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History of U.S. Immigration Laws

Historical Immigrant Admission Data:

1821 to 2006

The following data on immigration by decade and by geographic region is taken from the Statistical Yearbooks of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and updated since 2006 with INS Annual Reports:

View Data >

History of U.S. Immigration Policies

Outlined below are thumbnail sketches of immigration-related legislation adopted between 1790 and 1990. More detailed information on the most recent legislative changes, beginning in 1952, are also available separately.


In an area previously controlled by individual states, an act was adopted that established a uniform rule for naturalization by setting the residence requirement at two years.


Congress enacted the first significant federal legislation relating specifically to immigration. Among its provisions, it: (1) established the continuing reporting of immigration to the United States; and (2) set specific sustenance rules for passengers of ships leaving U.S. ports for Europe.


Congress first centralized control over immigration under the Secretary of State with a Commissioner. The importation of contract laborers was legalized in this legislation.


Direct federal regulation of immigration was established by a law that prohibited entry of prostitutes and convicts.


The Chinese exclusion law curbed Chinese immigration. Also excluded were persons convicted of political offenses, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become public charges. The law placed a head tax on each immigrant.


Admission of contract laborers was banned.


Provisions were adopted--the first since 1798--to provide for expulsion of aliens.


The Bureau of Immigration was established under the Treasury Department to federally administer all immigration laws (except the Chinese Exclusion Act).


Immigration law was consolidated. Polygamists and political radicals were added to the exclusion list.


Procedural safeguards for naturalization were enacted. Knowledge of English was made a basic requirement.


A bill increased the head tax on immigrants, and added people with physical or mental defects or tuberculosis and children unaccompanied by parents to the exclusion list. Japanese immigration became restricted.


Added to the exclusion list were illiterates, persons of psychopathic inferiority, men as well as women entering for immoral purposes, alcoholics, stowaways, and vagrants.


The first quantitative immigration law was adopted. It set temporary annual quotas according to nationality. A book review of Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924, which discusses this period is available here.


The first permanent immigration quota law established a preference quota system, nonquota status, and consular control system. It also established the Border Patrol.


The annual quotas of the 1924 Act were made permanent.


Legislation provided for the importation of agricultural workers from North, South, and Central America--the basis of the "Bracero Program." At the same time the Chinese exclusion laws were repealed.


Procedures were adopted to facilitate immigration of foreign-born wives, fiance(e)s, husbands, and children of U.S. armed forces personnel.


The first U.S. policy was adopted for admitting persons fleeing persecution. It permitted 205,000 refugees to enter the United States over two years (later increased to 415,000).


The grounds for exclusion and deportation of subversives were expanded. All aliens were required to report their address annually.


The multiple laws which governed immigration and naturalization to that time were brought into one comprehensive statute. It (1) reaffirmed the national origins quota system, (2) limited immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western Hemisphere unrestricted, (3) established preferences for skilled workers and relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and (4) tightened security and screening standards and procedures.


The 1948 law was increased to admit over 200,000 refugees above the existing limit.


The national origins quota system was abolished. But still maintained was the principle of numerical restriction by establishing 170,000 Hemispheric and 20,000 per country ceilings and a seven-category preference system (favoring close relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens, those with needed occupational skills, and refugees) for the Eastern Hemisphere and a separate 120,000 ceiling for the Western Hemisphere.


The 20,000 per-country immigration ceilings and the preference system became applied to Western-Hemisphere countries. The separate Hemispheric ceilings were maintained.

1978—The separate ceilings for Eastern and Western Hemispheric immigration were combined into one world-wide limit of 290,000.


The Refugee Act removed refugees as a preference category and established clear criteria and procedures for their admission. It also reduced the world-wide ceiling for immigrants from 290,000 to 270,000.


The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was a comprehensive reform effort. It (1) legalized aliens who had resided in the United States in an unlawful status since January 1, 1982, (2) established sanctions prohibiting employers from hiring, recruiting, ar referring for a fee aliens known to be unauthorized to work in the United States, (3) created a new classification of temporary agricultural worker and provided for the legalization of certain such workers; and (4) established a visa waiver pilot program allowing the admission of certain nonimmigrants without visas.
Separate legislation stipulated that the status of immigrants whose status was based on a marriage be conditional for two years, and that they must apply for permanent status within 90 days after their second year anniversary.


A bill adjusted from temporary to permanent status certain nonimmigrants who were employed in the United States as registered nurses for at least three years and met established certification standards.


Comprehensive immigration legislation provided for (1) increased total immigration under an overall flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants beginning in fiscal year 1995, preceded by a 700,000 level during fiscal years 1992 through 1994, (2) created separate admission categories for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants, (3) revised all grounds for exclusion and deportation, significantly rewriting the political and ideological grounds and repealing some grounds for exclusion, (4) authorized the Attorney General to grant temporary protected status to undocumented alien nationals of designated countries subject to armed conflict or natural disasters, and designated such status for Salvadorans, (5) revised and established new nonimmigrant admission categories, (6) revised and extended through fiscal year 1994 the Visa Waiver Program, (7) revised naturalization authority and requirements, and (8) revised enforcement activities.

The 1950s and 1960s

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of June 27, 1952, was a major revision of existing immigration and nationality law. It continued, with modifications, the essential elements of both the 1917 and 1924 Acts, as well as those provisions of the Internal Security Act of September 23, 1950, relating to the exclusion of Communists.

The 1952 INA reflected the cold war atmosphere and anti-communism of the period, following World War II at the onset of the Korean War. The law was in essence an act of conservatism rather that of intolerance. The difference between the climate of opinion in the 1920s and the early 1950s is apparent in the following statement in the 1950 report of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Without giving credence to any theory of Nordic superiority, the subcommittee believes that the adoption of the national origins quota formula was a rational and logical method of numerically restricting immigration in such a manner as to best preserve the sociological and cultural balance of the United States." In contrast to the 1920s, the case for the national origins quota system in the 1950s was not generally argued on the grounds of racial superiority, but on sociological theories of the time relating to cultural assimilation. The discriminatory provisions against most Asian countries were also slightly relaxed by the 1952 Act.

However, the legislation was characterized by supporters and opponents alike as restrictionist, and it was a severe disappointment to those who had hoped for a liberalization of the immigration law. In particular, the continuation of the national origins quota system was viewed by critics of the legislation as being inappropriate to the needs of U.S. foreign policy. Foremost among these critics was President Truman, whose veto was overridden by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House, and 57 to 26 in the Senate. Quoting from his veto message:

"Today, we are protecting ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic...We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again...these are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration."

In addition to continuing the national origins quota system for the Eastern Hemisphere, the INA also established a four-category selection system. Fifty percent of each national quota was allocated for distribution to aliens with high education or exceptional abilities, and the remaining three preference categories were divided among specified relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. This four-point selection system was the antecedent of our current system, which places higher priority on family reunification than on needed skills. However, under the 1952 law, national origins remained the determining factor in immigrant admissions, and Northern and Western Europe were heavily favored. As in the past, the Western Hemisphere was not subject to numerical limitations.

Immigration during the decade 1951 to 1960 totaled 2,515,479 (an average of about 250,000 per year), the highest since the 1920s. This is not surprising, since the two intervening decades included the depression of the 1930s and World War II. The gap between Eastern and Western Hemisphere immigration also narrowed: of the 2.5 million entries, almost a million entered from the Western Hemisphere.

Less than half of the immigrants who entered during the 1950s were admitted under the quota system. Many came under special temporary laws enacted to permit the admission of refugees and family members outside the quotas, and many others entered as nonquota immigrants (e.g., from the Western Hemisphere). The gradual recognition that the national origins quota system was not functioning effectively as a means of regulating immigration was an important factor leading to the next major policy revision, which came in 1965.

Refugee Admissions in the 1950s and 1960s

Major refugee admissions occurred outside the national origins quota system during the 1950s. The Refugee Relief Act (RRA) of August 7, 1953, and the amendments of August 1954, authorized the admission of 214,000 refugees from war-torn Europe and escapees from Communist-dominated countries. Thirty percent of the admissions during the life of the Act were Italians, followed by Germans, Yugoslavs, and Greeks.

The RRA originated as an Administration bill, and combined humanitarian concern for the refugees and escapees with international political considerations. Quoting from President Eisenhower's letter which accompanied the draft legislation:

"These refugees, escapees, and distressed peoples now constitute an economic and political threat of constantly growing magnitude. They look to traditional American humanitarian concern for the oppressed. International political considerations are also factors which are involved. We should take reasonable steps to help these people to the extent that we share the obligation of the free world."

In particular, the inclusion of the category of escapees from communist domination in this and subsequent refugee legislation reflected the preoccupations of this Cold War period. This concern was also a major factor in the admission of refugees from the unsuccessful Hungarian revolution of October 1956. A total of 38,000 Hungarian refugees were eventually admitted to the United States, 6,130 with RRA visas and the remainder under the parole provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

The Act of September 11, 1957, sometimes referred to as the Refugee-Escapee Act, provided for the admission of certain aliens who were eligible under the terms of the Refugee Relief Act, as well as refugee-escapees, defined as persons fleeing persecution in Communist countries or countries in the Middle East. This was the basis for the definition of refugee incorporated in the INA from 1965 until 1980. A total of 29,000 entered under the temporary 1957 refugee provisions, led by Hungarians, Koreans, Yugoslavs, and Chinese.

During the 1960s, refugees from persecution in communist-dominated countries in the Eastern Hemisphere and from countries in the Middle East continued to be admitted, first under the Fair Share Law, enacted July 14, 1960, and subsequently under the INA. About 19,700 refugees entered under the 1960 legislation. Its primary purpose was to enable the United States to participate in an international effort to close the refugee camps which had been in operation in Europe since the end of World War II. U.S. participation was limited to one-fourth of the total number resettled.

Cuban refugees began entering the United States with the fall of the Batista government in 1959, and continued throughout the 1960s and, in smaller numbers, the 1970s. Approximately 700,000 Cuban refugees had entered the United States prior to a new influx which began in April 1980. The United States has accepted the Cubans as refugees from communism through a variety of legal means.

The INA Amendments of 1965 and their Aftermath

The October 1965 amendments to the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) repealed the national origins quota system and represented the most far-reaching revision of immigration policy in the United States since the First Quota Act of 1921. In place of nationality and ethnic considerations, the INA amendments (P.L. 89 236; 79 Stat. 911) substituted a system based primarily on reunification of families and needed skills.

The circumstances which led to this major shift in policy in 1965 were a complex combination of changing public perceptions and values, politics, and legislative compromise. It can be argued that the 1965 immigration legislation was as much a product of the mid-1960s and the heavily Democratic 89th Congress which also produced major civil rights legislation, as the 1952 Act had been a product of the Cold War period of the early 1950s.

The 1965 amendments adopted an annual ceiling on Eastern Hemisphere immigration of 170,000 and a 20,000 per country limit. Within these restrictions, immigrant visas were distributed according to a seven-category preference system placing priority on family reunification, attracting needed skills, and refugees. The 1965 law also provided that effective July 1, 1968, Western Hemisphere immigration would be limited by an annual ceiling of 120,000 without per-country limits or a preference system.

The INA Amendments of 1976 (P.L. 94-571; 90 Stat. 2703) extended to the Western Hemisphere the 20,000 per-country limit and a slightly modified version of the seven category preference system. Legislation enacted in 1978 (P.L. 95 412; 92 Stat. 907) combined the separate ceilings into a single worldwide ceiling of 290,000 with a single preference system. The Refugee Act of 1980 (P.L. 96 212; 94 Stat. 102) eliminated refugees as a category of the preference system, and set the worldwide ceiling at 270,000, exclusive of refugees.

Since 1965, the major source of immigration to the United States has shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia, reversing the trend since the founding of the nation. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), Europe accounted for 50 percent of U.S. immigration during the decade fiscal years 1955 to 1964, followed by North America at 35 percent, and Asia at eight percent. In fiscal year 1988, Asia was highest at 41 percent, followed by North America at 39 percent , and Europe at 10 percent. In order, the countries exceeding 20,000 immigrants in fiscal year 1988 were Mexico, the Philippines, Haiti, Korea, India, mainland China, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and Jamaica.

These figures reflect a shift in both accessibility and conditions in the sending countries. For example, Asian immigration, which was severely limited prior to the 1965 amendments, subsequently has been augmented by the large number of Indochinese refugees adjusting to immigrant status outside the numerical limits. On the other hand, Irish immigration fell from 6,307 in fiscal year 1964 to 1,839 in fiscal year 1986, with 734 entering under the preference system and the majority entering as the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. Ireland had been heavily favored under the national origins quota system.

Immigration History: The 1970s to the Present

The 1970s through 1990s: Immigration Issues, Review, and Revision

The patterns of immigration and the policy considerations relating to it in the 1970s resembled in some respects those of the 1950s after the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act. In both decades, the entry of aliens outside the provisions of the basic law--both illegally as undocumented aliens, and legally as refugees was increasingly the dominant pattern in immigration and the basis for the major issues confronting the Congress. Legislative response to the issue of refugees in 1980 and undocumented aliens in 1986 was followed in 1987 by a shift in congressional attention to legal immigration.

The 1981 report of the national Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy contributed to congressional review of immigration issues. The sixteen-member Commission was created by legislation enacted in 1978 to study and evaluate immigration and refugee laws, policies, and procedures. Its basic conclusion was that controlled immigration had been and continued to be in the national interest, and this underlay many of its recommendations. The Commission's recommendations were summed up by Chairman Theodore Hesburgh in his introduction:

"We recommend closing the back door to undocumented, illegal migration, opening the front door a little more to accommodate legal migration in the interests of this country, defining our immigration goals clearly and providing a structure to implement them effectively, and setting forth procedures which will lead to fair and efficient adjudication and administration of U.S. immigration laws."

Refugees and the Refugee Act of 1980

Between 1975 and 1980, refugees and refugee-related issues dominated congressional concern with immigration more than they had since the years following World War II. Beginning with the fall of Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975, this five-year period saw the admission of more than 400,000 Indochinese refugees, the enactment of major amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act in the form of the Refugee Act of 1980, and the exodus from Mariel Harbor, Cuba, to southern Florida.

The 1980 refugee legislation was enacted in part in response to Congress's increasing frustration with the difficulty of dealing with the ongoing large-scale Indochinese refugee flow under the existing ad hoc refugee admission and resettlement mechanisms. By the end of the 1970s, a consensus had been reached that a more coherent and equitable approach to refugee admission and resettlement was needed. The result was the amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act contained in the Refugee Act of 1980, enacted on March 17, 1980 (P.L. 96-212; 94 Stat. 102).

The Refugee Act repealed the limitations which had previously favored refugees fleeing communism or from countries in the Middle East and redefined refugee to conform with the definition used in the United Nations Protocol and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The term refugee is now defined by the Immigration and Nationality Act as a person who is unwilling or unable to return to his country of nationality or habitual residence because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The 1980 amendments made provision for both a regular flow and the emergency admission of refugees, following legislatively prescribed consultation with the Congress. In addition, the law authorized federal assistance for the resettlement of refugees.

Shortly after the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980, large numbers of Cubans entered the United States through southern Florida, totaling an estimated 125,000, along with continuing smaller numbers of Haitians. The Carter Administration was unwilling to classify either group as refugee, and no action was taken on the special legislation sought by the Administration. Beginning in 1984, the Reagan Administration adjusted the majority of the Cubans to lawful permanent resident status under P.L. 89 732, 1966 legislation enacted in response to the Cuban refugee situation in the 1960s. However, the status of the Cuban/Haitian entrants was not resolved finally until enactment of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which included special legalization provisions.

Illegal Immigration and the IRCA of 1986

Immigration legislation focusing on illegal immigration was considered and passed by the 99th Congress, and enacted as the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 P.L. 99-603 (November 6, 1986; 100 Stat. 3359), consists primarily of amendments of the basic 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), amended (8 U.S.C. 1101 et seq.).

Reform of the law relating to the control of illegal immigration had been under consideration for 15 years, i.e., since the early 1970s. The 1986 legislation marked the culmination of bipartisan efforts both by Congress and the executive branch under four Presidents. As an indication of the growing magnitude of the problem, the annual apprehension of undocumented aliens by the Department of Justice's Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) increased from 505,949 in 1972, the first year legislation aimed at controlling illegal immigration received House action, to 1,767,400 in 1986. In 1987, after the adoption of IRCA, INS apprehensions dropped by a third to 1,190,488.

The prospect of employment in the United States is an economic magnet that draws aliens here illegally. The principal legislative remedy proposed in the past, and included in the new law, is employer sanctions, or penalties for employers who knowingly hire aliens unauthorized to work in the United States. In order to avoid a major law enforcement problem dealing with aliens who established roots here before the change in policy, a legalization program was established that provided legal status for otherwise eligible aliens who had been here illegally since prior to 1982. Second, the legislation sought to respond to the apparent heavy dependence of seasonal agriculture on illegal workers by creating a 7-year special agricultural worker program, and by streamlining the previously existing H-2 temporary worker program to expedite availability of alien workers and to provide statutory protections for U.S. and alien labor.

Legal Immigration and
the Immigration Act of 1990

After enactment of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which adopted a major change in deterrence against illegal immigration, congressional attention shifted to legal immigration, including the 1965-adopted system of numerical limits on permanent immigration. This was an issue for a number of reasons. Concern had arisen over the greater number of immigrants admitted on the basis of family reunification compared to the number of independent non-family immigrants, and over the limited number of visas available to certain countries under the preference system. There was also concern about the growing visa waiting lists (backlogs) under the existing preference system and about the admission of immediate relatives of U.S. citizens outside the numerical limits.

Major legislation addressing these concerns passed the Senate and was introduced in the House in the 100th Congress (1987 to 1988). However, only temporary legislation addressing limited concerns passed both, leaving further consideration of a full-scale revision of legal immigration to the 101st Congress.

The Immigration Act of 1990 (IMMACT90) was signed into law as P.L. 101-649 by President Bush on November 29, 1990. It constituted a major revision of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which remained the basic immigration law. Its primary focus was the numerical limits and preference system regulating permanent legal immigration. Besides legal immigration, the eight-title Act dealt with many other aspects of immigration law ranging from nonimmigrants to criminal aliens to naturalization.

The legal immigration changes included an increase in total immigration under an overall flexible cap, an increase in annual employment-based immigration from 54,000 to 140,000, and a permanent provision for the admission of "diversity immigrants" from "underrepresented" countries. The new system provided for a permanent annual level of approximately 700,000 during fiscal years 1992 through 1994. Refugees were the only major group of aliens not included. The Act established a three-track preference system for family-sponsored, employment-based, and diversity immigrants. Additionally, the Act significantly amended the work-related nonimmigrant categories for temporary admission.

IMMACT90 (P.L. 101-649) addressed a series of other issues. It provided undocumented Salvadorans with temporary protected status for a limited period of time, and amended the Immigration and Nationality Act to authorize the Attorney General to grant temporary protected status to nationals of designated countries subject to armed conflict or natural disasters. It also authorized a temporary stay of deportation and work authorization for eligible immediate family members of the IRCA-legalized aliens, and made 55,000 additional visas available for them annually during fiscal years 1992 to 1994.

As a response to criticism of employer sanctions, IMMACT90 expanded the anti-discrimination provisions of the IRCA, and increased the penalties for unlawful discrimination. It significantly revised the political and ideological grounds for exclusion and deportation which had been controversial since their enactment in 1952.

Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act


The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA), enacted in 1996, resulted from the process of deliberating on the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform established by President Clinton and the Congress to examine both legal and illegal immigration issues.

The Commission was chaired until her untimely death in 1996 by The Hon. Barbara C. Jordan who had served in the U.S. House of Representatives (D-TX) 1973-79, and was a professor at the Univ. of Texas-Austin 1979-96. The Commission's members included distinguished experts in immigration law and history and others with experience in national politics and business.

After a long and arduous effort to develop bipartisan legislation dealing with both reform of legal and illegal immigration, Congress narrowed its focus on illegal immigration provisions with a promise by many that they would return soon to the effort to reform legal immigration.

"Credibility in immigration policy can be summed up in one sentence: Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave...For the system to be credible, people actually have to be deported at the end of the process."
(Barbara Jordan, February 24, 1995 Testimony to House Immigration Subcommittee)

The provisions of IIRAIRA were aimed at adopting stronger penalties against illegal immigration, streamlining the deportation (removal) process by curtailing the never-ending legal appeal process that was used by immigration lawyers to keep their clients in the United States until they found a sympathetic judge who would grand suspension of deportation (cancellation of removal). Other toughening provisions adopted in the same year aimed at curbing the ability of terrorists to use the immigration process to enter and operate in the United States and to restrict the use of public welfare benefits by new immigrants contrary to the intent of the immigration law.

"For our immigration policy to make sense, it is necessary to make distinctions between those who obey the law, and those who violate it."
(Barbara Jordan, address to United We Stand, America Conference, Dallas, TX, August 12, 1995)

Major Provisions of IIRAIRA

  • Authorized 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents by 2001 and included several hundred additional investigators to pursue employer sanctions violations, document fraud, and visa overstays. 
  • Barred legal admission for removed illegal aliens (for 5 to 20 years depending on the seriousness of the immigration violation) and permanently barred admission for deported or removed aggravated felons. 
  • Authorized a 14-mile-long triple fence at San Diego, California. 
  • Authorized necessary funds to expand the "IDENT" program to include fingerprinting of all illegal and criminal aliens apprehended nationwide. 
  • Facilitated deportation of criminal aliens by expanding the definition of aggravated felony to include crimes carrying a prison sentence of one year or more rather than time served. 
  • Stopped the release of criminal aliens from custody prior to deportation. 
  • Expedited the removal of inadmissible aliens by limiting judicial review. 
  • Made excludable or deportable those aliens who falsely claim U.S. citizenship. 
  • Required states to phase in, over six years, drivers' licenses and state-issued I.D. documents that are tamperproof and counterfeit-resistant. 
  • Increased criminal penalties for document fraud and smuggling. Added alien smuggling and document fraud to RICO (anti-racketeering) offences and granted the INS the authority to use wiretaps for such investigations. 
  • Required that sponsors of immigrants have income at least 25 percent above the poverty level and made affidavits of support by the sponsors legally binding. 
  • Tightened the Attorney General's authority over special admissions by requiring "urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit" as grounds for admittance, and allowed for such admissions only on a case-by-case basis.

Updated 01/2008 @

I firmly believe that other sources provide an excellent overview of the Historical breakdown of Immigration Law. I have given credit to the websites this information comes from.



 History of immigration to the United States

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The history of immigration to the United States is a continuing story of peoples from more populated continents, particularly Europe and also Africa and Asia, crossing oceans to the new land. Historians do not treat the first indigenous settlers as immigrants. Starting around 1600 British and other Europeans settled primarily on the east coast. Later Africans were brought as slaves. During the nation's history, the growing country experienced successive waves of immigration which rose and fell over time, particularly from Europe, with the cost of transoceanic transportation sometimes paid by travelers becoming indentured servants after their arrival in the New World. At other times, immigration rules became more restrictive. With the ending of numerical restrictions in 1965 and the advent of cheap air travel immigration has increased from Asia and Latin America.

Attitudes toward new immigrants have cycled between favorable and hostile since the 1790s.

Colonial era 1600-1775

The first, and longest, era from 1607 to 1775 brought European immigrants (primarily those of British, German and Dutch descent) and African slaves.


By far the largest group of new arrivals comprised the British. They were not exactly "immigrants" for they remained within the British Empire. Over 90% became farmers.[1]

Large numbers of young men and women came alone, as indentured servants. Their passage was paid by employers in the colonies who needed help on the farms, or shops. They were provided food, housing, clothing and training but did not receive wages. At the end of the indenture (usually around age 21) they were free to marry and start their own farm.[2]


The first successful English colony started in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia. Once tobacco was found to be a profitable crop, many plantations were established along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and Maryland.

New England

A few hundred English Pilgrims, seeking their religious freedom in the New World, established a small settlement near Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Tens of thousands of English Puritans came to Boston, Massachusetts and adjacent areas from about 1629 to 1640 to create a land dedicated to their religion . The earliest New England colonies of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire were established along the northeast coast. Large scale immigration to this region ended before 1700, but a small steady trickle of later arrivals continued.[3]

The peak New England settlement occurred from about 1629 to about 1641 when about 20,000 Puritan settlers arrived mostly from the East Anglian parts of England (Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Kent, and East Sussex).[4] In the next 150 years, their "Yankee" descendants largely filled in the New England states and parts of upstate New York.

The New England colonists were the most urban and educated of all the colonists and had many skilled farmers as well as tradesmen and skilled craftsmen among them. They started the first college, Harvard, in 1635 to train their ministers. They mostly settled in small villages for mutual support (nearly all had their own militias) and common religious activity. Shipbuilding, commerce, agriculture and fisheries were their main income sources. New England's healthy climate (the cold winters killed the mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects), small widespread villages (minimizing spread of disease) and abundant food supply resulted in the lowest death rate and highest birth rate (marriage was expected and birth control was not, and a much higher than average number of children and mothers survived) of any of the colonies. The eastern and northern frontier around the initial New England settlements was mainly settled by the descendants of the original New Englanders. Immigration to the New England colonies after 1640 and the start of the English Civil War decreased to less than 1% (about equal to the death rate) in nearly all years prior to 1845. The rapid growth of the New England colonies (~900,000 by 1790) was almost entirely due to the high birth rate (>3%) and low death rate (<1%) per year.[5]


The Dutch established settlements along the Hudson River in New York starting about 1626. Wealthy Dutch patroons set up large landed estates along the Hudson River and brought in farmers who became renters. Others established rich trading posts for trading with the Indians and started cities such as New Amsterdam (now New York City) and Albany, New York.[6] After the British took over and renamed the colony New York, Germans (from the Palatine) and Yankees (from New England) began arriving.[7]

Middle colonies

New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware formed the middle colonies. Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers from Britain, followed by Scotch Irish from Ulster (Northern Ireland) on the frontier and numerous German Protestant sects, including the German Palatines. The earlier colony of New Sweden had small settlements on the lower Delaware River, with immigrants of Swedes and Finns. These colonies were absorbed by 1676.[8]

The middle colonies' settlements were scattered west of New York City (established 1626; taken over by the English in 1664) and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (established 1682). The Dutch-started colony of New York had the most eclectic collection of residents from many different nations and prospered as a major trading and commercial center after about 1700. The Pennsylvania colonial center was dominated by the Quakers for decades after they emigrated, mainly from the North Midlands of England, from about 1680 to 1725. The main commercial center of Philadelphia was run mostly by prosperous Quakers, supplemented by many small farming and trading communities with a strong German contingent located in several small towns in the Delaware River valley.[9]

Starting in about 1680, when Pennsylvania was founded, many more settlers arrived in the middle colonies. Many Protestant sects were encouraged to settle there by freedom of religion and good, cheap land. Their point of origin was about 60% British and 33% German. By 1780, in New York, about 27% of the population were descendants of Dutch settlers, about 6% were black and the rest were mostly English with a wide mixture of other Europeans. New Jersey and Delaware had a majority of British with 7-11% German-descended colonists, about 6% black population, and a small contingent of Swedish descendants of New Sweden. Nearly all were at least third-generation natives.[citation needed]


The colonial frontier was mainly settled from about 1717 to 1775 by mostly Presbyterian settlers from northern England border lands, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, fleeing bad times and persecution in those areas.[10] The fourth main colonial center of settlement is the western frontier in the western parts of Pennsylvania and the South which was settled in the early-to-late 18th century by mostly Scots-Irish, Scots and others mostly from northern England border lands. Between 250,000 and 400,000 Scots-Irish migrated to America in the 18th century.[10] The Scotch-Irish soon became the dominant culture of the Appalachians from Pennsylvania to Georgia. Areas where people reported 'American' ancestry were the places where, historically, northern English, Scottish and Scots-Irish Protestants settled in America: in the interior of the South, and the Appalachian region.[11]


The mostly agricultural Southern English colonies initially had very high death rates for new settlers from malaria, yellow fever and other diseases as well as Indian wars. Despite this, a steady flow of new settlers, mostly from central England and the London area, kept the population growing. The large plantations were mostly owned by friends (mostly minor aristocrats) of the British-appointed governors initially. Many settlers arrived as indentured servants who had to work off their passage with five to seven years of work for room and board, clothing and training, but no cash wages. After their terms of indentures expired, most of the indentures settled small farms on the frontier. The Southern colonies were about 55% British, 38% Black and roughly 7% German.[citation needed] The international slave trade mostly ended after 1775 and was outlawed in 1808, although some slaves were smuggled in.

The initial areas of settlement had been largely cleared of Indians by major outbreaks of measles, smallpox, and plague starting decades before the settlers began arriving in large numbers after 1630. The leading killer was smallpox, which arrived in the New World around 1510-1530.[12]


While the 13 colonies had differences in detail, they had many things in common. Nearly all were settled and financed by privately organized groups of English settlers or families using private free enterprise without any significant English Royal or Parliamentary government support or input. Nearly all commercial activity was run in small privately owned businesses with good credit both at home and in England being essential since they were often cash poor. Most settlements were nearly independent of trade with Britain as most grew or made nearly everything they needed—the average cost of imports per most households was only about 5-15 English pounds per year. Most settlements were done by complete family groups with several generations often present in each settlement. Probably close to 80% of the families owned the land they lived and farmed on. The Dutch and German Americans, spoke their dialects brought over from Europe. They generally established their own popularly elected governments and courts on as many levels as they could and were nearly all, within a few years, self-governing, self-supporting and self replicating. This self ruling pattern became so ingrained that almost all new settlements by one or more groups of settlers would have their own government up and running shortly after they settled down for the next 200 years. Nearly all, after a hundred years plus of living together, had learned to tolerate other religions than their own.[citation needed]

Scots Irish, who had originated in Scotland and settled in Ireland, (Originally came in large numbers in the early 18th century; they preferred the back country and the frontier from Pennsylvania to Georgia. They were heavily Presbyterian, self-sufficient, and hostile to Indians[13] Other immigrant groups generally avoided the frontier.

After these colonies were settled, they grew almost entirely by natural growth with foreign born populations rarely exceeding 10% (except in isolated instances). The last significant colonies to be settled mainly by immigrants were Pennsylvania, the Carolinas and Georgia. Elsewhere internal American migration (not immigration from Europe) provide most of the settlers for each new colony or state.[14]

Population growth is nearly always by natural increase[citation needed] but significant immigration can sometimes be seen in some states when populations grow by more than 80% (a 3% annual growth rate) in a 20 year interval.

Over half of all Europeans arrived as indentured servants.[15] They were young people who paid for their passage by work contracts. In addition 60,000 convicts were transported to the British colonies in North America in the 18th century.[16]


Although Spain set up a few forts in Florida, notably San Agustín (present-day Saint Augustine) in 1565, they sent few settlers to Florida. Spaniards moving north from Mexico founded the San Juan on the Rio Grande in 1598, and Santa Fe in 1607-1608. The settlers were forced to leave temporarily for 12 years (1680–1692) by the Pueblo Revolt, but then returned.

Spanish Texas lasted between 1690 and 1821 when Texas was governed as a colony separate from New Spain. In 1731, Canary Islanders (or "Isleños") arrived to establish San Antonio.[17] The majority of the few hundred people who colonized Texas and New Mexico in the Spanish colonial period drew their identity from the Spaniards and the criollos.[18] In 1781 Spanish settlers founded Los Angeles.

In the late 18th century, French expeditions established a foothold on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast. The French colony of Louisiana. Several thousand French-speaking refugees from the region of Acadia (now Nova Scotia, Canada) made their way[clarification needed] to Louisiana following British expulsion; settling largely in the southwestern Louisiana region now called Acadiana. Their descendants came to be called Cajuns and still dominate the coastal areas.[19]

Population in 1790

The following were the countries of origin for new arrivals to the United States before 1790.[20] The regions marked with an asterisk were part of Great Britain. The ancestry of the 3.9 million population in 1790 has been estimated by various sources by sampling last names in the 1790 census and assigning them a country of origin. The Irish in the 1790 census were mostly Scots Irish. The French were mostly Huguenots. The total U.S. Catholic population in 1790 was probably less than 5%. The Indian population inside territorial U.S. 1790 boundaries was less than 100,000.[citation needed]

U.S. historical populations
CountryImmigrants before 1790Population 1790[21]

Ulster Scot-Irish*135,000300,000
Ireland*8,000(Incl. in Scot-Irish)

British total425,5002,560,000

The 1790 population reflected the approximate 50,000 Loyalists, or "Tories", who emigrated to Canada at the end of the American Revolution and the less than 10,000 others who emigrated to other British possessions including England.

The total white population in 1790 was about 80% British ancestry and roughly doubled by natural increase every 25 years. Since approximately 1675, the native born population of the U.S. has never fallen below 85% of the population.[citation needed]

Relentless population expansion pushed the U.S. frontier to the Pacific by 1848. Most immigrants came long distances to settle in the U.S. Many Irish, however, left Canada for the U.S. in the 1840s. French Canadians who came down from Quebec after 1860 and the Mexicans who came north after 1911 found it easier to move back and forth.[citation needed]

Immigration 1790 to 1849

There was relatively little immigration from 1770 to 1830; indeed there was significant emigration to Canada, including about 75,000 Loyalists as well as Germans and other looking for better farms in what is now Ontario. Large scale immigration resumed in the 1830s from Britain, Ireland, Germany and other parts of Central Europe as well as Scandinavia. Most were attracted by the cheap farm land. Some were artisans and skilled factory workers attracted by the first stage of industrialization. The Irish Catholics were unskilled workers who built most of the canals and railroads, and settled in urban areas. Many Irish went to the emerging textile mill towns of the Northeast, while others became longshoremen in the growing Atlantic and Gulf port cities. Half the Germans headed to farms, especially in the Midwest (with some to Texas), while the other half became craftsmen in urban areas.

Nativism took the form of political anti-Catholicism directed mostly at the Irish (as well as Germans). It became important briefly in the mid-1850s in the guise of the Know Nothing party. Most of the Catholic and German Lutheran ethnics became Democrats, and most of the Protestants joined the new Republican Party. During the Civil War, ethnic communities supported the war and produced large numbers of soldiers on both sides. The Irish Catholics in the North, however, became disillusioned when the war focused on ending slavery. Draft riots broke out in New York City and other Irish and German strongholds in 1863.

Based on available records, immigration totaled 8,385 in 1820, with immigration totals gradually increasing to 23,322 by the year 1830; for the 1820s decade immigration more than doubled to 143,000. Between 1831 and 1840, immigration more than quadrupled to a total of 599,000. These included about 207,000 Irish, starting to emigrate in large numbers following Britain's easing of travel restrictions, and about 152,000 Germans, 76,000 British, and 46,000 French, constituting the next largest immigrant groups of the decade.

Between 1841 and 1850, immigration nearly tripled again, totaling 1,713,000 immigrants, including at least 781,000 Irish, 435,000 Germans, 267,000 British and 77,000 French immigrants. The Irish, with the Potato Famine (1845–1849) driving them, emigrated directly from their homeland to escape poverty and death. The failed revolutions of 1848 brought many intellectuals and activists to exile in the U.S. Bad times and poor conditions in Europe drove people out, while land, relatives, freedom, opportunity, and jobs in the US lured them in.

Population and Foreign Born 1790 to 1849
Census Population, Immigrants per Decade
CensusPopulationImmigrants1Foreign Born %

183012,785,000143,000200,000 21.6%
184017,018,000599,000800,000 24.7%
1. The total number immigrating in each decade from 1790 to 1820 are estimates.

2. The number foreign born in 1830 and 1840 decades are extrapolations.

Starting only in 1820 some federal records, including ship passenger lists, were kept for immigration purposes, and a gradual increase in immigration was recorded; more complete immigration records provide data on immigration since 1830. Though conducted since 1790, the census of 1850 was the first in which place of birth was specially asked. The foreign-born population in the U.S. likely reached its minimum around 1815, at approximately 100,000 or 1.4% of the population. By 1815, most of the immigrants who arrived before the American Revolution had died, and there had been almost no new immigration.

Nearly all population growth up to 1830 was by internal increase; about 98.5% of the population was native-born. By 1850, this had shifted to about 90% native-born. The first significant Catholic immigration started in the mid-1840s, shifting the population from about 95% Protestant down to about 90% by 1850.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluding the Mexican War, extended U.S. citizenship to approximately 60,000 Mexican residents of the New Mexico Territory and 10,000 living in California. An additional approximate 2,500 foreign born California residents also become U.S. citizens.

In 1849, the California Gold Rush brought in over 100,000 would-be miners from the eastern U.S., Latin America, China, Australia, and Europe. California became a state in 1850 with a population of about 90,000.

Immigration 1850 to 1930

"From the Old to the New World" shows German emigrants boarding a steamer in Hamburg, to New York. Harper's Weekly, (New York) November 7, 1874


Between 1850 and 1930, about 5 million Germans immigrated to the United States with a peak in the years between 1881 and 1885, when a million Germans left Germany and settled mostly in the Midwest. Between 1820 and 1930, 3.5 million British and 4.5 million Irish entered America. Before 1845 most Irish immigrants were Protestants. After 1845, Irish Catholics began arriving in large numbers, largely driven by the Great Famine.[27]

After 1870 steam powered larger and faster ships, with lower fares. Meanwhile farming improvements in southern Europe and the Russian Empire created surplus populations that needed to move on. As usual, young people age 15 to 30 predominated among the newcomers. This wave of migration, which constituted the third episode in the history of U.S. immigration, could better be referred to as a flood of immigrants, as nearly 25 million Europeans made the voyage. Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and others speaking Slavic languages constituted the bulk of this migration. Included among them were 2.5 to 4 million Jews.


Each group evinced a distinctive migration pattern in terms of the gender balance within the migratory pool, the permanence of their migration, their literacy rates, the balance between adults and children, and the like. But they shared one overarching characteristic: They flocked to urban destinations and made up the bulk of the U.S. industrial labor pool, making possible the emergence of such industries as steel, coal, automobile, textile, and garment production, and enabling the United States to leap into the front ranks of the world's economic giants.

Their urban destinations, their numbers, and perhaps an antipathy towards foreigners led to the emergence of a second wave of organized xenophobia. By the 1890s, many Americans, particularly from the ranks of the well-off, white, native-born, considered immigration to pose a serious danger to the nation's health and security. In 1893 a group of them formed the Immigration Restriction League, and it, along with other similarly inclined organizations, began to press Congress for severe curtailment of foreign immigration.

Irish and German Catholic immigration was opposed in the 1850s by the Nativist/Know Nothing movement, originating in New York in 1843 as the American Republican Party. It was empowered by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Catholic immigrants, who were often regarded as hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. Active mainly from 1854–56, it strived to curb immigration and naturalization, though its efforts met with little success. There were few prominent leaders, and the largely middle-class and Protestant membership fragmented over the issue of slavery, most often joining the Republican Party by the time of the 1860 presidential election.[28][29]

European immigrants joined the Union Army in large numbers, including 177,000 born in Germany and 144,000 born in Ireland.[30] Many Germans could see the parallel between slavery and serfdom in the old fatherland.[31]

Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians left Quebec to immigrate to the United States and settle, mainly in New England. Considering that the population of Quebec was only 892,061 in 1851, this was a massive exodus. 13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestry in the 1980 census. A large proportion of them have ancestors who emigrated from French Canada, since immigration from France was low throughout the history of the United States. During the same period almost 4 million other Canadians immigrated to the USA. In the New England states 12% of the population can trace their ancestry to Quebec and 10% from the Maritime Provinces.

Shortly after the U.S. Civil War, some states started to pass their own immigration laws, which prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in 1875 that immigration was a federal responsibility.[32] In 1875, the nation passed its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, outlawing the importation of Asian contract laborers, any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own countries.[33]

In 1882 Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act stated that there was a limited amount of immigrants of Chinese descent allowed into the United States for 10 years. The law was renewed in 1892 and 1902.

Prior to 1890, the individual states, rather than the Federal government, regulated immigration into the United States.[34] The Immigration Act of 1891 established a Commissioner of Immigration in the Treasury Department.[35] The Canadian Agreement of 1894 extended U.S. immigration restrictions to Canadian ports.

Late 19th Century broadside advertisement offering cheap farm land to immigrants; few went to Texas after 1860.

The Dillingham Commission was set up by Congress in 1907 to investigate the effects of immigration on the country. The Commission's 40-volume analysis of immigration during the previous three decades led it to conclude that the major source of immigration had shifted from central, northern and western Europeans to southern Europeans and Russians. It was, however, apt to generalizations about regional groups that were subjective and failed to differentiate between distinct cultural attributes.[36][37]

The 1910s marked the high point of Italian immigration to the United States. Over two million Italians immigrated in those years, with a total of 5.3 million between 1880 and 1920.[38][39] About a third returned to Italy, after working an average of five years in the U.S.

About 1.5 million Swedes and Norwegians immigrated to the United States within this period, due to opportunity in America and poverty and religious oppression in united Sweden-Norway. This accounted for around 20% of the total population of the kingdom at that time. They settled mainly in the Midwest, especially Minnesota and the Dakotas. Danes had comparably low immigration rates due to a better economy; after 1900 many Danish immigrants were Mormon converts who moved to Utah.

In this Rosh Hashana greeting card from the early 1900s, Russian Jews, packs in hand, gaze at the American relatives beckoning them to the United States. Over two million Jews fled the pogroms of the Russian Empire to the safety of the U.S. from 1881-1924.
Mulberry Street, along which Manhattan's Little Italy is centered. Lower East Side, circa 1900.

Over two million Central Europeans, mainly Catholics and Jews, immigrated between 1880 and 1924. People of Polish ancestry are the largest Central European ancestry group in the United States after Germans. Immigration of Eastern Orthodox ethnic groups was much lower.

Lebanese and Syrian immigrants started to settle in large numbers in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The vast majority of the immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were Christians, but smaller numbers of Jews, Muslims and Druze also settled. Many lived in New York City and Boston. In the 1920s and 1930s, a large number of these immigrants set out west, with Detroit getting a large number of Middle Eastern immigrants, as well as many Midwestern areas where the Arabs worked as farmers.

From 1880 to 1924, around two million Jews moved to the United States, mostly seeking better opportunity in America and fleeing the pogroms of the Russian Empire. After 1934 Jews, along with any other above-quota immigration, were usually denied access to the United States.

Congress passed a literacy requirement in 1917 to curb the influx of low-skilled immigrants from entering the country.

Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, which was aimed at further restricting the Southern and Russians who had begun to enter the country in large numbers beginning in the 1890s. This ultimately resulted in precluding the all "extra" immigration to the United States, including Jews fleeing Nazi German persecution.

The Immigration Act of 1924 set quotas for European immigrants so that no more than 2% of the 1890 immigrant stocks were allowed into America.

New Immigration

"New immigration" was a term from the late 1880s that came from the influx of immigrants from southern Europe and Russia (areas that previously sent few immigrants).[40] Some Americans feared the new arrivals. This raised the issue of whether the U.S. was still a "melting pot", or if it had just become a "dumping ground", and many old-stock Americans worried about negative effects on the economy, politics and culture.[41]

Catholicism became a leading denomination 1860-1910. St. John Cantius, one of Chicago's "Polish Cathedrals" was one of the churches these new immigrants founded.

Immigration 1930 to 2000

Restriction proceeded piecemeal over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but immediately after the end of World War I (1914–1918) and into the early 1920s, Congress did change the nation's basic policy about immigration. The National Origins Formula of 1921 (and its final form in 1924) not only restricted the number of immigrants who might enter the United States but also assigned slots according to quotas based on national origins. A complicated piece of legislation, it essentially gave preference to immigrants from central, northern and western Europe, severely limited the numbers from Russia and southern Europe, and declared all potential immigrants from Asia to be unworthy of entry into the United States.

The legislation excluded the Western Hemisphere from the quota system, and the 1920s ushered in the penultimate era in U.S. immigration history. Immigrants could and did move quite freely from Mexico, the Caribbean (including Jamaica, Barbados, and Haiti), and other parts of Central and South America. This era, which reflected the application of the 1924 legislation, lasted until 1965. During those 40 years, the United States began to admit, case by case, limited numbers of refugees. Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before World War II, Jewish Holocaust survivors after the war, non-Jewish displaced persons fleeing Communist rule in Central Europe and Russia, Hungarians seeking refuge after their failed uprising in 1956, and Cubans after the 1960 revolution managed to find haven in the United States because their plight moved the conscience of Americans, but the basic immigration law remained in place.

Tydings–McDuffie Act

In 1934, the Tydings–McDuffie Act provided for independence of the Philippines on July 4, 1946. Until 1965, national origin quotas strictly limited immigration from the Philippines. In 1965, after revision of the immigration law, significant Filipino immigration began, totaling 1,728,000 by 2004.[citation needed]

Postwar immigration

In 1945, the War Brides Act allowed foreign-born wives of U.S. citizens who had served in the U.S. armed forces to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, The War Brides Act was extended to include fiancés of American soldiers who were also allowed to immigrate to the United States. In 1946, the Luce-Celler Act extended the right to become naturalized citizens to newly freed Filipinos and Asian Indians. The immigration quota was set at 100 people a year.[42]

At the end of World War II, "regular" immigration almost immediately increased under the official national origins quota system as refugees from war torn Europe started immigrating to the U.S. After the war, there were jobs for nearly everyone who wanted one, including immigrants, while most women employed during the war went back into the home. From 1941 to 1950, 1,035,000 people immigrated to the U.S., including 226,000 from Germany, 139,000 from the UK, 171,000 from Canada, 60,000 from Mexico and 57,000 from Italy.[43]

The Displaced Persons (DP) Act of 1948 finally allowed displaced people of World War II to start immigrating.[44] Some 200,000 Europeans and 17,000 orphans displaced by World War II were initially allowed to immigrate to the United States outside of immigration quotas. President Harry S. Truman signed the first DP act on June 25, 1948, allowing entry for 200,000 DPs, and then followed by the more accommodating second DP act on 16 June 1950, allowing entry for another 200,000. This quota, included acceptance of 55,000 Volksdeutschen, required sponsorship of all immigrants. The American program was the most notoriously bureaucratic of all the DP programs and much of the humanitarian effort was undertaken by charitable organizations, such as the Lutheran World Federation and other ethnic groups. Along with an additional quota of 200,000 granted in 1953 and more in succeeding years, a total of nearly 600,000 refugees were allowed into the country outside the quota system, second only to Israel's 650,000.


In 1950, after the start of the Korean War, the Internal Security Act barred admission to any foreigner who was Communist, who might engage in activities "which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or would endanger the welfare or safety of the United States."

In 1950, the invasion of South Korea by North Korea started the Korean War and left a war ravaged Korea behind. There was little U.S. immigration because of the national origin quotas in the immigration law. In 1965, after revision of the immigration law, significant Korean immigration began, totaling 848,000 by 2004.

In 1952, the McCarran Walter Immigration Act affirmed the national-origins quota system of 1924 and limited total annual immigration to one-sixth of one percent of the population of the continental United States in 1920, or 175,455. The act exempted spouses and children of U.S. citizens and people born in the Western Hemisphere from the quota. In 1953, the Refugee Relief Act extended refugee status to non-Europeans.

In 1954, Operation Wetback forced the return of thousands of illegal immigrants to Mexico.[45] Between 1944 and 1954, "the decade of the wetback", the number of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico increased by 6,000 percent. It is estimated that, in 1954, before Operation Wetback got under way, more than a million workers had crossed the Rio Grande illegally. Cheap labor displaced native agricultural workers, and increased violation of labor laws and discrimination encouraged criminality, disease, and illiteracy. According to a study conducted in 1950 by the President's Commission on Migratory Labor in Texas, the Rio Grande valley cotton growers were paying approximately half of the wages paid elsewhere in Texas. The United States Border Patrol aided by municipal, county, state, and federal authorities, as well as the military, began a quasi-military operation of search and seizure of all illegal immigrants. Fanning out from the lower Rio Grande valley, Operation Wetback moved northward. Illegal immigrants were repatriated initially through Presidio because the Mexican city across the border, Ojinaga, had rail connections to the interior of Mexico by which workers could be quickly moved on to Durango. The forces used by the government were actually relatively small, perhaps no more than 700 men, but were augmented by border patrol officials who hoped to scare illegal workers into fleeing back to Mexico. Ships were a preferred mode of transport because they carried the illegal workers farther away from the border than did buses, trucks, or trains. It is difficult to estimate the number of illegal immigrants that left due to the operation—most voluntarily. The INS claimed as many as 1,300,000, though the number officially apprehended did not come anywhere near this total. The program was ultimately abandoned due to questions surrounding the ethics of its implementation. Citizens of Mexican descent complained of police stopping all "Mexican looking" people and utilizing extreme "police-state" methods including deportation of American-born children who by law were citizens.[46]

The failed 1956 Hungarian Revolution, before being crushed by the Soviets, forged a temporary hole in the Iron Curtain that allowed a burst of refugees to escape, bringing in 245,000 new Hungarian families to the U.S. by 1960. In the decade of 1950 to 1960, the U.S. had 2,515,000 new immigrants with 477,000 arriving from Germany, 185,000 from Italy, 52,000 new arrivals from Holland, 203,000 from the UK, 46,000 from Japan, 300,000 from Mexico, and 377,000 from Canada.

After the Cuban revolution of 1959, led by Fidel Castro drove the middle classes to exile, as 409,000 families emigrated to the U.S. by 1970.[47]

Hart-Celler Act

This all changed with passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, a by-product of the civil rights revolution and a jewel in the crown of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. The measure had not been intended to stimulate immigration from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere in the developing world. Rather, by doing away with the racially based quota system, its authors had expected that immigrants would come from the "traditional" sending societies such as Italy, Greece, and Portugal, places that labored under very small quotas in the 1924 law. The law replaced the quotas with preference categories based on family relationships and job skills, giving particular preference to potential immigrants with relatives in the United States and with occupations deemed critical by the U.S. Department of Labor. But after 1970, following an initial influx from those European countries, there were immigrants from places like Korea, China, India, the Philippines, and Pakistan, as well as countries in Africa.


In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed, creating, for the first time, penalties for employers who hired illegal immigrants. IRCA, as proposed in Congress, was projected to give amnesty to about 1,000,000 workers in the country illegally. In practice, amnesty for about 3,000,000 immigrants already in the United States was granted. Most were from Mexico. Legal Mexican immigrant family numbers were 2,198,000 in 1980, 4,289,000 in 1990 (includes IRCA) and 7,841,000 in 2000. Adding in another 12,000,000 illegals of which about 80% are thought to be Mexicans would bring the Mexican family total to over 16,000,000—about 16% of the Mexican population.[citation needed]

Immigration summary since 1830

The top ten countries of birth of the foreign born population in the U.S. since 1830, according to the U.S. Census, are shown below. Blank entries mean that the country did not make it into the top ten for that census, and not that there are no data from that census. The 1830 numbers are from immigration statistics as listed in the 2004 Year Book of Immigration Statistics.[48] *The 1830 numbers list un-naturalized foreign citizens in 1830 and does not include naturalized foreign born. The 1850 census is the first census that asks for place of birth. The historical census data can be found online in the Virginia Library Geostat Center [49] Population numbers are in thousands.

Dominican Republic692
El Salvador765
Russia/Soviet Union4241,154691463406
United Kingdom273799181,1681,403833686669640
Total Foreign Born108*2,2446,67910,34114,20410,3479,61914,07919,76331,100
% Foreign Born0.8%*9.7%13.3%13.6%11.6%5.8%4.7%6.2%7.9%11.1%
Native Born12,67720,94743,47665,653108,571168,978193,591212,466228,946250,321
% Native Born99.2%90.3%86.7%86.4%88.4%94.2%95.3%94%92.1%88.9%
Total Population12,78523,19150,15575,994122,775179,325203,210226,545248,709281,421
Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status Fiscal Years 1820 to 2010

Source: US Department of Homeland Security, Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2010[50]

Historical foreign-born population by state

Foreign-Born Population By U.S. State As a % of the Total Population (1850-2010)[51][52]
United States United States of America9.7%13.2%14.4%13.3%14.8%13.6%14.7%13.2%11.6%8.8%6.9%5.4%4.7%6.2%7.9%11.1%12.9%
Alabama Alabama1.0%1.3%1.0%0.8%1.0%0.8%0.9%0.8%0.6%0.4%0.4%0.5%0.5%1.0%1.1%2.0%3.5%
Alaska Alaska3.6%2.6%4.0%4.5%5.9%6.9%
Arizona Arizona60.1%39.7%31.5%19.7%23.9%24.1%15.1%7.8%6.3%5.4%4.3%6.0%7.6%12.8%13.4%
Arkansas Arkansas0.7%0.8%1.0%1.3%1.3%1.1%1.1%0.8%0.6%0.4%0.5%0.4%0.4%1.0%1.1%2.8%4.5%
California California23.5%38.6%37.5%33.9%30.3%24.7%24.7%22.1%18.9%13.4%10.0%8.5%8.8%15.1%21.7%26.2%27.2%
Colorado Colorado7.8%16.6%20.5%20.4%16.9%16.2%12.7%9.6%6.4%4.6%3.4%2.7%3.9%4.3%8.6%9.8%
Connecticut Connecticut10.4%17.5%21.1%20.9%24.6%26.2%29.6%27.4%23.9%19.3%14.8%10.9%8.6%8.6%8.5%10.9%13.6%
Delaware Delaware5.7%8.2%7.3%6.5%7.8%7.5%8.6%8.9%7.1%5.6%4.1%3.3%2.9%3.2%3.3%5.7%8.0%
Washington, D.C. District of Columbia9.5%16.6%12.3%9.6%8.1%7.2%7.5%6.7%6.3%5.3%5.3%5.1%4.4%6.4%9.7%12.9%13.5%
Florida Florida3.2%2.4%2.6%3.7%5.9%4.5%5.4%5.6%4.8%4.1%4.7%5.5%8.0%10.9%12.9%16.7%19.4%
Georgia (U.S. state) Georgia0.7%1.1%0.9%0.7%0.7%0.6%0.6%0.6%0.5%0.4%0.5%0.6%0.7%1.7%2.7%7.1%9.7%
Hawaii Hawaii10.9%9.8%14.2%14.7%17.5%18.2%
Idaho Idaho52.6%30.6%20.7%15.2%13.1%9.4%7.3%4.7%3.4%2.3%1.8%2.5%2.9%5.0%5.5%
Illinois Illinois13.1%19.0%20.3%19.0%22.0%20.1%21.4%18.7%16.3%12.3%9.1%6.8%5.7%7.2%8.3%12.3%13.7%
Indiana Indiana5.6%8.8%8.4%7.3%6.7%5.6%5.9%5.2%4.4%3.2%2.5%2.0%1.6%1.9%1.7%3.1%4.6%
Iowa Iowa10.9%15.7%17.1%16.1%17.0%13.7%12.3%9.4%6.8%4.6%3.2%2.0%1.4%1.6%1.6%3.1%4.6%
Kansas Kansas11.8%13.3%11.1%10.4%8.6%8.0%6.3%4.3%2.9%2.0%1.5%1.2%2.0%2.5%5.0%6.5%
Kentucky Kentucky3.2%5.2%4.8%3.6%3.2%2.3%1.8%1.3%0.8%0.6%0.5%0.6%0.5%0.9%0.9%2.0%3.2%
Louisiana Louisiana13.2%11.4%8.5%5.8%4.4%3.8%3.2%2.6%1.8%1.2%1.1%0.9%1.1%2.0%2.1%2.6%3.8%
Maine Maine5.5%6.0%7.8%9.1%11.9%13.4%14.9%14.0%12.6%9.9%8.2%6.2%4.3%3.9%3.0%2.9%3.4%
Maryland Maryland8.8%11.3%10.7%8.9%9.0%7.9%8.1%7.1%5.9%4.5%3.7%3.0%3.2%4.6%6.6%9.8%13.9%
Massachusetts Massachusetts16.5%21.1%24.2%24.9%29.4%30.2%31.5%28.3%25.1%19.9%15.4%11.2%8.7%8.7%9.5%12.2%15.0%
Michigan Michigan13.8%19.9%22.6%23.7%26.0%22.4%21.3%19.9%17.6%13.1%9.5%6.8%4.8%4.5%3.8%5.3%6.0%
Minnesota Minnesota32.5%34.1%36.5%34.3%35.9%28.9%26.2%20.4%15.2%10.6%7.1%4.2%2.6%2.6%2.6%5.3%7.1%
Mississippi Mississippi0.8%1.1%1.4%0.8%0.6%0.5%0.5%0.5%0.4%0.3%0.4%0.4%0.4%0.9%0.8%1.4%2.1%
Missouri Missouri11.2%13.6%12.9%9.8%8.8%7.0%7.0%5.5%4.2%3.0%2.3%1.8%1.4%1.7%1.6%2.7%3.9%
Montana Montana38.7%29.4%32.6%27.6%25.2%17.4%14.1%10.1%7.4%4.5%2.8%2.3%1.7%1.8%2.0%
Nebraska Nebraska22.0%25.0%21.5%19.1%16.6%14.8%11.6%8.7%6.2%4.4%2.9%1.9%2.0%1.8%4.4%6.1%
Nevada Nevada30.1%44.2%41.2%32.1%23.8%24.1%20.7%16.6%10.0%6.7%4.6%3.7%6.7%8.7%15.8%18.8%
New Hampshire New Hampshire4.5%6.4%9.3%13.3%19.2%21.4%22.5%20.6%17.8%13.9%10.9%7.4%5.0%4.4%3.7%4.4%5.3%
New Jersey New Jersey12.2%18.3%20.9%19.6%22.8%22.9%26.0%23.5%21.0%16.8%13.2%10.1%8.9%10.3%12.5%17.5%21.0%
New Mexico New Mexico3.5%7.2%6.1%6.7%7.3%7.0%7.1%8.3%5.7%2.9%2.6%2.3%2.2%4.0%5.3%8.2%9.9%
New York New York21.2%25.8%26.0%23.8%26.2%26.1%30.2%27.2%25.9%21.6%17.4%13.6%11.6%13.6%15.9%20.4%22.2%
North Carolina North Carolina0.3%0.3%0.3%0.3%0.2%0.2%0.3%0.3%0.3%0.3%0.4%0.5%0.6%1.3%1.7%5.3%7.5%
North Dakota North Dakota44.6%35.4%27.1%20.4%15.5%11.6%7.8%4.7%3.0%2.3%1.5%1.9%2.5%
Ohio Ohio11.0%14.0%14.0%12.3%12.5%11.0%12.6%11.8%9.8%7.5%5.6%4.1%3.0%2.8%2.4%3.0%4.1%
Oklahoma Oklahoma4.4%2.6%2.4%2.0%1.3%0.9%0.8%0.9%0.8%1.9%2.1%3.8%5.5%
Oregon Oregon7.7%9.8%12.8%17.5%18.3%15.9%16.8%13.7%11.6%8.3%5.6%4.0%3.2%4.1%4.9%8.5%9.8%
Pennsylvania Pennsylvania13.1%14.8%15.5%13.7%16.1%15.6%18.8%16.0%12.9%9.9%7.5%5.3%3.8%3.4%3.1%4.1%5.8%
Rhode Island Rhode Island16.2%21.4%25.5%26.8%30.8%31.4%33.0%29.0%25.0%19.5%14.4%10.0%7.8%8.9%9.5%11.4%12.8%
South Carolina South Carolina1.3%1.4%1.1%0.8%0.5%0.4%0.4%0.4%0.3%0.3%0.3%0.5%0.6%1.5%1.4%2.9%4.7%
South Dakota South Dakota36.7%34.0%38.3%27.7%22.0%17.3%13.0%9.5%6.9%4.7%2.7%1.6%1.4%1.1%1.8%2.7%
Tennessee Tennessee0.6%1.9%1.5%1.1%1.1%0.9%0.9%0.7%0.5%0.4%0.4%0.4%0.5%1.1%1.2%2.8%4.5%
Texas Texas8.3%7.2%7.6%7.2%6.8%5.9%6.2%7.8%6.2%3.7%3.6%3.1%2.8%6.0%9.0%13.9%16.4%
Utah Utah18.0%31.7%35.4%30.6%25.5%19.4%17.6%13.2%9.5%6.0%4.5%3.6%2.8%3.5%3.4%7.1%8.0%
Vermont Vermont10.7%10.4%14.3%12.3%13.3%13.0%14.0%12.6%12.0%8.8%7.6%6.0%4.2%4.1%3.1%3.8%4.4%
Virginia Virginia1.6%2.2%1.1%1.0%1.1%1.0%1.3%1.4%1.0%0.9%1.1%1.2%1.6%3.3%5.0%8.1%11.4%
Washington (state) Washington27.1%21.0%21.0%25.8%21.5%22.4%19.6%16.3%12.1%8.3%6.3%4.6%5.8%6.6%10.4%13.1%
West Virginia West Virginia3.9%3.0%2.5%2.3%4.7%4.2%3.0%2.2%1.7%1.3%1.0%1.1%0.9%1.1%1.2%
Wisconsin Wisconsin36.2%35.7%34.6%30.8%30.8%24.9%22.0%17.5%13.2%9.2%6.3%4.3%3.0%2.7%2.5%3.6%4.5%
Wyoming Wyoming38.5%28.1%24.6%18.8%19.9%13.7%10.3%6.8%4.6%2.9%2.1%2.0%1.7%2.3%