A History of Immigration in the United States

Here at Remitly, we believe in immigration in every sense of the word. It’s a means for improving lives, for pursuing dreams, and for diversifying and strengthening our communities across the globe. Remitly is inspired by the sacrifice immigrants make as they create better lives for themselves and their families which is why we are dedicated to simplifying the way immigrants help their families in the form of an app that you can download here.

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. This article provides a history lesson on the migration of many countries and cultures to the U.S., and it emphasizes why an immigrant population makes up the backbone of this country.

Early Immigration to the Americas

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. You could say immigration is as intrinsically linked to the human experience as anything can be.

Native Americans

The first waves of immigration to the Americas came across the Bering Strait, a natural land bridge that linked the northeastern tip of Asia with the northernmost part of the American continent in the Western Hemisphere. This group of immigrants slowly populated all of North and South America. These groups eventually splintered into different indigenous nations, settling in the present-day United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, and as far south as Argentina. These groups are what we now commonly refer to as “Native Americans” and are known as the indigenous people of the United States.

Europeans in North America

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 Thirteen Colonies

The first colonies were established on the territory that would become the United States. They were governed by the British Royal Crown who conducted a series of explorations to find material goods and natural resources that could be exported back to Europe to gain more power and wealth.

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.

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When Did Immigration to the United States Start?

From the late 19th century to the early 20th, before World War I, over 30 million European immigrants, from mostly Southern, Central, and Eastern Europe, migrated to the U.S. By 1910, there were over 13.5 million legal immigrants which greatly increased the total population.

A large number of immigrants, mainly Catholics, Jews and English speaking Europeans, came to the U.S. with the promise of jobs and financial prosperity. They had to make the difficult decision of leaving behind their families, friends, and ways of life knowing how hard it would be to make a living and to send their earnings back home; unlike today, where it is simple to learn How to Send Cash to Someone in another Country by downloading Remitly’s app.

Here were some of the largest migrant groups at the time:

  • Italian
  • Irish
  • British
  • German
  • Hungarian
  • Polish

Forced African Immigration

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.

Consequences of Immigration

As new waves of immigrants continued to migrate, Americans openly expressed their xenophobia which manifested into political and federal action.

  • 1849- The Know-Nothing Party was created as an anti-immigrant political party that directly resulted from the large groups of immigrants from Ireland and Germany.
  • 1875- After the Civil War, the Supreme Court mandated that it was up to the Federal Government to impose immigration laws, not individual states.
  • 1882- The Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese immigrants from immigrating into the United States. White U.S. citizens blamed Chinese laborers for low wages as industrialization boomed.

Immigration through Ellis Island

12 million immigrants that passed through Ellis Island helped establish America as a “melting pot” of cultures. Many settled in New York City, while other port cities also saw new immigrant groups.

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.

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, or political asylum seekers from China and Vietnam, Ellis Island and America symbolized hope.

Xenophobia Continues

Unfortunately, as diversity and new immigration in the United States increased, so did xenophobia and American immigration policies.

Similar to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentlemen’s Agreement was signed in 1907 as a way to limit the Japanese from immigrating to the U.S. Again, white Americans were concerned that they would lose out on jobs and receive less compensation if there were too many migrant laborers from Japan entering the country, specifically California. Japan agreed to limit the emigration.

Then almost two decades later, The Immigration Act of 1924 was instated as a quota system to limit the amount of immigrants coming into the U.S., particularly targeting those with an Asian ethnicity.

Consequently, from blocking certain groups of people from entering the country, illegal immigration increased and the U.S Border Patrol took action.

The Effects of World War II

Labor shortages were a result of World War II, so The Bracero Program of 1942 allowed Mexican laborers into the U.S temporarily to aid this issue.

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. This refugee act was was the first of its kind in the United States and helped deal with the large number of Europeans seeking to live in the U.S. after the war.

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 a new preference system that aimed to reunite immigrant families and attract immigrants who were highly-skilled workers to boost the economy of the United States.


Major U.S. immigration policies continue to be instated even in the last decade. In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA.) This protects children of illegal immigrants from deportation. However, DACA does not provide U.S. citizenship, it does not lead to a path of naturalization, and these children are not considered legal permanent residents.

Largest Groups of Immigrants

Today, many immigrants now settle across the U.S. mainly in California, Florida, and Texas, while Chicago, San Jose, New York City, San Francisco, and Washington D.C are the top immigrant-friendly cities in the United States.

Here are the countries where most immigrants migrate from today:

  • Mexico
  • China
  • India
  • Philippines

The United States created and shaped an immigration system where people around the world have migrated to the here and molded 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. The United States is a place where people can come together under the conditions of mutual respect and shared hope for a better and brighter future, so it’s important to celebrate the national origins of immigrants that make up the U.S. population.

Remitly supports immigrants across the United States and our CEO, Matt Oppenheimer, has advocated for them by stressing the importance of cross border remittances to Congress. We understand the dedication immigrants have and their role as providers for their families around the world. Inspired by their hard work, Remitly makes it their mission to help immigrants give back to their loved ones at home with ease. Click here to get started today!

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Further reading: 9 Popular Side Hustles for Immigrants in the U.S.: Your Complete Guide

Remittance in a Global Society

Immigrating to another country is a tremendous feat, but there are solutions to make it less daunting. The amazing thing about the modern world is the ease of staying connected internationally. Resources like Remitly exist to help ease financial worries. Remitly is an app you can download right on your smart phone that allows you to transfer money internationally in a safe and simple manner. This is called a remittance.

Thankfully, technology not only allows you to stay connected with your friends and family members across the globe, but it also helps you find any answers that you may need. Do you need to know the conversion rate from US Dollars to Pesos, or do you need to know How to Send Money Safely to Punjab National Bank (PNB) in India? Remitly can help answer these questions. Remitly serves to provide more information on finances, traveling, and can give you more insight on important questions that you might have when immigrating to the United States.

If you’re still unsure about the process, here are 4 Reasons to Send Money with Remitly if You Haven’t Already.

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About Remitly

Now more than ever, you want to support your loved ones back home. Remitly is here to help.

Remitly is a digital payment service that enables customers to make person-to-person international money transfers with unparalleled peace of mind. Remitly enables fast, easy, convenient, and affordable transfers to Africa, Asia, Europe, Central, and South America. Remitly transfers over $6 billion annually for over 5 million customers globally. The company is headquartered in Seattle.

Remitly makes international money transfers faster, easier, more transparent, and more affordable. Our reliable and easy-to-use mobile app is trusted by over 5 million people around the world. Visit the homepage or download our app to learn more.