The Impact of Immigration on American Society: Looking Backward to the Future
Published on: Jul 28, 2006

Charles Hirschman is the Boeing International Professor in the Department of Sociology and the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate courses on demography, immigration and ethnicity, and Southeast Asia, Hirschman conducts research on immigration and ethnicity in United States and on social change in Southeast Asia. This paper was completed while the author was a Bixby Visiting Scholar at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. It is being jointly published in German in Transit—Europaeische Revue, Nr. 32 /2006.


Even as most Americans celebrate their heritage and identity as a “nation of immigrants,” there is deep ambivalence about future immigration. There is a strong base of support for continued immigration as a necessary ingredient for economic growth and as an essential element of a cosmopolitan society among many Americans. Almost 60 million people— more than one fifth of the total population of the United States—are immigrants or the children of immigrants. For most of this community, immigration policy is not an abstract ideology but a means of family reunification and an affirmation that they are part of the “American dream.”

On the other side, there is a substantial share, perhaps a majority, of Americans who are opposed to a continuation of large scale immigration. Many opponents of immigration are old stock Americans who have all but forgotten their immigrant ancestors. They often live in small towns or in suburban areas, and many have relatively little contact with immigrant families in their neighborhoods, churches, and friendship networks. Beyond the debate over the economic consequences of immigration, there is also an emotional dimension that shapes sentiments toward immigration. Many Americans, like people everywhere, are more comfortable with the familiar than with change. They fear that newcomers with different languages, religions, and cultures are reluctant to assimilate to American society and to learn English.

Although many of the perceptions and fears of old stock Americans about new immigrants are rooted in ignorance and prejudice, the fears of many Americans about the future are not entirely irrational. With globalization and massive industrial restructuring dominating many traditional sources of employment (both blue collar and white collar), many native born citizens are fearful about their (and their children’s) future. The news media often cite examples of industries that seek out low cost immigrant workers to replace native born workers. Some sectors, such as harvesting vegetables and fruits in agriculture, have very few native born Americans seeking jobs in them, but immigrants are also disproportionately employed in many other sectors, including meatpacking, construction, hospitals, and even in many areas of advanced study in research universities. These examples are fodder for unscrupulous political leaders who seek to exploit popular fears for their own ends.

While it is not possible to predict the role of immigration in America’s future, it is instructive to study the past. The current debates and hostility surrounding immigrants echo throughout American history. What is most surprising is that almost all popular fears about immigration and even the judgments of “experts” about the negative impact of immigrants have been proven false by history. Not only have almost all immigrants (or their descendants) assimilated over time, but they have broadened American society in many positive ways. In this review, I discuss the popular fears about immigrants by old stock Americans and the historical record of immigrant contributions to the evolution of the industrial economy, political reform, and even to the development of American culture.

A Short Overview of Immigration

Immigration to North America began with Spanish settlers in the 16th century, and French and English settlers in the 17th century. In the century before the American revolution, there was a major wave of free and indentured labor from England and other parts of Europe as well as large scale importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean.

Although some level of immigration has been continuous throughout American history, there have been two epochal periods: the 1880 to 1924 Age of Mass Migration, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Post 1965 Wave of Immigration, primarily from Latin America and Asia (Min 2002, Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Each of these eras added more than 25 million immigrants, and the current wave is far from finished. During some of the peak years of immigration in the early 1900s, about one million immigrants arrived annually, which was more than one percent of the total U.S. population at the time. In the early 21st century, there have been a few years with more than one million legal immigrants, but with a total U.S. population of almost 300 million, the relative impact is much less than it was in the early years of the 20th century.

The first impact of immigration is demographic. The 70 million immigrants who have arrived since the founding of the republic (formal records have only been kept since 1820) are responsible for the majority of the contemporary American population (Gibson 1992: 165). Most Americans have acquired a sense of historical continuity from America’s founding, but this is primarily the result of socialization and education, not descent. The one segment of the American population with the longest record of historical settlement is African Americans. Almost all African Americans are the descendants of 17th- or 18th-century arrivals (Edmonston and Passell 1994: 61).

Much of the historical debate over the consequences of immigration has focused on immigrant “origins”—where they came from. Early in the 20th century when immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was at its peak, many old stock Americans sought to preserve the traditional image of the country as primarily composed of descendants from Northwest Europe, especially of English Protestant stock (Baltzell 1964). The immigration restrictions of the 1920s were calibrated to preserving the historic “national origins” of the American population (Higham 1988). The American population has, however, always been much more diverse than the “Anglo-centric” image of the 18th century. The first American census in 1790, shortly after the formation of the United States, counted nearly 4 million people, of whom at least 20% were of African descent (Gibson and Jung 2002). There are no official figures on the numbers of American Indians prior to the late 19th century, but they were the dominant population of the 18th century in most of the territories that eventually became the United States. Estimates of the non-English-origin population in 1790 range from 20 to 40 percent (Akenson 1984; McDonald and McDonald 1980; Purvis 1984).

Each new wave of immigration to the United States has met with some degree of hostility and popular fears that immigrants will harm American society or will not conform to the prevailing “American way of life.” In 1751, Benjamin Franklin complained about the “Palatine Boors” who were trying to Germanize the province of Pennsylvania and refused to learn English (Archdeacon 1983: 20). Throughout the 19th century, Irish and German Americans, especially Catholics, were not considered to be fully American in terms of culture or status by old stock Americans. In May 1844, there were three days of rioting in Kensington, an Irish suburb of Philadelphia, which culminated in the burning of two Catholic churches and other property (Archdeacon 1983: 81). This case was one incident of many during the 1840s and 1850s—the heyday of the “Know Nothing Movement”—when Catholic churches and convents were destroyed and priests were attacked by Protestant mobs (Daniels 1991: 267-268).