Immigration is the act of moving into a foreign country to live. The act of leaving one's country is called emigration. Immigrants who flee their country because of persecution, war, or such disasters as famines or epidemics are known as refugees or displaced persons (DP’s). Most refugees wait in neighboring countries for conditions at home to improve so that they can return. However, some refugees resettle as immigrants in faraway countries. Others move to countries in which they want to resettle and apply for asylum. Asylum is shelter and protection given by a nation to a person who is fleeing another nation.

Most people find it hard to pull up roots in their native land and move to a strange country. But throughout history, countless millions of people have done so. The heaviest immigration worldwide took place from the early 1800’s to the 1930’s. In that period, about 60 million people moved to a new land. Most came from Europe. More than half immigrated to the United States. Other destinations included Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.

Today, improved communications and cheaper transportation help make migration easier. Asia is replacing Europe as the area that sends the most people to other countries. The United States remains the chief receiving nation.

Causes of immigration

People leave their homeland and move to another country for various reasons. Some emigrate to avoid starvation. Some seek adventure. Others wish to escape unbearable family situations. Still others desire to be reunited with loved ones.

Religious persecution has led many people to move to a new land for the freedom to practice their faith. Such emigrants include Jews expelled from England in the 1200’s, the English pilgrims who moved to New England in the 1600’s, and Baha’is fleeing Iran in the 1980’s.

Wars, revolutions, and political unrest drive innumerable people to find new homes. Since 1990, millions of people have fled from warfare in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, East Timor, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kosovo (then a province of Serbia), Liberia, Rwanda, and Sri Lanka.

Some immigrants were brought to a new land against their will. These people are called involuntary immigrants. From the 1500’s to the 1800’s, Europeans shipped Africans to the Western Hemisphere as slaves. The United Kingdom transported convicts to Australia from the late 1700’s to the 1860’s to relieve overcrowding in British jails.

The main reason for international migration, however, is economic opportunity—the lure of better land, a better job, or a better life. During the 1800’s, for example, the rich prairie land of the United States and Canada attracted many Europeans who wanted to own the land they farmed. In the early 1900’s, southern and eastern European immigrants sought work in the growing U.S. factories. Today, many professionals emigrate for better opportunities elsewhere. For example, many computer programmers, doctors, engineers, and scientists have moved from India to the United States and Canada.

Effects of immigration

Not all immigrants remain in their adopted land. Some stay for a short time and then return home. Some go to a new country for a specific reason, such as a job, school, or marriage. Most return to their countries of origin after they have met economic or personal goals abroad, such as acquiring savings. Others return because they find adjusting to a new society too difficult.

The process by which immigrants adjust to a new society is called integration. Many immigrants first settle in a community that includes people from their native land, minimizing language difficulties. In time, however, most immigrants, and especially their children, begin to integrate. They learn their new country’s language and adapt to the new culture. Pluralism describes a type of integration in which immigrants retain their old language and culture. Assimilation occurs when immigrants give up their old language and culture.

Most immigrants find a job. They try to provide their children with the education and opportunities not available in the immigrants’ native land. Many become citizens of the new country, vote, and take part in politics and government.

Immigrants have made enormous contributions to the culture and economy of such nations as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Israel, New Zealand, and the United States. But integration has often been achieved with difficulty. Many of the immigrant-receiving countries have restricted immigration to maintain a homogeneous society in which all the people shared the same ethnic, geographic, and cultural background. Some receiving countries had policies that favored people from particular areas. For example, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, the United States had national origins policies that made it easiest for northern Europeans to immigrate. Although some nations’ immigration laws have been relaxed, many newcomers of different backgrounds still face challenges in gaining acceptance.

Population movements have mixed effects on the sending and receiving nations. Emigration relieves overcrowding in a country; yet the country may lose many people with valuable skills. The receiving nation gains new workers but may have trouble providing them with jobs, education, social services, and even housing.

The effects of population movements on the world economy are difficult to measure. For example, many emigrants take their skills with them. Others acquire skills in the new country, accumulate savings, and then return home. Some immigrants establish businesses that trade with their homelands. Many immigrants stay permanently in their new country but regularly send money to families left behind. Some immigrants return to their native land after they retire.

Immigration to the United States

The United States has had four major periods of immigration. The first wave began with the colonists of the 1600’s and reached a peak just before the American Revolution started in 1775. The second major flow of immigrants started in the 1820’s and lasted until a depression in the early 1870’s. The greatest inpouring of people took place from the 1880’s to the early 1920’s. A fourth and continuing wave began in 1965.

The first wave. Most of the immigrants who settled in the American Colonies in the 1600’s came from England. Others arrived from France, Germany, Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, and Scotland. Spanish colonists settled in what is today the southwestern United States.

Some colonists sought adventure. Others fled religious persecution. Many were convicts transported from English jails. But most immigrants by far sought economic opportunity. Many could not afford the passage to the colonies and came as indentured servants. Such a servant signed an indenture (contract) to work for four to seven years to repay the cost of the ticket. Blacks from West Africa came to the colonies involuntarily. Some of the first Africans were brought as indentured servants, but most blacks arrived as slaves.

By 1700, there were about 250,000 people living in the American Colonies. Approximately 450,000 immigrants arrived between 1700 and the start of the American Revolution (1775–1783). During that period, fewer English immigrants came, while the number from Germany, Scotland, and Ireland rose sharply. Most immigrants arrived in Philadelphia, the main port in the colonies.

Wars in Europe and the United States slowed immigration during the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. Newcomers included Irish fleeing English rule and French escaping revolution. Congress made it illegal to bring in slaves as of 1808. By that time, about 645,000 black Africans had been imported as slaves.

By 1820, New York City began to replace Philadelphia as the nation’s chief port of entry for immigrants. The country’s first immigration station, Castle Garden, opened in New York City in 1855. Ellis Island, the most famous station, operated in New York Harbor from 1892 to 1954.

The second wave. From 1820 to 1870, almost 7 1/2 million newcomers entered the United States. Nearly all of them came from northern and western Europe. About a third were Irish, many of them seeking escape from a famine that struck Ireland in the mid-1840’s. Another third were German.

In the mid-1800’s, some states sent agents to Europe to attract settlers. Railroad companies did the same. Better conditions on ships and steep declines in travel time and fares made the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean easier and more affordable. In the mid-1800’s, news of the discovery of gold in California reached China. Chinese immigrants and sojourners streamed across the Pacific Ocean to strike it rich. Sojourners were temporary immigrants who intended to make money and return home. French-Canadian immigrants and sojourners opened still another path to the United States. They moved across the Canadian-U.S. border into the New England States and Michigan.

The flood of immigrants began to alarm many native U.S. citizens. Some feared job competition from foreigners. Others disliked the politics of the newcomers, or the fact that many were Roman Catholics. In the 1850’s, the American Party, also called the Know-Nothing Party, tried to restrict the immigration of Catholics. American Party candidates were elected mayors of major cities—including Boston and Chicago—and barred immigrants from city jobs. Although the party soon died out, it reflected the concerns of some Americans.

During the 1870’s, the U.S. economy suffered a depression while the economies of Germany and the United Kingdom improved. German and British immigration to the United States then decreased. But arrivals increased from Canada, China, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and southern and eastern Europe. In 1875, the United States passed its first restrictive immigration law. It prevented convicts and prostitutes from entering the country. During the late 1870’s, California labor leader Denis Kearney and his Workingmen’s Party demanded a stop to Chinese immigration. Mobs sometimes attacked Chinese immigrants, who were accused of lowering wages and of unfair business competition. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States.

The third wave. From 1881 to 1920, more than 23 million immigrants poured into the United States from almost every part of the world. Until the 1880’s, most newcomers still came from northern and western Europe. They later became known as old immigrants. Beginning in the 1890’s, the majority of arrivals were new immigrants, people from southern and eastern Europe.

Many U.S. citizens believed the swelling flood of immigrants threatened the nation’s unity. Hostility turned against Jewish people, Catholics, Japanese, and the new immigrants in general.

In 1882, Congress expanded its list of unacceptable immigrants to include such people as beggars, contract laborers, people with mental illness, and unaccompanied children. In 1901, President Woodrow Wilson wrote that “the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population.” In 1907, Congress formed the U.S. Immigration Commission to study the origins and results of immigration to the United States. It was generally known as the Dillingham Commission, after the commission’s chair, Senator William Paul Dillingham of Vermont. In 1911, the commission issued a report in which it concluded that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had more “inborn socially inadequate qualities than northwestern Europeans.”

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Immigrants at Ellis Island

In 1917, Congress enacted a law that required new immigrants 16 and older to show that they could read and write in at least one language. The law also excluded immigrants from an area known as the Asiatic Barred Zone, which covered most of Asia and most islands in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1921, new laws reduced immigration and limited the number of immigrants from any one country. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere to about 153,700 a year. The distribution of immigrants from different countries was based on percentages of the nationalities making up the white population of the United States in 1920. The formula ensured that most immigrants would be from such countries as Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.

A temporary decline. During the Great Depression, U.S. immigration dropped sharply. Only about 500,000 immigrants came from 1931 to 1940. In some years, more people left than arrived. World War II (1939-1945) led to an easing of immigration laws. The War Brides Act of 1945 admitted the spouses and children of U.S. military personnel who had married while abroad. China became an ally during the war, and so the ban against Chinese immigrants was lifted. In 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act, also called the McCarran-Walter Act, established quotas (allowable numbers) for Asian countries and other areas from which immigrants had been excluded. The law, for the first time, made citizenship available to people of all origins.

The fourth wave. In 1965, amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act ended quotas based on nationality. Instead, the amendments provided for annual quotas of 170,000 immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere. The act established a preference system for the issuing of visas (permits) that favored relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens, as well as people with special skills. Wives, husbands, parents, and minor children of U.S. citizens could enter without being counted as part of the quota. In 1978, Congress replaced the separate quotas for the Eastern and Western hemispheres with a single annual world quota of 290,000.

The 1965 amendments produced major changes in patterns of immigration to the United States. The percentage of immigrants from Europe and Canada dropped, while that of immigrants from Asia and the West Indies soared. Today, far more immigrants come from Mexico than from any other country. Other large groups of immigrants come from China, India, and the Philippines.

Under the 1965 amendments, refugees could make up 6 percent of the Eastern Hemisphere’s annual quota for immigration. This rule was later extended to the Western Hemisphere. But the percentage was too small for the flow of refugees from war-torn Southeast Asia in the 1970’s or the streams of people from Haiti and Cuba. To address these issues, Congress passed the Refugee Act in 1980. This law provided for the settling of 50,000 refugees each year. The president could admit additional refugees if there were compelling reasons to do so. As a result, about 100,000 refugees entered the United States annually in the 1990’s.

In 1924, the United States established the Border Patrol to prevent unlawful entry along U.S. boundaries. But the problem of illegal immigration has grown steadily. Experts estimate that millions of illegal aliens live in the United States. Illegal aliens, also called undocumented aliens, are noncitizens living in a country without proper visas or other documents. A majority of undocumented aliens in the United States come from Mexico.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 offered amnesty (pardon) to illegal aliens who had lived in the United States continuously since before Jan. 1, 1982, or who had worked at least 90 days at farm labor there between May 1, 1985, and May 1, 1986. The act also set penalties on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. By the end of the amnesty period in 1988, almost 3 million illegal aliens had applied for amnesty. However, hundreds of thousands of others did not apply for various reasons, including the cost and confusion involved in filing and a lack of residency or employment records. Critics of the law claimed that it failed to reduce the flow of illegal aliens into the country.

In 1990, further amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 increased the number of immigrants allowed into the United States each year. Ceilings were fixed at 700,000 annually for 1992 to 1994 and 675,000 annually beginning in 1995. Like the 1965 amendments, the 1990 amendments placed no limit on the number of U.S. citizens’ immediate relatives who could enter the country each year. The ceilings also did not include refugees. The 1990 amendments gave additional preference to people from countries that had sent few immigrants to the United States after 1965, including many European and African nations.

In the first decade of the 2000’s, some states and cities enacted laws to deal with illegal migration. However, federal courts have blocked such measures, ruling that regulating immigration is a federal responsibility.

People who seek legal admission to the United States apply at the U.S. consulate in their home country for a visa. They must prove, among other things, that they do not have an infectious disease or a criminal record. Immigration laws favor relatives of U.S. citizens, refugees, and people with skills needed in the United States. Others may have to wait years, particularly in countries that have many people wishing to emigrate.

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Naturalization ceremony
Immigration to other countries

The most commonly traveled immigration route has long led from Europe to the United States. But other countries have also received many immigrants. This section discusses immigration to other parts of the world.

Canada. The French and later the British colonized Canada. From 1850 to 1930, over 6 million people immigrated to Canada, including 3 million people from the United Kingdom. During the late 1800’s, Chinese workers were imported to help construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. To discourage Chinese immigration after completion of the railway in 1885, Canada placed increasingly heavy entry taxes on newly arrived Chinese. In 1923, Canada barred the entry of Chinese immigrants.

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Chinatown in Ontario

Today, immigrants are admitted to Canada regardless of their ancestry, race, religion, or sex. Canada has of the world’s highest immigration rates compared with population. In the first decade of the 2000’s, Canada accepted about 250,000 immigrants a year. More than half of Canada’s immigrants have been Asians, including the Chinese who had been barred before. Canada also received refugees from the Vietnam War (1957-1975).

Canada uses a point system that gives priority to immigrants who have education and skills that are likely to make them successful in Canada. To receive an immigrant visa, immigrants must obtain at least 67 points on a 100-point scale. Education is worth up to 25 points for a Master of Science degree or a doctorate. The ability to speak English, French, or both is worth up to 24 points. There are up to 21 points available for work experience.

Latin America. Most Latin American countries gained independence from their European rulers in the early 1800's. At that time, only Argentina, Brazil, and a few other countries welcomed immigrants. From 1850 to 1930, more than 11 million immigrants arrived in Latin America. About 5 1/2 million of them—mainly Italians and Spaniards—went to Argentina. About 4 million—mainly Italians and Portuguese—went to Brazil. Many of the newcomers did not stay in those countries, however.

After the 1950’s, immigration to Latin America declined because of the region’s lack of jobs and its rapidly growing population. In addition, Argentina and Brazil limited Asian immigration. However, much immigration took place within Latin America.

Today, more people emigrate from Latin America than immigrate to the region. Mexico is Latin America’s major emigrating country. Most Mexican emigrants move to the United States. Large numbers of people from the seven countries of Central America—Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama—moved to the United States during civil wars in the 1980’s. In addition, many people born in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica have emigrated, usually to the United States.

Australia and New Zealand were colonized by the United Kingdom beginning in the late 1700’s. After gold was discovered in Australia in 1851 and in New Zealand in 1861, non-British immigrants began to arrive. By the 1880’s, the immigrants included more than 40,000 Chinese in Australia and over 4,000 in New Zealand. The two countries then limited Chinese immigration. In the early 1900’s, they established policies designed to preserve a “white Australia” and a “white New Zealand.” They tried to attract British and other favored immigrants by offering free transportation. After World War II ended in 1945, Australia started to welcome European refugees. In 1975, the country began admitting Southeast Asian refugees. New Zealand eased its immigration restrictions in 1986.

Since the 1970’s, both Australia and New Zealand have adopted point systems to select immigrants. The number of Asian immigrants rose as Chinese, Indian, and other Asian students came to study in Australia and New Zealand and stayed to live and work. A rising share of immigrants to Australia and New Zealand are also from the Pacific Islands. In addition, many British subjects still migrate to Australia and New Zealand.

Asia. Except for Israel, most immigrants to Asia came from other Asian countries. By the 1920’s, more than 8 million Chinese lived outside China, chiefly in the Philippines, in what is now Indonesia, and in other Southeast Asian lands. The Communist take-over of China in 1949 led 2 million more Chinese to emigrate.

By the 1920’s, about 750,000 Japanese had moved to China, Korea, and other countries of eastern Asia. Also by the 1920’s, about 1 1⁄2 million Indians had left their homeland. Many moved to other Asian countries, including what are now Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In 1947, Pakistan was created from parts of India. About 10 million people fled from one country to another. Hindus and Sikhs fled from Pakistan to India. Muslims left India for Pakistan. After East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, millions more Hindus and Sikhs went to India.

By the late 1980’s, almost 2 million refugees had fled countries of Southeast Asia because of warfare. Many of them settled in the United States. But large groups remained in Malaysia and Thailand and the other Southeast Asian lands to which they had first fled.

European Jews began to settle in what is now Israel in the mid-1800’s. In 1914, about 85,000 Jews lived there. By 1948, when Israel was founded, some 450,000 more Jews had arrived, most of them from central and eastern Europe. In 1950, Israel passed the Law of Return, which allows almost any Jew to settle in Israel. Since the founding of Israel, about 3 million more Jews have immigrated there, chiefly from the Middle East and the Mediterranean Sea region. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrated from the Soviet Union and former Soviet lands.

Africa. Vast numbers of people move about on the African continent in search of better farmlands or employment opportunities. Most go to Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, or Zimbabwe.

Colonial rule ended in most of Africa by the 1960’s. Since then, civil wars in several African nations have driven millions of people from their countries as refugees. Many others have emigrated because of famine. Most of the refugees have remained in Africa, mainly in Ethiopia, Malawi, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During the 1980’s and 1990’s, many Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel. In the early 2000’s, Africa had more than 5 million refugees.

Europe. During the first half of the 1900’s, the Russian Revolution and two world wars caused huge population shifts within Europe as refugees fled from one country to another. Economic recovery after World War II generated a great need for labor. Many countries, including Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and West Germany, sought foreigners to serve as guest workers. Most such temporary workers came from southern Europe and northern Africa. In the late 1970’s, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal drew workers from Africa and Asia.

A large number of guest workers not only remained but also brought in their families. In addition, such countries as France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and the United Kingdom received millions of immigrants from their former colonies. Europe’s non-European population increased enormously. Guest worker recruitment stopped in the early 1970’s. European countries also began to review the applications of refugees more carefully and to establish stricter admittance requirements for immigrants from former colonies. During the 1990’s, hundreds of thousands of people from Eastern Europe, northern Africa, southern Asia, and the Middle East arrived in Western Europe. Many sought political asylum or economic opportunity. Many immigrants chose Germany because of its liberal refugee policy. But Germany passed restrictive immigration laws in the late 1990's.

With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe in the early 1990’s and the enlargement of the European Union in the first decade of the 2000’s, millions of Poles, Romanians, and other Eastern Europeans moved west in search of higher wages. The European Union is an organization of European countries that promotes economic and political cooperation among its members.

Today, immigration is a hotly debated issue in many European countries. Many have anti-immigrant political parties, such as the Danish People’s Party, the Sweden Democrats, and the Northern League in Italy.


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