Craig White's Literature Courses

Historical Backgrounds


Waves of Immigration
to America (USA)

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Except for eccentric theories of America as the site of the Garden of Eden, no one seriously argues that human beings (species homo sapiens) appeared first in the Americas. Modern humans first evolved app. 150,000 years ago in Africa but showed migratory tendencies from the start, expanding soon into Europe, Asia, and beyond.

The numbers assigned to the waves below are arguable and can be changed on exams with explanation provided.

1st wave: 12-20,000 years ago, ancestors of American Indians

Continuing research complicates any single theory about Native American origins, but the first large-scale human migrations to North America were mostly from Northeastern Asia through the Bering Land Bridge into present-day Alaska near the end of the last Ice Age 26,000-13,000 years ago: Maps for American Indian Studies (scroll down).

Earlier migrations, mostly via water routes, are also increasingly evident.

Asia for American Indians (and many Hispanics / Latinos) is like Africa for African Americans. (Genetic homeland, complicated by significant intermarriage.)

Early Asian immigrants migrated throughout the Western Hemisphere (North & South America).

American Indians were once immigrants but so long ago that cultural memories of immigration are extremely attenuated. Therefore American Indians are often called "Native Americans" and, like African Americans and to some degree Mexican Americans, may be considered not as immigrants but as minorities.

Very minor early wave of European exploration / settlement: Norse Vikings explored and partly settled areas in the North Atlantic including Northeastern North America from app. 1000-1400AD. One semi-permanent settlement in North America was discovered in 1960 at L’Anse aux Meadows in the Canadian coastal province of Newfoundland. The Vikings referred to their North American territory as Vinland.


2nd wave (or first, if you don't count Native Americans): 1600s-early 1800s: persistent flow of immigrants from northern & western Europe (Great Britain, Germany, France, Netherlands, Scandinavia); religion mostly (but not exclusively) Protestant Christians.

Image result for map northwest europe

European Renaissance (re-introduction and expansion of modern culture) begins waves of European migration, colonization, and settlement of North and South America

1492 Columbus (1492)

 1519-21 Cortez (from Spain in souther Europe) conquers Mexico

1600s-1700s Early migration of British and other European settlers forms early American dominant culture. (See Immigration Waves and Sub-Cultures of USA's dominant / "settler" culture)

1600s: Settlers from Southern England to Virginia and other South Atlantic colonies (e.g. Carolinas, Georgia)

 1619-20 "Pilgrims" in Massachusetts; 1630s "Great Migration of Puritans from English Midlands to Massachusetts and throughout New England.

1700s: Scotch-Irish Immigrants from Northern Britain

Same time period: forced migration of African Americans into slavery, in contrast to voluntary immigration for economic opportunity, making African Americans not an immigrant group but a minority group.

+ Expansion of European-America into Native America forces American Indians into involuntary contact and exploitation, making American Indians not an immigrant group but a minority group.

Northwestern Europe experiences population growth similar to that in 3rd World today.European-American population 250,000 in 1700 > 50 million in 1890.

Religious backgrounds mostly Protestant but some Catholics and Jews.

(Near end of this wave; Catholic rather than Protestant; i.e. most earlier Northern European immigrants were Protestants.)

1840s: Irish potato famine; Irish immigrants mostly Catholic in religious background (early example of "culture war" as many Protestants feared that Catholics would be loyal to the Pope in Rome rather than the government of the USA, comparable to fears of today's Evangelical Protestant fears of Muslim Americans being faithful to radical Islam.)

"Around 6 million immigrants came to the United States between 1820 and 1869, and nearly 16 million in the years to 1913."--Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Rise & Fall of the American Empire, p. 35.

+ Expansion of USA into "New Spain" via Texas Revolution and Mexican-American War brings Mexican-Americans into involuntary contact with USA's dominant culture, making Mexican Americans already inhabiting current USA a minority group.

3rd Wave: late 1800s, early 1900s: Increasing immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, with increasing religious and ethnic diversity.

"Open Land" following Manifest Destiny and expansion of USA from Atlantic to Pacific

Economic opportunities in growing American cities

More immigrants come from southern Europe (e. g., Italy) and central or eastern Europe (e. g., Poland, Russia)

Increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants result from religious persecution.

As with resistance to Irish Catholics, many dominant-culture Protestants expressed concerns that Catholics and Jews were too different and would threaten the traditional American character or profile. On the West Coast, similar fears were expressed towards Asian immigrants.

3rd Wave ends with "National Origins" quota act of 1924, which assigns percentages of immigrants according to numbers of home-nation already living in USA, creating favoritism for immigrants from Northern and Western Europe.

Major pause in immigration: 1924-1965: immigration severely restricted by racial quotas: American ethnic concerns shift to black-white, segregation, and civil rights esp. re African Americans.

Limits on all immigration with preferences for northern and western Europe; some Jews (e.g., Einstein) come to America to flee Holocaust despite tough immigration restrictions during this period.

Exclusion of Asian immigration

Great Depression and World War 2 disrupt normal migration

Many surviving European Jews immigrate to newly created state of Israel in Palestine (1948)

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: abolished quota system of National Origins act of 1924, shifting preferences to immigrants' skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents. Numerical limits were maintained with exceptions of immediate relatives, which led to higher rates of immigration. 

Older white Americans' negative attitudes toward immigration may result from their youth and maturation in an America when immigration was the exception rather than the rule.

Your instructor's only objection to liberal immigration laws is that they allow the developing world to ignore family planning and population stability, with disastrous environmental consequences.

More sympathetically, slower rates of immigration may provide more support for assimilation and acceptance of immigrants as Americans.

4th wave: late 1900s, early 2000s: liberalized immigration laws + enormous population growth in Third World or "developing countries" (improved health and food production; opposition to birth control by traditional religion)

sources of immigration: "New World Immigrants" from Caribbean and Central & South America); immigrants from Asia, Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa.

US population in 1965: 200 million
US population in 2018: 316 million

(U.S. & World Population Clock)

When immigration rises, anxiety increases over

whether immigrants are coming too fast,

whether they will become Americanized or assimilated.

whether America will become more like the countries the immigrants come from.

from "Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear" by Molly Ball, Atlantic 2 Sept. 2016


world population:

1800: app. 1 billion

1900: app. 1.7 billion

1950: 2.5 billion

1999: app. 6 billion

2008: 6.7 billion

est. 2050: 8.9 billion

est. 2150: 9.7 billion

recent rises in rates of immigration

Internet Modern History Sourcebook: US Immigration

Landmarks of American Immigration History

political attitudes toward immigration

American values are strongly identified with immigration, hard to argue against.

Anxiety and doubts about immigration are usually balanced out by how essential the immigrant story is to American identity . . .


The vast majority of Americans are immigrants or descended from immigrants.

Past anxieties have tended to be ultimately groundless, as immigrants assimilate, work hard, learn English, and "become Americans" (who may in turn worry about immigration).

Recent positive example: Moslem-American communities have only recently produced terrorists. Most of the 9/11 terrorists had become alienated in European nations, which don't have the same level of immigrant identity.


political parties mixed or conflicted on immigration


  • support immigration (or don't oppose) b/c of support from identity groups

  • oppose immigration b/c of overpopulation, overconsumption, environmental consequences



  • corporate-business conservatives favor immigration for cheap labor, plus professional skills imported without cost of educating

  • social conservatives oppose immigration b/c of rapid social change, loss of traditional white European-American identity


More recent issue: overpopulation and environmental change.

Population in the USA recently passed 300 million--essentially doubled in last 50 years.

Immigration aspects: 

Nearly all U.S. population growth is immigration-fueled

Native-born Americans are basically reproducing at replacement levels

Immigrant families tend to have more children (on account of traditional gender roles, other traditional beliefs or practices)

Immigration not a national but global phenomenon


Useful concept for population worries:

"The Demographic Transition"

As people rise in economic status, education, and other quality-of-life measures, they have fewer children. (Religion can alter individual cases, but statistically insignificant.)

Traditional societies tend to operate at subsistence levels, which keep population stable despite high birth rates. (That is, many births, but also many deaths, including high infant mortality.)

As people from traditional cultures enter modern life (better nutrition, hygiene, medicine, etc.), they continue high birth rates for a generation or two, but more of their children survive.

As people become "modernized," they have fewer children and concentrate greater resources on them--"hot-housing," etc.