Immigration to the U.S.:
A Brief History
Explore the history of immigration to the United States.
Americans have come from every corner of the globe. Take a closer look at the history of U.S. immigration and how the “four waves” of immigration influenced the nation’s demographics, politics, culture, and economic growth.
Number of Immigrants and Their Share of the Total U.S. Population 1850-2015
Immigrants as a % of the U.S. population
Total number of immigrants
Tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau, 2010-2018 American Community Surveys (ACS), and 1970, 1990, and 2000 Decennial Census | Migration Policy Institute
The “Four Waves”
The history of immigration to the United States is long and convoluted, but in broad strokes it can be grouped into four major periods, or “waves”:²
Turn of the 20th century
Sometimes these influences have been considered positive, and the country has welcomed immigrants with open arms.
At other times, immigrants have been perceived as threats that had to be kept away. But most commonly, American sentiment has encompassed a complex mixture of both these views, simultaneously regarding some immigrants as desirable and others as not.
These mixed feelings toward immigrants have been reflected through various immigration and naturalization policies over the decades.
Although these policies have evolved substantially since the 1700s, they have almost always favored some groups of immigrants over others.
First Wave: The Colonial Period
The first wave arrived during the colonial period in the 17th and 18th centuries, even before the United States was founded and before official immigration records were kept. Though we do not know their exact numbers, this first wave consisted largely of Protestant English-speakers from the British Isles.
These immigrants and their descendants eventually established the original Thirteen Colonies that would declare their independence from Britain in 1776 and ultimately join together to form the nascent United States.
Also among this first wave were the earliest African immigrants to North America. They probably arrived in Virginia in 1619 as indentured servants, as did many European immigrants. Many Africans won their freedom after completing their work contracts.³
But not long after, slavery began to be forcibly imposed on Africans living in the colonies, and Europeans started to forcibly move slaves en masse to North America as free labor.
(The Transatlantic slave trade was already more than a century old, but previously most African slaves had been taken to the Caribbean, Brazil, and Spanish America.⁴)
By the time the United States was founded, close to 300,000 slaves had been forcibly brought into colonial America.⁵
Second Wave: The Mid-1800s
Following the American Revolution, immigration did not occur on a large scale again until the mid-1800s. This second wave of immigrants peaked in the 1840s and 1850s and brought hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from northern and western Europe, primarily Irish and German Catholics.
Many were fleeing starvation or political upheaval in their homelands due to the Irish Potato Famine (1845–49) and the European Revolutions of 1848. As Catholics in a largely Protestant society, many of these new arrivals initially faced significant discrimination in the United States.⁶
Nevertheless, they became an important part of the national social and economic fabric, becoming farmers, building canals and railroads, laboring in the emerging textile mills of the Northeast, or working as craftsmen and longshoremen in the cities.⁷
Between 1847 and 1870, the city of San Francisco was transformed from a small settlement of 500 residents to a boomtown of 150,000. California, which had been a sparsely settled and little-known backwater, suddenly captured the imagination of people around the world as a place where hard work and good luck could make you rich.⁸
At nearly the same time, gold was discovered in California, and the ensuing Gold Rush (1848–55) attracted more than 300,000 people to the West Coast. Many were Americans who came from other parts of the United States, but tens of thousands of Mexicans, Chinese, Australians, Latin Americans, and Europeans also came in search of gold.
"Chinese, Gold Mining in California," from Roy D. Graves pictorial collection.
Third Wave: The Turn of the 20th Century
The third wave of immigration to the United States occurred at the turn of the 20th century, from roughly 1880 to 1914. The advent of large steam-powered oceangoing ships led to lower travel costs and greater accessibility for would-be immigrants.
As a result, European immigrants began arriving in droves, creating the largest influx of immigrants in U.S. history to date: more than 20 million new arrivals at a time when the country had only 75 million residents.⁹ In the 1880s alone, nine percent of Norway’s total population immigrated to the United States.¹⁰
However, the bulk of these people came from southern and eastern Europe, and new communities of Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and Jews began to take root in America. Like prior groups, many of them faced prejudice as newly arrived immigrants. But from a legal standpoint, at least, the door to America was wide open to Europeans in this period; their immigration was legally unrestricted.
The story was different for many third-wave immigrants arriving on the West Coast, many of whom were processed through the former U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. These immigrants came from dozens of countries, but most were initially Chinese. However, a series of laws in the 1870s and 1880s essentially barred Chinese from entering the country, effectively halting Chinese immigration.
Japanese, Korean, and South Asian laborers began arriving to fill the resulting labor shortage but were, in turn, targeted by other restrictive immigration policies.
Like the newly arrived southern and eastern Europeans on the East Coast, Asians often faced hostility from prior waves of immigrants, but unlike Europeans, Asian immigrants were ineligible for naturalization, meaning they could never become U.S. citizens.¹¹
After this third wave, immigration rates to the United States plummeted with the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and stayed relatively low due to a series of restrictive immigration laws in the 1910s and 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and World War II.
It was not until the mid-1940s that immigrants again began arriving in the United States. This was largely thanks to the end of World War II, but also to the U.S. government’s gradual dismantling of discriminatory immigration and naturalization policies.
Fourth Wave: Post-1965
The fourth wave of immigration did not start in earnest until 1965, when the United States comprehensively revised its immigration laws and instituted a new policy that did not explicitly favor certain countries over others.
This new regime had an immediate and significant effect; within five years, Asian immigration more than quadrupled.¹² This was an early sign of a longer-term trend: a shift in the demographics of immigrants arriving in the country.
Since 1965, the largest immigrant groups have come from Asia and Latin America. Between 2000 and 2009, the United States welcomed 7.5 million documented immigrants from these regions.¹³
This fourth wave of immigration is the period we live in today, with the United States attracting the largest number of immigrants in the world.¹⁴
Each of these four waves of immigration was driven by its own historical factors and exhibited its own unique characteristics.
Yet they do share some commonalities, starting from the fact that they are “waves” of immigration—i.e., periods of relatively high immigration.
But in order to have highs, there must also be lows, and each of the first three waves of immigration was followed by a trough—a period of relatively low immigration.
Is another trough just around the corner?
Characterize each of the “four waves” of immigration. When did it occur? Who were the primary migrants, and where did they come from? What factors drove their immigration?
What common characteristics do the different waves of immigration share? What common experiences have different immigrant groups faced?
What caused the three lulls in immigration? How and why did the lulls come to an end?
Think about your own family's immigration story. How does your family history align (or not align) with these large-scale trends in U.S. immigration history? Did they share any of the same experiences? Were they affected by any of the same laws and policies?
demographics—statistical data relating to a population
naturalize—to acquire citizenship in an adopted country
nascent—coming into existence; emerging
indentured servant—a person under contract to work for another person for a definite period of time, usually without pay but in exchange for free passage to a new country. During the 17th century most of the white laborers in Maryland and Virginia came from England as indentured servants
en masse—in a group; all together
American Revolution—the war of 1775–83 in which the American colonists won independence from British rule
Irish Potato Famine—a famine in Ireland caused by the failure of successive potato crops in the 1840s. Many in Ireland starved, and many emigrated. More than a million Irish came to the United States during the famine.
European Revolutions of 1848—liberal and nationalist rebellions that broke out in 1848 in several European nations, including Germany, Austria, France, Italy, and Belgium.
longshoreman—a person employed in a port to load and unload ships
regime—a mode or system of rule or government
“U.S. Immigrant Population and Share over Time, 1850-Present,” Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/immigrant-population-over-time [18 May 2020].
Philip Martin, “Trends in Migration to the U.S.,” Population Reference Bureau, 19 May 2014, http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2014/us-migration-trends.aspx [18 May 2020].
“Slavery in the Colonial History of the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_colonial_United_States [18 May 2020].
“Atlantic Slave Trade,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantic_slave_trade [18 May 2020]; “Slavery in the Colonial History of the United States.”
“Thirteen Colonies,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thirteen_Colonies [18 May 2020].
“Irish Americans,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irish_Americans [18 May 2020].
“History of Immigration to the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_immigration_to_the_United_States [18 May 2020].
“California Gold Rush,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Gold_Rush [18 May 2020].
Martin, “Trends in Migration to the U.S.”
“Immigration: Scandinavian,” Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/immigration/scandinavian.html [17 July 2020].
“Asian Immigration to the United States,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asian_immigration_to_the_United_States [18 May 2020].
“Immigration Timeline,” The Statue of Liberty—Ellis Island Foundation, https://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/immigration-timeline
Martin, “Trends in Migration to the U.S.”
“U.S. Immigration Trends,” Migration Policy Institute, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/us-immigration-trends#history [18 May 2020].