish came in large numbers in the early 18th century and they often preferred to settle in the back country and the frontier from Pennsylvania to Georgia where they mingled with "native" second generation or later born English settlers. They liked the very cheap land and independence from established governments common to frontier settlements.
17th to mid-19th century
According to the Dictionary of American History, approximately "50,000 to 100,000 Irishmen, over 75 percent of them Catholic, came to United States in the 1600s, while 100,000 more Irish Catholics arrived in the 1700s." Indentured servitude was an especially common way of affording migration, and in the 1740s the Irish made up nine out of ten indentured servants in some colonial regions
After the colonies were initially settled, they grew larger in population almost entirely by natural growth with foreign born immigrant populations rarely exceeding 10% (except in isolated instances). The last significant colonies to be settled mainly by immigrants were Pennsylvania (1680s+), the Carolinas (1663+) and Georgia (1732+). Even here the immigrants came mostly from England and Scotland with the exception of a large Germanic immigration contingent to Pennsylvania. Elsewhere internal American migration from other colonies (not immigration from Europe) provide nearly all of the settlers for each new colony or state. Colonial population growth is primarily by natural increase of the earlier immigrants and their descendants. Populations grow by about 80% at a 3% "natural" annual growth rate sustained over a 20 year interval.
Over half of all new British immigrants in the South initially arrived as indentured servants. They were mostly poor young people who couldn't find work in England and couldn't afford passage to America and repaid their passage costs by work contracts (indentures) from 5–7 years. In addition about 60,000 British convicts were transported to the new British colonies in Georgia in the 18th century. Most of these so-called convicts were mostly guilty of being very poor and out of work. "Serious" criminals were generally executed. Ironically, these "convicts" are often the only immigrants with nearly complete immigration records. The other immigrants typically showed up with few or no records.
Although Spain set up a few forts in Florida, notably San Agustín (present-day Saint Augustine) in 1565, they sent few settlers to Florida. Spaniards moving north from Mexico founded the San Juan on the Rio Grande in 1598, and Santa Fe in 1607-1608. The settlers were forced to leave temporarily for 12 years (1680–1692) by the Pueblo Revolt, but then returned.
Spanish Texas lasted between 1690 and 1821 when Texas was governed as a colony separate from New Spain. In 1731, Canary Islanders (or "Isleños") arrived to establish San Antonio. The majority of the few hundred people who colonized Texas and New Mexico in the Spanish colonial period drew their identity from the Spaniards and the criollos. California, New Mexico, and Arizona all had Spanish settlements. In 1781 Spanish settlers founded Los Angeles.
However, not all these settlers were of European descent. As in the rest of the colonies in the Americas, new settlements were based on the casta system, and although all could speak Spanish, it was really a melting pot made up of whites, Indians and mestizos.
In the late 17th century, French expeditions established a foothold on the Saint Lawrence River, Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. Interior trading posts, forts, and cities were thinly spread throughout Louisiana such as Saint Louis, Baton Rouge, Sault Sainte Marie, Prairie du Rocher, and Sainte-Geneviève. The city of Detroit was the third largest settlement in New France. New Orleans expanded when several thousand French-speaking refugees from the region of Acadia (now Nova Scotia, Canada) made their way to Louisiana following British expulsion; settling largely in the southwestern Louisiana region now called Acadiana. Their descendants came to be called Cajuns and still dominate the coastal areas. It is estimated that 7,000 European immigrants settled in Louisiana during the 18th century.
The following were the countries of origin for new arrivals to the United States before 1790. The regions marked with an asterisk were part of Great Britain. The ancestry of the 3.9 million population in 1790 has been estimated by various sources by sampling last names in the 1790 census and assigning them a country of origin. The Irish in the 1790 census were mostly Scots Irish. The French were mostly Huguenots. The total U.S. Catholic population in 1790 was probably less than 5%. The Indian population inside territorial U.S. 1790 boundaries was less than 100,000.
|U.S. historical populations|
|Country||Immigrants before 1790||Population 1790|
|Ireland*||8,000||(Incl. in Scot-Irish)|
The 1790 population reflected the approximate 50,000 Loyalists, or "Tories", who emigrated to Canada at the end of the American Revolution and the less than 10,000 others who emigrated to other British possessions including England.
The total white population in 1790 was about 80% British ancestry and roughly doubled by natural increase every 25 years. Since approximately 1675, the native born population of the U.S. has never fallen below 85% of the population.
Relentless population expansion pushed the U.S. frontier to the Pacific by 1848. Most immigrants came long distances to settle in the U.S. Many Irish, however, left Canada for the U.S. in the 1840s. French Canadians who came down from Quebec after 1860 and the Mexicans who came north after 1911 found it easier to move back and forth.
There was relatively little immigration from 1770 to 1830; indeed there was significant emigration to Canada, including about 75,000 Loyalists as well as Germans and other looking for better farms in what is now Ontario. Large scale immigration resumed in the 1830s from Britain, Ireland, Germany and other parts of Central Europe as well as Scandinavia. Most were attracted by the cheap farm land. Some were artisans and skilled factory workers attracted by the first stage of industrialization. The Irish Catholics were unskilled workers who built most of the canals and railroads, and settled in urban areas. Many Irish went to the emerging textile mill towns of the Northeast, while others became longshoremen in the growing Atlantic and Gulf port cities. Half the Germans headed to farms, especially in the Midwest (with some to Texas), while the other half became craftsmen in urban areas.
Nativism took the form of political anti-Catholicism directed mostly at the Irish (as well as Germans). It became important briefly in the mid-1850s in the guise of the Know Nothing party. Most of the Catholic and German Lutheran ethnics became Democrats, and most of the Protestants joined the new Republican Party. During the Civil War, ethnic communities supported the war and produced large numbers of soldiers on both sides. Riots broke out in New York City and other Irish and German strongholds in 1863, however, when a draft was instituted, particularly in light of the provision exempting those who could afford a payment in lieu.
Based on available records, immigration totaled 8,385 in 1820, with immigration totals gradually increasing to 23,322 by the year 1830; for the 1820s decade immigration more than doubled to 143,000. Between 1831 and 1840, immigration more than quadrupled to a total of 599,000. These included about 207,000 Irish, starting to emigrate in large numbers following Britain's easing of travel restrictions, and about 152,000 Germans, 76,000 British, and 46,000 French, constituting the next largest immigrant groups of the decade.
Between 1841 and 1850, immigration nearly tripled again, totaling 1,713,000 immigrants, including at least 781,000 Irish, 435,000 Germans, 267,000 British and 77,000 French immigrants. The Irish, with the Potato Famine (1845–1849) driving them, emigrated directly from their homeland to escape poverty and death. The failed revolutions of 1848 brought many intellectuals and activists to exile in the U.S. Bad times and poor conditions in Europe drove people out, while land, relatives, freedom, opportunity, and jobs in the US lured them in.
|Population and Foreign Born 1790 to 1849|
Census Population, Immigrants per Decade
|1. The total number immigrating in each decade from 1790 to 1820 are estimates.|
2. The number foreign born in 1830 and 1840 decades are extrapolations.
Starting only in 1820 some federal records, including ship passenger lists, were kept for immigration purposes, and a gradual increase in immigration was recorded; more complete immigration records provide data on immigration since 1830. Though conducted since 1790, the census of 1850 was the first in which place of birth was specially asked. The foreign-born population in the U.S. likely reached its minimum around 1815, at approximately 100,000 or 1.4% of the population. By 1815, most of the immigrants who arrived before the American Revolution had died, and there had been almost no new immigration.
Nearly all population growth up to 1830 was by internal increase; about 98.5% of the population was native-born. By 1850, this had shifted to about 90% native-born. The first significant Catholic immigration started in the mid-1840s, shifting the population from about 95% Protestant down to about 90% by 1850.
In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluding the Mexican War, extended U.S. citizenship to approximately 60,000 Mexican residents of the New Mexico Territory and 10,000 living in California. An additional approximate 2,500 foreign born California residents also become U.S. citizens.
In 1849, the California Gold Rush brought in over 100,000 would-be miners from the eastern U.S., Latin America, China, Australia, and Europe. California became a state in 1850 with a population of about 90,000.
Between 1850 and 1930, about 5 million Germans migrated to the United States with a peak in the years between 1881 and 1885, when a million Germans left Germany and settled mostly in the Midwest. Between 1820 and 1930, 3.5 million British and 4.5 million Irish entered America. Before 1845 most Irish immigrants were Protestants. After 1845, Irish Catholics began arriving in large numbers, largely driven by the Great Famine.
After 1880 larger steam-powered oceangoing ships replaced older sailing ships, which resulted in lower fares and greater immigrant mobility. Meanwhile farming improvements in southern Europe and the Russian Empire created surplus labor. Young people age 15 to 30 predominated among the newcomers. This wave of migration, which constituted the third episode in the history of U.S. immigration, could better be referred to as a flood of immigrants, as nearly 25 million Europeans made the long trip. Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others speaking Slavic languages constituted the bulk of this migration. Included among them were 2.5 to 4 million Jews.
Each group evinced a distinctive migration pattern in terms of the gender balance within the migratory pool, the permanence of their migration, their literacy rates, the balance between adults and children, and the like. But they shared one overarching characteristic: They flocked to urban destinations and made up the bulk of the U.S. industrial labor pool, making possible the emergence of such industries as steel, coal, automobile, textile, and garment production, and enabling the United States to leap into the front ranks of the world's economic giants.
Their urban destinations, their numbers, and perhaps an antipathy towards foreigners led to the emergence of a second wave of organized xenophobia. By the 1890s, many Americans, particularly from the ranks of the well-off, white, native-born, considered immigration to pose a serious danger to the nation's health and security. In 1893 a group of them formed the Immigration Restriction League, and it, along with other similarly inclined organizations, began to press Congress for severe curtailment of foreign immigration.
Irish and German Catholic immigration was opposed in the 1850s by the Nativist/Know Nothing movement, originating in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party(not to be confused with the modern Republican Party). It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Active mainly from 1854–56, it strived to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery, most often joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.
European immigrants joined the Union Army in large numbers, including 177,000 born in Germany and 144,000 born in Ireland. Many Germans could see the parallel between slavery and serfdom in the old fatherland.
Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians left Quebec to immigrate to the United States and settle, mainly in New England. Considering that the population of Quebec was only 892,061 in 1851, this was a massive exodus. 13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestry in the 1980 census. A large proportion of them have ancestors who emigrated from French Canada, since immigration from France was low throughout the history of the United States. During the same period almost 4 million other Canadians immigrated to the USA. In the New England states 12% of the population can trace their ancestry to Quebec and 10% from the Maritime Provinces.
Shortly after the U.S. Civil War, some states started to pass their own immigration laws, which prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1875 that immigration was a federal responsibility. In 1875, the nation passed its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, outlawing the importation of Asian contract laborers, any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own countries.
In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act stated that there was a limited amount of immigrants of Chinese descent allowed into the United States for 10 years. The law was renewed in 1892 and 1902.
Prior to 1890, the individual states, rather than the Federal government, regulated immigration into the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 established a Commissioner of Immigration in the Treasury Department. The Canadian Agreement of 1894 extended U.S. immigration restrictions to Canadian ports.
The Dillingham Commission was set up by Congress in 1907 to investigate the effects of immigration on the country. The Commission's 40-volume analysis of immigration during the previous three decades led it to conclude that the major source of immigration had shifted from central, northern and western Europeans to southern Europeans and Russians. It was, however, apt to generalizations about regional groups that were subjective and failed to differentiate between distinct cultural attributes.
The 1910s marked the high point of Italian immigration to the United States. Over two million Italians immigrated in those years, with a total of 5.3 million between 1880 and 1920. About a third returned to Italy, after working an average of five years in the U.S.
About 1.5 million Swedes and Norwegians immigrated to the United States within this period, due to opportunity in America and poverty and religious oppression in united Sweden-Norway. This accounted for around 20% of the total population of the kingdom at that time. They settled mainly in the Midwest, especially Minnesota and the Dakotas. Danes had comparably low immigration rates due to a better economy; after 1900 many Danish immigrants were Mormon converts who moved to Utah.
Over two million Central Europeans, mainly Catholics and Jews, immigrated between 1880 and 1924. People of Polish ancestry are the largest Central European ancestry group in the United States after Germans. Immigration of Eastern Orthodox ethnic groups was much lower.
Lebanese and Syrian immigrants started to settle in large numbers in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The vast majority of the immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were Christians, but smaller numbers of Jews, Muslims and Druze also settled. Many lived in New York City and Boston. In the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of these immigrants set out west, with Detroit getting a large number of Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as many Midwestern areas where the Arabs worked as farmers.
From 1880 to 1924, around two million Jews moved to the United States, mostly seeking better opportunity in America and fleeing the pogroms of the Russian Empire. After 1934 Jews, along with any other above-quota immigration, were usually denied access to the United States.
Congress passed a literacy requirement in 1917 to curb the influx of low-skilled immigrants from entering the country.
Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern Europeans and Russians who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. This ultimately resulted in precluding the all "extra" immigration to the United States, including Jews fleeing Nazi German persecution.
The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.
"New immigration" was a term from the late 1880s that came from the influx of immigrants from southern Europe and Russia (areas that previously sent few immigrants). Some Americans feared the new arrivals. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a "melting pot", or if it had just become a "dumping ground", and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics and culture.
Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914–1918) and into the early 1920s, Congress did change the nation's basic policy about immigration. The National Origins Formula of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. A complicated piece of legislation, it essentially gave preference to immigrants from central, northern and western Europe, severely limited the numbers from Russia and southern Europe, and declared all potential immigrants from Asia to be unworthy of entry into the United States.
The legislation excluded the Western Hemisphere from the quota system, and the 1920s ushered in the penultimate era in U.S. immigration history. Immigrants could and did move quite freely from Mexico, the Caribbean (including Jamaica, Barbados, and Haiti), and other parts of Central and South America. This era, which reflected the application of the 1924 legislation, lasted until 1965. During those 40 years, the United States began to admit, case by case, limited numbers of refugees. Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors after the war, non-Jewish displaced persons fleeing Communist rule in Central Europe and Russia, Hungarians seeking refuge after their failed uprising in 1956, and Cubans after the 1960 revolution managed to find haven in the United States because their plight moved the conscience of Americans, but the basic immigration law remained in place.
In 1934, the Tydings–McDuffie Act provided for independence of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. Until 1965, national origin quotas strictly limited immigration from the Philippines. In 1965, after revision of the immigration law, significant Filipino immigration began, totaling 1,728,000 by 2004.
In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed foreign-born wives of U.S. citizens who had served in the U.S. armed forces to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, The War Brides Act was extended to include fiancés of American soldiers who were also allowed to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, the Luce-Celler Act extended the right to become naturalized citizens to newly freed Filipinos and Asian Indians. The immigration quota was set at 100 people a year.
At the end of World War II, "regular" immigration almost immediately increased under the official national origins quota system as refugees from war torn Europe started immigrating to the U.S. After the war, there were jobs for nearly everyone who wanted one, including immigrants, while most women employed during the war went back into the home. From 1941 to 1950, 1,035,000 people immigrated to the U.S., including 226,000 from Germany, 139,000 from the UK, 171,000 from Canada, 60,000 from Mexico and 57,000 from Italy.
The Displaced Persons (DP) Act of 1948 finally allowed displaced people of World War II to start immigrating. Some 200,000 Europeans and 17,000 orphans displaced by World War II were initially allowed to immigrate to the United States outside of immigration quotas. President Harry S. Truman signed the first DP act on June 25, 1948, allowing entry for 200,000 DPs, and then followed by the more accommodating second DP act on 16 June 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. This quota, included acceptance of 55,000 Volksdeutschen, required sponsorship of all immigrants. The American program was the most notoriously bureaucratic of all the DP programs and much of the humanitarian effort was undertaken by charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and other ethnic groups. Along with an additional quota of 200,000 granted in 1953 and more in succeeding years, a total of nearly 600,000 refugees were allowed into the country outside the quota system, second only to Israel's 650,000.
In 1950, after the start of the Korean War, the Internal Security Act barred admission to any foreigner who was Communist, who might engage in activities "which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or would endanger the welfare or safety of the United States."
In 1950, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea started the Korean War and left a war ravaged Korea behind. There was little U.S. immigration because of the national origin quotas in the immigration law. In 1965, after revision of the immigration law, significant Korean immigration began, totaling 848,000 by 2004.
In 1952, the McCarran Walter Immigration Act affirmed the national-origins quota system of 1924 and limited total annual immigration to one-sixth of one percent of the population of the continental United States in 1920, or 175,455. The act exempted spouses and children of U.S. citizens and people born in the Western Hemisphere from the quota. In 1953, the Refugee Relief Act extended refugee status to non-Europeans.
In 1954, Operation Wetback forced the return of thousands of illegal immigrants to Mexico. Between 1944 and 1954, "the decade of the wetback", the number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico increased by 6,000 percent. It is estimated that, in 1954, before Operation Wetback got under way, more than a million workers had crossed the Rio Grande illegally. Cheap labor displaced native agricultural workers, and increased violation of labor laws and discrimination encouraged criminality, disease, and illiteracy. According to a study conducted in 1950 by the President's Commission on Migratory Labor in Texas, the Rio Grande valley cotton growers were paying approximately half of the wages paid elsewhere in Texas. The United States Border Patrol aided by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, as well as the military, began a quasi-military operation of search and seizure of all illegal immigrants. Fanning out from the lower Rio Grande valley, Operation Wetback moved northward. Illegal immigrants were repatriated initially through Presidio because the Mexican city across the border, Ojinaga, had rail connections to the interior of Mexico by which workers could be quickly moved on to Durango. The forces used by the government were actually relatively small, perhaps no more than 700 men, but were augmented by border patrol officials who hoped to scare illegal workers into fleeing back to Mexico. Ships were a preferred mode of transport because they carried the illegal workers farther away from the border than did buses, trucks, or trains. It is difficult to estimate the number of illegal immigrants that left due to the operation—most voluntarily. The INS claimed as many as 1,300,000, though the number officially apprehended did not come anywhere near this total. The program was ultimately abandoned due to questions surrounding the ethics of its implementation. Citizens of Mexican descent complained of police stopping all "Mexican looking" people and utilizing extreme "police-state" methods including deportation of American-born children who by law were citizens.
The failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution, before being crushed by the Soviets, forged a temporary hole in the Iron Curtain that allowed a burst of refugees to escape, bringing in 245,000 new Hungarian families to the U.S. by 1960. In the decade of 1950 to 1960, the U.S. had 2,515,000 new immigrants with 477,000 arriving from Germany, 185,000 from Italy, 52,000 new arrivals from the Netherlands, 203,000 from the UK, 46,000 from Japan, 300,000 from Mexico, and 377,000 from Canada.
After the Cuban revolution of 1959, led by Fidel Castro drove the upper and middle classes to exile, as 409,000 families emigrated to the U.S. by 1970. This was facilitated by the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gave permanent resident status to Cubans physically present in the United States for one year, if they entered after January 1, 1959.
This all changed with passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, a by-product of the civil rights revolution and a jewel in the crown of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. The measure had not been intended to stimulate immigration from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world. Rather, by doing away with the racially based quota system, its authors had expected that immigrants would come from the "traditional" sending societies such as Italy, Greece, and Portugal, places that labored under very small quotas in the 1924 law. The law replaced the quotas with preference categories based on family relationships and job skills, giving particular preference to potential immigrants with relatives in the United States and with occupations deemed critical by the U.S. Department of Labor. But after 1970, following an initial influx from those European countries, there were immigrants from places like Korea, China, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan, as well as countries in Africa.
In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed, creating, for the first time, penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants. IRCA, as proposed in Congress, was projected to give amnesty to about 1,000,000 workers in the country illegally. In practice, amnesty for about 3,000,000 immigrants already in the United States was granted. Most were from Mexico. Legal Mexican immigrant family numbers were 2,198,000 in 1980, 4,289,000 in 1990 (includes IRCA) and 7,841,000 in 2000. Adding in another 12,000,000 illegal immigrants of which about 80% are thought to be Mexicans would bring the Mexican family total to over 16,000,000—about 16% of the Mexican population.
The top ten countries of birth of the foreign born population in the U.S. since 1830, according to the U.S. Census, are shown below. Blank entries mean that the country did not make it into the top ten for that census, and not that there are no data from that census. The 1830 numbers are from immigration statistics as listed in the 2004 Year Book of Immigration Statistics. *The 1830 numbers list un-naturalized foreign citizens in 1830 and does not include naturalized foreign born. The 1850 census is the first census that asks for place of birth. The historical census data can be found online in the Virginia Library Geostat Center  Population numbers are in thousands.
|Total Foreign Born||108*||2,244||6,679||10,341||14,204||10,347||9,619||14,079||19,763||31,100|
|% Foreign Born||0.8%*||9.7%||13.3%||13.6%||11.6%||5.8%||4.7%||6.2%||7.9%||11.1%|
|% Native Born||99.2%||90.3%||86.7%||86.4%||88.4%||94.2%||95.3%||94%||92.1%||88.9%|
Source: US Department of Homeland Security, Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2010
|United States of America||9.7%||13.2%||14.4%||13.3%||14.8%||13.6%||14.7%||13.2%||11.6%||8.8%||6.9%||5.4%||4.7%||6.2%||7.9%||11.1%||12.9%|
|District of Columbia||9.5%||16.6%||12.3%||9.6%||8.1%||7.2%||7.5%||6.7%||6.3%||5.3%||5.3%||5.1%||4.4%||6.4%||9.7%||12.9%||13.5%|
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