Politicians, at least those with a certain ideological inclination, love to talk about the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” Among all other peaceful, developed nation, America is nearly unique in its long-running tradition of welcoming newcomers from all over the world. But the story of immigration in America has been going on for a lot longer than many people realize. In fact, the history of immigration in North America stretches back beyond the birth of the nation. Here’s a brief look at the history of American immigration.
The First American Immigrants weren’t who you think
For thousands of years, the vast expanse of North America was inhabited by an incredible variety of native tribes and nations. It’s impossible to generalize about who these people were or what cultural practices they followed — that would be akin to making sweeping generalizations about a single “European” or “Asian” culture. But what we do know is that America’s first people came to the continent during the last Ice Age, at least 10,000 years ago. They crossed over the now-inundated land bridge that once connected Siberia and Alaska, and they’ve been here ever since.
Economic Refugees in Search of a Better Life
The first permanent European immigrants to North America came during the 15th and 16th centuries. They came from Spain, England, France and other countries, each of which established a claim to its own patch of the continent. Although international statecraft weighed heavily on the “macro” activities of these immigrant-populated communities, the immigrants themselves mainly desired a better, freer life.
Unfortunately, a better, freer life wasn’t in the cards for all newcomers. The first waves of European immigrants were accompanied by a more sinister type of “immigration,” the trans-Atlantic slave trade that severely damaged the fabric of Africa and left a shameful legacy that has yet to be fully addressed.
The rest of Europe Gets its Due
By the middle of the 19th century, the United States was a prosperous land that held the promise of a better life for some. Over the following decades, tens of millions of German, Italian, Scandinavian and Slavic immigrants heeded that promise, settling in the country’s rapidly industrializing northern tier. This wave of immigration continued until the 1920s, when restrictive anti-immigrant laws effectively barred newcomers from putting down roots here.
The Next Chapter of the American Immigration Story
These laws remained in effect, in varying degrees, until the 1950s and 60s, when restrictions on new arrivals were slowly eased. By the 1980s, a new wave of immigration was happening: People from Mexico and Central America, doomed to poverty and stagnation in their homelands, were making their way across the southern border and into places like California, Arizona and Texas. Like previous immigrant generations, the new arrivals worked hard, put down roots and established enclaves that blended the best traditions of their ancestral and adopted lands. Their story is still being written today.
It’s clear that America truly is a nation of immigrants. And the American experience is routinely held up by other developed nations with similar legal systems, like Canada. That’s why it’s so important for our elected leaders to work past their differences and ensure that our nation continues to serve as a model for others.