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.
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.
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