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The first wave of immigration (moving from one country to permanently settle in another) to the territory that is now the United States took place in the seventeenth century, during settlement of the American colonies. Most of the immigrants came from England, but other European countries were represented as well, including France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Wales. By 1700 roughly 250,000 people lived in the American colonies. By the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–83; the war in which the American colonies gained independence from Great Britain), the number had climbed to 700,000.
A second wave of immigration began in 1820. During the next fifty years, nearly 7,500,000 newcomers arrived in the United States. About a third were Irish who settled the cities along the eastern U.S. seaboard. An equal number were Germans who settled the nation's interior farmlands, particularly the Midwest. An economic depression in the 1870s stemmed the tide of immigrants, but only for a short time. Between 1881 and 1920, a third wave brought more than 23,000,000 immigrants to American shores. These new arrivals were mainly from eastern and southern Europe. German immigration reached a peak in 1882, and the following year record numbers of immigrants arrived from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and China. Just after the turn of the century, in 1902, U.S. immigration set new records as people from Italy, AustroHungary, and Russia made the transatlantic journey.
Immigration slowed between 1920 and 1965, then in the last three and one-half decades of the twentieth century, a fourth wave of immigration took place. In spring 1998, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report stating that 9.6 percent of American residents—or roughly one in every ten—are foreign-born. This is the highest percentage reported since the 1930s, when 11.6 percent of U.S. residents were natives of another country—a result of the third wave of immigration (1881–1920). However, the origin countries of the immigrants have shifted: At the end of the twentieth century Latin Americans accounted for about one-half of all new arrivals; one-fourth were Asian-born, and one-fifth were European.
Further Information: Cox, Vic. The Challenge of Immigration. Springfield, N.J.: Enslow, 1995; Ellis Island. [Online] Available http://www.ellisisland.org/, October 22, 2000; Liberty State Park. The History of Ellis Island. [Online] Available http://www.libertystatepark.com/history1.htm, October 22, 2000.
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