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Immigration in American History

Refugees arriving in New York, 1892

Click to Enlarge Immigration in American History

Recent controversy over the Central American migrant "caravan" and conflicts at the U.S.-Mexico border have thrown the issue of immigration into the national spotlight. In fact, few issues have had so great an impact on American history as has immigration. Since the earliest development of laws designed to regulate the flow of newcomers, the United States has absorbed nearly 80 million immigrants from more than 170 countries. These immigrants have profoundly influenced the culture, the economy, and the politics of this "nation of nations." The ways in which the various groups of newcomers have mixed and mingled to become the American people makes for a dramatic and compelling human-interest story. History offers valuable lessons to the future, for better and for worse.

Today, an amazing two-thirds of all persons permanently emigrating throughout the world seek to enter the United States. Just under 44 million persons currently living in the United States are immigrants, which represents 13.5% of the total population (323.1 million). But most recently, economic changes, security concerns, post–9/11 fears about international terrorists, and the feeling that the country has lost control of its borders have moved the immigration question to the front burner of national policy making.

Factors Affecting Immigration into the United States

The narrative of immigration in the United States has been affected by certain economic and social conditions in immigrants' home countries and the United States. There are two major factors influencing that immigration: push factors and pull factors. Push factors are events such as war, famine, social turmoil, and political upheavals that propel millions of persons to emigrate from their nations of origin. Pull factors are those that draw millions of migrating persons to a particular nation, such as abundance of opportunity, a rich and developed economy, and freedoms such as those afforded by the United States.

Meanwhile, immigration policy developed to address the influx of immigrants to the United States. Immigration policy is essentially a blend of domestic and international policy considerations. It performs a gatekeeping function, determining at any given time who is or is not allowed to enter the United States. It also determines the total number of immigrants authorized to enter. In attempting to control the flow of newcomers, immigration policy weighs four main elements: (1) the impact immigration has on the nation's economy (2) the effect immigration has on the racial and ethnic mix of the American people (3) how immigration flow affects national identity, the composite sense of "peoplehood," and, (4) priorities of foreign policy and national defense (what is now termed "homeland security").

Sometimes these four components work in harmony, reinforcing each other. At other times, these components work against each other. Then opposing forces seek to influence immigration policy by emphasizing different elements. In all cases and periods, however, these four elements are a key to understanding U.S. immigration policy. Traditionally, scholars discussing the influx of U.S. immigrants have divided various periods into waves. Their criteria are based on the size and character of the incoming groups composing each wave.

1820-1880: First Wave

Emigrants leaving Queenstown, ca. 1874

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The first significant wave, arriving between 1820 and 1880, numbered over 10 million immigrants. European nations comprised from eighty to ninety percent of this group, dominated by those from northwestern European nations.

During the first half of the 19th century, the United States changed in many important ways. While Northern European Protestants—immigrants who were largely rural and agrarian—continued to dominate the countryside, immigrants from other locations, specifically Germany and Ireland, began the process of reshaping the demographics of the American population—a process that would increase as the 19th century progressed. These immigrants came due to myriad factors such as famine, disease, or warfare at home. These transformations were not easy for many to accept, and led to social and political unrest in the many parts of the United States.

This period is referred to as the "open-door" era. Several laws passed during the first wave, such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Immigration Act of 1875, were designed to draw immigrants to the United States. Newcomers were needed in the flourishing cities to provide cheap labor for the growing industrial sector and were also needed to populate the frontier in order to fulfill the "manifest destiny" of the nation.

1880-1920: Second Wave

The second wave of immigrants arrived during the decades from 1880 to 1920. This wave comprised a staggering 23.5 million immigrants. They came mostly from Southern, Central, and Eastern European countries and later Asian and Latin American countries. This massive influx of immigrants touched off widespread xenophobia that culminated in restrictive immigration laws that marked the end of the second wave.

Chinese immigrant family

Click to Enlarge Immigration in American History

Nativism spread like wildfire during this period. On the West coast, Chinese immigrants faced particularly vicious prejudice. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The law forbade Chinese laborers from entering the United States and remained in effect until 1943. Meanwhile, on the east coast, the Americanization movement of the 1910s-20s, coupled with a fear of radical laborers known as the red scare, resulted in increasingly restrictive immigration policies.

During this era, immigration restrictions levied on particular racial-ethnic groups gained ground. Many laws circumscribed the movement of Asian immigrants, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentlemen's Agreement (1907) banning immigration from Japan, and the Immigration Act of 1917 that established a "banned Asiatic zone." The evolving immigration policies were designed to exclude certain groups of immigrants deemed "undesirable" by nativist political forces.

1920-1960 Third Wave

During the third wave, from 1920 to 1960, the total number of immigrants dropped dramatically from the 23.5 million of the second wave to just over 5.5 million. This wave was also marked by changes in the composition of the immigrants. Though Europeans, especially those from Northwestern Europe, made up the majority of those coming in, there was an increase of immigration coming from the Western Hemisphere (Canada and South America), which amounted to roughly thirty to thirty-five percent of the total.

Contract explained to braceros

Click to Enlarge Immigration in American History

Nativist tendencies were still evident as witnessed by the renewal of the Ku Klux Klan and the popularity of eugenics backed policies, such as the Immigration Act of 1924. By 1930, more than 24 states had passed pro-sterilization laws that were based on eugenics thinking. Meanwhile, with lean times during the Great Depression, immigration began to wane. During World War II, however, with an increased demand for agricultural labor, the United States and Mexico jointly agreed to allow for the migration of male laborers under the Bracero Program, which continued for two decades.

The immigrants of this period are typically called the "quota" immigrants owing to the immigration policies such as the Immigration Acts of 1921, 1924, and 1929 that set quotas based on countries of origin. This legislation institutionalized racial biases and was designed both to shrink the overall size of the immigrant pool and to shift the source of the much-reduced flow back to Northwestern Europe.

1960–2001: Fourth Wave

The fourth wave immigrants are those who have come to the United States between 1960 and 2001. Its numbers were nearly triple those of the third wave, and in annual volume rivaled those of the second wave when immigration was at its zenith. During this fourth wave, immigrants from the Western Hemisphere—especially Mexico— predominated, rising to more than half of the total. A dramatic increase in Asian immigration also distinguished this wave from its predecessors.

The civil rights activism of the early years of this period sparked interest in social justice and resulted in loosened immigration restrictions and recognition of the plight of political refugees. However, it was the historic Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that changed the face of immigration in the U.S. Prior to this pathbreaking legislation, immigration laws had been governed by strict quotas. The 1965 act shifted the immigration pattern from quotas to wide-scale immigration—both legal and illegal—and also emphasized family relations and job skills. By the 1970s, opposition to the 1965 act gained ground and ultimately lead to the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, setting limits on the flow of immigrants into the United States.

2001–Present: Fifth Wave

The desire to control illegal immigration, especially after the attacks of September 11, 2001, can be seen as marking a new era in immigration, one that might be called an era of a "fortress America," where security at home is at a premium. Laws such as the USA Patriot Act of 2001 and the Department of Homeland Security Act of 2002 exemplify the underpinning philosophy of this cycle.

Police and the ICE

Click to Enlarge Immigration in American History

The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a division of the Department of Homeland Security was created to enforce immigration and customs laws within the United States as part of the massive federal overhaul in the wake of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The ICE took over border and security duties previously held by such agencies as the U.S. Customs Service, the Federal Protective Service, and the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service.


The history of immigration in the United States has undergone periods of flux with more liberal policies during wartime and economic necessity. However, during the nineteenth and early 20th centuries, immigrants navigated amid the backdrop of Americanization and staunch nativism. Nevertheless, U.S. policy reflects the perceived needs of the nation as they have shifted over time in response to a variety of factors. Those factors include changing economic conditions, the changing nature and composition of the immigrant waves, and various sociological issues, foreign policy concerns, and national security priorities.

Two opposing philosophies compete for supremacy within immigration debates. One is the view that immigrants spur industrial growth, renew national vigor, and provide an infusion of ethnic experiences that lead to a diverse national identity. This perspective is the traditional base for a more open-door policies. In opposition to this stance are calls for varying degrees of restrictions. Proponents fear an influx of strangers who will not, or in their view should not, be assimilated into the nation. Immigration restrictionists fear specific economic effects such as depressed wages and poor working conditions, as well as a dilution of American culture more generally. To avoid such dire effects, they advocate restricting immigration.

Immigration has been critical to the development of the United States. The laws enacted to implement immigration policy have been many and varied. At some defining moments, such laws have tragically or triumphantly affected the flow of immigration. But in nearly every case, they have had unanticipated consequences.

Adapted from: LeMay, Michael, From Open Door to Dutch Door: An Analysis of U.S. Immigration Policy Since 1820. New York: Praeger, 1987.

MLA Citation

"Immigration in American History." History Hub, ABC-CLIO, 2019, historyhub.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/2144524. Accessed 25 Aug. 2019.

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Entry ID: 2144524

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