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Growth Through Immigration, Immigration in 20th-Century America

War brides, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, quota system, Hispanic Americans

After the war, revelations about the full extent of Nazi racism in Europe led to reevaluations of American immigration policy and to special legislative exemptions to the quota system. More than 93,000 Jews immigrated to the United States from 1946 to 1949. War brides, displaced persons, refugees, orphans, and other people caught in postwar political changes or in the later conflicts of the Cold War were also granted permission to enter the country. At first these were Russians, Czechs, and Belorussians, but later they included Cubans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, Iranians, and others. The number of immigrants was relatively small, and Americans thought of themselves as relatively homogeneous in the 1950s and 1960s, a feeling bolstered by the all-white images dominating the nationís television screens. In 1960, 83 percent of Americans were native-born whites.

The civil rights movement, which peaked from 1955 to 1965, renewed concerns about racism and issued a clear call to fulfill constitutional guarantees of human equality. Racial prejudice, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholic sentiment, and other forms of discrimination became less acceptable, as did the image of the true American as white, northern European, and Protestant. This change in attitude helped bring an end to national quotas for immigrants. In 1965 family members of those already living in the United States were given priority in immigrating without regard to national origin, as were highly skilled individuals, but migration from Asia was placed under a separate quota system that applied only to the Far East. By 1978 this provision was lifted, and all immigrants were treated equally.

Because of changes in U.S. immigration law and in economic and political conditions worldwide, the number of immigrants to America resurged in the last quarter of the 20th century. Immigrants from the Pacific Rim, including Filipinos, Chinese, and Koreans, as well as immigrants from American dependencies in the South Pacific, arrived on the West Coast and settled throughout the United States. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Costa Ricans, Caribbean peoples, and South Americans sought asylum and opportunity in the United States, particularly in the Southeast and Southwest and in large cities. Indians, Pakistanis, Arabs, Iranians, and others sought an outlet for their skills. These new flows of immigrants added Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism to the mix of religious beliefs in America. Hispanic Americans became the fastest-growing segment of the population by the end of the 20th century. The effect of immigration was not felt uniformly throughout the United States. Immigrants tended to congregate in the more densely populated areas of the United States: California, Florida, Texas, and the Northeast.

Although most immigrants entered the country legally, some did not. According to official estimates, approximately 5 million illegal immigrants resided in the United States in 1996, most from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Canada. Concern over immigration, particularly illegal immigration, increased during the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decades of the 20th century, immigration laws were amended to restrict the flow of all immigrants, to deport illegal aliens, and to deny benefits to those already living in the country legally. This wave of antiforeign sentiment was based on fears of tax increases for schooling immigrant children, for social services, and for health care, although illegal immigrants who work (albeit without legal status) pay wage and sales taxes that help support education and social services. Some citizens were also concerned about increased competition for jobs, even though immigrants frequently fill positions that American citizens do not want.

Other Americans, however, welcomed these new additions to American culture. Some employers depended on immigrants to harvest the nationís crops, sew garments, or wash dishes in restaurants, jobs that many U.S. citizens found unattractive. Doctors and health professionals recruited from overseas were often hired to staff small-town hospitals in places where American professionals felt socially isolated. Businesses and universities welcomed foreign-born engineers and computer programmers because relatively few American students pursued these fields of study. A lottery system for entrance visas was designed to maintain the diversity of the immigrant pool by selecting a limited number of migrants by chance rather than by national origin.

According to the 2000 census, 70.9 percent of Americans were non-Hispanic whites, and the populations of blacks, Hispanics (who may be of any race), Native Americans, and Asian and Pacific Islanders were increasing. The Native American and African American populations grew, reversing 19th-century declines in their share of the total population. Migration from the Caribbean and smaller flows from various parts of Africa created the first substantial influx of free people of African descent in the nationís history.

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