Immigration is the voluntary movement of people from one country to another, usually with the aim of permanent settlement in the adopted country. A closely related term, emigration, refers to movement out of a country. Thus, when people depart from their homelands for new homes elsewhere, they are said to be emigrants. Once they arrive in their new countries, they are known as immigrants. People who flee their countries because of an immediate threat to their safety are usually referred to as refugees, since they seek refuge in other lands.


Factors in Immigration

In more modern times, the major causes of immigration have included wars, social changes, economic downturns, and political and religious persecution. However, the single most compelling factor leading people to uproot themselves from their native lands and emigrate to foreign shores has been the desire to find greater opportunities somewhere else.


Immigration to the United States

The United States has rightly been called a nation of immigrants. In the little more than two hundred years of its existence, it has taken in more than 55 million people, from nearly every corner of the world. Many of these newcomers were welcomed by a growing nation, but others were viewed with suspicion and hostility. All contributed something to the United States; many contributed a great deal.

A Great Wave. The mid-1800's saw a great new wave of immigration. In the years from 1845 to 1855, nearly 1.5 million Irish immigrants arrived in the United States, fleeing poverty and the famine caused by successive failures of the staple potato crop. During this same period, more than 1 million Germans came to America to escape the upheaval and political repression that followed the unsuccessful 1848 liberal revolution in Europe.


Many of the Irish settled in the Northeast. Most found work as laborers in the growing cities, or in the region's textile mill towns. The Germans settled mainly in the expanding Midwest, usually as farmers or workers in such cities as Cincinnati and St. Louis.

New European Immigrants.

Immigration again declined during the U.S. Civil War (1861-65) but increased once more by 1870. Up until the 1880's, most immigrants to the United States had come from western or northern Europe. Beginning in about 1890, however, a second great wave of immigration began, mainly from southern and eastern Europe. The new immigrants included Italians, Slavs, Greeks, and eastern European Jews. For the Jews, religious oppression as well as economic reasons impelled their emigration.

 Increased Immigration

Of the more than 3.5 million people who arrived between 1891 and 1900, a little more than half were new immigrants. From 1901 to 1910, the greatest decade of immigration in U.S. history, nearly 8.8 million people arrived. Of these, more than 70 percent were from southern and eastern Europe. A second great wave of more than 7.3 million immigrants arrived between 1981 and 1990; nearly half were from the Americas and more than one third were from Asia.

 Ports of Entry

Many of the new immigrants entered the country at New York City. Between 1892 and 1954 they were received at a U.S. government facility on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. (The facility, closed in 1954, was reopened as a museum in 1990.) Other eastern coastal cities, including Boston, were also first homes of immigrants. Some of the immigrants moved inland, swelling the populations of cities such as Pittsburgh and Chicago. Others, more adventurous, crossed the country, settling at places along the way or on the West Coast.

 The Great Melting Pot

So great was the flow of people to the United States during this period that in some cities a majority of the population was made up of immigrants and their children. In New York City, one could walk for blocks hearing a variety of foreign languages and seeing newsstands filled with foreign-language newspapers.


Asian Immigration

Few Asians arrived in the United States until the mid-1800's. The growth of California after the discovery of gold in 1848 and the need for laborers to help build the transcontinental railroad spurred Chinese immigration. Japanese first arrived in the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Most of the Japanese, as well as many Chinese, came as contract workers to farms on the West Coast or to plantations in Hawaii. Filipinos, from what was then the newly acquired U.S. territory of the Philippines, and other Asians also arrived in the United States during these years.


Problems of Adjustment

As strangers in a new land, many of the immigrants faced a difficult period of adjustment. Most immigrants tended to settle where people from the same country had established themselves earlier. Churches and clubs were often gathering places for people of the same ethnic origin. The rapid growth of foreign-language newspapers helped non-English-speaking newcomers to understand American ways. Public schools, in particular, encouraged the children of immigrants to adapt to American life.


Limiting Immigration

The first legislation restricting immigration of a particular ethnic group was aimed at the Chinese. At first welcomed as a source of cheap labor, they later aroused hostility among white workers, who saw the lower wages paid the Chinese as a threat to their own livelihood. In 1882 the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended new immigration by Chinese workers for ten years. The law was renewed repeatedly, before it was finally repealed in 1943.

 Excluding the Japanese

The second group to be excluded was the Japanese. In 1907 the U.S. government reached a "gentleman's agreement" with Japan, which halted the flow of Japanese workers. The agreement remained in force until 1924. In addition to economic reasons, racial prejudice played a strong role in restricting Chinese and Japanese immigration.

 Curbing Immigration

Americans who wanted drastic curbs on immigration from southern and eastern Europe prevailed on Congress to pass legislation requiring a literacy test for newcomers. The law, passed in 1917, required immigrants over the age of 16 to be able to read and write at least one language. It did not have the desired effect of restricting southern and eastern European immigration, but later legislation did.


The Quota System 

In 1921, Congress passed the Quota Act, which limited yearly immigration from any country to 3 percent of the number of persons of that nationality living in the United States in 1910. Three years later, Congress reduced the quota to 2 percent and changed the base year to 1890. This discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans because fewer of them had been in the United States in 1890. The National Origins Act of 1929 changed the base year to 1920 and set an annual total of 150,000 immigrants. It also prohibited immigration from Asia.


After World War II, special laws allowed about 400,000 European refugees to come to the United States. Other laws allowed political refugees to enter during the 1950's and 1960's. Some were fleeing Communism in Eastern Europe, but most were refugees from the Communist regime in Cuba.


Re-opening the Golden Door

Although Congress opened the door to refugees, the quota system remained the basis of U.S. immigration law. Many people wanted the law changed because of its prejudice against certain nationalities. Finally, in 1965, Congress amended the law and abolished the national origins system. It then set up a system of preferences for immigration, giving priority to refugees and people who had special skills or close relatives in the United States. Ceilings were set for the number of immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and the Western Hemisphere. In 1978, Congress abolished these separate ceilings in favor of a worldwide total of 290,000 immigrants. Spouses and children of U.S. citizens were not counted as part of the total. As a result, many more Asians and eastern and southern Europeans were able to emigrate to the United States.


Illegal Aliens

Because immigration to the United States has been limited, many people have sought to enter illegally. The border between the United States and Mexico, in particular, is so easy to cross that it has proved impossible to halt the flow of Mexicans seeking to come to the United States. The U.S. Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 to reduce the flow of illegal aliens (people who enter a country without that government's permission). The law prohibited employers from hiring illegal aliens (except for some employers of seasonal farm workers) and also offered amnesty (freedom from prosecution) as well as legal status, to those who could prove they entered the United States before 1982. Furthermore, in 1996, as part of the Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, Congress authorized a large increase in funds to help track down and deport illegal aliens.