Immigration to the U.S. (1900-2010): Changes & Trends

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  • 0:01 Expanding the Melting Pot
  • 0:32 Biases Towards Europe
  • 1:35 Limitations
  • 2:38 Legal Immigrants
  • 3:22 Undocumented Migrants
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Immigration to the U.S. has changed greatly over the past century, going from immigrants mostly coming from Northern and Western Europe to people arriving from all around the world.

Expanding the Melting Pot

By the year 1900, the United States was already one of the most popular destinations for people looking to leave their own homelands to start a better life. In fact, much of America's draw was that it was so welcoming to immigrants, from the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to the numerous neighborhoods that reminded new arrivals of the old country. In the past century, a great deal has been done to redefine exactly how the United States is a melting pot of nationalities, with people coming from a myriad of backgrounds with hopes of a new life.

Biases Towards Europe

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was certainly a melting pot, but only for immigrants from a narrowly defined group of countries. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to the United States were coming from Europe, especially Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, including Russia. This itself was a major shift, as in the past immigrants had come mainly from Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia.

However, these new arrivals were often subject to hostile treatment from some native-born Americans. Much of this was economic in nature, but a sizable amount of it was due to religious tensions. Most Americans at the time were Protestants, while these new arrivals were Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish.

Meanwhile, immigration from Africa was all but impossible at this time, largely due to European colonial endeavors. However, most shocking was the fact that Asians faced a very difficult time arriving in the United States. Treated poorly by officials, Asian immigrants in the early 1900s were subject to very low quotas, or limits on the number of admitted people, and always viewed with heavy suspicion.


Chinese and Japanese immigrants were especially hard-hit by these limitations, but more limitations would soon come to other groups. As the United States emerged victorious following World War II, a new enemy emerged on the horizon. Terrified of the threat of communism, the United States passed laws limiting the ability of those sharing beliefs with the Communist Party to arrive in the United States. This heavily limited immigration from Eastern Europe, as much of it had fallen under the sway of the Soviet Union.

That said, one of the most well-known streams of immigrants to the United States came from a communist country. Following the rise to power of Fidel Castro in the 1950s, the United States passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. This law meant that any Cuban who arrived in the United States and lived for one year in the country could claim permanent residency. While it provided tens of thousands of Cubans the opportunity for a better life, it also proved to be a form of moral victory over communism.

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