Visualizing Two Centuries of Immigration
Nick Routley, May 18, 2018
America is a nation of immigrants, and though the country has seen a lot of new arrivals over the past two centuries, the rate of immigration has been far from steady.
War, famine, economic boom and bust, religious persecution, and government intervention have all caused wild swings in the rate of immigration from countries around the world.
Today’s striking animation, by Max Galka, is a great way to see changes in immigration over time. Inflows from specific countries rise and fall, and the top three countries of origin change numerous times over the years.
Below, is another way to look at the ebb and flow of American immigration since the early 1800s.
*Excludes forced migration (slavery) and illegal immigration.
Wave one: The Old Immigration
From 1820 to 1870, over 7.5 million immigrants made their way over to the United States, effectively doubling the young country’s population in only half a decade.
Ireland, which was in the throes of the Potato Famine, saw half its population set sail for the U.S. during that time. This wave of immigration can still be seen in today’s demographics. There are now more Irish-Americans than there are Irish nationals.
The magnetic pull of the New World was profoundly felt in Germany as well. Growing public unrest in the region, caused by heavy taxation and political censorship, culminated in the German revolutions of 1848-49. Faced with severe hardship at home, millions of Germans made their way to America over the 1800s. It’s estimated that one-third of the total ethnic German population in the world now lives in the United States.
Wave Two: Gold Rush
Much of America’s early immigration was from various points in Europe, but there was one prominent exception: China.
The discovery of gold in California inspired Chinese workers to seek their fortune in America. After a crop failure in Southern China in 1852, tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants flooded into San Francisco.
Although the State of California was making millions of dollars off its Foreign Miners Tax, sentiment towards Chinese workers began to sour. Gold mines were being tapped out and white Californians blamed the Chinese for driving wages down.
Wave Three: The New Immigration
The wave of immigration leading into the 20th century is referred to as The New Immigration.
In 1890, Ellis Island was designated as the main point of entry for newcomers entering the United States. In 1907 alone, Ellis Island processed a staggering 1,285,349 immigrants. To put this number in perspective, if all of those people settled in one place, they would’ve formed America’s fourth largest city almost overnight.
This massive influx of people into New York had profound implications on the city itself. In 1910, Manhattan’s population density was an astronomical 101,548 humans per square mile.
The immigrants arriving during this period – heavily represented by Italians, Hungarians, and Russians – were seeking religious freedom and economic opportunity. Certain industries, such as steel, meat-packing, and mining, were staffed by many new arrivals to the country.
During this time, one in four American workers were foreign-born.
The Great Depression
The National Origins Act’s quota system, which took effect in 1929, essentially slammed the door on most immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Shortly after, the Great Depression further put a damper on immigration that would last well into the 20th century.
Wave Four: Mexico
After decades of sluggish immigration, the United States’ percentage of foreign-born citizens reached a low of 4.7% in 1970. But that was all about to change.
During the next decade, the number of states where Mexico was the top country of origin doubled in a single decade, and Mexicans became the dominant foreign-born population in the country. This migration was fueled by the Latin American debt crisis and later by NAFTA. The influx of cheap corn into Mexico caused hundreds of thousands of Mexicans from rural areas to search for more favorable economic opportunities. America was the obvious choice, particularly during the economic expansion of the 1990s.
This wave of immigration has shifted the country’s demographics considerably. Today, nearly one in five people in the United States are Hispanic.
Immigration trends are continually evolving, and America’s newest immigrants are often more likely to come from China or India. In fact, both countries surpassed Mexico as countries of origin for immigrants arriving in the U.S. in 2013. Today, the trend is even more pronounced.