One of the most oft-repeated phrases one hears in the current discussion over U.S. immigration policy is that “America is a nation of immigrants.” This is merely a tautological statement that is true of any nation. Immigration to American has been more recent than to most other countries, and did radically alter its demographic make-up in a short period of time during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. However, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about the history of immigration to the United States and what that means in the the present context.

Read more about the history of migration to the Americas


Immigration to Colonial America

Obviously, there was no national immigration policy before there was a nation, but immigration to the American colonies was regulated, although, in a variety of ways.  During the Colonial Period, 1607-1775, annual immigration to the American colonies totaled about 3,500.1 From very early on, labor needs of drove the immigration policies of the various colonial governments. The majority of early immigrants from Europe came to America as indentured servants, including many English, Irish, Scots-Irish, and Germans.  As the limited term of labor offered by indentured servants proved inconvenient to colonial landowners, as did their demand for land and political rights after they had served fulfilled their contract, larger landowners increasingly turned to slave labor from Africa. The history of the Atlantic slave trade, while an integral part of American history, is not part of the history immigration to America.
                                                        Approximate annual average admissions (1660 – 1775): 3,500 IMMIGRANTS
1Roy Beck, The Case Against immigration: The Moral, Economic, Social, and Environmental Reasons for Reducing U.S. Immigration Back to Traditional Levels (New York: W.W. Norton),  p. 50.

Read more about the history of immigration to Colonial America


Immigration to Early America
“As a so-called immigrant nation, the United States is not much different from all other nations which at one time were infused with immigrations from other lands; all but a handful, though, eventually declared themselves mature societies no longer desiring the   transplantation of new populations.”   - Roy Beck, The Case Against Immigration

By the mid-1700s most population growth in the colonies besides was due to natural growth of exiting populations. Immigration levels at this time were between 3,500 and 5,000 annually.2 The numbers of immigrants crossing the Atlantic remained low after that United States of America became an independent nation. An already difficult and dangerous journey had been made even more unenticing by prolonged war, and many Europeans who might have made the journey to American in an earlier era otherwise found work at home as the Industrial Revolution was beginning in Europe.

In 1790, the year the first national census was taken, the U.S. population was 3.9 million.  That same year [link to immigration laws] Congress passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act act requiring an alien to have established residence in the United States for beginning the naturalization process. Naturalization was limited to “free white persons,” which excluded indentured servants and all non-whites. Immigration did increase moderately during the first three decades of the newly-formed United States, but remained well below 10,000 annually. Until 1808, when the importation of slaves to American was outlawed by Congress, most foreigners came to the United States against their will from Africa.
                                                        Approximate annual average admissions (1776-1819): 6,500
2Thomas J. Archdeacon, “European Immigration from the Colonial Era to the 1920s: A Historical Perspective,” People of America Foundation, p. 4.

Read more about Immigration to Early America


The Onset of Industrialization and “Manifest Destiny”

In 1820, the federal government began to officially tally annual admissions of immigrants, and, immigration to the United State was 8,385 and remained at this level until 1827 when it more than doubled to 18,875 and continued to rise over the next two decades, reaching its peak at over 425,000 in 18154, until the outbreak of the Civil War. By 1820, “.... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federaltive development of self government entrusted to us. It is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.”                    - John L. Sullivan, 1845     signs of the Industrial Revolution were evident in the United States, though largely confined to northeastern cities. While industrialization was a factor in attracting immigrants, it was not yet the driving factor. Following the Louisiana Purchase, which nearly doubled the size of the United States, there was a vast new territory that was sparsely populated by Europeans. Settlers were encouraged to move westward, and immigration was seen as a way to populate and “civilize” the Indian territories. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), himself the child of Scots-Irish immigrants from what is today Northern Ireland, was influential in promoting these policies. In the 1840s the concept of Manifest Destiny was promoted by the Democratic Party to argue that it was that Americans had the divine right to settle to entire continent. This period also coincided with the Irish Potato Famine, when, during the mid-1840s, when almost a quarter million Irish a year emigrated, many to the United States.
                                                        Annual average admissions (1819-1859): 123,000

Read more about Immigration, Early Industrialization, and Manifest Destiny


Civil War and the Peopling of a Continent

The foreign-born increased 85 percent just from 1850 to 1860 (from 2.24 to 4.14 million). A good many of these immigrants ended up fighting in the Civil War, including 140,000 Irish immigrants who fought for the Union. Altogether, about 620,000 soldiers, about 2 percent of the entire population, died during the Civil War. However, the U.S. population continued to grow even during the war years, as immigration began a steady ascent – though still averaging less than a fourth of today’s level. After the war, the settlement of the American West began in earnest, propelled by the passage of the Homestead Acts, and immigration was aided by improvement in land and sea travel. It was during this period that many American Indian groups were forced off their lands and/or died after coming in contact with settler. While the overwhelming majority of the natives died due to the exposure to epidemic diseases for which they lacked immunity, violence was used to force Indians off of their land and ever westward.  What the Indians saw as the white man’s insatiable desire for land was driven by the expanding population driven by immigration from Europe.
                                             Annual average admissions (1860-1879): 241,000

Read more about immigration, the Civil War, and the Settling of the American West


The Second Industrial Revolution and the Great Wave

During the Great Wave of immigration (1880-1924), 26.3 million immigrants came to the United States. This is the what most people, consciously or not, are refer to when they say that “America is a nation of immigrants” for it is during this 44-year period that the demographics and culture of American was truly transformed by immigration. Before 1880, immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and by Catholics and Jews had been relatively small, with the one exception the sizeable number of Irish Catholics who came during the worst years of the Potato Famine (not to be confused with Irish Protestants who also came in large numbers, generally referred to in the U.S. as Scots-Irish). For example, the Catholic population in 1850 was only 5 percent of the total U.S. population, but at the turn of the 20th Century it had risen to 17 percent.


There have always been “push” factors, incentives in immigrants’’ home countries that compelled them to emigrate to America.  During the Great Wave a variety of factors, such as population increase, economic pressures, warfare, political unrest, and religious persecution compelled millions of Europeans to cross the Atlantic. There are also “pull” factors that lure immigrants to America. For some, there was a dream of true economic and personal freedom that did not exist in their native country. What has always existed is the demand for increased numbers of foreign labor by employers, who wish to keep labor costs as low as possible. This demand established the practices of indentured servitude and and later slavery in early America, and when the United States began its heavy industrialization, Europe offered a large supply of laborers who would work long hours in dangerous conditions for very little pay. A bitter irony for many immigrants who left Europe to avoid factory work had little choice but to work in U.S. factories. 

While immigration during this period was much higher than the United States had experienced before, the average annual flow was a little more than half of today’s numbers. Immigration patterns followed economic and political circumstances in Europe and the United States. A severe depression in America the 1890s caused a severe drop in immigration, which rebounded at the turn of the 20th Century. Annual admissions did not reach a million until 1905, and the crest of the Great Wave was in 1907 when 1.3 million immigrants came to America. Following the outbreak of World War I, immigration from Europe fell off considerably, and once the United States fell into the Great Depression, immigration rates remained very low relative to the overall U.S. population size until the 1970s.
                                                        Annual average admissions (1880-1924): 584,000

Read more about the Great Wave



Reactions to the Great Wave

Strong political opposition to the mass immigration the defined the late-19th Century America. This opposition coalesced during the “Progressive Era”, which lasted roughly from 1880 to 1920. The progressive movement was not confined to any one political party or to a core set of issues, and it included politicians as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, and Woodrow Wilson. Some progressives were instrumental in winning passage of the 18th Amendment resulting in Prohibition; others fought for women’s suffrage. The opposition to mass immigration Progressives was driven by concerns for worker’s rights, the fight against poverty, disease, and crime in large industrial cities, and the fight against political corruption, such as New York City’s Tammany Hall. Many Progressives were from affluent background and were concerned that the excesses of the “Gilded Age” may cause lead to more radical political solutions such as Socialism, which had strong support among some immigrant groups.


Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most prominent Progressives and is well-known to Americans as the 26th President and one of the four faces on Mount Rushmore. As president, Roosevelt sought more regulation of the immigration system and the Immigration Act of 1907 passed during his second term restricted immigrant admissions and required detailed information on those who entered the United States for better statistical record keeping.
Roosevelt’s main passion, perhaps, was working to protect the environment and preserving America’s natural resources. After immigration levels again rose to the height of the Great Wave, the connection between immigration and environmental protection came to the fore, though its roots have been established almost a century earlier.

To waste, to destroy, our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by rights to hand down to them."
-Theodore Roosevelt, 1907

Immigration Returns to Historic Norms: Assimilation and the Rise of the
Middle Class

With the outbreak of World War I (1914-1918) and America’s intervention in the fighting in Europe in 1917, immigration drop precipitously. Between 1914 and 1915 admission went from 1.2 million to 327,000, and reached a low-point of 111,000 in 1918. The flow of immigration rebounded after the war, but still remained well below Great Wave levels, averaging 486,000 from 1919 to 1924.

The Immigration Act of 1924, signed by President Calvin Coolidge, put an end to the era of mass immigration to the United States and imposed caps on the number of immigrants from any one European country in a given year.



Earliest migration to the Americas back

The first known migration to the Americas occurred around 25,000 years ago as humans crossed into North America from Asia across a land bridge atop the Bering Strait. There were various waves of migration, as early immigrants moved or were pushed further south.  The Inuit population living in Alaska came to America relatively recently compared to other groups who crossed over the present-day Bering Straits.  In 1996 there was much controversy created when skeletal remains, now known as “Kennewick Man” were found along the Columbia River in Washington State.  Carbon testing put the fossils at over 9,000 years old, and the shape of the skull caused anthropologists to reevaluate the established narrative of which group was the first to settle North America.

The first Europeans in North America are thought to be Vikings who established semi-permanent fishing camps in what is today Newfoundland in Canada. And of course, Christopher Columbus, sailing for the newly united Imperial Spain, recently  discovered the “New World” in 1492, even though he steadfastly refused to believe it was previously uncharted territory. The Americas were named by a German cartographer after the Florentine explorer, Amerigo Vespucci.

Spain and Portugal took the lead in colonizing the Americas, with other European powers establishing permanent settlements in the 17th Century. England and France became the colonial powers in North American, and the United States of America was formed in 1783 from 13 former British colonies following the Revolutionary War.

Immigration to the Colonies back

The diversity of British colonial types – proprietary, royal, and charter colonies – as well as French, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish colonies, meant that there were different rules determining who could settle in their territories.  As Europe’s population begin to swell during the 17th and 18th Centuries, immigration to overseas colonies was encouraged by European governments, and the European population in North America slowly but steadily grew during leading in the years leading up to American Revolution. 
Europeans came to North American for various reasons. Some came as colonizers to settle new territory for the crown. Some came in Some came to escape religious persecution. Others came as to escape prison. The practice of primogeniture, or the custom of passing the land holdings onto the first born son, in England motivated many “Second Sons” to seek their fortune overseas.

England was not the first European nation to colonize North America, nor was it the strongest power in the New World until the 18th Century, as England also began to exert naval dominance in Europe and beyond. England ousted the Dutch from New Amsterdam (which became New York) and fought with the French for control of territories in Canada and the American colonies (French and Indian War or Seven Years War, 1754-1763). Spain never had a strong presence in North America, and after England defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 its ability to prevent the growing English presence there effectively ended.

England’s approach to colonizing North America was to transplant large numbers of its citizens across the Atlantic, as well as having colonial administrators in place who were under the authority of the crown. Accordingly, many English political, legal, economic, and cultural practices were transplanted to the American colonies, although there were profound regional differences in how these developed over time. Immigration after 1965 has transformed the demographics of the United States, but it can’t change the history of the country. Two main groups that came to America and formed its culture were Western Europeans and West Africans.  The dominant legal and political influences were Anglo-Saxon. Protestant Christianity was the predominate religious and social force. back

Immigration to Early America back

Immigration, Early Industrialization, and Manifest Destiny back

Immigration, the Civil War, and the Settling of the American West back

Paddy’s Lament

The Great Wave back

Statue of Liberty back

Black Americans during the Great Wave back

Suggested Further Reading back