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In his study of immigration to the United States, historian Maldwyn Jones referred to the phenomenon of immigration as "the most persistent and pervasive influence in [the United States'] development" (Jones 1). Jones' observation was true then and continues to be accurate today. The story of immigration to this country is one of shaping and re-shaping the face of a nation. From the first encounter of native populations with the first immigrants to the country, each group of newcomers has made its mark upon a country.

A curiously mixed response to immigration has always been the norm in the United States, even in colonial days. A shortage of labor would result in efforts to recruit immigrant labor and promote the settlement of land. Yet even in the face of an urgent need for workers, barriers were commonly placed against their arrival. Newcomers themselves, early colonists frequently balked at the arrival of other (later) newcomers. As Jones points out, "Most of the colonies levied discriminatory head taxes upon ship captains landing Roman Catholics, and even the colonies which attempted to promote immigration were careful to specify that only Protestants could qualify for the bounties or other inducements offered" (Jones 43). Victims of religious persecution were often openly hostile toward those who did not share their religious views. Likewise, an ethnic group would turn against the next ethnic group to arrive.

A study of early immigration to the United States also reveals differences in assimilation patterns (Jones 42). In other words, not all immigrant groups assimilated at precisely the same rate. Moreover, location and nature of the setting, while significant, were not enough to determine how quickly—or how slowly—immigrants would be absorbed into the mainstream.

If all of this sounds familiar, it should. One of the greatest lessons to be learned in studying the phenomenon of immigration to the United States is that the faces of immigrants change, but the reasons behind massive human movement and reactions to that movement have been relatively unchanged. For that reason, we present the following timeline of significant dates in U.S. immigration history. By no means is this list presented as an absolutely accurate or completely thorough record of immigration to this country. Visitors to this Web site are encouraged to see this only as academic "food for thought," encouragement to reflect upon what world events might have led to these arrivals. To that end, links to Web sites with further information about various episodes of immigration are provided. Remember that precise dates are also often hard to pinpoint, especially because immigration is often not the result of a single event and it often takes place over a period of years or even decades. Finally, this timeline serves only as a starting point. Please add to the list with immigration episodes of which you are aware and which you feel warrant inclusion.

Cited: Jones, Maldwyn. American Immigration. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Timeline

1598 — Mexican settlers arrive in what would become New Mexico. (Wars and subsequent treaties would result in Mexican citizens becoming "foreigners" in the land that they and their ancestors had occupied for centuries.) 

1607 — Arrival of the first English settlers to found a permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia

1619 — Arrival of first Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. These newcomers came as indentured servants who were to work for a master for seven years and then would be given their freedom. Once freed, many became landowners and farmers themselves.

1620 — Landing of the Mayflower in Plymouth, Massachusetts, marking the beginning of arrivals of Puritan population in New England.

1623 — Beginning of settlement of New Netherland by Dutch immigrants. Three years later, in 1626, the Dutch would also found the colony of New Amsterdam in what is now New York City. (It is noteworthy, however, that as early as 1609, Henry Hudson, on behalf of the Dutch government, explored the river that would ultimately bear his name.)

1638 — Arrival in Delaware of the first Swedish settlers. Establishment of the colony of New Sweden.

1650 — Virginia changes its laws regarding Africans: rather than enjoying freedom after seven years, all Africans were henceforth to be servants for life, in short, slaves.

1654 — Arrival in the United States of the first Jewish immigrants. Although they arrived in New Amsterdam from South America, they had originally been expelled from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition.

1683 — Arrival in the United States of the first settlers from Germany.

1718 — Beginning of the first wave of immigrants from Scotland and Ireland.

1747 — Arrival of first Russians in the U.S., primarily fur traders. (Greater numbers of Russian immigrants would arrive in the late 1800s.)

1795 — The Naturalization Act is passed, restricting U.S. citizenship to "free white persons" with a minimum residency in the United States of five years. Three years later that residency requirement would be raised to 14 years.

1825 — Arrival in the United States of the first group of Norwegian immigrants.

1849 — The beginning of the California Gold Rush turns a "trickle" of immigration of Chinese citizens to the United States into a massive demographic movement.

1850 to 1880 — First period of massive migration of Mexican immigrants across the border. (Of course, it should be noted, as outlined above, that a significant presence of Mexican settlers in the United States pre-dated the end of the Mexican War in 1848.)

1870s and 1880s — Beginnings of Japanese immigration to the United States.

1880s — Period of beginnings of notable immigration from Italy.

1882 — The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress. It represented the first federal legislation aimed at limiting immigration to the United States of any specific ethnic group.

1891 — Establishment of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

1892 — Ellis Island opened as an immigration screening center.

1917 — Immigration Act of 1917

1921 — Introduction of the first immigration quota system, limiting the number of persons allowed entry as immigrants into the United States.

1924 — Creation of the U.S. Border Patrol and enactment of National Origins Act.

1945 — War Brides Act

1948 — Displaced Persons Act

1952 — Immigration and Naturalization Act

1953 — Refugee Relief Act

1954 — Closing of Ellis Island Immigration Center

1959 — Beginnings of significant immigration of Cubans to the United States.

1980 — The Refugee Act is enacted, largely in response to the arrival of "boat people" fleeing Vietnam

2003 — Creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Operating within that department is the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS), replacing Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).