A History of Immigration in the United States
It could be argued that wherever there have been humans, there has always been immigration. There are many popular theories about the origin of humans; some speculate that as a species, we originated in a single point and slowly migrated to populate different parts of the planet, long before the concept of countries or borders even existed. One could say immigration is as intrinsically linked to the human experience as anything can be.
The topic of immigration is currently a hot topic in the United States, due mostly to the ongoing debates on policies around the subject. Amidst all of this discussion, it’s important to remember our roots as a nation. In honor of Independence Day, we want to provide a little history lesson on the migration between many countries and cultures to the U.S. and why the immigrant population makes up the backbone of the country.
Early Immigration to the Americas
The first waves of immigration to the Americas are theorized to have come across the Bering Strait, a natural land bridge that links the northeastern tip of Asia with the northernmost part of the American continent. This group of immigrants slowly populated all of North and South Americas and eventually splintered into different indigenous groups, settling in the present-day United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America and as far south as Brazil. These groups are what we now commonly refer to as “Native Americans.”
Before the more recent waves of European settlers, Viking explorers reached North America in the year 1000 A.D., landing in Canada’s Newfoundland. Vikings stayed in the region for at least 500 years before returning to Greenland.
During the late 16th century and early 17th century, the Americas were rife with colonizers from Great Britain, Spain, and France, who occupied territories in the Americas, primarily in the northern region of the continent.
North America, and the United States in particular, wouldn’t exist today without these first waves of colonial immigrants establishing colonies in the region before the country was even formed.
The first colonies established on the territory that would become the United States were linked to the British Royal Crown, as part of a series of explorations to find material goods and natural resources that could be exported back to Europe.
The first thirteen colonies thrived for several decades, establishing their own local governments, complete with local elections. As Britain sought more control over the colonies, the settlers resisted and fought for their independence during what would become known as the American Revolutionary War.
This group of thirteen colonies officially declared their independence in 1776, and thus, a group of colonial immigrants founded the United States of America.
When Did Immigration to the United States Start?
Once the United States operated as an independent country, people from different parts of the world began to migrate, seeking economic opportunities in the newly established country. During the 18th century, many European immigrants made their way to the flourishing nation with the promise of jobs and financial prosperity. Between 1836 and 1914, more than 30 million Europeans migrated to the United States. By 1910, there were more than 13.5 million immigrants living in a nation with a population of 92 million.
Unfortunately, not all immigration to the United States was under the guise of self-determination. Between 1625 and 1866, approximately 388,000 Africans were forcefully shipped to America for the purposes of the slave trade and indentured servitude. Once they arrived, many families were separated and sold before being forced to serve under brutally harsh conditions in the developing nation.
The legal institution of slavery was officially abolished nationwide with the Emancipation Proclamation signed in 1865.
The African American experience is rooted in hardship and pain, but their forced immigration has created a large, vibrant community. There are approximately 42 million African Americans in the United States today, comprising 12.2 percent of all Americans.
Although the consequences of the slave trade still reverberates throughout modern society, descendants from Caribbean and African nations continue to enrich the U.S. with their culture and traditions.
Immigration through Ellis Island
The peak of immigration to the United States was in 1907, with 1,285,349 immigrants arriving on the shores of America seeking new opportunities.
A large number of immigrants made their way to the country by entering through Ellis Island, which became a symbolic gateway to America for those seeking refuge or hoping to live the American Dream. Immigrants arrived from countries spanning the globe – ranging from Northern to Eastern Europe and from Scandinavia to Syria, the more than 12 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island helped establish America as a “melting pot” of cultures and countries of origin.
In 1886, the people of France gifted the Statue of Liberty to the American people as a symbol of friendship between the two countries for the centennial celebration of the United States.
The poem “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus is inscribed on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
The Statue of Liberty was not originally conceived as a symbol of immigration. However, with the addition of this powerful poem, the statue became an icon of freedom and democracy, as well as a welcoming sight and beacon of hope for immigrants arriving in New York.
America became known as a safe haven for those seeking refuge from perilous and dangerous conditions abroad. More than 1.5 million Irish immigrated to America between 1845 and 1855, during the Great Famine that ravaged Ireland.
Less than a century later, as the Holocaust swept Europe, private citizens and religious organizations began helping resettle refugees seeking asylum in the U.S. It was these private citizens who urged for immigration reform, and their efforts eventually inspired the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which represented the first refugee legislation in the United States.
The sentiment immortalized in the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty rang true for generational waves of refugees and political dissidents who immigrated to America throughout the 20th century. Whether it was Cuban dissidents escaping the Castro regime, Central and South American residents fleeing dictatorships or Vietnamese and Chinese political asylum seekers, America welcomed them all with open arms.
Immigration in the U.S. Today
Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and this legislation was a landmark for proponents of diversity in the United States because it abolished a quota system, which only allowed a certain number of immigrants and refugees. This law also ended the National Origins Formula that gave preference to European immigrants over people from other nations. Instead, it was the establishment of a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting highly-skilled workers to boost the economy of the United States.
In the decades since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, people around the world have migrated to the United States and shaped this country into a profoundly rich and diverse nation. We’ve seen immigrants with many distinct and varied backgrounds bring their culture, cuisine, and traditions to create a pure melting pot; a place where people can come together under the conditions of mutual respect and shared hope for a better, brighter future.