Lesson 1, Topic 1
In Progress

Getting Up To Speed With Today’s Immigration

Joe May 13, 2020

The Melting Pot

Immigration to the U.S. has changed greatly over the past century, going from immigrants mostly coming from Northern and Western Europe to people arriving from all around the world giving a rise to the metaphor of the melting pot or melting-together. Actually, the melting-together metaphor was in use by the 1780s. The exact term “melting pot” came into general usage in the United States after it was used as a metaphor describing a fusion of nationalities, cultures and ethnicities in the 1908 play of the same name.

Expanding the Melting Pot

By the year 1900, the United States was already one of the most popular destinations for people looking to leave their own homelands to start a better life. In fact, much of America’s draw was that it was so welcoming to immigrants, from the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor to the numerous neighborhoods that reminded new arrivals of the old country. In the past century, a great deal has been done to redefine exactly how the United States is a melting pot of nationalities, with people coming from a myriad of backgrounds with hopes of a new life.

Biases Towards Europe

At the turn of the 20th century, the United States was certainly a melting pot, but only for immigrants from a narrowly defined group of countries. The overwhelming majority of immigrants to the United States were coming from Europe, especially Southern Europe and Eastern Europe, including Russia. This itself was a major shift, as in the past immigrants had come mainly from Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia.

However, these new arrivals were often subject to hostile treatment from some native-born Americans. Much of this was economic in nature, but a sizable amount of it was due to religious tensions. Most Americans at the time were Protestants, while these new arrivals were Catholic, Orthodox, and Jewish.

Meanwhile, immigration from Africa was all but impossible at this time, largely due to European colonial endeavors. However, most shocking was the fact that Asians faced a very difficult time arriving in the United States. Treated poorly by officials, Asian immigrants in the early 1900s were subject to very low quotas, or limits on the number of admitted people, and always viewed with heavy suspicion.


Chinese and Japanese immigrants were especially hard-hit by these limitations, but more limitations would soon come to other groups. As the United States emerged victorious following World War II, a new enemy emerged on the horizon. Terrified of the threat of communism, the United States passed laws limiting the ability of those sharing beliefs with the Communist Party to arrive in the United States. This heavily limited immigration from Eastern Europe, as much of it had fallen under the sway of the Soviet Union.

That said, one of the most well-known streams of immigrants to the United States came from a communist country. Following the rise to power of Fidel Castro in the 1950s, the United States passed the Cuban Adjustment Act in 1966. This law meant that any Cuban who arrived in the United States and lived for one year in the country could claim permanent residency. While it provided tens of thousands of Cubans the opportunity for a better life, it also proved to be a form of moral victory over communism.

Legal Immigrants

The Cuban Adjustment Act would have been an anomaly in American immigration policy for allowing non-Europeans such easy access to the country if not for a piece of legislation passed in 1965. Known as the Hart-Celler Act, this Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 completely changed the way that the United States approached immigration. The new law turned the quota system on its head, doing away with firm numbers and instead focusing on reuniting families separated by past migrations, as well as attempting to attract highly-skilled migrants. Despite being portrayed to Congress and the American people as having very little effect on the total demographic numbers of the United States, it proved to open doors for people from Asia, Africa, and Latin America to move to the United States in substantial numbers.

Undocumented Migrants

However, those migrants all had proper documentation and had waited months, if not years, to arrive in the United States. Still, the draw of the world’s largest economy was too much for many people to ignore, meaning that more and more people were crossing maritime and land borders to work in the United States illegally. Major sources for such undocumented workers include Latin America as well as East Asia, where economic and political conditions are often quite poor. In recent years, the fate of these undocumented immigrants has become increasingly politicized, with suggestions ranging from mass deportations to mass citizenship ceremonies.

In Summary

In this lesson, we look at how immigration to the United States has changed since the turn of the 20th century. We look at how migration prior to 1900 had been largely from Northern and Western Europe, and how for the first few decades of the 20th century that immigration had shifted to coming from Southern and Eastern Europe. However, following limitations on communist migrants, as well as the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, the pattern shifted to include many more Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans. That said, many migrants arrive without proper documentation, providing a source of political debate for their fate.

Immigration to the United States has shifted quite a bit. What once was heavily drawn from Northern and Western Europe, at the start of the 20th century there was a shift to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. After the Cuban Adjustment Act and the Hart-Cellar Act were passed mid-century, more Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans were encouraged to move to the United States. There is still debate about undocumented migrants who illegally come to the United States for work.

Undocumented immigrant charged with the murder of Mollie Tibbetts