The ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity brought by immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has shaped American history and politics.

Three Waves of Immigration

Political scientists divide immigration to the United States into three major waves:

  1. Early immigration (1700s–1850): Immigrants from western and northern Europe arrived in great numbers for economic, political, and religious reasons. Germans and Irish, in particular, came to the United States in the 1830s and 1840s. European settlers imported millions of African slaves as well.
  2. Second wave (1850–1970): Immigrants came primarily from southern and eastern Europe to escape violence and political instability in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several million Jews also immigrated to the United States before and after World War II.
  3. Recent immigration (1970–present): Large numbers of people have come from Mexico, China, Korea, India, and the Philippines, as well as other parts of Latin America and Asia.

The following chart lists the top ten countries of origin for American immigrants, from 1820 to 2000:

Origin for American Immigrants


Approximate Number of Immigrants

Germany7 million
Mexico6 million
Italy5 million
Great Britain5 million
Ireland5 million
Canada5 million
Austria and Hungary4 million (total)
Russia (former Soviet Union)4 million
The Philippines2 million
China and Sweden1 million (each)

Effects of Immigration

Immigration has profoundly shaped American politics and culture. Immigrants not only provided labor for the growing economy but also gave the United States a distinctly unique social and political culture. These effects continue today.

Example: The urban political machine is one example of how immigrants helped shape the American political system. Many immigrants in the late nineteenth century were welcomed by political parties and given homes and jobs; in return, the political parties asked for the immigrants’ votes and political support. This trading of votes for services is known as machine politics, which dominated many cities for decades.

Controversies over Immigration

In 2006, immigration became a hot topic as politicians debated about how to handle the large number of illegal immigrants in the United States. But these debates are nothing new. Historically, Americans have frequently scorned new arrivals, despite the fact that their ancestors were also immigrants. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, Congress passed laws regulating how many immigrants could enter the United States from each country, excluding Asians entirely until the 1960s.

Example: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first immigration law aimed at a specific ethnic group. Congress passed the act to keep Chinese laborers out for ten years but renewed the act in 1892 and finally made it permanent in 1902. The act was not repealed until 1965. Many Americans at the time favored the act because they resented the growing number of Chinese laborers working on the railroads in the West.


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