Immigration to the USA: 1500-1820

Immigration to the USA: 1500-1820

The early European arrivals in America were known as colonists or settlers. However, it was argued at the time that there was a difference between the colonists who "established a new new society, and those foreigners who arrive only when the country's laws, customs and language are fixed."

In the 18th century an estimated 450,000 settlers arrived in America. This included large numbers of people from Germany, Sweden, England, Ireland, France, Scotland and Holland. The main reason people decided to leave Europe and settle in America during this period was the possibility of acquiring cheap or free land. Others were more concerned with escaping from political and religious persecution.

During this early period European countries saw population as a form of wealth and that emigration was perceived as a drain on national strength. Emigration was therefore discouraged and in some cases government's took action to stop citizens leaving the country.

In the early 19th century governments began to change is view on emigration. Those in power became concerned at the rapid growth in population and saw emigration as a method of solving economic and political problems. America was now seen as a possible dumping ground for convicts, paupers and political radicals.


New York, NY, 1820-1957

NARA Microfilm Publications 1820-1897:

Online Index and Passenger Lists, 1892-1924

Where to Find these Records

You can search passenger lists and/or indexes for vessels arriving at the Port of New York on microfilm at the research facilities listed below.

Los Angeles Public Library, History and Genealogy Department, 630 West Fifth St., Los Angeles, CA 90071. Holdings: index for 1820-1846 passenger lists for 1820-1846.

National Archives at Riverside, 23123 Cajalco Road, Perris, CA 92570. Phone: (951) 956-2000
Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902.

National Archives at Denver, Bldg. 48, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225-0307. Telephone: 303-407-5740. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902 passenger lists for 1820-1897.

Connecticut State Library, 231 Capitol Ave., Hartford, CT 06106. Telephone: 860-566-2133. Holdings: passenger lists for 1820-April 7, 1847 (rolls 1-65).

National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20408-0001. Telephone: 202-501-5400. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1948 passenger lists for 1820-1957.

National Archives at Chicago, 7358 South Pulaski Rd., Chicago, IL 60629-5898. Telephone: 773-948-9000. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902 passenger lists for 1846-1897.

Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., Chicago, IL 60610. Telephone: 312-255-3512 (genealogy). Holdings: index for 1902-1943.

Allen County Public Library, Historical Genealogy Department, 900 Webster, P.O. Box 2270, Fort Wayne, IN 46801-2270. Telephone: 219-421-1225. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1943 passenger lists for 1820-1920.

Connecticut Valley Historical Museum, Genealogy and Local History Library, 220 State St., Springfield, MA 01103. Telephone: 413-263-6800 ext. 230. Holdings: indexes for 1897-1943.

Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202. Telephone: 313-833-1480. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1944.

Midwest Genealogy Center, 3440 S. Lee's Summit Road, Independence, MO 64055-1923. Telephone: 816-252-7228. Holdings: index for 1820-1846.

National Archives at New York City, One Bowling Green, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10004 Telephone: 212-401-1620. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1948 passenger lists for 1820-1957. See also their Finding Aid on Passenger Lists

New York Public Library, U.S. History, Local History & Genealogy Division, Fifth Ave. & 42nd St., New York, NY 10018. Telephone: 212-930-0829. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1943 passenger lists for 1820-1910.

New York State Library, Cultural Education Center, Empire State Plaza, Albany, NY 12230. Telephone: 518-474-5355. Holdings: index for 1820-1846.

Queens Borough Public Library, Long Island Division, 89-11 Merrick Blvd., Jamaica, NY 11432. Telephone: 718-990-0770. Holdings: index for 1820-1846 passenger lists for 1820-1897.

Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 800 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH 45202-2071. Telephone: 513-369-6900. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902.

Western Reserve Historical Society Library, 10825 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106-1777. Telephone: 216-721-5722. Holdings: index for 1820-1846 passenger lists for 1820-1846.

Dallas Public Library, Genealogy Section, 1515 Young Street, 8th Floor, Dallas, TX 75201. Telephone: 214-670-1433. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902 passenger lists for 1820-1897.

Houston Public Library's Clayton Library, 5300 Caroline St., Houston, TX 77004-6896. Phone: 832-393-2600. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1902 passenger lists for 1820-1897.

National Archives at Fort Worth, 501 West Felix Street, Bldg. 1, Fort Worth, TX. 76115-3405. Telephone: 817-334-5515. Holdings: index for 1820-1846.

Family History Library, 35 North West Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1948 passenger lists for 1820-1957.

State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 816 State Street, Madison, WI 53706. Telephone: 608-264-6536. Holdings: indexes for 1820-1846 and 1897-1943 passenger lists for 1820-1897.

This page was last reviewed on August 15, 2016.
Contact us with questions or comments.


The Situation at the U.S.-Mexico Border Can't Be 'Solved' Without Acknowledging Its Origins

W ith the U.S. &ldquoon pace to encounter more individuals on the southwest border than we have in the last 20 years,&rdquo as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement March 16, immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border has emerged as one of the toughest challenges facing the Biden Administration. Last week, President Biden put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of &ldquostemming&rdquo the flow of migrants, Biden was questioned about the immigration situation at his first official press conference, immigrant detention centers began to fill up once again, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle made trips to the border to publicize the issue and propose solutions.

Biden&rsquos attempts to address immigration may be new, but the issue is one that has dogged his predecessors for decades. Since the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to address undocumented immigration by constructing ever more draconian policies of border control, deportation and detention&mdashborder theater that grabs headlines and sometimes leads to short-term change, but never actually solves the problem.

There&rsquos a reason why the U.S. government has failed for so many years to &ldquocontrol&rdquo the border: none of these policies have addressed the real reasons for migration itself. In migration studies, these are known as &ldquopush&rdquo and &ldquopull&rdquo factors, the causes that drive migrants from one country to another.

Today, the countries sending the most migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border&ndashespecially the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador&ndashare experiencing a combination of push factors that include poverty and inequality, political instability, and violence. And while the current situation may be unique, it is also deeply rooted in history.

Many countries in Central America have struggled with poverty since the time of independence from Spain in the early 19th century. While they are beautiful countries that are rich in culture and history, that colonial past has meant they have historically been home to large, landless, poor, rural populations, including many indigenous people of Mayan descent. In the years after Spanish control, they were typically ruled by small oligarchies that disproportionately held wealth, land and power, and their economies were primary export-dependent, which brought great riches to landowners but also exacerbated and perpetuated inequality and the poverty of the majority. Those dynamics have carried forward to today. More recently, climate change&ndashin particular, drought and massive storms&ndashhas forced the vulnerable rural poor out of the countryside.

Throughout Central America, political instability has also been a long-term problem. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were constant struggles between liberal and conservative elites. While rural, landless populations&mdashsuch as the followers of guerrilla insurgent Augusto Sandino in Nicaragua in the 1920s&mdashwould occasionally rise up in popular resistance, more often than not these uprisings were suppressed in violent conflicts. The United States often exacerbated these conflicts, deploying the U.S. Marines in Latin America whenever political uprisings seemed to threaten U.S. business interests or national security.

By the mid-20th century, there were new and worse waves of political violence. Popular movements on the Left&mdashsome influenced by Marxist movements, others by the labor movement or by anti-imperialism&mdashaggressively, and sometimes violently, attempted to challenge old hierarchies and ruling classes. Conservative political elites often responded to these movements by inviting the military to take power, and the resulting conflict would eventually develop into civil wars in Guatemala (1960-1996), El Salvador (1980-1992) and Nicaragua (1979-1990). The United States played a central role in many of these conflicts, propping up military dictatorships and supporting them with logistical aid, money, training and weapons, even as many of them committed human rights atrocities. These conflicts generated huge surges in emigration from Central America, establishing the migration patterns that persist today.

A final push factor&mdashwith a very important transnational history&mdashis gang violence. MS-13 is now one of the largest gangs in the world, and has contributed to violent crime across the region. What many Americans don&rsquot know is that MS-13 was founded in poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles in the 1980s, within communities of Central American refugees who had fled civil wars. Many of these gang members were subsequently imprisoned in the United States, and then deported to Central America through a program that began under President Bill Clinton. With governments weakened by decades of war and incapable of dealing with this criminal influx, there was a huge rise in violence, extortion and impunity across Central America, contributing to a new increase in emigration as people sought the security and safety that their governments could not provide.

Pull factors in the U.S. have also created the conditions for continued unauthorized migration from Central America. Since the 1990s, entire sectors of the U.S. economy have become increasingly dependent on low-wage immigrant labor. Today, undocumented immigrants make up significant proportions of the labor force in certain industries, especially agriculture, the service industry (restaurants and housecleaning), and construction.

Despite the demand for their labor, U.S. immigration policy makes it very difficult for would-be migrants from Latin America to come to the United States legally. Although U.S. immigration laws allow for family reunification, it can take a decade or more for U.S. citizens of Central American origin to successfully sponsor family members for visas, and other paths are mostly limited to &ldquohighly skilled&rdquo immigrants with at least a college degree. Nevertheless, would-be migrants, desperate for a better life, know that if they can make it across the border, odds are they can get a job even without papers. This situation incentivizes risky border crossings and unauthorized entry into the United States.

There is one way that immigrants from Central America can legally migrate immediately&mdashand that is by requesting asylum after they arrive in the United States. To gain asylum, immigrants must prove that they had to leave their country owing to &ldquoa well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.&rdquo And while many Central Americans could indeed qualify for asylum based on their experiences of persecution, the previous administration made every effort to limit their ability to obtain it. Now the Biden Administration must decide whether to restore the asylum framework, which has become the only possible path to legal migration (as well as safety and security) for Central Americans and other migrants who&mdashdue to these combined push and pull factors&mdashare desperate to come to the United States.

Given the complicated and deep-rooted reasons behind migration, lawmakers cannot control or &ldquosolve&rdquo the ongoing crisis at the border by simply pouring money and resources into ever more militaristic border theater. It&rsquos no wonder that decades of such policies have done little to change the underlying dynamics.

Instead, if Americans are serious about changing the situation at the border, we need to address the push and pull factors behind Central American migration. We need to acknowledge the reality of the U.S. economy (in particular, that it demands immigrant labor to work low-wage jobs) and work to construct new legal frameworks that reflect that reality. We need to target financial and logistical support to encourage Central American countries to address the poverty and inequality that fuel migration, rather than cutting foreign aid, as the Trump Administration did. We need to do all we can to end the pervasive gang violence that pushes so many migrants out of their homelands. And of course, we must continue to evaluate our own historical and contemporary role in creating the longstanding problems that are pushing Central Americans to migrate.

Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present


The Norwegians

Although Sweden sent more emigrants to the United States than any other Scandinavian country, Norway sent a greater percentage of its population—nearly 1 million people between 1820 and 1920. Indeed, some estimates suggest that during the great immigrations of the 19th century Norway lost a higher proportion of its people to the U.S. than any country other than Ireland.

Emigration from Norway to North America started more slowly, however. Some Norwegian adventurers accompanied Dutch colonists to New Amsterdam in the 17th century, and members of the Moravian religious sect joined German Moravians in Pennsylvania in the 18th. Norwegian immigration's Mayflower moment came in 1825, during a period of particularly fierce religious strife in Norway. In July of that year, a group of six dissenting families, seeking a haven from the official Norwegian state church, set sail from Stavanger in an undersized sloop, the Restaurationen. When it arrived in New York harbor after an arduous 14-week journey, the Restaurationen caused a sensation, and the local press marveled at the bravery of these Norwegian pilgrims. Local Quakers helped the destitute emigrants, who eventually established a community in upstate New York. Today, their descendants are still known as "sloopers".

Word of the sloopers' arrival, and of other Norwegians' success in the U.S., soon reached their homeland, and America letters circulated as never before. In the 1840s, prospective emigrants could read a new magazine, Norway and America, that published stories of Norwegians in the New World, and successful emigrants toured Norway, some sponsored by financial concerns in the U.S. One emigrant, Andreas Ueland, described the effect that one homecoming emigrant had on his compatriots.

A farmer from Houston County, Minnesota, returned on a visit the winter of '70-'71. He infected half the population in that district with what was called the America fever, and I who was then the most susceptible caught the fever in its most virulent form. No more amusement of any kind, only brooding on how to get away to America. It was like a desperate case of homesickness reversed.


Race, Nationality, and Reality

By Marian L. Smith

The Dictionary of Races or Peoples, prepared in 1911, was used by INS officials until the early 1950s. (INS)

In recent years, scholars, scientists, and policymakers have turned increasing attention to matters of race as a factor in our society, the judicial system, and in American history.

The history of U.S. immigration and nationality law demonstrates how race became a factor in determining who could come to America and who could not. Studies of Chinese exclusion laws or the old immigration "quota system" trace a tradition of racist immigration policy. The Supreme Court reinforced this policy in the 1920s with a decision stating that Americans shared a "common understanding" of who was and was not "white," and by extension shared a "common understanding" of who did and did not belong in the United States.

Despite Supreme Court pronouncements, federal officials charged with administration of U.S. immigration and nationality laws were keenly aware that not all Americans shared the same understanding at any given time. More important, any "common understanding" of race or ethnicity shared by a majority of American society evolved over time, while the law remained locked in eighteenth century language.

For officers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and its predecessor agencies, issues and problems of race were more practical than theoretical. Immigration laws barred the entry of the poor and sick, and Ellis Island immigrant inspectors could check to see that arriving immigrants had adequate money while Public Health Service physicians checked the immigrants' health. But how did they decide who was or was not white? What rules did they follow? How could those rules be changed?

When Congress finally eliminated the racial provisions in U.S. immigration and nationality law in the 1940s and 1950s, generations of federal practice and procedure did not instantly disappear without a trace. Over the years, other government agencies had developed their own racial classification systems, often partially borrowed from INS experience, and such systems could take on lives of their own.

Thus a review of how INS officials met the challenge of interpreting racial provisions in the law, and how the courts, Congress, and an activist public helped shape that interpretation, is necessary to fully appreciate current debates over race. It may also be helpful in determining whether we share any "common understanding" on such matters today.

After 1790, and throughout the nineteenth century, Congress legislated separately regarding immigration and nationality. One congressional committee drafted nationality law, defining U.S. citizenship and how it might be lost or gained. Another committee addressed immigration issues and only began serious attempts to govern or regulate immigration as the nineteenth century came to a close. With the exception of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the two bodies of immigration and nationality law were not coordinated, nor did either make any reference to the other.

During the antebellum years and for a time thereafter, immigration and nationality law appeared to agree and serve national goals. The United States achieved a policy of free and open immigration largely by failing to legislate on the subject. The Steerage Act of 1819 remains Congress's most aggressive action regarding immigration prior to 1875, and the 1819 law worked to encourage immigration by ensuring safe and healthy conditions aboard passenger ships.1 As the nation marched west, a regular supply of immigrants from Europe arrived to occupy new territories and hold them for their new nation.

Nationality law allowed for political inclusion of new arrivals into the United States. Between 1790 and 1802, Congress established simple rules for naturalization and facilitated the process by granting naturalization authority— which belonged originally to the legislative branch— to "any court of record."2 Naturalization requirements included five years' residence in the country, "good moral character," and that applicants be "free white persons." Such language in 1802 preserved the constitutional understanding of citizens as white persons and exclusion of African Americans and "Indians not taxed" from citizenship. U.S. nationality law generally transformed northern and western European immigrants into U.S. citizens. For most of the nineteenth century, Europe was the primary source of immigration to the United States, and it no doubt seemed the law would be adequate forever.

The fourteenth amendment declared all persons born within the United States to be U.S. citizens and worked to bestow citizenship on freedmen. Congress went further by amending naturalization requirements in 1870 and extending naturalization eligibility to "aliens being free white persons, and to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent."3 The 1870 revision of §2169, U.S. Revised Statutes, laid the foundation for future confusion over racial eligibility to citizenship. The rule did not state that white persons and black persons may naturalize, nor did it limit naturalization to those of European or African nativity or descent. Rather, the 1870 rule appeared to apply a color test— white persons and those with African origins (i.e., black)— but did so by reference to geography. After extending naturalization to blacks (as Africans) in 1870, Congress banned the naturalization of Chinese in 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act of that year, which is primarily an immigration law, included a section directing that "hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed."4 The 1882 law clearly directed the courts not to naturalize any Chinese, but it did not explain whether "Chinese" indicated race or nationality.

There was relatively little controversy or litigation surrounding racial qualifications for citizenship before the late nineteenth century. As others have explained, federal citizenship was of secondary importance to state citizenship until some time after the Civil War.5 Yet as sources of American immigration shifted and increasing numbers of people came from southern and eastern Europe, the subcontinent, and Asia, their desire to naturalize confronted the racial limitations in U.S. nationality law. Because naturalization remained a judicial function, the courts were left to decide who was or was not a white person, or an alien of African nativity, or person of African descent.

In this question, as in all naturalization matters, the courts had little guidance. The delegation of naturalization authority to "any court of record" in 1790 led to a motley array of more than five thousand high and low courts exercising such jurisdiction by the turn of the twentieth century. Case law was their only guide, for there was no central or national authority to answer judges' questions regarding the finer points of naturalization law or procedure. Methods adopted by late nineteenth-century courts to determine qualifications for citizenship varied widely. Just as courts in some localities interpreted the "good moral character" requirement differently, judges in different jurisdictions had differing ideas of what constituted "whiteness." Many thousands of elected county judges across the nation simply relied on their "common understanding" of race, an understanding presumably shared by the local community.

It was the lack of uniformity among naturalization courts and procedure, and the fraud it bred, that underlay Congress's establishment of the U.S. Naturalization Service by the Basic Naturalization Act of 1906 (34 Stat. 596). The law placed the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in "charge of all matters concerning the naturalization of aliens," with the general purpose of promoting uniform naturalization practices nationwide. While this seemed a clear mission, bureau officers would soon learn that influencing the courts— especially nonfederal courts— presented a persistent obstacle. Furthermore, inconsistencies within nationality law would prove difficult to reconcile. Among the most difficult was the issue of racial eligibility to citizenship.

As the bureau began its work, it found racial eligibility already a complicated subject. Though §2169 contained the broad rule regarding white persons and persons of African descent, an act of April 9, 1866, and the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution decided "all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed, are declared to be citizens of the United States." In 1898 the Supreme Court confirmed that the amendment applied to the U.S. -born children of Chinese and to others prohibited by law from becoming naturalized.6 Thus §2169 set racial qualifications for naturalization only it did not apply to citizenship conferred by birth. Congress also, at times, ignored §2169 and used its original authority over naturalization to extend U.S. citizenship to groups of racially ineligible aliens. Numerous Native Americans were naturalized by treaty during the nineteenth century as were Chinese-born citizens of Hawaii at the time of annexation.7

The 1906 naturalization law retained §2169 limiting racial eligibility to citizenship, but as noted above, that language was not clear. By mixing references to color and geographic origin, the law displayed a then-popular confusion, or equation, of race with nationality. And if the vague language used to convey congressional intent regarding race was frustrating to federal naturalization officials at the turn of the century, the problem only worsened as time passed. Racial theory and terminology evolved each decade. "Racial" understanding associated with the eugenics movement was largely if not completely discredited after World War II, yet §2169 remained the nationality law of the land. Even when amended by Congress, the addition of equally vague language regarding additional "races" only served to increase Naturalization Service difficulties in administering the law.


How 1970s U.S. Immigration Policy Put Mexican Migrants at the Center of a System of Mass Expulsion

J uan Olivarez was 24 when he first went to the United States in 1966. He entered as a tourist, but he really went to work. After returning to his small town in the central-western Mexican state of Jalisco the following year, he headed north again and found jobs picking beets, tomatoes and cherries in California. Olivarez and some friends later went to Oregon, where they repaired train tracks until, one night after dinner, an immigration officer knocked on their door and asked to see their papers. &ldquoWe told him, almost in unison, &lsquoWe don&rsquot have any,&rsquo&rdquo Olivarez recounted. He spent the next week being shuffled between four different jails and detention centers in California and Texas before authorities finally deported him.

Olivarez&rsquos expulsion is one of nearly 50 million deportations U.S. authorities have carried out during the last half century. Between the late 1970s and the late 2000s, annual expulsions exceeded one million, on average, and rarely dipped below 900,000 in any given fiscal year. Though the years before had seen the episodic enforcement drives, such as those of the Great Depression and the infamous &ldquoOperation Wetback&rdquo campaign of the 1950s, the magnitude and regularity of deportations after 1975 marked a break from the past and the dawn of a new era: the age of mass expulsion.

Like Olivarez, some 90% of the people pushed out of the country during the 20th century were Mexicans deported via a coercive, fast-track administrative process euphemistically referred to as &ldquovoluntary departure.&rdquo Similar to prosecutors in the criminal justice system relying on plea bargains, immigration authorities depended on voluntary departure, making it seem like the best of all the bad options facing people who had been apprehended. These deportations without due process also functioned as a cost-saving measure, since they minimized detention-related expenses and reduced the number of immigration hearings.

In the 1970s, immigration authorities&rsquo near-exclusive reliance on voluntary departure, the United States&rsquo dependence on cheap migrant labor and the border&rsquos relative porousness combined to create a revolving door effect and a sense of perpetual crisis.

While most apprehensions occurred at or near the border, agents (with assistance from local police forces) also targeted millions of people living in the nation&rsquos interior, many of them long-term U.S. residents. This caused widespread anxiety in immigrant communities and the establishment of de facto internal borders that circumscribed the physical spaces people inhabited, and sometimes confined them to their homes.

Deportation, or the possibility of being deported, became a part of many people&rsquos everyday lives during this period. A man I&rsquoll call Jorge was well aware of the fact that when he left for work each morning there was always the possibility that he wouldn&rsquot return home. Fearing apprehension, he always carried $20 with him, hidden somewhere on his body, to ensure that he would have a little bit of money if immigration agents deported him to Tijuana. The precaution was not unreasonable: on many occasions agents showed up at the ranch where he worked, forcing him and his friends to flee.

Ongoing demand for migrant labor, wage differentials and the desire to reunite with family often led migrants to return to the United States after being deported to Mexico. As a result, authorities expelled many people on multiple occasions. They removed Alfonso, a 27-year-old man who first entered the United States in 1968, seven times during his first five years in the country. In 1977, officers in El Paso apprehended Laura Mendarez-Pérez, who supposedly had 48 prior deportations. Officials in San Diego claimed to have detained another man 25 times. As the immigration commissioner put it during a television interview in the late 1970s, &ldquoWe catch them in the morning, we deport them in the afternoon. We apprehend them. We deport them. We deported one guy five times in one day out of El Paso. It&rsquos just an unbelievable revolving door.&rdquo The number of people deported who had at least one previous expulsion increased from fewer than 14,000 in 1965 (13% of all deportees) to more than 372,000 in 1985 (35% of all deportees).

The nature of border enforcement angered agents on the ground, but it actually served the interests of the immigration bureaucracy. As sociologist Gilberto Cárdenas has noted, authorities turned to statistics to create &ldquoa sense of alarm, urgency and a call for action.&rdquo They used the ever-rising number of apprehensions and deportations inherent to the revolving door system to simultaneously celebrate their &ldquoaccomplishments&rdquo and to draw attention to the dire need for additional funding, all while helping to fulfill the United States&rsquo labor needs, since migrant workers continued to cross the border.

&ldquoThe pressure from the top people in the administration . . . is extreme,&rdquo a former statistician for the immigration service explained in the mid-1970s. &ldquoWe are told periodically that &lsquothe heats [sic] on,&rsquo and we know that we had better get to work and make it look like we&rsquore after the &lsquodevils&rsquo who are taking away the jobs from the little-man.&rdquo To do so, he and his colleagues turned to the media, which he described as &ldquoone of our best tools in emphasizing the threat that the illegals pose to the stability of the economy.&rdquo The media obliged with xenophobic coverage that scapegoated Mexicans for the country&rsquos economic woes.

The constant cycle of unauthorized migration&ndashapprehension&ndashdeportation&ndashrepeat unauthorized migration led officials to increasingly single out Mexicans. In fiscal year 1965, the 55,000 Mexicans apprehended represented 50% of all apprehensions two decades later, the 1.2 million Mexicans apprehended made up 94% of total apprehensions. The Border Patrol&rsquos obsession with stopping Mexican migrants eventually led them to split their apprehension statistics into two categories: Mexicans and &ldquoOther Than Mexicans,&rdquo or &ldquoOTMs&rdquo in agency lingo. The fact that officers were tasked with barring both people in search of work as well as narcotics and drug smugglers sometimes led to the conflation of the two, which further demonized Mexicans within the immigration agency, in the media and in the public&rsquos imagination.

Ultimately, officials&rsquo disproportionate targeting of a single group created and reified racist stereotypes of ethnic Mexicans&mdashirrespective of citizenship or legal status&mdashas prototypical &ldquoillegal aliens.&rdquo


How U.S. immigration has changed

The United States has always been a country of immigrants. The English-speaking Protestant Christians who founded the country, however, have not always welcomed other types of arrivals. The disdained have changed over time.

Share of U.S. population born in another country, by region of origin

Post analysis of Census microdata from 1900 through 2016 via IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota, www.ipums.org.

Why Trump’s wall contradicts today’s immigration trends

A look at the main immigration issues facing the U.S. and what former officials of border agencies think about trends and security needs over time.

Raising barriers: A new age of walls

The world now has more border barriers than at any time in modern history, an increase driven by war, waves of migration and the threat of terrorism.


Irish-Catholic Immigration to America

Irish-Catholic immigrants came to America during colonial times, too. For example, Charles Carroll immigrated to America in 1706. His grandson, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, signed his name to the Declaration of Independence.

Ireland&rsquos 1845 Potato Blight is often credited with launching the second wave of Irish immigration to America. The fungus which decimated potato crops created a devastating famine. Starvation plagued Ireland and within five years, a million Irish were dead while half a million had arrived in America to start a new life. Living conditions in many parts of Ireland were very difficult long before the Potato Blight of 1845, however, and a large number of Irish left their homeland as early as the 1820s.

In fact, Ireland&rsquos population decreased dramatically throughout the nineteenth century. Census figures show an Irish population of 8.2 million in 1841, 6.6 million a decade later, and only 4.7 million in 1891. It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930.

Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. Interestingly, pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while in the famine years and their aftermath, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women. What can these statistics tell us about life in Ireland during this period?


Naturalization Requirements Today

Today's general naturalization requirements state that you must have 5 years as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. prior to filing, with no single absence from the U.S. of more than 1 year. In addition, you must have been physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the previous 5 years and resided within a state or district for at least 3 months.

It is important to note that there are exceptions to the 5-year rule for certain people. These include: spouses of U.S. citizens employees of the U.S. Government (including the U.S. Armed Forces) American research institutes recognized by the Attorney General recognized U.S. religious organizations U.S. research institutions an American firm engaged in the development of foreign trade and commerce of the U.S. and certain public international organizations involving the U.S.

USCIS has special help available for naturalization candidates with disabilities and the government makes some exceptions on requirements for elderly people.


The Facts on the Increase in Illegal Immigration

Democrats and Republicans are pointing fingers over an increase in illegal immigration at the southern border, and notably an increase in children traveling alone.

While Democrats argue the surge began before President Joe Biden took office, Republicans argue Biden’s welcoming policies are to blame. A rise in border apprehensions did begin prior to the election under then-President Donald Trump. But the increase in unaccompanied children has spiked significantly in the first full month of the Biden administration.

The unaccompanied children are being held in custody in large numbers while the administration tries to catch up with a backlog in housing and processing them.

We’ll take a look at the immigration statistics and facts behind the recent increase.

How many people are trying to cross the border illegally?

Let’s start with a look at the big picture: Apprehensions on the southwest border peaked in 2000 at 1.64 million and have generally declined since, with some fluctuations. In 2017, apprehensions hit the lowest level since 1972, but they spiked in fiscal year 2019 at 851,508 and fell back down to 400,651 in fiscal 2020.

On a monthly basis over the past year, apprehensions plummeted to 16,182 in April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdowns gripped both the U.S. and Mexico. But then, apprehensions started ticking up again, increasing noticeably in late summer and fall. By October, 69,022 people were apprehended on the southwest border, up 79% from July. In February, the figure was 96,974.

While the bulk of the increase comes from single adults, the number of children arriving at the border without an adult has gone up as well. Here’s a breakdown of the type of apprehensions by month — for single adults, unaccompanied children and those traveling in a family unit — dating back to 2013, the earliest point of data for family units.

Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, wrote in a March 15 blog post that “the current situation at the border is neither a unique crisis nor the result (yet) of Biden’s policy changes.”

In a phone interview, he told us that while the apprehension numbers are spiking now, “this is not a new crisis.” Instead, it has been going on since 2014, “when we first saw unaccompanied minors and family units arriving at the border and turning themselves in,” and the problem has plagued each administration since.

As the chart above shows, apprehension spikes under the past two presidents in 2014 and 2019 similarly included sizable increases in family units and unaccompanied children arriving at the border.

Other immigration experts, writing in the Washington Post, agree that “the current increase in apprehensions fits a predictable pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration combined with a backlog of demand because of 2020’s coronavirus border closure.” It’s “not a surge,” they said.

Overall, Payan said, “The patterns of migration do not seem to correlate to any specific U.S. immigration policy. The numbers seem to go up and down on a logic of their own.” People leave their home countries for reasons other than U.S. policy, such as deteriorating economic, political or public safety conditions.

How does this increase in unaccompanied children crossing the border compare with past increases?

The recent numbers are on track to rival or surpass the spike of unaccompanied children apprehended in 2019.

A report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service sums up the trends in what the government calls UAC — “unaccompanied alien children” — this way: “In FY2014, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 68,541 UAC, a record at that time. Since FY2014, UAC apprehensions have fluctuated considerably, declining to 39,970 in FY2015, increasing to 59,692 in FY2016, declining to 41,435 in FY2017, and increasing to 50,036 in FY2018.”

In fiscal year 2019, the number of unaccompanied children who were apprehended — 76,020 — surpassed 2014’s total, a new yearly record. And in fiscal 2020, which ended on Sept. 30, the total dropped considerably to 30,557.

At just five months into this fiscal year, the number is already at 29,010. The number of unaccompanied children being apprehended at the southern border did start trending up in October, but also jumped 63% from January to February, when the total was 9,297.

As Payan said, the issue started in 2014, and it has been a problem for each administration.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, managing director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told us that 2014 was not only the first time there was a dramatic increase in unaccompanied children, but migrants also came from Central America, not Mexico.

Immigrants walk along the U.S.-Mexico border on March 17 after crossing the shallow Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

“The border facilities and the system of processing unaccompanied minors under law were designed for the time when the vast majority of encounters at the border were single adult Mexican males who were processed and returned across the border very quickly, often within a day,” Brown said in an email. “But Central Americans could not be sent back across to Mexico and if they applied for asylum, or were UACs would have to be taken into custody and provided an opportunity to make their case in immigration court.”

Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, said the increases of families and unaccompanied children in 2014 and 2019 “overwhelmed U.S. resources.” In both of those years, the flow of immigrants “were driven primarily by longstanding push and pull factors.”

Those “push and pull factors” include poverty and violence in migrants’ home countries, and economic opportunity in the U.S., family ties and border policies on children and families, as the Migration Policy Institute outlined in a 2019 report.

In 2019, another factor was a “chaotic implementation of restrictive southern border policies” under Trump, Pierce told us.

The difference this year is that the increase overwhelming U.S. resources “has been entirely driven by unaccompanied child migrants,” Pierce said. The flow is also due to push and pull factors, as well as the coronavirus pandemic-caused economic crisis and recent hurricanes.

All three experts we spoke with told us there may be a perception that the Biden administration is more welcoming to migrants, but “Biden has not significantly changed operations at the border since Trump as of yet,” as Brown said.

In mid-February, the administration announced it would begin processing non-Mexican asylum seekers who have been waiting in Mexico for their U.S. court dates under a Trump-era program to keep those individuals on the other side of the border. But that policy doesn’t concern new arrivals or those without pending asylum cases, the administration said.

One notable change for unaccompanied children, however, is that they are “the only population that is officially exempt from the CDC’s Title 42 order,” Pierce said.

What is Title 42 and how has it affected immigration flows?

Title 42 is a public health law the Trump administration began invoking in March 2020 to immediately expel, due to the coronavirus pandemic, those apprehended on the southern border. In November, a federal judge ordered a halt to such deportations of minors. While the Biden administration has continued to use the law to expel adults and some families, it has stopped expelling children.

“We are expelling most single adults and families,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a March 16 statement. “We are not expelling unaccompanied children.”

While that’s certainly the case for single adults, CBP data show, the administration expelled 41% of family units in February, down from 62% who were expelled in January. The Washington Post wrote about the discrepancy.

Brown noted that migration started to increase in April 2020 and “continued to rise through the Biden inauguration. So it is not true that the increase started under Biden.” But the decision not to expel unaccompanied children “sped up the increase.”

“A somewhat new phenomenon, being reported by attorneys for migrants in the region, is that it seems that some unaccompanied children actually arrived in Northern Mexico with family members who sent them into the US alone since the U.S. was letting them in, and then the adults would try to come in later,” she said.

At the same time, Title 42 may have artificially inflated the problem of single adults being apprehended, because some are trying to cross repeatedly in short time frames.

“We know that single adults have driven the majority of the total increase in encounters at the border,” Brown said in an email. “But we also have been told by CBP that as many as 1/3 of those are repeat encounters with the same person. We believe that because Title 42 results in rapid expulsion of migrants back to Mexico within a very short period of time, and no immigration process (and therefore no immigration bars being applied), the opportunity cost of migrants to repeatedly try to cross the border is low.”

Brown said there are reports that smuggling operations “are charging rates for ‘up to 3 attempts.'”

The increase in single adults also could be due to people sending children ahead of them and attempting to follow separately. “But there are not detailed statistics on that,” she told us.

What’s the process for these unaccompanied kids? How many unaccompanied children are being held in Customs and Border Protection custody?

Unaccompanied children are generally referred to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. Some from Mexico can be returned home, a Congressional Research Service report explains, but the vast majority of these kids in recent years are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. While that referral process is taking place, they are held in Customs and Border Protection custody.

A backlog, due to the increase in unaccompanied children arriving at the border and policies in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, has led to a crush of kids being held in border facilities. One lawmaker released images of kids sleeping on cots on the floor.

A CBP spokesperson wouldn’t tell us how many children are now in custody, saying that it doesn’t provide daily numbers “as they are considered operationally sensitive because CBP’s in-custody numbers fluctuate on a constant basis. The number it shares one morning may be different by the afternoon and the next day.”

CNN reported on March 20 that more than 5,000 unaccompanied children were in CBP custody, “according to documents obtained by CNN, up from 4,500 children days earlier.”

The children are only supposed to be in CBP custody for up to 72 hours, before being transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. CNN reported that the children were being held an average of five days and that more than 600 of them had been held in CBP custody for more than 10 days.

“Unfortunately HHS waited until March 5 to start bringing beds back that were taken offline during the pandemic,” Pierce told us of the problem. “While HHS is making efforts to expand their capacity by bringing these beds back online and acquire new influx facilities, their lack of bed space has led to the current back up of children in CBP custody.”

The CBP spokesperson told us the agency’s “ability to move children out of its care is directly tied to available space at HHS ORR” and that “everybody’s focus is on moving UACs through as quickly as we can.”

Past administrations have also struggled to get unaccompanied minors out of CBP custody.

In a November 2019 report , for instance, the Department of Homeland Security wrote: “One of the most visible and troubling aspects of this humanitarian crisis, one that manifested itself in April, May and early June 2019, was young children (sometimes for a week or more) being held by CBP’s Border Patrol, not because it wanted to hold them, but because HHS had run out of funds to house them.”

A July 2019 DHS Office of Inspector General report warned of “dangerous overcrowding” of kids held in five border facilities. It said CBP data showed 2,669 children, some who arrived at the border alone and some with families, had been held for more than 72 hours, with some children younger than 7 years old held for more than two weeks.

Once with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, children stay in shelters while awaiting immigration proceedings, including asylum, before being placed with a sponsor, who could be a parent, another relative or a non-family member. In fiscal year 2019, 69,488 children were referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has cared for 409,550 children since 2003. The HHS press office told us there are currently about 11,350 children in ORR care.

Data from HHS from fiscal year 2012 through 2020 show that at least 66% of referred children each year have been male. They are primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and most are age 15 and older.

The Biden administration has tasked the Federal Emergency Management Agency with assisting HHS in housing the children.

Update, March 23: We updated this story with the number of children now in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

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