- Historic Sites
A Look At The Record:
The Facts Behind the Current Controversy Over Immigration
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Starting in 1820, when a mere 8,385 people (most of them male) passed through the eastern ports of entry, immigration increased decade after decade in quantum jumps. By 1830 annual arrivals numbered 23,322, and a visiting Frenchman wrote glowingly of “the great flood of civilization” that was pouring over the American landscape “with a wonderful power and an admirable regularity. ” In 1840, a total of 84,066 newcomers landed; in 1850 the number had risen to 369,980. Between 1820 and 1860 some 5,000,000 immigrants crossed the seas, their number surpassing in four decades the total 1790 population it had taken nearly two centuries to achieve. With justifiable pride, Oliver Wendell Holmes exulted, “We are the Romans of the modern world—the great assimilating people.”
And still the flood rolled on: 2,300,000 arrivals during the 1860’s; 2,800,000 in the 1870’s. By 1880 it seemed to some observers that the whole earth was on the move as the human flood became a tidal wave. In the next forty-four years, upward of 25,900,000 men, women, and children were carried to the American shore.
Then, in 1924, it ended. Bowing to pressures that had been building since late in the nineteenth century—from labor, from nativist groups, from state and local leaders, who protested that the nation could no longer absorb so many newcomers—Congress voted to end three hundred years of open immigration. Revising an earlier law (passed in 1921) that had set a maximum annual quota, Congress now established a rigid system, based on national origins, that limited immigration to an annual ceiling of 150,000 entrants, almost all drawn from northern Europe and the British Isles.
The 1924 law took effect five years later when Congress set up an elaborate quota system based upon the 1790 census. Beginning in 1931, immigration totals dropped below 100,000 annually for the first time since 1862 and remained below that figure until 1946. Despite subsequent policy modifications in the postwar years, immigration continued to be restricted, and although some 14,000,000 persons entered the country between 1925 and 1980, annual immigrant totals never again approached the extraordinary levels of the earlier age. To all intents and purposes, the mass migrations that gave the country its special character are now a thing of the past.
Since 1920 the native-born population of the United States has steadily increased from 86.8 per cent to an estimated 95.8 per cent in 1980.
1907 was the peak immigration year. A total of 1,285,349 persons entered the country. In 1933 just 23,068 arrived, the lowest number since 1831 and the record for this century.
From 1607 to 1924 immigrants totaled about 36,500,000; from 1925 to 1970, about 9,200,000; from 1971 to 1980 an estimated 4,900,000.
Since 1968 immigration quotas have permitted a maximum of 170,000 immigrants to enter annually from countries outside the Western Hemisphere (there is a 20,000 ceiling for any one country) and a maximum of 120,000 immigrants annually from countries within the Western Hemisphere on a first-come, first-served basis. Selected categories (“immediate relatives” of U.S. citizens or “special immigrants” designated by Congress) are granted entry as nonquota immigrants.
In recent years legal immigration has averaged about 400,000 per year. In 1980 some 800,000 immigrants entered legally, reflecting the refugee status extended by the government to Cubans, Haitians, and Cambodians.
The number of illegal entrants is unknown; estimates range from 1,000,000 to 8,000,000 total during the last decade. The Immigration and Naturalization Service arrests and deports as many as 500,000 border-crossers each year, most of them unskilled workers from Mexico.
Despite this century’s restrictive legislation, the United States continues to receive hundreds of thousands of newcomers each year, with expectations and uncertainties probably no different from those of their predecessors in the era of mass immigration. What makes their experience different are changes in the immigration laws over the past fifteen years that have dramatically altered both the traditional patterns of immigration and the ethnic composition of the immigrant population.
Nineteenth-century immigration was essentially European. In the years before 1885 most immigrants came from north of the Alps and west of the Elbe River (the so-called old immigration). After 1885 the greatest number came from Southern and Eastern Europe, notably from Italy and Russia (the “new immigration”). The quota laws after World War I generally confirmed and, in the case of the “old immigration,” exaggerated that pattern, for the national-origins system was deliberately rigged to favor Northern Europeans over Southern and both at the expense of all others. Since 1968, when the national-origins system was abolished, a significant shift has taken place.
In the period from 1820 to 1978 gross immigration totals, according to the latest published data, show the distribution on the chart opposite.
The rapid growth of immigration from Asia in the past decade, which these figures reveal, is a result of the abolition of both the national-origins system and a series of exclusionary laws that date back to 1882, when the Chinese were expressly denied the right to enter the United States or to seek citizenship.