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American Immigration: Building a Nation

The puritan leader John Winthrop called America a city upon a hill or a light unto all nations. This new land was to be the place where anyone’s dreams could come true; where life would be better for all. Immigrants to this country held fast to that idea and it became known as the American dream. This dream brought many different people to America to find a better life for themselves and for their children.

Immigrants all came for different reasons, to own land, to have religious freedom, to escape famine, or to escape persecution but no matter the circumstances they saw America as the answer to their problems. Since most immigrants left their homeland because of country-wide problems American immigration occurred in definite patterns or waves. These waves of immigrants are what established the culture we have today.


Though it’s not necessarily what you think of when talking about American immigration the first immigrants to come to this country did so over 20,000 years ago. They were nomads and hunters that followed herds of game from Asia to the North American Continent. They brought their families with them because of the long distances they traveled to stay with the herds. These nomads are the ancestors of the Native Americans, who established themselves on this continent long before any Europeans found it.


The next major wave is the one that we are most familiar with, it is the pilgrims or the colonist. The majority of these early settlers were from England, because of this English was established as the most prevalent language on the new continent. These newcomers arrived for two major reasons either to experience religious freedom or business ventures. Groups such as the “pilgrims” or separatists came to establish their own religious beliefs while the puritans believed that by coming to America they could make better England’s primary religion. There were other groups such as those who established Jamestown who came to find different resources for trade and corner a new market. Some of these attempts failed while others expanded into the first colonies.


The majority of immigrants that came to America at this time were from Western Europe. In 1780 three out of four US citizens were either of English or Irish descent. Immigrants also arrived from Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany and Sweden but those from the British Isles were still predominant. Not all of those who came to America did so willfully. Between 1619 and 1808 some 500,000 Africans were brought here as slaves.


Between 1820 and 1870 there was a major influx of immigrants because of problems in Europe. They came to America to escape things like famine, poor harvests, rising populations and political unrest. The Irish were once again major players in the rise of immigrant numbers because of the potato blight that had struck their country. In 1847 alone 118,120 Irish came to America. At this time there was also political unrest in Germany causing many Germans to emigrate. The latter part of this boom was caused by the Civil War. The union army would recruit Europeans to come and fight by promising them land.


The beginning of the1880’s ushered in another wave of immigrants; it is the largest of all bringing in over 23 million newcomers to the country. It also marked the beginning a large Jewish immigration. Over the next 45 years around 2 million Jews would move to the United States. This fluctuation caused the government to respond by opening Ellis Island which would be the passage for 12 million immigrants to become American Citizens.


In the 1920’s Americans began to worry that all the new immigrants would take away job opportunities because they were willing to work longer for less. In 1924 the Johnson-Reed Immigration act was passed by congress which limited the amount of people that could immigrate to America based on their country of origin. The limits were set based upon how many people from a specific country were already living in the US.


The Act was modified in 1965 to grant visas to those who applied first and the quotas were changed from countries to hemispheres. There was also a preference given to those who had relatives in the United States or had a needed job skill. It was again modified to eliminate the hemisphere quotas and establish a world wide ceiling in 1978. In 1990 the cap on the number of immigrants allowed was made flexible.


The face of America is continually changing because of immigration. Since the country was founded it has gone from a Western European society to a true mix with many different cultures. As J.F.K once wrote America is “a society of immigrants, each of whom had begun life anew, on an equal footing. This was the secret of America: a nation of people with a fresh memory of old traditions who dared to explore new frontiers”.


About the Author:

Heather Edden is a Client Account Specialist for 10x marketing and a descendant of Norwegian immigrants. To find your immigrant ancestors contact Price and Associates.




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