The United States is a nation of immigrants. In fact, the descendents of immigrants now populate both continents in the Americas. But some immigrant groups have been here longer and some have more fiercely taken on the identity of their adopted place. The history of immigration to the U.S. and the Americas is long and shaped by the history of agriculture.
The New York Times is offering a remarkable interactive map of the history of immigration here that displays the proportions of foreign-born residents down to the county level and across the last 120 years.
Human occupation of the Americas began between 20,000 to 15,000 years ago when hunter-gatherer tribes moved across the Bering Strait land bridge that then connected Siberia and Alaska. By roughly 12,000 years ago, humans had reached southern South America.
As they hunted and gathered food here over the next 10,000 years or so, these tribes became “Native Americans.” Then, around 5,000 years ago, three groups in the Americas independently domesticated various plants and animals for food, and agriculture began. The ancestors of the Inca in South America domesticated llamas, alpacas, potatoes and quinua for their food sources. The ancestors of the Aztec in what is now central Mexico started growing maize, beans and squash. And Eastern Woodland tribes in what is now the central U.S. independently developed sunflowers and gourds. Later, the techniques to cultivate maize were imported from Mexico and became a major food source across North America. It was the harvest of these Native farmers that sustained the early European immigrants thousands of years later.
As the North American continent was colonized, agriculture continued to shape the patterns of immigration. Recent scholarship has produced some surprises in the story that we all thought we knew.
For instance, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy of Stanford University has pointed out that for the first 300 years or so after the European discovery of the New World, the main source of immigrants was from Africa, not Europe. Slaves outnumbered European settlers in the Americas throughout the 1600s and 1700s. The reason was that the Europeans needed labor for their tobacco and cotton plantations. Ten million Africans were forced to immigrate to the Americas to raise crops in the New World.
In the 1800s, Europeans began arriving in the new United States in large numbers – again because of developments in agriculture.
Immigrants are both pushed away from their former homes and pulled toward their new homes by various factors. In the 1800s, David Kennedy writes, the “push” away from Europe was the Industrial Revolution and its impact on agriculture. By 1750 or so, English agriculture, in particular, was more scientific and industrial. English farmers discovered that rotating their crops with clover and other legumes would restore the fertility of the soil. That meant more crops could be produced to feed larger and larger herds of cattle and other livestock. The crops could also feed horses and farmers found that horsepower was better than oxen-power. Advances in livestock breeding, insect control, irrigation and metal implements meant that fewer farmers produced more food. Millions of subsistence farmers were forced to become urban wage earners. At the same time, science and industry improved the diets, sanitation and disease control for humans.
Europe became overcrowded.
“In the nineteenth century,” Kennedy writes, “the population of Europe more than doubled, from some 200 million to more than 400 million, even after about 70 million people left Europe altogether. (Only half of these, it should be noted, went to the United States.)”
As the Industrial Revolution moved out of England, onto the continent, south to Italy, and on to Eastern Europe, the immigration patterns to America followed along. People were being pushed away from Europe because they couldn’t find a livelihood there.
They were also being pulled to the U.S. by the availability of free land through the Homestead Act. Private companies – like the Union Pacific Railroad that had been given land to sell along their right-of-ways – were actively recruiting settlers to farm that land.
Between 1890 and 1914, 17 million immigrants arrived in the U.S. The Census of 1910 recorded the highest percentage of foreign-born people ever resident in the U.S. – 14.7 percent.
For the most part, this flood of immigrants was accommodated and assimilated into the burgeoning United States without too much conflict. Professor Kennedy identifies three reasons for this –
- First, 14.7 percent of the population is not a trivial proportion, but it is still a relatively small minority. In other words, the percentage of foreign-born immigrants in the U.S. never threatened to overwhelm the majority of older immigrants.
- Second, the labor that immigrants supplied was desperately needed. America was expanding. Figures show that those states with the most immigrants also had the highest per capita incomes.
- Third, Kennedy says “pluralism” helped the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries assimilate into the wider culture. “The European immigrant stream was remarkably variegated in its cultural, religious, national, and linguistic origins,” he says. “These many subcultures also distributed themselves over an enormous geographic region.” Some groups tried to hold on to their old ways of religion, culture and language, but their children wanted to be Americans.
There were clashes between immigrants and “native-born” citizens and among immigrant groups themselves. Although those clashes were relatively minor, the federal government began limiting the number of immigrants who could enter legally as early as 1875. Over the years, the rules have changed.
- 1875, direct federal regulation of immigration; prostitutes and convicts were barred.
- 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Law curbed Chinese immigration and banned lunatics, idiots, political convicts and persons likely to become public charges.
- 1907, banned people with tuberculosis, physical or mental defects and orphans; Japanese immigration was restricted.
- 1921, for the first time quotas on specific nationalities were imposed; the quotas were justified by theories of racial superiority. Immigration drops dramatically until 1940.
- 1943, the Bracero Program imports temporary agricultural and railroad workers from Mexico and Central America to fill jobs that World War II recruits left; the program continues until 1953.
- 1952, adds preferences for unifying families and highly skilled workers to the national quota system.
- 1965, national origins quota system abolished in favor of a system for reuniting families, attracting highly skilled workers and accommodating refugees; however, ceilings were placed on Western Hemisphere and Eastern Hemisphere immigration.
- 1980, enhanced the chances of refugee immigrants in response to large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Southeast Asia and Cuba.
- 1986, imposed employer sanctions on companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants; but the law also provided a legalization process for workers who had been in the U.S. since 1982, and provided for more temporary agricultural worker visas.
- 1990, raised the total number of legal immigrants, revised the rules for immigration and naturalization and increased enforcement.
- 1996, increased border patrols and toughened deportation proceedings.
Like waves in the ocean, the numbers of immigrants reaching the shores of the U.S. have ebbed and flowed. But we are all descendants of immigrants. University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Lourdes Gouveia (right) says, “Native American communities were not immigrants. They are the only ones that are really true natives of [Nebraska].” She points out that by 1920, 20 percent of the citizens in Nebraska were born in a foreign country. But soon after, these immigrants supported a new anti-immigration law that would keep out other new immigrants, despite the irony in that political stance. Lourdes says the new law “was extremely xenophobic against the Poles and the Italians and the Czechoslovakians and the Latvians and so forth… We had one generation, pretty much one generation that grew up without that immediate immigration history … [before] their grand children joined the nativist chorus” and opposed further immigration.