History of U.S. Immigration: Racial, Ethnic & Religious Groups

Instructor: Charles Kinney, Jr.
The United States has a long and sometimes convoluted and violent history of immigration. The continued reasons for immigration, escape, opportunity and even adventure have helped to create the world's most diverse racial, ethnic and religious society.


In today's world of rubber rafts and life vests and people desperate to get to small islands in the Mediterranean, talk of building a wall across the Mexican border and people bicycling across Siberia to get inside northern Europe, it may seem that migrants are not very welcome in much of the world. That is simply not the history of the United States. While they have not always been welcomed, immigrants of many racial, ethnic and religious groups created, maintained and pushed the United States to the dynamic economic and cultural powerhouse it is today. While the population of Europe, Japan and China is aging, immigration allows the United States to maintain a younger workforce driven by new technology and outside ideas. By the year 2050, thanks to immigration, the US population could possibly be upwards to 438 million people.

Cliche or huddled masses yearning to breathe free?
Statue of Liberty

History of U.S. Immigration

The earliest ethnic immigrants were native Americans, who came across a land bridge from Siberia about 12,000 years ago. It is quite a jump but the first European migrants to North America came in the form of the Vikings under Leif Erikson, around 1,000 CE, who visited but didn't stay, and then Christopher Columbus, who landed in the Bahamas in 1492. Statistically, native Americans could have easily overwhelmed these new migrants. Migrants bring many skills, but in the case of Columbus and the subsequent brutal and colonizing Spanish migrants, they brought smallpox and other diseases, which effectively wiped out nearly all the native population.

Immigrants move for many reasons: escape, forced, opportunity or simply the human condition to see what is on the other side. These are called push and pull factors. Some factors push people out of their lands, like a lack of jobs or religious persecution, while factors in others countries might pull them in, like economic opportunities and religious freedom. Around 1620, Dutch, German and British (lots of British), Puritans and Quakers fled Europe for religious freedom. Becoming farmers, they needed larger families, and the population exploded. Expanding farming and the demand for tobacco in Europe brought slavery and forced substantial African migration to the United States.

Spanish and mixed Native American immigration from what is today Mexico continued to the west, while French migrants pushed down the Mississippi as far as New Orleans (the ancestors of the Cajuns). By 1850, dramatic events (especially the Irish Potato Famine, 1845-1849 and a series of revolutions in Europe in 1848) pushed more Irish, Germans, British and European people to settle in the US.

The invention and stabilization of the steamship allowed massive, relatively safer immigration. A lack of jobs and farmland created a flood from Europe. This time, the ethnic mix had changed. Italians, Greeks, Poles and Scandinavians. Although Jewish people had migrated to the United States as early as the first colonies, large Jewish migration escaping pogroms (ethnic cleansing) in Russia and Eastern Europe began. Muslims and Christian Arabs from the Levant (Lebanon and Syria) also joined the flow. Until the Asian Exclusion Act of 1882 (where Asians were given no better rights than dogs), westward expansion, the transcontinental railroad and the need for cheap labor brought Chinese and Japanese workers to the west. An interesting and bizarre side-note to the Asian Exclusion Act was the admittance of Chinese employees for of all things, Chinese restaurants. This 'Lo Mein Loophole' gave the United States a long culinary history of Chinese food.

The United States used this flow of human civilization to industrialize and become the preeminent industrial power by World War I (1914-1918). That does not mean immigration was an easy transition for the United States. Arguments against immigration today (overwhelming the system, loss of jobs, destruction of valued cultural traits) were used, and usually each group that had only recently established itself resented new migrants. British resented the Irish who resented the Italians who resented the Eastern Europeans who...

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