America was built by immigrants. From Plymouth Rock in the seventeenth century to Ellis Island in the twentieth, people born elsewhere came to America. Some were fleeing religious persecution and political turmoil. Most, however, came for economic reasons and were part of extensive migratory systems that responded to changing demands in labour markets. Their experience in the United States was as diverse as their backgrounds and aspirations. Some became farmers and others toiled in factories. Some settled permanently and others returned to their homeland. Collectively, however, they contributed to the building of a nation by providing a constant source of inexpensive labour, by settling rural regions and industrial cities, and by bringing their unique forms of political and cultural expression.
The volume of immigration before the 1960s was staggering. Figures for the colonial period are imprecise, but by the time of the first census of 1790 nearly 1 million Afro-Americans and 4 million Europeans resided in the United States. The European population originated from three major streams: English and Welsh, Scotch-Irish, and German.
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After 1820, the data became exact enough to document the volume of immigration more reliably. From 1820 to 1975 some 47 million people came to the United States: 8.3 million from other countries in the Western Hemisphere, 2.2 million from Asia, and 35.9 million from Europe. The stream was relatively continuous from 1820 to 1924 with only brief interruptions caused by the Civil War and occasional periods of economic downturns such as the depression of the 1890s, the panic of 1907-1908, and the Great Depression of the 1930s. World War II, of course, also greatly reduced the numbers emigrating. In fact, 32 million of the 35.9 million Europeans who came to the United States between 1820 and 1975 came prior to 1924.
Immigration on such a large scale resulted in greater ethnic diversity from the earlier colonial structure. In the century prior to World War I, the major sources of immigrants were Germany, Italy, Ireland, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Great Britain, but Canada also supplied 4 million newcomers, including a large number of French-Canadians, and Mexico sent some 2 million. These emigrant centers supplied the largest ethnic concentrations in American society before the 1960s.
Immigrants to colonial America were welcomed because of its acute need for inexpensive labor.
The English and Afro-Americans were quickly joined by Scotch-Irish, Scots, and German settlers. As many as 250,000 Scotch-Irish immigrated to the colonies before 1776.
But after the 1880s, the demand was almost exclusively for unskilled workers to fill the growing number of factory jobs.
was the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which curtailed immigration by establishing annual quotas that favoured newcomers from northern Europe over those from the continent”s southern and eastern regions. The Great Depression and World War II also kept immigration rates low; some 500,000 Mexican workers were deported during the early 1930s because it was thought that they took jobs away from the native-born.
Between the end of World War II and the passage of important immigrant reform legislation in 1965, most newcomers to the United States consisted of Europeans displaced by war and Mexican agricultural workers. In 1948 Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act that eventually admitted some 400,000 Europeans uprooted by war, although displaced people from Palestine, China, and India were ignored. Congress also responded to the requests of agricultural interests in the Southwest and allowed “braceros,” or temporary workers from Mexico, into the country after 1952.
But regardless of the varying climate awaiting them in America, immigrants made lasting contributions to their new society. They gave the country its major religious strains – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish – and, in the case of British coal miners and German, Italian, and Jewish socialists, brought traditions of social justice that resulted in better wages and improved working conditions for millions. Major American business ventures, such as the Bank of America and Steinway Pianos, were founded by immigrants. And important works of American literature, often about the immigrant experience, were written by foreign-born authors such as Ole Rölvaag and Mary Antin.
Immigrant groups brought such a variety of foods with them that ethnic restaurants constituted one of the key ways in which newcomers entered the American economy. Despite their contributions, however, the immigrant encounter with America produced uneven results. Although some were rewarded for their labour, others found economic stability and cultural adjustment more elusive.
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