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Growth of U.S. Population, Growth Through Immigration

Asian immigration, naturalized citizens, national record, Colonizers, conquerors

Colonizers and conquerors, wanderers and settlers have long been attracted to America’s abundant resources. Since 1820, when national record keeping began, more than 65 million people have come to the United States; 660,000 immigrants arrived in 1998 alone. The vast majority of Americans trace their ancestry to one or more of these immigrant groups. The various ethnic and racial origins of the residents and immigrants remain important sources of personal identity. Of the 224 million people reporting their ancestry in the 1990 census, only 13 million, or 6 percent, identified themselves as Americans only. The rest chose one or more broad racial or linguistic groupings (such as African American or Hispanic) or national heritages (German, English, Irish, and Italian were most common) to define their origins. Most Americans possess varied national, ethnic, and racial identities that reflect both the origins of their ancestors and their own affiliation to the United States.

Until the late 19th century, immigration to the United States was unrestricted, and immigrants came freely from all parts of the world. However, the areas of the world contributing the largest share of immigrants have shifted during the course of America’s history. In the 1790s the largest numbers of immigrants came from Great Britain, Ireland, western and central Africa, and the Caribbean. A hundred years later, most immigrants came from southern, eastern, and central Europe. In 1996 they were most likely to come from Mexico, the Philippines, India, Vietnam, and China—indicating a recent increase in Asian immigration. Not all immigrants stay in the United States. Although 46 million immigrants arrived in the United States from 1901 to 1999, nearly a third later returned to their homelands. In earlier years, a similar proportion of migrants returned.

The 1990 census indicated that nearly 20 million inhabitants had been born outside the United States, about 8 percent of the total population. Eight million, or 40 percent, of those born overseas became naturalized citizens. Early in the 20th century it took immigrants three generations to switch from their native language to English. At the end of the 20th century, the shift to English was taking only two generations. This is not only because of the daily exposure to English-language movies, television, and newspapers, but because entry-level jobs in service industries require more communication skills than did the factory jobs that immigrants took a century or more ago.

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