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Who's Coming to America

Today's immigrants come from different places, but their reasons are similar to those that motivated earlier immigrants

By Sam Roberts


Click to enlarge graphic
Early in the 20th century, more than 80 percent of the immigrants arriving in the United States were from Europe. Barely 1 percent were from Latin America, and even fewer came from Asia and Africa.

Today's immigrants present a very different profile. In 2007, according to a new report by the Census Bureau, 54 percent of the nation's 38.1 million foreign born came from Latin America, 27 percent came from Asia, 13 percent were from Europe, and 4 percent from Africa.

More of today's foreign-born population comes from Mexico㬇.7 million—than from any other country, followed by China, the Philippines, India, El Salvador, Vietnam, and South Korea. And people from Mexico make up an increasing percentage of the foreign born㬛 percent in 2007, up from 22 percent in 1990.

Over all, Latin Americans and Africans account for a greater share of the nation's immigrant population than they did even five years ago.

Of course, America's racial and ethnic makeup has been evolving since Spanish settlers and American Indians first mingled in the 16th century in St. Augustine and Santa Fe, in what are now Florida and New Mexico.

By 1776, most Americans were immigrants, or their descendents, from the British Isles. The majority were white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who came in search of economic opportunity or to escape religious or political persecution. But the population also included large numbers of Dutch, Spanish, and Germans, in addition to American Indians, whose ancestors came from Asia thousands of years ago, and blacks, who were brought from Africa as slaves beginning in 1619.

Most Americans today can trace their ancestry back to immigrants at some point. But despite our heritage as a nation of immigrants, Americans have often been wary about welcoming foreigners.

'A Colony of Aliens'

Benjamin Franklin worried more than 200 years ago that German immigrants were taking over his home state. "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglicizing them," Franklin wrote.

When the first U.S. Census was taken in 1790, it counted nearly 4 million people, the majority of them of English, Welsh, or Scottish heritage; 757,000 blacks made up the next-largest group, followed by Germans.

Poverty & Persecution A new wave of immigrants began to arrive in the 19th century, starting with the Irish and Italians, both mostly poor farmers and Catholic. In 1845, a potato famine in Ireland, caused by a fungus that destroyed the country's most important food source, killed a million people and left millions more hungry. Within a decade, nearly 2 million Irish had emigrated to the U.S.

Italians followed, beginning in the 1860s, in response to economic and political turmoil at home. Many were long-term migrants. Like many Mexicans today, they went home when they had made enough money and came back to the U.S. when they needed to make more.

Jews also began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1860s, first from Germany and then later from Eastern Europe, including Russia, fleeing anti-Semitism and deadly pogroms (government-sponsored attacks on Jewish towns). Between 1880 and 1924, a third of Eastern Europe's Jews left for the U.S., with most settling in overcrowded tenement neighborhoods like New York's Lower East Side.

Before 1875, there were few restrictions on immigration to America. One reason was economics. The abolition of slavery and the Industrial Revolution had created a demand for cheap labor to work in factories and coal mines. Chinese workers were brought in to build railroads, including the Transcontinental route, which linked the east and west coasts in 1869.

But the surge in Irish and Italian immigrants to a mostly Protestant nation provoked a backlash. During the 1840s, the American Party, also known as the Know-Nothings, formed in opposition to immigration. Its members feared that immigrants would take away their jobs and that Catholics would take over the country. (Fears that immigrants will take American jobs has been a common theme throughout America's history, including during today's economic crisis. See Opinion)

In the West, Chinese immigrants provoked protests, and in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigration from China for the next 10 years. (The ban was later extended.)

Immigration from Europe continued unabated over the next four decades. In 1907, more than a million immigrants passed through Ellis Island in New York, while Angel Island in San Francisco served as the main entry point on the West Coast. The influx of Southern and Eastern Europeans—Italians, Poles, Russian Jews, Greeks, and others—generated concerns that immigrants would bring with them the leftist political views that had spread in Europe, particularly after the Russian Revolution in 1917. Many Americans also feared that a large pool of immigrant workers would drive down wages.

Immediately following World War I, "there was just this fear that millions of people were going to pour in," says Mae Ngai, a historian at Columbia University in New York. "You could read the discussion from the 1910s and think you were looking at something from today—if you just took out 'Italians' and put in 'Mexicans.'"

Immigration Quotas

In the 1920s, Congress imposed quotas that sharply reduced the number of immigrants allowed in, and gave preference to Northern Europeans in an attempt to re-create the ethnic profile of 19th-century America. Quotas worked against Southern and Eastern Europeans, and during World War II, prevented millions of Jews and other refugees from escaping the Nazis.

In 1965, spurred in part by the civil rights movement, the U.S. eliminated quotas altogether, leading to an influx of Asian and Latin American immigrants.

Today, the U.S. is in the midst of its fourth great wave of immigration. (The first three occurred in roughly the 1850s, the 1880s, and the early 1900s.) And this could turn out to be the largest one of all: The Pew Research Center projects that foreign-born Americans will exceed 15 percent of the population by 2025, breaking a century-old record.

According to the Census report, the oldest foreign-born Americans today are from Europe, with a median age of about 60; Somalis, with a median age of about 27, are the youngest.

Indians are the best-educated newcomers㭆 percent have bachelor's degrees. They are also the highest earners among immigrants, with a median household income of about $91,000.

Immigrants from Somalia and the Dominican Republic have the lowest household incomes. (The overall median income for the foreign born was $47,000 compared with $51,000 for the total U.S. population.)

About 52 percent of foreign-born residents speak English less than very well. Ninety-seven percent of immigrants from Mexico and the Dominican Republic do not speak English at home.

As with the immigrants who arrived more than a century ago, it is usually the second generation that becomes more assimilated. A recent decade-long study of adult children of immigrants in New York found that they are overwhelmingly fluent in English, are entering the mainstream, and are doing better than their parents in terms of education and earning.

The study, by sociologists at Harvard and the City University of New York, found that even poor, uneducated immigrants have "shown that they have the drive, ambition, courage, and strength to move from one nation to another"—and they pass that strength and determination on to their children.