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Definition: immigration from The Columbia Encyclopedia

entrance of a person (an alien) into a new country for the purpose of establishing permanent residence. Motives for immigration, like those for migration generally, are often economic, although religious or political factors may be very important. High rates of immigration are frequently accompanied by militant, and sometimes violent, calls for immigration restriction or deportation by nationalist groups. See also naturalization.

Immigration in the United States

From 1820 to 1930, the United States received about 60% of the world's immigrants. Population expansion in developed areas of the world, improved methods of transportation, and U.S. desire to populate available space were all factors in this phenomenon. Through the 19th cent., the United States was in the midst of agricultural, then industrial, expansion. The desire for cheap, unskilled labor and the profits to be made importing immigrants fueled the movement. Immigrants were largely responsible for the rapid development of the country, and their high birthrates did much to swell the U.S. population. Often, however, immigrants formed distinct ethnic neighborhoods, tending to remain somewhat isolated from the wider culture. Frequently exploited, some immigrants were accused by organized labor of lowering wages and living standards, though other groups of immigrants rapidly became mainstays of the labor movement. Opposition was early manifested by such organizations as the Know-Nothing movement and in violent anti-Chinese riots on the West Coast.

Restrictions placed on immigration were often based on race or nationality. There were also restrictions against the entrance of diseased persons, paupers, and other undesirables, and laws were passed for the deportation of aliens. The first permanent quota law was passed in 1924; it also provided for a national origins plan to be put into effect in 1929. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act (the McCarran-Walter Act) was passed; while abolishing race as an overall barrier to immigration, it kept particular forms of national bias. The act was amended in 1965, abolishing the national origins quota. Despite overall limits, immigration to the United States has burgeoned since 1965, and the 1980s saw the highest level of new immigrants since the first decade of the 20th cent.

In 1986, Congress passed legislation that sought to limit the numbers of undocumented or illegal aliens living in America, imposing stiff fines on employers who hired them and giving legal status to a number of aliens who had already lived in the United States for some time. The Immigration Act of 1990 raised the total quota for immigrants and reorganized the preference system for entrance. The 1996 Illegal Immigration and Reform Responsibility Act led to massive deportations of illegal immigrants. Its provisions were later softened under political and legal attack, but a stricter approach to immigrants in general was adopted by the government following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

A number of states have also enacted legislation designed to combat illegal immigration. The state laws appear not to have led to any significant convictions, but in some cases they have increased tensions with the local Hispanic minority and led to a migration of Hispanics, whether illegal immigrants or not, from the state. A 2012 Supreme Court decision concerning Arizona's law largely reserved to the federal government the right to enact and enforce immigration law while permitting state law enforcement officers to review a person's immigration status.

Immigration in Other Countries

Canada, in the first third of the 20th cent., began to receive an increasing number of immigrants, attracted by the expansion of agriculture in the west and the development of industry in the east. Australia and New Zealand received many European immigrants in the 19th cent.; the former country has been characterized by a preference for immigrants of British stock and by a policy of excluding Africans and Asians that dated from the late 19th cent. After 1965, however, this policy began to change; by the 1970s Australia had abandoned the system of racial preferences, and Asian immigration rapidly increased. Two major trends in immigration emerged after World War II: Australia and New Zealand became the countries with the highest rates of increase, and large numbers of Europeans immigrated to Africa. In recent decades, immigration to Europe from Asia and Africa has also substantially increased, as has emigration from Eastern Europe to the newly reunified Germany.

  • See studies by M. R. Davie (1983), I. Glazier and L. DeRosa (1986), V. N. Sinha (1987), D. R. Steiner (1987), and A. Richmond (1988).

Summary Article: Immigration
from The American Economy: A Historical Encyclopedia

The process of voluntary migration to the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, immigrants to the United States tended to come from southern and eastern Europe. Although many chose to emigrate on the basis of cultural factors such as educational opportunities or political and religious freedom, immigrants generally benefited economically, having calculated the costs of emigrating, differences in the cost of living, and differences in wages and income between the home and host countries. However, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many immigrants—often as many as half by nationality—returned to their native countries after realizing that temporary economic gains made in the United States would provide them with permanent investments back home.

The U.S. economy also benefited from immigration. The availability of relatively cheap, low-skilled immigrant labor helped fuel the rapid industrial expansion and development of the United States. Many immigrants’ willingness to work longer hours for less pay reduced the price of labor for rapidly growing industries. However, the nation’s economic gains did not come without social costs—anti-immigrant bigotry, racial tensions, and labor conflicts. The Know-Nothing (American) Party opposed immigration in the mid-1800s; the Molly Maguires (Irish coal miners) arranged for an end of Chinese immigration in the late 1800s; and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s was extremely anti-immigrant after World War I race riots occurred when returning veterans demanded jobs held by African Americans.

The Immigration Act of 1924, a result of the determination of the Ku Klux Klan and other groups to stop immigration after World War I, significantly diminished mass immigration until after World War II, when immigration resumed its steady increase. Like their predecessors, immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century based the decision to emigrate on economic and cultural factors. For example, people were more likely to relocate to the United States if their native countries had less political freedom than the United States or if their country became involved in crisis or conflict. In addition, proximity to the United States, fluency in English, and levels of higher education increased the likelihood of immigration. On the other hand, immigration slowed when wages in source countries became higher than those in the United States. On arrival in the United States, immigrants often lagged behind in terms of earning potential, but they usually caught up with and sometimes surpassed native-born Americans of similar socioeconomic backgrounds within a generation.

Newly arrived emigrants walk from the steamship company’s dock to Ellis Island for processing. (Library of Congress.)

After the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, which removed restrictions on immigration to the United States from non-European nations, immigration began to increase from developing regions including India, China, the Middle East, and sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the number of illegal Mexican immigrants looking for employment and a better life increased dramatically. Since the 1990s, the United States has offered amnesty programs allowing many illegal Mexican immigrants to file for citizenship. The increasing population of unskilled immigrants has sometimes burdened state and federal welfare systems and contributed to a decline in domestic unskilled wages. However, the number of highly skilled and educated immigrants from the same regions has also increased, a “brain drain” that has significantly benefited the United States. Taking into consideration both low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants, the United States has enjoyed a net benefit from immigration during the period since 1980.

See also: Volume Two: Immigration Policy; Labor.

  • Borjas, George J.The Economics of Immigration.” Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 32, no. 4 (December 1994): 1667-1717.
  • Greenwood, Michael J., and McDowell, John M.. “Differential Economic Opportunity, Transferability of Skills, and Immigration to the United States and Canada.” Review of Economics and Statistics, vol. 73, no. 4 (November 1991): 612-623.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1968.
  • Kessner, Thomas. The Golden Door and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • World Bank. World Bank Development Report 1999-2000. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Eric Pullin
    Copyright 2011 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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