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The Immigration History of the United States of America


Immigration. It’s been the defining characteristic
of America since before our country even began, so it’s important to remind ourselves of
our rich history…of where we all came from to create this one-of-a-kind melting pot of
people that is the United States in the 21st century. The first successful colony in America was
established in 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia by English settlers. But, these first europeans
arrived in a land that was already home to other people. To indigenous, Native Americans
who thousands of years before had crossed over a land bridge from Siberia into what’s
now the state of Alaska. They were the first explorers of this beautiful land, and they
would spread throughout the entire continent and throughout central and southern America
too. Native Americans thrived by harnessing the power of nature, and over time, they formed
into many distinct groups, each with their own languages and cultures. Then, in 1492, as legend has it, Christopher
Columbus sailed the ocean blue and arrived in the Bahamas and immediately encountered
a group of these indigenous people called the Arawak. The Arawak were curious and friendly,
but Columbus was filled with greed, and took some of them prisoner, demanding they show
him where the gold they were wearing came from. Now, the Native Americans were so easy
going and poorly armed compared to these Europeans – who had modern weaponry like metal-forged
swords and armor, and even guns – that Columbus said “I could conquer the whole of them
with 50 men, and govern them as I pleased.” And that’s exactly what he, and other Spanish
conquistadors who came after him, did. They vanquished indigenous group after indigenous
group with cunning and sheer brutality, and got a lot of help from diseases like smallpox
that moved ahead of them and just wiped the natives out. “When smallpox was taken to the new world
nobody in the new world had every seen a disease like this before. So the number of people
who were susceptible was much greater. There was no natural immunity, so the number of
people who could contract the disease and then spread, and the number of people to receive
it once it’s been spread, was much higher.” “Some scholars think there may have been
a population of 20 million native americans and the vast majority, perhaps 95%, were killed
by old world diseases. A continent virtually emptied of its people. Once word of the discovery of the New World
spread throughout the Old World – the kingdoms and empires of Europe – many people began
to plan journeys of their own across the Atlantic Ocean. Starting around 1620, tens of thousands
of British, German and Dutch – but mostly British Puritans – came to North America to
escape religious persecution, or to search for better opportunity, or simply for an adventure.
The Puritans spread throughout New England in the northeast, the Dutch settled along
the Hudson River in New York and established rich, successful trading posts and cities
like New Amsterdam (which we now call New York City). English Quakers established the
Pennsylvania colony and its commercial center, Philadelphia. More than 90% of these early
colonists became farmers. And, because they were living in small, widespread villages,
disease didn’t spread as easily as it could back in Europe, which kept the death rate
among settlers in America low. All these farmers needed large families to help them farm, which
caused the population to boom, especially in the New England colonies. As land became
harder to come by along the coasts, the roughly 350,000 Scottish and Northern Irish who arrived
throughout the 1700’s settled inland in western Pennsylvania and along the Appalachians
deep into the south. The British sent 60,000 prisoners across the ocean to Georgia, although
the only thing many of these men were guilty of was being poor and out of work. Tobacco was a highly profitable cash crop
in the southern colonies, so many British settled there and began to take advantage
of the thriving slave trade. “Those of us who study immigration history
think in terms of why people leave their homelands and why they come here. And those are generally
encapsulated in two words: push and pull. Something pushes them out of their homeland
and something pulls them to the United States. Now obviously in the earliest cases of slavery
they were not necessarily pushed from their homeland, but they were taken from their homeland.
But the reason why they were taken was because there was labor to be done here in the United
States. It was a global force, the slave trade was fairly global – at least in the Atlantic
– and later Asia would become involved in it as well. So here you have a forced migration.” Hundreds of thousands of Africans were mercilessly
captured and taken prisoner in their own lands, then put on ships bound for America, where
they were sold into a life of hard labor for no pay, and no chance at freedom. [Graph] This is the population breakdown of
the country around 1790, shortly after the colonies’ hard-won war of independence with
the British and the adoption of the American constitution, which made the country of the
United States official. The Native American population was so decimated by disease, war,
and migration to the west, that only about 100,000 were left inside the territorial United
States. Out west, many Spaniards moved north from
Mexico across the Rio Grande to settle in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Not all of these settlers were of European descent. They all could speak spanish, but
ethnically, they were a melting pot of whites, Indians and mestizos, or people of mixed race. French settlers established footholds mainly
along the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lakes, along the Mississippi River, and along
the Gulf Coast, establishing the city of New Orleans. Their descendants are known as Cajuns. These French and Spanish populations would
be incorporated into the United States in the coming decades through the Louisiana Purchase
and the granting of statehood to the western territories. After more than four decades of relatively
little immigration into America after its founding, in the 1830’s, tens of thousands
of immigrants began arriving on her eastern shores, again, mainly from Britain, Ireland
and Germany. Some were attracted to the cheap farmland that was made available by westward
expansion, while others took advantage of the manufacturing boom in the cities sparked
by the industrial revolution. The Irish were mainly unskilled laborers who built most of
the railroads and canals, took jobs in the emerging textile mill towns in the Northeast,
or worked in the ports. About half of the Germans became farmers, mainly in the midwest,
and the other half became craftsman in urban areas. Asian immigrants – mainly from China
– began crossing the Pacific to work as laborers, particularly on the transcontinental railroad
or in the mines. [History Professor Scott Wong] “Immigration
also during the 19th century was usually male dominated—males in their prime working years
between the years of 18-25. The Irish being the one exception. Eventually there would
be more Irish women who immigrated than Irish men. Immigrants to this day often follow established
patterns. They leave on village or one city and go to another city in the United States
because someone has already established that pattern for them. People go to where they
know people. And those people here can often arrange for jobs and places to live and so
on. It was often said that your first job coming off the boat was whoever picked you
up at the docks. Now people say your first job is whoever picked you up at the airport. [Show graph]
After tripling from the decade before, in just two more decades, from the 1830s to the
1850s, the amount of immigrants arriving in the US each year tripled again, to about 170,000. By the 1850s, when the total population of
the country passed 20 million and things began to get a bit crowded, America’s first measurable
anti-immigrant feelings began to take root, mainly targeting Irish-catholic immigrants
who were arriving in large numbers to escape the poverty and death of the potato famine
that was hitting them hard at home. But with a huge boom on the horizon, this early xenophobia
was nothing compared to what would come later. Large, steam-powered ships took to the seas
after 1880, replacing the older, slower sailing ships, which meant it was suddenly much faster
– and cheaper – to cross the ocean, making the dream of a journey to America more accessible
to many around the world. “Processed and ticketed, they waited for
their ship. They boarded in many parts of Europe and in many kinds of vessels. Most
to New York and some to other ports. But they had one thing in common—they were traveling
steerage, and the steamship companies understood the profit in numbers.” [Chart]
Before long, millions of immigrants were arriving on America’s shores. They passed through
immigration processing stations like Ellis Island in New York and Angel Island in San
Francisco Bay. This wave was much more diverse than before. Coming mainly from Southern Europe,
it was led by Italians, Poles, Greeks, Swedes, Norwegians, Hungarians, Jews, Lebanese, and
Syrians. “It was as if god’s great promise had
been fulfilled. I’m going into a free land. I don’t think I ever can explain the feeling
I had that time. It’s not my native land, but it means more to me than my native land—it
means more to me than my native land…Any country on earth this never happen. And become
a human being again–it’s a miracle…everybody had hopes. And one thing I was sure, and thousands
like me: that the degradation, and the abuse, and the piration that we had in Europe, we
wouldn’t have here.” This group was young, most were under 30 years
old, mainly because an entire generation of the children of farmers and factory workers
in Europe and the Russian empire couldn’t find work because the owners of the farms
and factories preferred to have an efficient machine – that they didn’t have to pay – do
the work instead of a human being. Well, this was fine by America, whose steel, coal, automobile,
textile, and garment production industries were booming. It happily took in this pool
of eager, hard workers and put them to work in its growing industrial cities. “As mills and factories sprouted across
the land, cities grew up around them. In turn, the cities beckoned to workers by the millions
from the American countryside and from overseas to fuel the burgeoning industrialization.
What was once a rural nation was rapidly becoming an urban state. From 1860 to 1910, the urban
population grew from over 6 million to over 44 million.” The United States also took full advantage
of Europe’s paralyzation during the first World War. With millions dying in the midst
of the bloodiest struggle the European continent had ever seen, every country there had to
completely focus its industries on producing all the supplies – the guns, the uniforms,
the tanks, the boats, the bullets – all the stuff needed to carry on and win the fight.
But with many of its working-aged men on the front lines, in hospitals or at home after
horrific injuries – or dead – the factories of Europe couldn’t meet all the demand,
so US factories made up for the shortfall in production. Before long, the United States
had leapt to the front ranks of the world’s economic giants. And when the Americans entered
the conflict themselves in 1917, US industry was now tasked with supplying its own soldiers
too. It was during this 50-year immigration wave,
from about 1870-1920, when many well-off, white, native-born Americans began to consider
mass immigration a danger to the health and security of the country. They started actively
organizing to exert political power to slow it down. The first immigration law in American
history was known as the Asian Exclusion Act. It was passed in 1875 and – you guessed it
– outlawed Asians, specifically Asian contract laborers, from stepping foot on American soil,
plus any other people considered convicts in their own countries. In 1921, Congress pushed through a law that
marked a turning-point in American immigration policy–a law that passed the Senate 78-1.
The Emergency Quota Act set strict limits on the amount of immigrants who would be allowed
into the country each year. It was very effective. The number of new immigrants let in fell from
over 800,000 in 1920 to just over 300,000 admitted in 1921.
[CHART] If the pace of immigration had been like a
raging river, this law acted like a dam. But that drop off in the flow of persons into
America still didn’t satisfy the anti-immigration crowd who, just three years later in 1924,
forced congress to tighten the quota even more, established the border patrol, and stated
that any undocumented immigrants who entered the country were subject to deportation. It’s
during this time that the definition of “illegal alien” was born, a term that would be used
to stigmatize the next group the anti-immigration community’s crosshairs became fixed on:
latin-american migrants living and working in the US Southwest. After the quota laws passed by the US Congress
in the 1920’s, immigration was capped for the first time in American history. One of the exceptions to the strict quotas
were documented contract workers from the western hemisphere who could come into and
out of the US freely. The other major exception were the hundreds of thousands of refugees
who were allowed in, mainly Jews escaping the horrors of the Holocaust during and after
World War II, and the roughly 400,000 families who fled Cuba after the Castro-led revolution
of 1959. The US entrance into World War II also meant many more Mexican workers were
needed to fill in for all the young American men who were off fighting the Germans in Europe
and the Japanese in the Pacific. At the end of this period, between 1944 and 1954, the
number of immigrants coming from Mexico increased by 6,000 percent, as many Latin American workers
were offered low wage agricultural jobs in the American Southwest as part of the bracero
program. But large numbers of Mexicans without the necessary paperwork came in search of
the American dream too, and what followed is one of the ugliest periods in US immigration
history. With pressure mounting to do something about
the thousands of immigrants easily crossing the southern border each year, President Eisenhower
turned to Gen. Joseph Swing, who launched “Operation Wetback” in 1954. That derogatory
name reveals the insensitivity of the policy, which directed hundreds of federal officials
to lead thousands of local police officers on sweeps through neighborhoods throughout
the American southwest, stopping any “Mexican looking” person and demanding to see their
papers. If they didn’t have their papers, they were arrested and deported. Some estimates
put the amount of illegal immigrants thrown out of the country above one million, leading
to countless families being torn apart. In some cases, their American-born children were
even sent away. Obviously, this program angered many Mexican-American citizens, and anyone
else who saw it as a blatant violation of human rights on a massive scale. [History professor Miguel Levario] “What
we have here is an aggressive and sort of paramilitary approach to deportation and mass
deportation and of course the use of propaganda to address the issue of unauthorized Mexican
workers in the United States. Because the Border Patrol agency was so small – I mean,
they’re using local law enforcement – so while they’re out there trying to look for
undocumented immigrants what aren’t they doing? Their own basic responsibilities of
keeping neighborhoods safe, addressing burglaries, murders, whatever it could be. Operation Wetback
was terminated in large part because of cost, in large part because it just became too taxing
on local resources. We also found out that regardless of how far you sent them into the
interior, within days, sometimes weeks, they were right back in there. The final era of immigration to America is
the one we’re still currently in, which began in 1965 with the passage of the Hart-Celler
Act. This law finally replaced the unfair quota system with a policy that gives preference
to immigrants who have relatives already in the United States, or people with job skills
that are highly sought after. All other past restrictions targeting specific groups were
thrown out. This was one of the crown jewels in President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society
program and it fundamentally shifted who was allowed in. [CHART] In 1970, 60% of immigrants came from Europe,
this number just fell off a cliff by the year 2000, when only 15% were from Europe. The
one thing that didn’t change were the many undocumented immigrants from Latin America
who continued to come across the border in search of a better life. So, in an effort
to address this, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control
Act, which gave green cards to about 2.7 million immigrants. It was the largest single moment
of legalization in American history. As a conservative from the anti-immigration party
in modern America, the Republican Reagan compromised in exchange for more restrictions on employers
who hire illegal immigrants, and tighter border security. But it was a flawed law in a number
of ways, mainly, it didn’t effectively fix the broken system that was allowing businesses
to hire illegal immigrants in the first place. So since the businesses could still break
the rules, many low paying jobs remained for the millions of undocumented immigrants in
America that the law didn’t legalize. The bill also didn’t adequately fund and equip
the border patrol, which meant there was still a fairly consistent flow of people coming
across the border. To fix some of these problems, Sen. Ted Kennedy
introduced, and Congress passed, the Immigration Act of 1990, which President George H.W. Bush
signed into law. This increased the number of legal immigrants entering the United States
from around 500,000 per year to 700,000–an increase of 40%. This bill is also noteworthy
because it was bipartisan, with a democratically-controlled congress working with a Republican president
to pass major, common-sense immigration reform. Since the passage of that 1990 bill, about
1,000,000 immigrants on average legally achieve residence in the United States each year. These are the top ten countries ranked by
the number of legal immigrants from these countries who came to the United States in
2013 according to the Department of Homeland Security. [Chart] According to the 2010 Census, these are the
countries from which all immigrants currently in the United States came from, ranked by
the total number of people in America who say they were born in each country. Today, 14.3 percent of the total American
population is foreign born. That’s more than 45,000,000 people. The United States
is home to nearly 20% of all the immigrants in the world. It’s estimated that more than
10 million of the immigrants in the United States are here illegally, living in the shadows. Thank you for watching, I hope you gained
a greater appreciation for who we are as a nation and how immigration has allowed us
to attract people from all over the rest of the world, how that is the single-most important
factor in binding us together and making us such a dynamic country. This video was proudly
created by the two-brother team that is the daily conversation, the video editor Brendan
Plank and myself. Until next time, for TDC, I’m Bryce Plank. Click on the screen to watch our full documentary
on the most fascinating mega-projects under development around the world, the ten most
promising energy sources of the future, our ranking of the ten best presidents in American
history, or our latest video.

Stephen Childs

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