From its earliest days, America has been a nation of immigrants, starting with its original inhabitants, who crossed the land bridge connecting Asia and North America thousands of years ago. By the 1500s, the first Europeans, led by the Spanish and French, had begun establishing settlements in what would become the United States.
The Pilgrims in the early 1600s, arrived in search of religious freedom. They were soon followed by a larger group seeking religious freedom, the Puritans, who established the Massachusetts Bay Colony. By some estimates, 20,000 Puritans migrated to the region between 1630 and 1640.
From the 17th to 19th centuries, hundreds of thousands of African slaves came to America against their will. By 1680, there were some 7,000 African slaves in the American colonies, a number that ballooned to 700,000 by 1790, according to some estimates. Congress outlawed the importation of slaves to the United States as of 1808, but the practice continued. The U.S. Civil War (1861-1865) resulted in the emancipation of approximately 4 million slaves.
Many immigrants came to America seeking economic opportunities. However, because the price of passage was steep, an estimated one-half or more of the white Europeans who made the voyage did so by becoming indentured servants.
A major wave of immigration occurred from 1815 to 1865. The majority of these newcomers came from Northern and Western Europe. Between 1820 and 1930, approximately 4.5 million Irish migrated to the United States. Beginning in the 1840s, Ireland’s rotting potato crops drove hundreds of thousands of its people to flee to the United States. Typically impoverished, these Irish immigrants settled near their point of arrival in cities along the East Coast. The discrimination that Irish immigrants encountered in their new home was hardly subtle. Instead, it was as plain as the black-and-white print that declared “No Irish Need Apply” in newspaper employment advertisements and window signs.
Also in the 19th century, the United States received about 5 million German immigrants. Many of them journeyed to the present-day Midwest to buy farms or congregated in such cities as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. In the national census of 2000, more Americans claimed German ancestry than any other group.
During the mid-1800s, a significant number of Asian immigrants settled in the United States. Lured by news of the California gold rush, some 25,000 Chinese had migrated there by the early 1850s.
The new arrivals were often seen as unwanted competition for jobs, while many Catholics–especially the Irish–experienced discrimination for their religious beliefs. In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Party (also called the Know-Nothings) tried to severely curb immigration, and even ran a candidate, former U.S. president Millard Fillmore (1800-1874), in the presidential election of 1856.
Following the Civil War, the United States experienced a depression in the 1870s that contributed to a slowdown in immigration.
One of the first significant pieces of federal legislation aimed at restricting immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from coming to America. Californians had agitated for the new law, blaming the decline in wages on Chinese who were willing to work for less.(Note: The Chinese remained ineligible for citizenship until 1943.)
Prior to the 20th century, the federal government had left immigration policy to individual states. However, in 1890, President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) designated Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor near the Statue of Liberty, as a federal immigration station.
In 1917, Congress enacted legislation requiring immigrants over 16 to pass a literacy test, and in the early 1920s immigration quotas were established. The Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that restricted entry to 2% of the total number of people of each nationality in America as of the 1890 national census–a system that favored immigrants from Western Europe–and prohibited immigrants from Asia.
Immigration plummeted during the global depression of the 1930s and World War II (1939-1945). Between 1930 and 1950, America’s foreign-born population decreased from 14.2 to 10.3 million, or from 11.6% to 6.9% of the total population.
The multiple laws which governed immigration and naturalization to that time were brought into one comprehensive statute in 1952. It (1) reaffirmed the national origins quota system; (2) limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted; (3) established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and (4) tightened security and screening standards and procedures.The 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act reflected the cold war atmosphere and anti-communism of the period, following World War II at the onset of the Korean War.
The October 1965 amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) repealed the national origins quota system and represented the most far-reaching revision of immigration policy in the United States since the First Quota Act of 1921. In place of nationality and ethnic considerations, the INA amendments substituted a system based primarily on reunification of families and needed skills.
Since 1965, the major source of immigration to the United States has shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia, reversing the trend since the founding of the nation. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Europe accounted for 50% of U.S. immigration during the decade fiscal years 1955 to 1964, followed by North America at 35%, and Asia at eight percent. In fiscal year 1988, Asia was highest at 41%, followed by North America at 3%, and Europe at 10%. In order, the countries exceeding 20,000 immigrants in fiscal year 1988 were Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, India, mainland China, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Jamaica.
1980’s Refugee Act removed refugees as a preference category and established clear criteria and procedures for their admission. It also reduced the world-wide ceiling for immigrants from 290,000 to 270,000.
In 1990, comprehensive immigration legislation provided for: (1) increased total immigration under an overall flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants beginning in fiscal year 1995, preceded by a 700,000 level during fiscal years 1992 through 1994; (2) created separate admission categories for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants; (3) revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, significantly rewriting the political and ideological grounds and repealing some grounds for exclusion; (4) authorized the Attorney General to grant temporary protected status to undocumented alien nationals of designated countries subject to armed conflict or natural disasters, and designated such status for Salvadorans; (5) revised and established new nonimmigrant admission categories; (6) revised and extended through fiscal year 1994 the Visa Waiver Program; (7) revised naturalization authority and requirements; and (8) revised enforcement activities.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), enacted in 1996, resulted from the deliberations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform,which was established to examine both legal and illegal immigration issues. The provisions of IIRAIRA were aimed at adopting stronger penalties against illegal immigration, streamlining the deportation process by curtailing the never-ending legal appeal process that was used by immigration lawyers to keep their clients in the United States until they found a sympathetic judge who would grant suspension of deportation. Other toughening provisions adopted in the same year were aimed at curbing the ability of terrorists to use the immigration process to enter and operate in the United States and to restrict the use of public welfare benefits by new immigrants contrary to the intent of the immigration law.