Interactive Timeline: History of Immigration in America

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Ever since the first Europeans landed here over four centuries ago, America has had a conflicted relationship with its newcomers. It's a serial drama that continues today in the halls of Congress, as legislators wrestle over a new round of immigration reform. We are, of course, a nation of immigrants, a destination for huge numbers of people from around the world. And the vast majority of us - everyone, in fact, except for American Indians - can trace our roots to foreign lands. Despite that common thread, though, America has not always treated its newest residents with the greatest degree of empathy.

[Download this free lesson plan on Mexican immigration in the 20th Century, produced by our friends at the UC Berkeley History-social Science Project.]

There have been four major waves of immigration to America, the last of which - mainly from Mexico, other Latin American countries, and Asia - continues today. Several themes play out consistently in all four chapters:

  • Each successive wave of immigrants has been, to an extent, a reflection of social and economic conditions elsewhere in the world, and within the U.S. itself.
  • Nearly every cycle of newcomers has faced animosity and backlash from already assimilated communities.
  • The history of America's immigration policy is a swinging door that often opens during periods of economic prosperity and slams shut when times get tough.

Scroll through the timeline above to follow the tangled history of America's ever-changing immigration policies. The interactive chart below shows rates of legal immigration from 1820 to the present (use the scroll bar to zoom into specific chunks of time).