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History of Immigration in the U.S.

Sep 12 2023

History of Immigration

This history of immigration, and the history of immigrants in the U.S., is important and complicated. It is a history with so many facets, so many stories. It can’t be told from one point of view. And, it’s a story about many forces including desperation, genocide, slavery and hope. 


Moreover, the story of immigration is a reflection of the history of the world, of wars, industry, famine, drought, persecution, poverty, and windfalls, of open doors and closed doors prompting important events in immigration history. People migrate from place to place not because it is fun, but because upheavals in the world are making their lives untenable and they are desperate for sanctuary. Freedom from oppression, violence and hunger are the strongest reasons people take the drastic steps to move across seas to start new lives. It is not an easy step, rather it is often bold and dangerous. And these perils have driven brave and optimistic souls across dangerous seas and unwelcoming borders to new worlds.

However, the immigration story of the U.S. is not so simple as masses of hopeful and hearty souls setting out, clear eyed, in search of a better life. The story also holds the heartbreaking truth of the enslavement of Africans who emigrated against their will, as well as the genocide of indigenous Americans. All three groups play equally significant parts in this vast and complex story. 

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were kidnapped and sent off to the Americas as slaves. 12.5 million! And nearly 2 million of those men and women died in transit in horrible conditions. These people were chosen for their ability to work, and so were young healthy and strong individuals, which sorely drained the west of Africa of its best and brightest. These enslaved people then built so much of the infrastructure, buildings, farming and industry in the New World. This forced emigration was not wrought of hope but of terror and oppression by the captors - much the mirror opposite of the drain, by optimistic emigres, happening in Europe at roughly the same time. Two groups, captive Africans leaving the comfort of their own homes and hopeful Europeans leaving the untenable poverty or oppression of home were heading to the Americas where they would then be uprooting and decimating the native populations of the Americas.

And so, the U.S. population is a mix of those who came here for the promise of a better life, often at great peril; Africans brought here against their will, and at their own peril, leaving loved ones across an ocean, and indigenous people who were driven from their land, millions slaughtered and their culture left in ruins. All of these people have their own legacies of suffering. Yet the people who emigrated from Europe to the Americas in search of a better life embody our iconic immigration story. Theirs is the classic inspiring story of the building of America and the pursuit of freedom from oppression, peril and poverty. This classic story is the celebrated side of a coin. The pain and heartache on the other side of the coin is borne by Native Americans and African enslaved people. In order to prevail, those on the immigrant side of the coin did so at the peril and pain of the Native and enslaved on the other side of the coin.

We can’t separate these stories. All the stories are part of the history of immigration in America. The immigration of Europeans displaced and annihilated native tribes. Some estimate the death toll as high as 12 million. European immigration and westward expansion’s cost to the indigenous peoples of America is no less than genocide — America’s original sin. Immigration’s triumph was at the cost of native and enslaved people. Under other circumstances, European immigration to the Americas might have spawned the emigration of native peoples to their own sanctuary.

Today’s concern that the U.S. and many countries around the world are reeling from the large number of illegal immigrants flooding across borders, invading, is a stark change from our founding model of open borders. People fleeing war, gangs, poverty, drought, famine - all seeking sanctuary. There was a similar response to Irish immigrants fleeing famine in the mid 19th century - “No Irish Need Apply” or NINA was the refrain. Each wave of immigrants is feared as an invasion and in the 20th century in the U.S. laws were enacted to stem the tide. Immigration law was codified in the 1920s in the U.S. meaning that before then, there were no illegal or undocumented immigrants. The doors were open to all. There are laws now that limit the number of immigrants and that govern procedures for immigrating. Sadly, those laws will not bring an end to the terrors causing people to leave their homes and it seems that there will be no end to the resistance to their “invasions”.

But, in the Americas, we are all part of this immigration story. The individual stories are the soul and foundation of America. But there are immigration stories everywhere. Because so many of us around the world have immigration stories, we invite you to share yours. Share your story. Help to tell the story of immigration. Your story matters. Make your story a part of history.