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4 Waves of Immigration



Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” --Oscar Handlin


 THE FIRST WAVE: 1607-1830

Total Immigrants: approximately 1.2 million


From the first Colonial settlements in Jamestown and Plymouth, America grew quickly from an estimated population of 250,000 in 1700 to an estimated 2.5 million in 1775, when the Revolution began, to a population of 9.6 million in the 1820 census.


The early immigrants were primarily Protestants from northwestern Europe, as can be seen from the ethnic breakdown of the U.S. population in the first census of 1790: English 49%, African 19%, Scots-Irish 8%, Scottish 7%, German 7%, Dutch 4%, French 3%, other 3%.


Due to a labor shortage in the colonies and the early republic, there were no restrictions or requirements for immigration. The first federal law requiring ships to keep records of immigration wasn’t passed until 1819. Thus, the first wave of immigrants were all “undocumented aliens.”


The symbolic Port of Entry for the first wave of immigrants was Plymouth Rock, where the Pilgrims landed in 1620. As later immigrant groups came to America, older English Americans would memorialize Plymouth Rock as the birthplace of America, thus confirming an Anglo-Saxon stamp  on teh Americna character. In reality, of course,the early immigrants arrived all over the different ports up and down the East Coast.


Reasons for Immigration
The early immigrants came here for a variety of reasons:


  • Economic Opportunity: Europe offered little opportunity for most people to advance economically during this period of aristocratic control of wealth and power. Thus, many people came to America seeking a chance to better their fortunes. The largest single group in the early years were indentured servants, poor people, debtors, and petty criminals who could not pay for their passage but entered into a contract to work for a master for 4-7 years in return for passage. Indentured servants were half the workforce until 1750 but declined afterwards as economic conditions improved in England.


  • Slavery: As indentured servants completed their contracts, Southern plantation owners increasingly replaced them with African slaves brought over in the Triangle Trade. Although Africans were in Virginia as early as 1619, it was in the 18th Century that the slave trade grew exponentially. An estimated 800,000 Africans were brought over to America as slaves by 1808; nearly all of those had arrived before 1780. One in five Americans were slaves at the time of the first census in 1790.


  • Political Freedom: Immigrants such as Thomas Paine wanted to come here because Americans had far more rights than the average European of this period, who still lived under the control of kings and aristocrats. Occasional bloody revolts such as the English Civil War of the 1640s, the French Revolution of the 1790s, and other wars such as the 30 Years’ War and the Napoleonic Wars, caused other refugees to flee to America.


  • Religious Freedom: During this period, most European governments had official state churches. Persecution of dissenters led some to come to America seeking freedom of worship, including the Puritans (“Pilgrims”), Friends (“Quakers”), Mennonites, French Huguenots, Spanish Jews, and English Catholics.



Except for the enslaved Africans, the first wave of immigrants generally had an easier time being accepted as American for several reasons:


  • Firstly, they tended to be relatively homogeneous (all the same), sharing a religion (Protestant Christianity) and race (white). As America was a British colony and the majority of both the population and incoming immigrants were British, there were few cultural conflicts.


  • Secondly, it was understood that immigrants who spoke other languages (German, French) must learn English and conform to Anglo-American cultural norms.


  • Thirdly, as the rapidly expanding country needed labor, immigrants posed little threat to American workers.


  • Finally, the rate of immigration over the first 200 years was steady but small: never more than 10,000 immigrants in one year, who quickly dispersed throughout the country.


Yet even this first wave met some resistance. In 1755, the Pennsylvania Assembly criticized recent German arrivals (the “Pennsylvania Dutch” or Deutsch) as “a great mixture of the refuse of their people.” The usually enlightened Benjamin Franklin claimed immigrants were “generally among the most stupid of their own nation.” Catholics, Jews, and free African-Americans found religious and racial prejudice common. In 1798, the first anti-immigrant laws were passed by the Federalist Party. The Naturalization Act increased the eligibility requirement for citizenship from 5 years residence to 14. The Alien Enemies Act gave the President the power to arrest or expel all aliens “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States.” When Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans took over, they let these laws expire.



THE SECOND WAVE: 1830s-1880s

Total Immigrants: 15.3 million.


As the population of the United States exploded from 13 million to 63 million between 1830 and 1890, a second wave of immigrants landed in America. The port of entry for the vast majority of these people was New York City. From 1855 on, arrivals were processed at Castle Garden, the first immigration center established by New York State.


Second-Wave immigrants were primarily Irish and German. Because they arrived in large numbers and differed from the existing Anglo-American society in religion and culture, they became the first immigrant groups to experience widespread hostility and organized opposition.


Until 1830, immigrants had never arrived in large numbers in the USA, averaging only 6,000 per year and totaling only about 1.5% of American society. Then, beginning in 1832, there was a sudden increase to 50,000 immigrants, with a peak year of 428,000 in 1854. Following a lull during the Civil War, immigration surged again in the late 19th century, with 5.2 million arriving in the 1880s alone. By 1890, nearly 14% of Americans were foreign-born.


Reasons for Increased Immigration

  • Transportation Improvements: The development of clipper ships and railroads speeded travel and lowered the cost of the fare to America.


  • European strife: War, famine, revolution, and industrialization drove many Western Europeans from their homelands in search of a chance for something better in America.


  • The “American Dream”: The growing reputation of the USA as a safe haven for immigrants and a land of opportunity for those willing to work hard drew people like a magnet. In 1886, the Statue of Liberty was erected on an island in New York harbor, seemingly as a welcome to each new boatload of arriving immigrants. On her base was a poem by Emma Lazarus:

The New Colossus


Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.


Benefits to America

The immigrants spurred economic growth in America by providing a steady supply of cheap labor and an increased demand for mass-produced consumer goods.


Where Second-Wave Immigrants Came From


  • Irish Catholics were the single largest ethnic group in the Second Wave. With Ireland under British rule, they long been denied self-government and persecuted for their religion. But the main spur to Irish immigration was neither political nor religious, but economic. The Potato Famine of 1847 cut the population of Ireland in half by a combination of starvation and emigration. Most Irish immigrants to America settled in Eastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Irish men built the Erie Canal and railroads, while Irish women worked as domestic servants. Later, the urban Irish-Americans took over many political machines, like Tammany Hall, and dominated the American Catholic priesthood and many police forces.


  • Germans, the second largest immigrant group in the Second Wave, left their homeland after the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848 and in search of economic opportunity. They settled on farms and in the cities of the Midwest and Northeast. They came to dominate the American brewing industry.


  • Scandinavians from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark settled in the upper Midwest after the Civil War to work small farms.


  • Chinese: By the 1880s, over 100,000 Chinese immigrants had come to the West Coast of the United States due to poverty and war. Many worked on construction of the Transcontinental Railroads. Others were cooks, launderers, or miners.


Nativism: Anti-Immigrant Backlash

The surge in immigration led to America’s first organized anti-immigrant backlash in the 1850s. The ideology favoring those born in America and opposing immigrants was known as NATIVISM.


Opposition to immigrants was influenced by many differences between the existing US population and the newcomers:


  • Religion: Most Americans were Protestant and strongly prejudiced against the Catholicism of most new immigrants. Many Protestant Americans still saw the Pope as the Antichrist and viewed Catholics as religious terrorists out to subvert American democracy. A popular children’s game was “Break the Pope’s Neck.” The requirement that all public school students say Protestant prayers led to the creation of Catholic parochial schools in the United States.


  • Racialism: With Britain supplying only a minority of new immigrants, differences of language, culture, and ethnicity set the new immigrants apart. Many Americans were ethnocentric, believing their own culture the best, and not wanting it “polluted” by foreign ways. Under 19th-century racial theories, many saw the new immigrants as belonging to a separate and inferior race.


  • Radicalism: Significant numbers of Second and Third Wave immigrants were socialists or attracted to forming labor unions. Both these political tendencies were taboo during the nineteenth century.


  • Rural Resentment: Most nineteenth-century Americans lived on farms in the country and disliked the growth of cities that accompanied the entrance of immigrants. They shared Thomas Jefferson’s belief in a rural ideal for America, and looked on cities and poor immigrants as alien and threatening to American social order.


  • Economic Resentment: Immigrants were seen as stealing jobs from “real Americans,” driving down wages, and increasing unemployment. Large and frequent riots between Nativist Protestant and Irish Catholic workers in East Coast cities in the middle 19th Century resulted in the creation of the first professional police departments.


Know Nothings

The most influential 19th-century nativist group was the American Party, popularly known as the “Know Nothing Party” because its members pledged secrecy and responded to questions about their party by saying, “I know nothing.” The Know Nothings purported to defend Protestantism against Catholicism. They sought to limit elective office to the native-born, require 21 years of naturalization to achieve citizenship, and greatly restrict immigration.


The Know Nothing Party successfully elected six governors and several congressmen. In 1856, the party ran former U.S. President Millard Fillmore as its presidential candidate, winning 22% of the vote.


The popularity of the Know Nothing Party faded with the Civil War, as Irish-Americans displayed valor fighting for the Union.


“The Yellow Peril”

Although Asian-Americans only comprised 0.002% of the US population by 1900, a strong nativist backlash portrayed them as a growing threat. Widespread anti-Chinese prejudice in the West led to riots and mob violence by the 1880s. Despised for their “foreign ways” and different race, the Chinese were also resented for being used as “scabs” during strikes.


State and local laws were passed discriminating against Chinese workers and shopkeepers. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which stopped Chinese immigration. Racial prejudice against Chinese-Americans kept them from being allowed to become U.S. Citizens until 1943.



THE THIRD WAVE: 1890s-1920s

Total Immigrants: 22.3 million


The population of the USA increased from 63 million in 1890 to 106 million in 1920, as immigration hit its peak. For three decades after 1890, an annual average of 580,000 immigrants arrived on American shores, and 1907 set a record of 1.3 million newcomers in a single year. On the eve of World War I, the foreign-born had swollen to 15% of the US population. With 75% of Third Wave immigrants coming through the Port of New York, the old state immigration center, Castle Garden, was overwhelmed. This led to the construction of the first federal immigration center, Ellis Island, which served as the main port of entry for American immigration from 1898 to 1924.


Where Third Wave Immigrants Came From

The character of immigration also changed with the Third Wave. Whereas in 1880, 87% of immigrants had been from Northwestern Europe (the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia), by 1900, over 80% were from Southern and Eastern Europe (Italy, Russia, Austro-Hungary). The size and greater cultural diversity of the Third Wave would give rise to a great new Xenophobia (fear and hatred of foreigners) that would slam the door to new arrivals in the 1920s.


The Third Wave: The “New Immigrants”

Many factors increased the numbers and diversity of immigrants after 1890:


“Push” Factors drove Southern and Eastern Europeans to leave their native countries:

  • High population growth in Southern and Eastern Europe.
  • Lack of jobs and food.
  • Scarcity of available farmland.
  • Mechanization of agriculture, which pushed peasants off the land.
  • Religious persecution of Russian Jews, who fled their villages after pogroms.


“Pull” Factors attracted immigrants to the USA:

  • Democracy.
  • Freedom of religion.
  • Available land.
  • Other forms of economic opportunity.
  • Booming industries like steel and railroads advertised for workers in Hungary and Poland. These new immigrants helped build new railroads and took jobs in steel mills.


Transportation improvements sped immigration:

  • By the late 19th century, regularly scheduled steamships replaced sailing ships, cutting what had been a 3-month voyage across the Atlantic to a mere 2 weeks.


Crossing the Atlantic

Most poor immigrants traveled in 3rd class or steerage, the open area bellow decks with no private cabin or bed. There, they slept on rough metal bunks and often got seasick. During the day, passengers crowded the deck to breathe fresh air, away from the foul smells of steerage.


Arriving in America: Welcome to Ellis Island!

While First and Second-Class passengers disembarked at Hudson River piers directly into New York City, the Third-Class passengers in steerage had to be processed at Ellis Island, the new federal immigrant processing center. There they waited in long lines clutching their few belongings, their papers that proved they were entitled to gain admittance to the land of liberty. Most only spent a few hours there showing their papers and passing through a barrage of medical and psychological tests to prove they were worthy (no illiterates, no anarchists, no contagious disease carriers) to gain legal enter to America. About 20% of Ellis Island immigrants were detained for some period on the island (usually for a medical condition) and released in less than 2 weeks), but ultimately, 98% passed through and gained entry to the USA. By 1970 nearly half the population of the US was descended from an immigrant who came through Ellis Island.


Settling in Cities

2/3 of Ellis Island immigrants traveled to the NJ Central Railroad Terminal (still located in Jersey City’s Liberty State Park) to get on a westbound train heading somewhere in America. Most settled in cities, which grew from having 25% of the US population in 1870 to over 50% by 1920. Most 3rd Wave immigrants settled in poor urban neighborhoods with the cheapest housing, usually among others of their own ethnic group (“Little Italy, “Little Poland”‘). They set up their own businesses, churches and restaurants.They were subject to discrimination from landlords who refused to rent to them (often there were specific clauses put into deeds guaranteeing the new owner would never sell to a Catholic, Jew or black) and employers who refused to hire “their kind”. Jews suffered restrictions on their membership in many civic organizations and were kept out of many colleges due quotas that limited the number of Jews admitted. The government provided immigrants no aid, but they could get help from Immigrant Aid Societies of churches or ethnic organizations such as the Sons of Italy or Polish National Alliance.


Opposition and Restrictions

As the Third Wave grew in numbers, there was a new nativist backlash against immigration. Some Americans disapproved of the “new immigrants whom they saw as different from those who had come before them.


Third Wave immigrants were accused of:

  1. Taking jobs away from “native” Americans (ie WASPS, white Protestants).
  2. Being difficult to Americanize due to their lack of education, their tendency to cluster in urban ethnic ghettos, and their attachment to their own languages and customs.
  3. Being racially inferior, according to the theory of Nordic Supremacy that argued Northwestern Europeans were mentally and physically superior.

In 1894, the Immigration Restriction League was formed, and only President McKinley’s veto prevented them from enacting an English language literacy requirement. Standards were tightened at Ellis Island in the 1910s when Anarchists were officially banned from entry to America. Japanese immigration was ended in 1907 and all immigration from Asia soon after.


When World War I began, immigration greatly declined, but nationalist xenophobia increased and German immigrants were persecuted, some even lynched; a new anti-immigrant fear was growing.


The End of the Third Wave: Closing the Gates

European economic collapse after WWI led to another surge in immigration, from 110,000 in 1919 to over 800,000 in 1921. Americans strongly rejected this new wave. Xenophobia exploded in reaction to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the Red Scare bombings of 1919. At the same time, the US economy sank into a deep depression, making foreigners seem a threat to US workers’ jobs. A revived Ku Klux Klan grew all over the country opposing not only blacks but Catholics and Jews as well. The Klan demanded strict new restrictions on immigration.


In 1921, the Republican congress passed the first of a series of new restrictions on immigration. the 1921 Immigration Quota Act capped annual immigration at 350,000 and set National Origins Quotas to limit each country’s total. Further revisions of the law in 1924 and 1929 eventually brought the total of immigrants allowed in the US down to 150,000 per year. Moreover, the details of the law reflected widespread prejudice against southern and eastern Europeans, whom most Americans considered to be racially inferior in those bigoted times.


These National Origins Quotas sounded fair on the surface, but were deliberately written to restrict southern and eastern Europeans. Quotas were based on 2% of the 1890 population of each nationality in the US. As there were hardly any Italians or Poles in the US in 1890, their quotas were miniscule, thus keeping out the people who most wanted to migrate to America. Thus, hundreds of thousands of poor Italians wished to migrate to the USA, but only 3,800 were allowed in, while the quota for British immigration was theoretically 65,000 per year (of which only 3,000 was used). The law also changed the racial complexion of the country, banning all immigrants from Asia, while exempting western-hemisphere immigrants from any quotas. So Canadians and Mexicans freely came into the US, while Asians, the majority of humans on the planet, were completely barred.


These laws caused a dramatic decline in immigration to America. Whereas 22.3 million people immigrated to America between 1891 and 1930, only 4.1 million immigrated between 1930 and 1960. Southern and Eastern European immigration declined by nearly 90% (87.3%). The foreign-born represented 15% of the population in 1930, but only 4.7% in 1960. Thus the middle of the 2oth century became the low tide of American immigration history.




Total migrants 10 million+


As the gates closed on new immigrants from outside the USA in the middle of the 20th century growing businesses had to look inside America for new sources of labor. They found it in the American South, still rural and dirt poor in the early 20th century. Over the course of the century southern farms that had been labor intensive gradually modernized and mechanized throwing millions of poor share croppers, both black and white, out of work. In WW1 and WW2 millions of jobs opened up at defense plants transforming small cities like Los Angeles and Detroit into boom towns. The postwar booms of the 1920s, 50s and 60s only increased the migration from South to North. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s “Okies” who lost their farms in the Dust Bowl streamed to California to work as migrant laborers.


Although 3 million white southerners moved north, primarily to the West and Midwest the Great Internal migration is primarily a story of African Americans; it is estimated that over 70% of these migrants were black. This would greatly alter the racial makeup of America. In 1900 92% of the black population of the US was concentrated in the South while today only about 47% lives there.


Push Factors:

For both races a lack of economic opportunity in the South was the biggest reason for leaving. For blacks Jim Crow segregations’ denying of basic freedoms (voting, legal protections, access to good schools) and intense southern racism (the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s and the widespread practice of lynching) were major additional reasons.. As a result the black population of the South declined dramatically from 32% in 1900 (including black majorities in the states of South Carolina and Mississippi) to approximately 19% since 1980.


Pull Factors:

The North was where jobs and opportunity were. Blacks were willing to take the jobs at the bottom that whites didn’t want anymore. They worked in stockyards, slaughterhouses, as railroad porters and as domestic servants. Like the 3rd wave before them they settled into ethnic neighborhoods (Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant in NYC, the south side of Chicago) where they established their own restaurants, businesses and churches. They suffered widespread discrimination in living housing and employment (legal until the late 1960s) and racial resentment from the much of the white majority. Major race riots broke out in northern cities after WW1 and again in the 1960s.



The African American population outside the South grew from 740,000 in 1900 to 10.6 million in 1970. Many northern cities that had been virtually all-white in 1900 developed large black populations and in some cases majorities (Detroit, Newark, Washington, DC).Whites began to flee cities for the suburbs in the 1950s and 60s as blacks and other minorities moved in. The poorest inner city neighborhoods evolved into dangerous slums with few opportunities for their residents as low skill jobs fled America or were replaced by technology. Blacks with education meanwhile created a growing African American middle class that was able to take advantage of the 1960s civil rights revolution and climb the ladder of success. The new northern African American voting bloc became key swing vote in elections from the 1940s to the 60s. The desire of both Republican and Democratic politicians for those votes helped push through the civil rights laws of the 1960s. In recent decades as the South has grown more tolerant and prosperous the migration has begun to reverse with slightly more African Americans moving South than North.




Total Immigrants: estimated 30+ million

US Population: 315 million+


The current wave of immigration is by far the largest in American history in absolute numbers: over 30 million legal immigrants have entered over the last four decades, supplemented by an illegal immigration of anywhere from 8 to 20 million. Primarily from Latin America and Asia,

The Fourth Wave is revitalizing and reshaping American society. As in the past, as the number of immigrants has grown it has produced a new anti- immigrant backlash and a debate about our immigration laws.


1924 1964: Low Tide for Immigration

From the onset of restrictive immigrant quotas in the 1920s, immigration to the US declined greatly. Between 1930 and 1960, there were a mere 4 million arrivals, fewer than had come during the decade of the 1920s alone. The shrinking of the foreign-born to a mere 5% of the population probably helped Third Wave Italian , Jewish and Slavic immigrant groups assimilate into American society during this “low tide” of immigration as did their patriotic service in World War I and World War II. Ellis Island was closed down and abandoned in 1954. Millions around the world wanted to emigrate to America, but were kept out by the quota system, while fewer chose to emigrate from the western European countries that were eligible due to rising standards of living after WWII.


The 1965 Immigration & Naturalization Act: How the Fourth Wave Began

In the 1960s, America finally confronted the issue of race and challenged its long-accepted system of racial segregation. Almost as an afterthought to the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) on October 3, 1965, ending what Johnson called "a cruel and enduring wrong," the old racist National Origins quota system that favored immigrants from Northwestern Europe. The new law made family reunification (76%), individual talents and skills (20%), and refugee status (6%) the new criteria for admittance. It also raised the total number of immigrants allowed to about 300,000 per year, a number that has gradually been increased to the present one million per year.


In 1965, no one predicted the long-term effects of the new immigration law for its full impact would take some time to be felt. Legal immigration increased to 3.3 million in the 1960s, 4.5 million in the 1970s, 7.3 million in the 1980s, and 9 million in the 1990s. However, in the 2000s, it declined significantly to an estimated 5 million.


Reasons for Increased Immigration

“Push Factors” that drove Fourth Wave immigrants from their native countries included:

  • rising population pressures,
  • the intense poverty of Third World countries, and
  • government repression.


These forces combined with the pull of US economic opportunity and freedom to spur the Fourth Wave of immigration. At the same time that America began opening its doors to immigrants again the introduction of jet aircraft which could cross oceans in a few hours greatly decreased the cost and difficulty of travel: a far cry from the terrifying weeks spent on cramped boats by the early immigrants.


Contemporary immigration has increased steadily because it is mostly "chain immigration," in which recent immigrants use the family preferences in the immigration law to sponsor other members of their families; the more immigrants who come here the more family members become eligible and the overall quota is increased. As of 2006, the US accepts more legal immigrants as permanent residents than the rest of the world combined.



Port of Entry: Anywhere USA

Unlike past waves, there is no one central entry point for today's immigrants, who arrive at airports all over America in record numbers, or in other cases simply walk across the border.


The arrival experience of today's immigrant is far different than in the days of Ellis Island. On its busiest day, Ellis Island processed 11,000 people, whereas Newark Airport, only the fifth most common arrival point in the US today, averaged over 15,000 arrivals per day as of 2005.


All time-consuming medical tests and visa application screening is done in the country of origin, long before an immigrant's journey begins. Most foreign travelers now only spend 1-2 minutes going through US Customs on arrival at the airport.


Since September 11, 2001, new security measures have been implemented. Today, all arrivals are digitally fingerprinted and photographed for a huge federal database of all entry and exit records so that visitors to America may be kept track of


Where Fourth Wave Immigrants Come From

The Fourth Wave is the most diverse ever, with over 80% of immigrants coming from Latin America and Asia, bringing with them a veritable kaleidoscope of cultural traditions.


Fourth Wave Immigrants have come to the US to escape Communist dictatorships (Cubans, Vietnamese, and Chinese) and civil wars (Salvadorans). Most have come in search of economic opportunity (Filipinos, Dominicans, and Indians). All these groups, together with the Irish (the only traditional source that continued to supply large numbers of immigrants) today have more than a million of their countrymen now living in the US, along with an estimated nearly 10 million Mexicans.


Illegal Immigration

A major difference between the Fourth Wave and early eras of immigration is the large group of illegal or undocumented immigrants among them. Many come over legally on temporary visas, but stay after the visas expire. Others walk in without visas, mostly over the Mexican border.

Most illegal immigrants are desperately poor, unskilled workers who come to America to take the lowest-paying jobs in our economy( just like the Irish in the mid 1800s). They are the farm workers, construction workers, housekeepers, dishwashers, gardeners, and meat processors.


As the number of illegal immigrants swelled to an estimated 5 million in 1986, a new Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed to deal with the problem.

  • The IRCA attempted to halt the influx of new illegals, while granting amnesty to existing illegal immigrants who wanted a chance to become legal US residents.
  •  It imposed fines of up to $10,000 on employers for every illegal immigrant they employed.

The IRCA succeeded in legalizing over two million immigrants but failed in its other goals. Due to easily available fake IDs and inadequate funding for the Immigration and Naturalization Service to inspect workplaces, the IRCA did not deter employers from hiring illegals, whom they could hire more cheaply than US citizens or legal immigrants. The number of illegal immigrants has skyrocketed in the last 20 years to an estimated 11 million people.


In the 2000s, as in past eras, high US unemployment combined with a rising number of immigrants produced a nativist anti-immigrant backlash. Vigilante groups such as the “Minutemen” patrolled the southwestern border. Anti-immigrant legislation included a controversial Arizona law requiring police to check people’s immigration status.


Despite widespread agreement that immigration laws needed updating, a bipartisan effort to pass reform under President Bush collapsed in 2007. Instead, the Republican-led Congress opted to increase border security, constructing a multibillion-dollar fence on the Mexican border and doubling the size of the border patrol. They also vastly increased the number of immigration agents. As a result the Bush and Obama administrations vastly increased deportations and cracked down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.


This crackdown on illegal immigrants, combined with demographic changes in Mexico, and the downturn in the US economy since 2008 have contributed to a drop in illegal border-crossings from an estimated 600,000 per year in 2005 to a mere 85,000 by 2011. But the crackdown also brought new problems— dividing families, depriving businesses of employees for low-paying jobs — without ending the problem of having an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the US.


New Immigration Reform Proposals

Today, President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators are trying again to resolve the problem of illegal immigration. Early in 2013, a bipartisan group of 8 senators (including NJ’s Sen. Menendez and NY’s Sen. Schumer) proposed a new reform bill, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,”This measure passed the senate but was never given a vote in the Republican led House of Representatives. The act contains the following provisions:


  1. Before other provisions take effect, an independent panel would have to declare the border secure, and a new exit system for tracking departures of foreigners would be put in place.
  2. After that, a new legalization process would allow undocumented immigrants to legalize their status and become permanent residents. Applicants would be required to pass a security check and pay fines and back taxes. They could then begin a fourteen-year process that could ultimately lead to US citizenship.
  3. A new guest worker program would allow laborers to temporarily live and work in the US to help fill labor shortages.

These and other proposals are sure to be subject to much revision and debate as they proceed through Congress. Immigration reform is strongly supported by President Obama and most Democrats. It is also gaining support among Republicans hoping to improve their popularity with Latino voters, who voted heavily Democratic in recent elections. Because the number of Latino voters is expected to increase from 24 million in 2012 to an estimated 40 million in 2030, politicians in both parties can no longer ignore this growing portion of the population.


The Impact on America

The Fourth Wave has primarily settled in 7 states: California, Florida, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey have over 70% of the immigrant population.

The new immigrants have revitalized many of America's cities, moving into depressed neighborhoods and made them thrive again.


The Fourth Wave brought an astounding new ethnic and religious diversity. Now the US has more Muslims (4%) than Jews (3%) and an increasing number of Buddhists (nearly 1%). Mexican, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern restaurants have sprung up all over.


The new immigration is drastically altering the ethnic demography of the Untied States. As recently as the 1970s, the US was still about 85% white, but that figure has dropped to about 60% today. If present trends continue, the percentage of Americans who are white will drop below 50% before 2050.


Long split on lines of black and white, America is fast becoming a "rainbow society" composed of all the different peoples on earth. Latinos have now overtaken African-Americans as the largest US "minority group," and may well comprise 1 in 4 Americans by 2050. Asian immigrants, a miniscule percentage of the US population before the Fourth Wave, may comprise nearly 10% of the population by mid-century.



The importance of immigration to our nation’s growth and success has slowly permeated our national consciousness after years of denial. Ellis Island, left to rot in New York harbor for a half century, was restored in time for its hundredth birthday in 1992 and reopened as a museum of US immigration history from colonial times to the present. Its 2 million annual visitors come from all four waves the American immigration experience. Four hundred years after its beginnings America is still a land of immigrants.