The United States has a storied history when it comes to immigration. From its very beginnings – before it was even a country with the voyage of The Mayflower – immigration has been intertwined with the identity of the country. The total immigration to the United States from 1830-2009 shows some of that history.
The first immigrants to the country came searching for new opportunities and religious freedom. Examples include the initial colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth. In addition, due to the epidemics that ravaged Native American communities, killing upwards of 90% of the population in some areas, there was a lot of unoccupied land. While European companies and monarchies saw the opportunity for territory and profit, settlers often saw and took the same chances.
Some immigrants did not choose to come to America of their own free will. It is estimated that somewhere between 375,000-500,000 enslaved Africans were shipped to North America, before the slave trade was eventually shut down.
Since these early times the promise of economic opportunities, land, and a new start have continued to drive people to the United States well into modern times.
Immigration to the United States 1830-2009
This chart shows the levels of immigration to the US in 30 year increments starting in 1830. As you can see, there was a steady increase in immigration from 1830 to roughly 1919. Famine and hardships in their homelands drove Europeans to America. A well known example of this includes the Irish potato famine.
In addition the rapid industrialization of the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provided boundless opportunities.
From 1920 to 1949 there was a massive dip in immigration. The reason behind this was twofold. First, the US began to pass anti-immigration policies such as literacy tests and quotas. This added to previous acts from Congress, including the Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882.
Second, the Great Depression and subsequent World War II curbed immigration due to the lack of opportunities and mobility during the period.
After the war, immigration began to spike again as the post-war economy boomed. In addition, the US proved to be a refuge for all people fleeing dictatorial governments and communism. As technology improved, travel became cheaper, allowing more people the opportunity to get to the US.
Immigration is a hot button issue in the current political climate. But it is undeniable that the United States’ entire legacy is defined through immigration.
Source: Department of Homeland Security