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Immigration to the United States

Raymond L. Cohn, Illinois State University

For good reason, it is often said the United States is a nation of immigrants. Almost every person in the United States is descended from someone who arrived from another country. This article discusses immigration to the United States from colonial times to the present. The focus is on individuals who paid their own way, rather than slaves and indentured servants. Various issues concerning immigration are discussed: (1) the basic data sources available, (2) the variation in the volume over time, (3) the reasons immigration occurred, (4) nativism and U.S. immigration policy, (5) the characteristics of the immigrant stream, (6) the effects on the United States economy, and (7) the experience of immigrants in the U.S. labor market.

For readers who wish to further investigate immigration, the following works listed in the Reference section of this entry are recommended as general histories of immigration to the United States: Hansen (1940); Jones (1960); Taylor (1971); Nugent (1992); Erickson (1994); Miller (1985); and Walker (1964).

The Available Data Sources

The primary source of data on immigration to the United States is the Passenger Lists, though U.S. and state census materials, Congressional reports, and company records also contain material on immigrants. In addition, the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) web site at the University of Minnesota ( contains data samples drawn from a number of federal censuses. Since the samples are of individuals and families, the site is useful in immigration research. A number of the countries from which the immigrants left also kept records about the individuals. Many of these records were originally summarized in Ferenczi (1970). Although records from other countries are useful for some purposes, the U.S. records are generally viewed as more complete, especially for the period before 1870. It is worthy of note that comparisons of the lists between countries often lead to somewhat different results. It is also probable that, during the early years, a few of the U.S. lists were lost or never collected.

Passenger Lists

The U.S. Passenger Lists resulted from an 1819 law requiring every ship carrying passengers that arrived in the United States from a foreign port to file with the port authorities a list of all passengers on the ship. These records are the basis for the vast majority of the historical data on immigration. For example, virtually all of the tables in the chapter on immigration in Historical Statistics of the United States (1976) are based on these records. The Passenger Lists recorded a great deal of information. Each list indicates the name of the ship, the name of the captain, the port(s) of embarkation, the port of arrival, and the date of arrival. Following this information is a list of the passengers. Each person’s name is listed, along with age, gender, occupation, country of origin, country of destination, and whether or not the person died on the voyage. It is often possible to distinguish family groups since family members were usually grouped together and, to save time, the compilers frequently used ditto marks to indicate the same last name. Various data based on the lists were published in Senate or Congressional Reports at the time. Due to their usefulness in genealogical research, the lists are now widely available on microfilm and are increasingly available on CD-rom. Even a few public libraries in major cities have full or partial collections of these records.

The Volume of Immigration

Both the total volume of immigration to the United States and the immigrants’ countries of origins varied substantially over time. Table 1 provides the basic data on total immigrant volume by time period broken down by country of origin. The column “Average Yearly Total – All Countries” presents the average yearly total immigration to the United States in the time period given. Immigration rates – the average number of immigrants entering per thousand individuals in the U.S. population – are shown in the next column. The columns headed by country or area names show the percentage of immigrants coming from that place. The time periods in Table 1 have been chosen for illustrative purposes. A few things should be noted concerning the figures in Table 1. First, the estimates for much of the period since 1820 are based on the original Passenger Lists and are subject to the caveats discussed above. The estimates for the period before 1820 are the best currently available but are less precise than those after 1820. Second, though it was legal to import slaves into the United States (or the American colonies) before 1808, the estimates presented exclude slaves. Third, though illegal immigration into the United States has certainly occurred, the figures in Table 1 include only legal immigrants.

Trends over Time

From the data presented in Table 1, it is apparent that the volume of immigration and its rate relative to the U.S. population varied over time. Immigration was relatively small until the 1840s when it rose substantially. The volume passed 200,000 for the first time in 1847 and the period between 1847 and 1854 saw the highest rate of immigration in U.S. history. From the level reached between 1847 and 1854, volume decreased and increased over time through 1930. For the period from 1847 through 1930, the average yearly volume was 434,000. During these years, immigrant volume peaked between 1900 and 1914, when an average of almost 900,000 immigrants arrived in the United States each year. This period is also second in terms of the rate of immigration relative to the U.S. population. The volume and rate fell to low levels between 1931 and 1946, though by the 1970s the volume had again reached that experienced between 1847 and 1930. The rise in volume continued through the 1980s and 1990s, though the rate per one thousand American residents has remained well below that experienced before 1915. It is notable that during the 1990s, the average yearly volume of immigration surpassed the previous peak experienced between 1900 and 1914.

Table 1
Immigration Volume and Rates


Average Yearly Total – All Countries Immigration Rates (Per 1000 Population) Percent of Average Yearly Total
Great Britain


Scandinavia and Other NW Europe


Central and Eastern Europe Southern Europe



Australia and Pacific Islands


Other America
1630-1700 2,200 —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
1700-1780 4,325 —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
1780-1819 9,900 —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —- —-
1820-1831 14,538 1.3 22 45 12 8 0 2 0 0 —- 4 6
1832-1846 71,916 4.3 16 41 9 27 0 1 0 0 —- 1 5
1847-1854 334,506 14.0 13 45 6 32 0 0 1 0 —- 0 3
1855-1864 160,427 5.2 25 28 5 33 0 1 3 0 —- 0 4
1865-1873 327,464 8.4 24 16 10 34 1 1 3 0 0 0 10
1874-1880 260,754 5.6 18 15 14 24 5 3 5 0 0 0 15
1881-1893 525,102 8.9 14 12 16 26 16 8 1 0 0 0 6
1894-1899 276,547 3.9 7 12 12 11 32 22 3 0 0 0 2
1900-1914 891,806 10.2 6 4 7 4 45 26 3 0 0 1 5
1915-1919 234,536 2.3 5 2 8 1 7 21 6 0 1 8 40
1920-1930 412,474 3.6 8 5 8 9 14 16 3 0 0 11 26
1931-1946 50,507 0.4 10 2 9 15 8 12 3 1 1 6 33
1947-1960 252,210 1.5 7 2 6 8 4 10 8 1 1 15 38
1961-1970 332,168 1.7 6 1 4 6 4 13 13 1 1 14 38
1971-1980 449,331 2.1 3 0 1 2 4 8 35 2 1 14 30
1981-1990 733,806 3.1 2 0 1 1 3 2 37 2 1 23 27
1991-1998 950,634 3.6 2 1 0 1 9 1 31 4 1 25 24

Sources: Years before 1820: Grabbe (1989). 1820-1970: Historical Statistics (1976). Years since 1970: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (various years). Note: Entries with a zero indicate less than one-half of one percent. Entries with dashes indicate no information or no immigrants.

Sources of Immigration

The sources of immigration have changed a number of times over the years. In general, four relatively distinct periods can be identified in Table 1. Before 1881, the vast majority of immigrants, almost 86% of the total, arrived from northwest Europe, principally Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. During the colonial period, though the data do not allow an accurate breakdown, most immigrants arrived from Britain, with smaller numbers coming from Ireland and Germany. The years between 1881 and 1893 saw a transition in the sources of U.S. immigrants. After 1881, immigrant volume from central, eastern, and southern Europe began to increase rapidly. Between 1894 and 1914, immigrants from southern, central, and eastern Europe accounted for 69% of the total. With the onset of World War I in 1914, the sources of U.S. immigration again changed. From 1915 to the present day, a major source of immigrants to the United States has been the Western Hemisphere, accounting for 46% of the total. In the period between 1915 and 1960, virtually all of the remaining immigrants came from Europe, though no specific part of Europe was dominant. Beginning in the 1960s, immigration from Europe fell off substantially and was replaced by a much larger percentage of immigrants from Asia. Thus, over the course of U.S. history, the sources of immigration changed from northwestern Europe to southern, central and eastern Europe to the Americas in combination with Europe to the current situation where most immigrants come from the Americas or Asia.

Duration of Voyage and Method of Travel

Before the 1840s, immigrants arrived on sailing ships. General information on the length of the voyage is unavailable for the colonial and early national periods. By the 1840s, however, the average voyage length for ships from the British Isles was five to six weeks, with those from the European continent taking a week or so longer. In the 1840s, a few steamships began to cross the Atlantic. Over the course of the 1850s, steamships began to account for a larger, though still minority, percentage of immigrant travel. After the Civil War, the vast majority of immigrants arrived on steamships. As a result, the voyage time fell initially to about two weeks and it continued to decline into the twentieth century. Steamships remained the primary means of travel until after World War II. As a consequence of the boom in airplane travel over the last few decades, most immigrants now arrive via air.

Place of Arrival

Where immigrants landed in the United States varied, especially in the period before the Civil War. During the colonial and early national periods, immigrants arrived not only at New York City but also at a variety of other ports, especially Philadelphia, Boston, New Orleans, and Baltimore. Over time, and especially when most immigrants began arriving via steamship, New York City became the main arrival port. No formal immigration facilities existed at any of the ports until New York City established Castle Garden as its landing depot in 1855. This facility, located at the tip of Manhattan, was replaced in 1892 with Ellis Island, which in turn operated until 1954.

Death Rates during the Voyage

A final aspect to consider is the mortality experienced by the individuals on board the ships. Information taken from the Passenger Lists for the period of the sailing ship between 1820 and 1860 finds a loss rate of slightly over onepercent of the immigrants who boarded (Cohn, 1984). Given the length of the trip and taking into account the ages of the immigrants, this rate represents mortality approximately four times higher than that experienced by non-migrants. Mortality was especially high among children and the elderly. There appears to have been little trend over time in mortality or differences in the loss rate by country of origin, though some evidence suggests the loss rate may have differed by port of embarkation. In addition, the best evidence from the colonial period finds a loss rate only slightly higher than that of the antebellum years. In the period after the Civil War, with the change to steamships and the resulting shorter travel time and improved on-board conditions, mortality on the voyages fell, though exactly how much has not been determined.

The Causes of Immigration

Economic historians generally believe no single factor led to immigration. In fact, different studies have tried to explain immigration by emphasizing different factors, with the first important study being done by Thomas (1954). The most recent attempt to comprehensively explain immigration has been by Hatton and Williamson (1998), who focus on the period between 1860 and 1914. Massey (1999) expresses relatively similar views. Hatton and Williamson view immigration from a country during this time as being caused by up to five different factors: (a) the difference in real wages between the country and the United States; (b) the rate of population growth in the country 20 or 30 years before; (c) the degree of industrialization and urbanization in the home country; (d) the volume of previous immigrants from that country or region; and (e) economic and political conditions in the United States. To this list can be added factors not relevant during the 1860 to 1914 period, such as the potato famine, the movement from sail to steam, and the presence or absence of immigration restrictions. Thus, a total of at least eight factors affected immigration.

Causes of Fluctuations in Immigration Levels over Time

As discussed above, the total volume of immigration trended upward until World War I. The initial increase in immigration during the 1840s was caused by the potato famine, which affected not only Ireland but also much of northwest Europe. As previously noted, the steamship replaced the sailing ship after the Civil War. By substantially reducing the length of the trip and increasing comfort and safety, the steamship encouraged an increase in the volume of immigration. Part of the reason volume increased was that temporary immigration became more likely. In this situation, an individual came to the United States not planning to stay permanently but instead planning to work for a period of time before returning home. All in all, the period from 1865 through 1914, when immigration was not restricted and steamships were dominant, saw an average yearly immigrant volume of almost 529,000. In contrast, average yearly immigration between 1820 and 1860 via sailing ship was only 123,000, and even between 1847 and 1860 was only 266,000.

Another feature of the data in Table 1 is that the yearly volume of immigration fluctuated quite a bit in the period before 1914. The fluctuations are mainly due to changes in economic and political conditions in the United States. Essentially, periods of low volume corresponded with U.S. economic depressions or times of widespread opposition to immigrants. In particular, volume declined during the nativist outbreak in the 1850s and the major depressions of the 1870s and 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. As discussed in the next section, the United States imposed widespread restrictions on immigration beginning in the 1920s. Since then, the volume has been subject to more direct determination by the United States government. Thus, fluctuations in the total volume of immigration over time are due to four of the eight factors discussed in the first paragraph of this section: the potato famine, the movement from sail to steam, economic and political conditions in the United States, and the presence or absence of immigration restrictions.

Factors Influencing Immigration Rates from Particular Countries

The other four factors are primarily used to explain changes in the source countries of immigration. A larger difference in real wages between the country and the United States increased immigration from the country because it meant immigrants had more to gain from the move. Because most immigrants were between 15 and 35 years old, a higher population growth 20 or 30 years earlier meant there were more individuals in the potential immigrant group. In addition, a larger volume of young workers in a country reduced job prospects at home and further encouraged immigration. A greater degree of industrialization and urbanization in the home country typically increased immigration because traditional ties with the land were broken during this period, making laborers in the country more mobile. Finally, the presence of a larger volume of previous immigrants from that country or region encouraged more immigration because potential immigrants now had friends or relatives to stay with who could smooth their transition to living and working in the United States.

Based on these four factors, Hatton and Williamson explain the rise and fall in the volume of immigration from a country to the United States. Immigrant volume initially increased as a consequence of more rapid population growth and industrialization in a country and the existence of a large gap in real wages between the country and the United States. Within a number of years, volume increased further due to the previous immigration that had occurred. Volume remained high until various changes in Europe caused immigration to decline. Population growth slowed. Most of the countries had undergone industrialization. Partly due to the previous immigration, real wages rose at home and became closer to those in the United States. Thus, each source country went through stages where immigration increased, reached a peak, and then declined.

Differences in the timing of these effects then led to changes in the source countries of the immigrants. The countries of northwest Europe were the first to experience rapid population growth and to begin industrializing. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, immigration from these countries was in the stage of decline. At about the same time, countries in central, eastern, and southern Europe were experiencing the beginnings of industrialization and more rapid population growth. This model holds directly only through the 1920s, because U.S. government policy changed. At that point, quotas were established on the number of individuals allowed to immigrate from each country. Even so, many countries, especially those in northwest Europe, had passed the point where a large number of individuals wanted to leave and thus did not fill their quotas. The quotas were binding for many other countries in Europe in which pressures to immigrate were still strong. Even today, the countries providing the majority of immigrants to the United States, those south of the United States and in Asia, are places where population growth is high, industrialization is breaking traditional ties with the land, and real wage differentials with the United States are large.

Immigration Policy and Nativism

This section summarizes the changes in U.S. immigration policy. Only the most important policy changes are discussed and a number of relatively minor changes have been ignored. Interested readers are referred to Le May (1987) and Briggs (1984) for more complete accounts of U.S. immigration policy.

Few Restrictions before 1882

Immigration into the United States was subject to virtually no legal restrictions before 1882. Essentially, anyone who wanted to enter the United States could and, as discussed earlier, no specified arrival areas existed until 1855. Individuals simply got off the ship and went about their business. Little opposition among U.S. citizens to immigration is apparent until about the 1830s. The growing concern at this time was due to the increasing volume of immigration in both absolute terms and relative to the U.S. population, and the facts that more of the arrivals were Catholic and unskilled. The nativist feeling burst into the open during the 1850s when the Know-Nothing political party achieved a great deal of political success in the 1854 off-year elections. This party did not favor restrictions on the number of immigrants, though they did seek to restrict their ability to quickly become voting citizens. For a short period of time, the Know-Nothings had an important presence in Congress and many state legislatures. With the downturn in immigration in 1855 and the nation’s attention turning more to the slavery issue, their influence receded.

Chinese Exclusion Act

The first restrictive immigration laws were directed against Asian countries. The first law was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This law essentially prohibited the immigration of Chinese citizens and it stayed in effect until it was removed during World War II. In 1907, Japanese immigration was substantially reduced through a Gentlemen’s Agreement between Japan and the United States. It is noteworthy that the Chinese Exclusion Act also prohibited the immigration of “convicts, lunatics, idiots” and those individuals who might need to be supported by government assistance. The latter provision was used to some extent during periods of high unemployment, though as noted above, immigration fell anyway because of the lack of jobs.

Literacy Test Adopted in 1917

The desire to restrict immigration to the United States grew over the latter part of the nineteenth century. This growth was due partly to the high volume and rate of immigration and partly to the changing national origins of the immigrants; more began arriving from southern, central, and eastern Europe. In 1907, Congress set up the Immigration Commission, chaired by Senator William Dillingham, to investigate immigration. This body issued a famous report, now viewed as flawed, concluding that immigrants from the newer parts of Europe did not assimilate easily and, in general, blaming them for various economic ills. Attempts at restricting immigration were initially made by proposing a law requiring a literacy test for admission to the United States, and such a law was finally passed in 1917. This same law also virtually banned immigration from any country in Asia. Restrictionists were no doubt displeased when the volume of immigration from Europe resumed its former level after World War I in spite of the literacy test. The movement then turned to explicitly limiting the number of arrivals.

1920s: Quota Act and National Origins Act

The Quota Act of 1921 laid the framework for a fundamental change in U.S. immigration policy. It limited the number of immigrants from Europe to a total of about 350,000 per year. National quotas were established in direct proportion to each country’s presence in the U.S. population in 1910. In addition, the act assigned Asian countries quotas near zero. Three years later in 1924, the National Origins Act instituted a requirement that visas be obtained from an American consulate abroad before immigrating, reduced the total European quota to about 165,000, and changed how the quotas were determined. Now, the quotas were established in direct proportion to each country’s presence in the U.S. population in 1890, though this aspect of the act was not fully implemented until 1929. Because relatively few individuals immigrated from southern, central, and eastern Europe before 1890, the effect of the 1924 law was to drastically reduce the number of individuals allowed to immigrate to the United States from these countries. Yet total immigration to the United States remained fairly high until the Great Depression because neither the 1921 nor the 1924 law restricted immigration from the Western Hemisphere. Thus, it was the combination of the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent 1920s restrictions that caused the Western Hemisphere to become a more important source of immigrants to the United States after 1915, though it should be recalled the rate of immigration fell to low levels after 1930.

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

The last major change in U.S. immigration policy occurred with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This law abolished the quotas based on national origins. Instead, a series of preferences were established to determine who would gain entry. The most important preference was given to relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens. Preferences were also given to professionals, scientists, artists, and workers in short supply. The 1965 law kept an overall quota on total immigration for Eastern Hemisphere countries, originally set at 170,000, and no more than 20,000 individuals were allowed to immigrate to the United States from any single country. This law was designed to treat all countries equally. Asian countries were treated the same as any other country, so the virtual prohibition on immigration from Asia disappeared. In addition, for the first time the law also limited the number of immigrants from Western Hemisphere countries, with the original overall quota set at 120,000. It is important to note that neither quota was binding because immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, such as spouses, parents, and minor children, were exempt from the quota. In addition, the United States has admitted large numbers of refugees at different times from Vietnam, Cuba, and other countries. Finally, many individuals enter the United States on student visas, enroll in colleges and universities, and eventually get companies to sponsor them for a work visa. Thus, the total number of legal immigrants to the United States since 1965 has always been larger than the combined quotas. This law has led to an increase in the volume of immigration and, by treating all countries the same, has led to Asia recently becoming a more important source of U.S. immigrants.

Though features of the 1965 law have been modified since it was enacted, this law still serves as the basis for U.S. immigration policy today. The most important modifications occurred in 1986 when employer sanctions were adopted for those hiring illegal workers. On the other hand, the same law also gave temporary resident status to individuals who had lived illegally in the United States since before 1982. The latter feature led to very high volumes of legal immigration being recorded in 1989, 1990, and 1991.

The Characteristics of the Immigrants

In this section, various characteristics of the immigrant stream arriving at different points in time are discussed. The following characteristics of immigration are analyzed: gender breakdown, age structure, family vs. individual migration, and occupations listed. Virtually all the information is based on the Passenger Lists, a source discussed above.

Gender and Age

Data are presented in Table 2 on the gender breakdown and age structure of immigration. The gender breakdown and age structure remain fairly consistent in the period before 1930. Generally, about 60% of the immigrants were male. As to age structure, about 20% of immigrants were children, 70% were adults up to age 44, and 10% were older than 44. In most of the period and for most countries, immigrants were typically young single males, young couples, or, especially in the era before the steamship, families. For particular countries, such as Ireland, a large number of the immigrants were single women (Cohn, 1995). The primary exception to this generalization was the 1899-1914 period, when 68% of the immigrants were male and adults under 45 accounted for 82% of the total. This period saw the immigration of a large number of single males who planned to work for a period of months or years and return to their homeland, a development made possible by the steamship shortening the voyage and reducing its cost (Nugent, 1992). The characteristics of the immigrant stream since 1930 have been somewhat different. Males have comprised about one-half of all immigrants. In addition, the percentage of immigrants over age 45 has increased at the expense of those between the ages of 14 and 44.

Table 2
Immigration by Gender and Age

Percent Males Percent under 14 years Percent 14–44 years Percent 45 years and over
1820-1831 70 19 70 11
1832-1846 62 24 67 10
1847-1854 59 23 67 10
1855-1864 58 19 71 10
1865-1873 62 21 66 13
1873-1880 63 19 69 12
1881-1893 61 20 71 10
1894-1898 57 15 77 8
1899-1914 68 12 82 5
1915-1917 59 16 74 10
1918-1930 56 18 73 9
1931-1946 40 15 67 17
1947-1960 45 21 64 15
1961-1970 45 25 61 14
1971-1980 46 24 61 15
1981-1990 52 18 66 16
1991-1998 52 17 65 18

Notes: From 1918-1970, the age breakdown is “Under 16″ and “16-44.” From 1971 to 1998, the age breakdown is “Under 15″ and “15-44.”

Sources: 1820-1970: Historical Statistics (1976). Years since 1970: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (various years).


Table 3 presents data on the percentage of immigrants who did not report an occupation and the percentage breakdown of those reporting an occupation. The percentage not reporting an occupation declined through 1914. The small percentages between 1894 and 1914 are a reflection of the large number of single males who arrived during this period. As is apparent, the classification scheme for occupations has changed over time. Though there is no perfect way to correlate the occupation categories used in the different time periods, skilled workers comprised about one-fourth of the immigrant stream through 1970. The immigration of farmers was important before the Civil War but declined steadily over time. The percentage of laborers has varied over time, though during some time periods they comprised one-half or more of the immigrants. The highest percentages of laborers occurred during good years for the U.S. economy (1847-54, 1865-73, 1881-93, 1899-1914), because laborers possessed the fewest skills and would have an easier time finding a job when the U.S. economy was strong. Commercial workers, mainly merchants, were an important group of immigrants very early when immigrant volume was low, but their percentage fell substantially over time. Professional workers were always a small part of U.S. immigration until the 1930s. Since 1930, these workers have become a larger percentage of all immigrants.

Table 3
Immigration by Occupation

Percent with no occup. listed Percent of immigrants with an occupation in each category
Professional Commer- cial Skilled Farmers Servants Laborers Miscel- laneous
1820-1831 61 3 28 30 23 2 14
1832-1846 56 1 12 27 33 2 24
1847-1854 54 0 6 18 33 2 41
1855-1864 53 1 12 23 23 4 37 0
1865-1873 54 1 6 24 18 7 44 1
1873-1880 47 2 4 24 18 8 40 5
1881-1893 49 1 3 20 14 9 51 3
1894-1898 38 1 4 25 12 18 37 3
Professional, technical, and kindred workers Farmers and farm managers Managers, officials, and proprietors, exc. farm Clerical, sales, and kindred workers Craftsmen, foremen, operatives, and kindred workers Private HH workers Service workers, exc. private household Farm laborers and foremen Laborers, exc. farm and mine
1899-1914 26 1 2 3 2 18 15 2 26 33
1915-1919 37 5 4 5 5 21 15 7 11 26
1920-1930 39 4 5 4 7 24 17 6 8 25
1931-1946 59 19 4 15 13 21 13 6 2 7
1947-1960 53 16 5 5 17 31 8 6 3 10
1961-1970 56 23 2 5 17 25 9 7 4 9
1971-1980 59 25 — a 8 12 36 — b 15 5 — c
1981-1990 56 14 — a 8 12 37 — b 22 7 — c
1991-1998 58 16 — a 7 9 23 — b 14 32 — c

a – included with “Farm laborers and foremen”
b – included with “Service workers, etc.”
c – included with “Craftsmen, etc.”

Sources: 1820-1970: Historical Statistics (1976). Years since 1970: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (various years). Since 1970, the INS has provided the following occupational categories: Professional, specialty, and technical (listed above under “Professional”); Executive, administrative, and managerial (listed above under “Managers, etc.”); Sales; Administrative support (these two are combined and listed above under “Clerical, etc.”); Precision production, craft, and repair; Operator, fabricator, and laborer (these two are combined and listed above under “Craftsmen, etc.”); Farming, forestry, and fishing (listed above under “Farm laborers and foremen”); and Service (listed above under “Service workers, etc.). Note: Entries with a zero indicate less than one-half of one percent. Entries with dashes indicate no information or no immigrants.

Skill Levels

The skill level of the immigrant stream is important because it potentially affects the U.S. labor force, an issue considered in the next section. Before turning to this issue, a number of comments can be made concerning the occupational skill level of the U.S. immigration stream. First, skill levels fell substantially in the period before the Civil War. Between 1820 and 1831, only 39% of the immigrants were farmers, servants, or laborers, the least skilled groups. Though the data are not as complete, immigration during the colonial period was almost certainly at least this skilled. By the 1847-54 period, however, the less-skilled percentage had increased to 76%. Second, the less-skilled percentage did not change dramatically late in the nineteenth century when the source of immigration changed from northwest Europe to other parts of Europe. Comparing 1873-80 with 1899-1914, both periods of high immigration, farmers, servants, and laborers accounted for 66% of the immigrants in the former period and 78% in the latter period. The second figure is, however, similar to that during the 1847-54 period. Third, the restrictions on immigration imposed during the 1920s had a sizable effect on the skill level of the immigrant stream. Between 1930 and 1970, only 31-34% of the immigrants were in the least-skilled group.

Fourth, a deterioration in immigrant skills is apparent in the 1980s and 1990s. In Table 3, the percentage in the “Professional” category falls while the percentages in the “Service” and “Farm workers” categories rise. These changes are due to the amnesty for illegal immigrants resulting from the 1986 law. The amnesty led to the recorded volume of immigration in 1989, 1990, and 1991 being much higher than typical, and most of the “extra” immigrants recorded their occupation as “Service” or “Farm laborer.” If these years are ignored, then little change occurred in the occupational distribution of the immigrant stream during the 1980s and 1990s. Two caveats, however, should be noted. First, the illegal immigrants can not, of course, be ignored. Second, the skill level of the U.S. labor force was improving over the same period. Thus, relative to the U.S. labor force and including illegal immigration, it is apparent the occupational skill level of the U.S. immigrant stream declined during the 1980s and 1990s.

The Effects of Immigration on the United States Economy

Though immigration has effects on the country from which the immigrants leave, this section only examines the effects on the United States. The following issues are discussed: the effects of immigration on the overall wage rate of U.S. workers; the effects on the wages of particular groups of workers, such as those who are unskilled; and the effects on the rate of economic growth, that is, the standard of living, in the United States. Determining the effects of immigration on the United States is complex and virtually none of the conclusions presented here are without controversy. Yet most economic historians believe the effects of immigration have been much less harmful than commonly supposed and, in many ways, have been beneficial.

Immigration’s Impact on Overall Wage Rates

Immigration is popularly thought to lower the overall wage rate in the United States by increasing the supply of individuals looking for jobs. This effect may occur in an area over a fairly short period of time. Over longer time periods, however, wages will only fall if the amounts of other resources don’t change. Wages will not fall if the immigrants bring sufficient amounts of other resources with them, such as capital, or cause the amount of other resources in the economy to increase sufficiently. For example, historically the large-scale immigration from Europe contributed to rapid westward expansion of the United States during most of the nineteenth century. The westward expansion, however, increased the amounts of land and natural resources that were available, factors that almost certainly kept immigration from lowering wage rates. Immigrants also increase the amounts of other resources in the economy through running their own businesses, which both historically and in recent times has occurred at a greater rate among immigrants than native workers. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the westward frontier had been settled. A number of researchers have estimated that immigration did lower wages at this time (Hatton and Williamson, 1998; Goldin, 1994), though others have criticized these findings (Carter and Sutch, 1999). For the recent time period, most studies have found little effect of immigration on the level of wages, though a few have found an effect (Borjas, 1999).

Even if immigration leads to a fall in the wage rate, it does not follow that individual workers are worse off. Workers typically receive income from sources other than their own labor. If wages fall, then many other resource prices in the economy rise. For example, immigration increases the demand for housing and land and existing owners benefit from an increase in the current value of their property. Whether any individual worker is better off or worse off in this case is not easy to determine. It depends on the amounts of other resources each individual possesses.

Immigration’s Impact on Wages of Unskilled Workers

Consider the second issue, the effects of immigration on the wages of unskilled workers. If the immigrants arriving in the country are primarily unskilled, then the larger number of unskilled workers could cause their wage to fall if the overall demand for these workers doesn’t change. A requirement for this effect to occur is that the immigrants be less skilled than the U.S. labor force they enter. As discussed above, during colonial times immigrant volume was small and the immigrants were probably more skilled than the existing U.S. labor force. During the 1830s and 1840s, the volume and rate of immigration increased substantially and the skill level of the immigrant stream fell to approximately match that of the native labor force. Instead of lowering the wages of unskilled workers relative to those of skilled workers, however, the large inflow apparently led to little change in the wages of unskilled workers, while some skilled workers lost and others gained. The explanation for these results is that the larger number of unskilled workers resulting from immigration was a factor in employers adopting new methods of production that used more unskilled labor. As a result of this technological change, the demand for unskilled workers increased so their wage did not decline. As employers adopted these new machines, however, skilled artisans who had previously done many of these jobs, such as iron casting, suffered losses. Other skilled workers, such as many white-collar workers who were not in direct competition with the immigrants, gained. Some evidence exists to support a differential effect on skilled workers during the antebellum period (Williamson and Lindert, 1980; Margo, 2000). After the Civil War, however, the skill level of the immigrant stream was close to that of the native labor force, so immigration probably did not further affect the wage structure through the 1920s (Carter and Sutch, 1999).

Impact since World War II

The lower volume of immigration in the period from 1930 through 1960 meant immigration had little effect on the relative wages of different workers during these years. With the resumption of higher volumes of immigration after 1965, however, and with the immigrants’ skill levels being low, an effect on relative wages again became possible. In fact, the relative wages of high-school dropouts in the United States deteriorated during the same period, especially after the mid-1970s. Researchers who have studied the question have concluded that immigration accounted for about one-fourth of the wage deterioration experienced by high-school dropouts during the 1980s, though some researchers find a lower effect and others a higher one (Friedberg and Hunt, 1995; Borjas, 1999). Wages are determined by a number of factors other than immigration. In this case, it is thought the changing nature of the economy, such as the widespread use of computers increasing the benefits to education, bears more of the blame for the decline in the relative wages of high-school dropouts.

Economic Benefits from Immigration

Beyond any effect on wages, there are a number of ways in which immigration might improve the overall standard of living in an economy. First, immigrants may engage in inventive or scientific activity, with the result being a gain to everyone. Evidence exists for both the historical and more recent periods that the United States has attracted individuals with an inventive/scientific nature. The United States has always been a leader in these areas. Individuals are more likely to be successful in such an environment than in one where these activities are not as highly valued. Second, immigrants expand the size of markets for various goods, which may lead to lower firms’ average costs due to an increase in firm size. The result would be a decrease in the price of the goods in question. Third, most individuals immigrate between the ages of 15 and 35, so the expenses of their basic schooling are paid abroad. In the past, most immigrants, being of working age, immediately got a job. Thus, immigration increased the percentage of the population in the United States that worked, a factor that raises the average standard of living in a country. Even in more recent times, most immigrants work, though the increased proportion of older individuals in the immigrant stream means the positive effects from this factor may be lower than in the past. Fourth, while immigrants may place a strain on government services in an area, such as the school system, they also pay taxes. Even illegal immigrants directly pay sales taxes on their purchases of goods and indirectly pay property taxes through their rent. Finally, the fact that immigrants are less likely to immigrate to the United States during periods of high unemployment is also beneficial. By reducing the number of people looking for jobs during these periods, this factor increases the likelihood U.S. citizens will be able to find a job.

The Experience of Immigrants in the U.S. Labor Market

This section examines the labor market experiences of immigrants in the United States. The issue of discrimination against immigrants in jobs is investigated along with the issue of the success immigrants experienced over time. Again, the issues are investigated for the historical period of immigration as well as more recent times. Interested readers are directed to Borjas (1999), Ferrie (2000), Carter and Sutch (1999), Hatton and Williamson (1998), and Friedberg and Hunt (1995) for more technical discussions.

Did Immigrants Face Labor Market Discrimination?

Discrimination can take various forms. The first form is wage discrimination, in which a worker of one group is paid a wage lower than an equally productive worker of another group. Empirical tests of this hypothesis generally find this type of discrimination has not existed. At any point in time, immigrants have been paid the same wage for a specific job as a native worker. If immigrants generally received lower wages than native workers, the differences reflected the lower skills of the immigrants. Historically, as discussed above, the skill level of the immigrant stream was similar to that of the native labor force, so wages did not differ much between the two groups. During more recent years, the immigrant stream has been less skilled than the native labor force, leading to the receipt of lower wages by immigrants. A second form of discrimination is in the jobs an immigrant is able to obtain. For example, in 1910, immigrants accounted for over half of the workers in various jobs; examples are miners, apparel workers, workers in steel manufacturing, meat packers, bakers, and tailors. If a reason for the employment concentration was that immigrants were kept out of alternative higher paying jobs, then the immigrants would suffer. This type of discrimination may have occurred against Catholics during the 1840s and 1850s and against the immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe after 1890. In both cases, it is possible the immigrants suffered because they could not obtain higher paying jobs. Yet the open nature of the U.S. schooling system and economy has been such that this effect usually did not impact the fortunes of the immigrants’ children or did so at a much smaller rate.

Wage Growth, Job Mobility, and Wealth Accumulation

Another aspect of how immigrants fared in the U.S. labor market is their experiences over time with respect to wage growth, job mobility, and wealth accumulation. A study done by Ferrie (1999) for immigrants arriving between 1840 and 1850, the period when the inflow of immigrants relative to the U.S. population was the highest, found immigrants from Britain and Germany generally improved their job status over time. By 1860, over 75% of the individuals reporting a low-skilled job on the Passenger Lists had moved up into a higher-skilled job, while fewer than 25% of those reporting a high-skilled job on the Passenger Lists had moved down into a lower-skilled job. Thus, the job mobility for these individuals was quite high. For immigrants from Ireland, the experience was quite different; the percentage of immigrants moving up was only 40% and the percentage moving down was over 50%. It isn’t clear if the Irish did worse because they had less education and fewer skills or whether the differences were due to some type of discrimination against them in the labor market. As to wealth, all the immigrant groups succeeded in accumulating larger amounts of wealth the longer they were in the United States, though their wealth levels fell short of those enjoyed by natives. Essentially, the evidence indicates antebellum immigrants were quite successful over time in matching their skills to the available jobs in the U.S. economy.

The extent to which immigrants had success over time in the labor market in the period since the Civil War is not clear. Most researchers have thought that immigrants who arrived before 1915 had a difficult time. For example, Hanes (1996) concludes that immigrants, even those from northwest Europe, had slower earnings growth over time than natives, a finding he argues was due to poor assimilation. Hatton and Williamson (1998), on the other hand, criticize these findings on technical grounds and conclude that immigrants assimilated relatively easily into the U.S. labor market. For the period after World War II, Chiswick (1978) argues that immigrants’ wages have increased relative to those of natives the longer the immigrants have been in the United States. Borjas (1999) has criticized Chiswick’s finding by suggesting it is caused by a decline in the skills possessed by the arriving immigrants between the 1950s and the 1990s. Borjas finds that 25- to 34-year-old male immigrants who arrived in the late 1950s had wages 9% lower than comparable native males, but by 1970 had wages 6% higher. In contrast, those arriving in the late 1970s had wages 22% lower at entry. By the late 1990s, their wages were still 12% lower than comparable natives. Overall, the degree of success experienced by immigrants in the U.S. labor market remains an area of controversy.


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