Our National Tradition: 230,000 new immigrants per year

We became a nation with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, so that makes a legitimate starting point. And because the Immigration Act of 1965 so radically changed the numbers, it is fair to talk about what existed between the years 1776 and 1965 -- especially since the promoters of the 1965 act promised that it would not raise immigration numbers.

1776-1976: 250,000 per year average

The period from the founding of our nation in 1776 to our bicentennial in 1976 encompasses the end of the post-World War II baby boom. After 1965 most Americans chose to have smaller families. In 1972, we reached a replacement-level fertility rate that would have ensured that the country's population stopped growing and stabilized, if immigration had remained in balance. The Immigration Act of 1965 immediately raised immigration in the following decade-plus, however, with even greater increases to come after 1976.

1776-1819: 6,500 per year average

This was the rate of immigration when our young nation was beginning to push its Western frontier across the Appalachian Mountains at the expense of the indigenous peoples.

1820-1879: 162,000 per year average

This marks the first period for which there are official government immigration records. Immigration was used during these years to settle all the frontier areas of the now continental nation. This level of immigration succeeded in sectioning off the land of virtually the entire country, driving the Indians into reservations, decimating the buffalo, and plowing under the prairies. Not long
after this period, the 1890 Census led demographers to declare that the population had grown and spread out so much that there no longer was any frontier in the U.S. Never in history had such a sustained numerical level of immigration filled such a large expanse in so short a time.

1880-1924: 584,000 per year average

Taking advantage of the faster, higher capacity transportation provided by steamships and railroads, the Robber Barons of the so-called Gilded Age more than tripled the level of immigration, using it to keep wages low for all American workers, to bust unions, and to keep freed slaves from moving off the South's plantations to take jobs in the North. The industrialists’ ships were in perpetual motion bringing new workers from other lands. Net immigration during this period was considerably lower than the nearly 600,000 annual average because scores of thousands of immigrants went back home every year, unable to handle the living and working conditions in America during that time. The number of people entering the country permanently was still so high, however, that the immigration of these years became known as the Great Wave.

1925-1965: 178,000 per year average

Because voters, including the country’s newest citizens, overwhelmingly wanted to halt the excesses of the Great Wave, Congress lowered the rate of immigration to near pre-1880 levels and declared an end to using immigration to fill frontiers or provide a surplus of unskilled labor for manufacturing and agriculture. Only during these 40 years did most Americans -- aided by tighter labor markets -- move into the middle class for the first time. This period of moderate immigration was the time of the greatest upward mobility in American history, as well as the greatest increases in productivity and innovation.

These immigration statistics come from the work of Cornell University labor economist and historian Vernon Briggs. Professor Briggs has done more than any scholar to estimate the level of American immigration during the period before official records were kept. All of the immigration totals from 1820 through the present are from federal immigration records originally provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS, now the Department of Homeland Security/DHS).