"America is a nation of immigrants." It has been said so often that it's almost become a cliché, but it is still indisputably true: The 2000 Census found that 99% of today's American population can trace its ancestry to origins across the sea—in Europe, Africa, or Asia.7 Heavy immigration through four centuries of American history played a large part in driving the country's dramatic growth from a small backwater along the distant fringe of the British Empire to the world's richest economy and one of its most populous and diverse nation-states.
Americans have often found much to celebrate in their immigrant heritage. According to Thomas Paine—himself a very recent immigrant when he wrote the influential revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense in 1776—America's embrace of immigrants made it "the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe."8
One hundred ten years later, in belated commemoration of a century of American independence, French friends of the United States erected the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to serve as an enduring beacon of the American Dream. A valorization of the immigrant experience in making that Dream is literally carved in stone below Lady Liberty's feet, where the statue's pedestal bears the famous words of poet Emma Lazarus:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"9
Yet even as the verses inscribed upon the Statue of Liberty's footrest celebrate the notion of America as a welcoming refuge for the world's immigrants, they also reveal the deep and enduring fears many native-born Americans have long harbored of the immigrants themselves. It doesn't take too great a leap in imagination to get from "the wretched refuse of your teeming shore" to "hirsute, low-browed, big-faced persons of obviously low mentality"—which was sociologist E.A. Ross's description of Eastern European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in 1914.10
Every great surge in immigration in American history has generated a corresponding surge in nativism—opposition to immigration on the grounds that an influx of foreigners will marginalize the English language, undermine American culture, destabilize American politics, and weaken the economic status of American workers. Nativist opposition to immigration often embraced negative racial and ethnic stereotypes—like those expressed by E.A. Ross—about the immigrants themselves.
In the twin histories of immigration and nativism in America we find a remarkable degree of continuity across four centuries. The economic forces that drove immigrants from Ireland to the United States in the 1840s aren't much different from those driving immigrants from Mexico to the United States today. Benjamin Franklin's objections to heavy German immigration into Pennsylvania in the 1750s aren't much different from Lou Dobbs's objections to heavy Mexican immigration into America today.
The descendents of English immigrants fought Irish immigration in the 1840s on much the same grounds as the descendents of Irish immigrants fought Eastern European immigration in the 1920s, and as descendents of Eastern European immigrants fight Mexican immigration today.
Still, the high degree in continuity in the past patterns of American immigration and acculturation shouldn't necessarily be read as proof that the same patterns will continue into the future. History is not a normative science; there is no guarantee that the current wave of immigration will vary from the historical norm, but there is no guarantee that it will follow it either.
There have been four great waves of immigration in American history. The first wave came in the colonial period, peaking in the years just preceding the American Revolution. The greatest single source of newcomers to the New World in this first phase was not any European country at all but rather Africa, as the slave trade far outpaced European settlement. European settlers in the colonies that later became the United States included many nationalities—English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Spanish, French—but the English predominated, with English immigrants and their descendents comprising 60% of America's white population by the time the first Census was taken in 1790.11
The second wave came in the middle decades of the 19th century, after a near-hiatus during the Napoleonic Wars. Most immigrants during the second wave continued to derive from Northwestern Europe, although now large numbers of Irish Catholics began to arrive for the first time, amidst great controversy. The California Gold Rush that began in 1849 brought migrants from around the world, including the first substantial Chinese population in the United States. A strong nativist politics developed during the second wave, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first systematic federal legislation to restrict free and open immigration into the country.
The third wave came in the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, when millions of so-called "New Immigrants" came to the United States from homes in Southern and Eastern Europe. This influx, mostly comprised of Catholics and Jews, generated a massive nativist backlash, which eventually led to strict limitations on immigration in the 1920s.
The fourth wave began in 1965, when new legislation lifted many of the restrictions imposed in the 1920s, and continues today. Today's immigration is dominated, for the first time since the colonial period, by non-Europeans, with a large majority of immigrants hailing from Latin America or Asia.
American Immigration (Part I) covers the century of free immigration that fell between the founding of the United States and the imposition of Chinese Exclusion, and thus covers the first two of the four great waves of immigration. The story of the most recent two waves will be picked up in American Immigration (Part II) and American Immigration (Part III).