Digital History

The Huddled Masses

The United States's Changing Face Previous Next
Digital History ID 3297



Today, immigration to the United States is at its highest level since the early 20th century. Some 10 million legal and undocumented immigrants entered the country during the 1980s, exceeding the previous high of nine million between 1900 and 1910.

Shaped by an unprecedented wave of immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa, the face of the United States has changed in the space of 20 years. In 1996, nearly one in ten U.S. residents was born in another country, twice as many as in 1970. Since 1965, when the United States ended strict national immigration quotas, the number of Hispanics in the United States tripled and the number of Asians increased nearly eight-fold.

As recently as the 1950s, two-thirds of all immigrants to the United States came from Europe or Canada. Today, more than 80 percent are Latin American or Asian. The chief sources of immigrants are Mexico, the Philippines, China, Cuba, and India. Nearly half of the foreign-born population is Hispanic; a fifth is Asian; a twelfth is black.

As a result of massive immigration, the United States is becoming the first truly multi-racial advanced industrial society in which every resident will be a member of a minority group. California recently became the first state in which no single ethnic group or race makes up half of the population.

Immigration's impact has been geographically uneven, concentrated in distinct parts of the country. Immigrants have been attracted to areas of high growth and high rates of historic immigration. Immigrants are particularly attracted to areas where their countrymen already are. Three-quarters of all immigrants live in six states--California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas--and more than half of these migrants settled in just eight metropolitan areas.

Meanwhile, the native-born population is itself on the move. For every ten immigrants who arrive in the nation's largest cities, nine native-born inhabitants leave for a residence elsewhere. Because most of those leaving metropolitan areas are non-Hispanic whites, the United States population has grown more geographically divided even as it becomes more ethnically diverse.

As in the past, the South remains the region with the fewest foreign immigrants. But it is experiencing a rapid influx of native-born migrants--black and white. Reversing the great northward migration of the early and mid-20th century, a significant number of African Americans are abandoning northern industrial cities and are returning to big cities in the South.

Work has always been the great magnet attracting migrants to the United States. Historically, immigrants tackled jobs that native-born Americans avoided, such as digging canals, building railroads, or working in steel mills and garment factories. Today, many immigrants help meet needs for highly skilled professionals, while other less-educated immigrants find employment as maids, janitors, farm workers, and poorly paid, non-unionized employees.

Each wave of immigrants has also sparked a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Since the first wave of mass immigration from Germany and Ireland in the 1840s, nativists have expressed fear that immigrants depress wages, displace workers, and threaten the nation's cultural values and security.

Even though the United States conceives of itself as a refuge for the poor and tempest-tossed, it is also a society that has experienced periodic episodes of intense anti-immigrant fervor, particularly in times of economic and political uncertainty. Unlike 19th century nativists who charged that Catholic immigrants were subservient to a foreign leader, the Pope, or later xenophobes who accused immigrants of carrying subversive ideologies, today's immigration critics are more concerned about immigration's effects on the country's economic well-being.

Many fear that newcomers make use of services like welfare or unemployment benefits more frequently than natives. Others argue that the new wave of immigrants is less skilled than its predecessors and is therefore more likely to become a burden on the government. Many worry that the society is being split into separate and unequal societies divided by skin color, ethnic background, language, and culture. Fear that immigrants are attracted to the United States by welfare benefits, led Congress in 1996 to restrict non-citizens' access to social services.

Census data present a complicated picture of today's immigrants. They show that many immigrants are better educated than the native born, while others are less educated. Today, about 12 percent of immigrants over the age of 25 have graduate degrees, compared with 8 percent of the native born. Yet 36 percent have not graduated from high school, compared with 17 percent of the native born. Some immigrants have found employment as highly skilled engineers, mathematicians, and scientists; but about a third of immigrants live in poverty. On average they earn about $8,000 a year, compared with native-born average of nearly $16,000.

Yet if some Americans express anxiety about immigration, others are hopeful that increasing population diversity will teach Americans to tolerate and even cherish the extraordinary variety of their country's people.

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