Immigration to the United States

Throughout history, various waves of immigrants have arrived in America. Explorers, missionaries, miners, people fleeing political or religious persecution, prison sentences, famine, and war. Slavers captured others. The gold rush and railroad construction, the Irish potato famine, political changes in Europe, Latin America, and later in Cuba, high-profile defections, refugees granted asylum, and economic conditions in Mexico. All of these have influenced immigration. American history shows successive mass waves of arrivals and many seeking greater economic opportunity or freedom. America, populated for generations by people from all over the world, retains the contributions and changes created by mass immigration. Immigrants have influenced the language, music, science, medicine, art, industry, politics, and economics – every aspect of our culture.

Historical Immigration Pattern

Immigration Research Guides


Colonization and frontier expansion, arrivals by sea.

In addition to arrivals from Europe, the thriving slave trade resulted in forced relocation of uncounted peoples from Africa. Of those who survived inhumane shipping in cargo holds, and including those born in America, African Americans numbered about 500,000 by the time of the Revolution, the majority of them living in slavery.

History of Immigration to the United States 1819-1855 (W.J. Bromwell, 1856, primary source).

Pre-1820 Immigration Data



       *1830s surge of German immigrants

       * In decade prior to Lincoln’s election, 2,598,214 immigrants, mostly from Ireland, Great Britain, and Germany (mostly Western Germany) with some from the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway.

       * Immigration declined after the panic of 1857 and the outbreak of the Civil War. Following the collapse of the Confederacy, immigration peaked again

       * After the potato crop failure, Irish immigration began its surge.

       * In 1848 gold was discovered, Latin and Chinese Americans immigrated to the Western Coast of the US.

       * 1840s and 1850s: 1.5 million immigrants

       * 1840s - 1880s: 4 million German immigrants

       * Immigrants totals in this peak was about 7.5 million

Family History Guide--Passenger and Immigration Lists

US-Canadian Immigration Records

Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States



Immigration from Ireland, Western Germany and Great Britain continues. Many also come from

 Scandinavian nations.

* In the 1870s large number of Scandinavians, Chinese, and Canadians immigrated to the US

Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000 (US Census Bureau)


The division of immigrants from western and northern nations decreased, while the eastern and southern nations immigrant numbers grew. In this third peak, (1890-1910), the most immigrants came from Russia, Italy, Hungary and Austria, constituting more than 50% of the immigrants during that peak. From 1905 until WWI, average annual immigration exceeded 1,000,000 persons per year.

1905 until 1914: Annual immigration in excess of a million per year. At the advent World War I, numbers declined sharply.

1915 to 1918: Annual average barely reached 250,000.

1918: Slight increase, then dropped off due to the situation changing in Europe, and new US legislation placing a ceiling on immigration.

1921: Numbers increased briefly.

1907: Japanese immigration was limited

  • Chinese immigration was stopped in 1892 & 1902

By Way of Canada:

U.S. Records of Immigration Across the U.S.-Canadian Border, 1895-1954


1950s to Present

1950s: Major increase in Cuban immigration resulting from Cuba’s political turmoil

Early 1960s: Many Cubans flee Castro's dictatorship, primarily from wealthy families, and well-educated. Later Cuban immigrants included relatives of the first group and poor people seeking work.

1920-1965: Primarily European immigration

1965-now: Latin American and Asian immigration

1970s-now: "Illegal" Immigration

1980: Arrival in Miami of the Marielitos about 125,000 people that the Cuban government wanted out of Cuba: unskilled workers, criminals, and the mentally ill.

Immigration from Mexico and the Middle East draws increased controversy.

.Immigration History

Center for Immigration Studies Current Numbers

Census on contemporary foreign-born profiles, by state and by country