ImmigrationThe first immigrants to the territory now the United States were from Western Europe. The first great migration began early in the 19th century when large numbers of Europeans left their homelands to escape the economic hardships resulting from the transformation of industry by the factory system and the simultaneous shift from small-scale to large-scale farming. At the same time, conflict, political oppression, and religious persecution caused a great many Europeans to seek freedom and security in the U.S.
The century following 1820 may be divided into three periods of immigration to the U.S. During the first period, from 1820 to 1860, most of the immigrants came from Great Britain, Ireland, and western Germany. In the second period, from 1860 to 1890, those countries continued to supply a majority of the immigrants; the Scandinavian nations provided a substantial minority. Afterwards the proportion of immigrants from northern and Western Europe declined rapidly. In the final period, from 1890 to 1910, fewer than one-third of the immigrants came from these areas. The majority of the immigrants were natives of Southern and Eastern Europe, with immigrants from Austria, Hungary, Italy, and Russia constituting more than half of the total. Until World War I, immigration had generally increased in volume every year. From 1905 to 1914 an average of more than a million immigrants entered the U.S. every year. With the start of the war, the volume declined sharply, and the annual average from 1915 to 1918 was little more
than 250,000. In 1921 the number again rose; 800,000 immigrants were admitted. Thereafter the number declined in response to new conditions in Europe and to the limitations established by U.S. law.
The first measure restricting immigration enacted by Congress was a law in 1862 banning American vessels from transporting Chinese immigrants to the U.S.; 20 years later Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act excluding Chinese immigrants.(Immigration) In 1875, 1882, and 1892, acts passed by Congress provided for the examination of immigrants and for the exclusion from the U.S. of convicts, polygamists, prostitutes, persons suffering from contagious diseases, and persons liable to become public charges. The Alien Contract Labor Laws of 1885, 1887, 1888, and 1891 prohibited the immigration to the U.S. of persons entering the country to work under contracts made before their arrival; professional actors, artists, singers, lecturers, educators, ministers, and personal and domestic servants were exempt from this provision.(Immigration) Immigrant skilled laborers, under these laws, were permitted to enter the U.S. to work in new industries. A diplomatic agreement made in 1907 by the U.S. and Japan provided that t
he Japanese government would not issue passports to Japanese laborers intending to enter the U.S.; under the terms of this agreement, the U.S. government refrained until 1924 from enacting laws excluding Japanese aliens.
In 1917 Congress passed an immigration law that enlarged the classes of aliens excludable from the U.S.; its basic provisions were, with some changes, retained in later revisions of the immigration law. It imposed a literacy test and included an Asiatic Barred Zone to shut out Asians. Aliens unable to meet minimum mental, moral, physical, and economic standards were excluded, as were anarchists and other so-called subversives. The Anarchist Act of 1918 expanded the provisions for the exclusion of subversive aliens.(Immigration)
After World War I, a marked increase in racism and the growth of isolationist sentiment in the U.S. led to demands for further restrictive legislation. In 1921 a congressional statute provided for a quota system for immigrants, whereby the number of aliens of any nationality admitted to the U.S. in a year could not exceed 3 percent of the number of foreign-born residents of that nationality living in the U.S. in 1910. The law applied to nations of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asian Russia, and certain islands in the Atlantic and Pacific.
In 1924, the basic immigration quotas were changed; the new law provided for annual immigration quotas for all countries from which immigranta might be admitted. Quotas were based on the desirability of various nationalities; aliens from northern and Western Europe were considered more desirable than those from southern and Eastern Europe. Immigrants who fulfilled lawful residence requirements were exempt from quotas, as were alien wives, children, and some husbands