Imagine living in a country torn by war. Or maybe you live in a place where there are few jobs and little chance to earn a living.

Your family decides to move—not to another town, but to another country. You and your family have become immigrants. People are immigrants when they move to a foreign country to make their homes.


People become immigrants for many reasons. The most common one is economic opportunity. Most immigrants are lured to other countries by the promise of jobs, farmland, or business opportunities.

Other people become immigrants to flee mistreatment or natural disasters. They are refugees. Some refugees move to avoid wars and political unrest. Others are seeking freedom to express their religious views. Still others are uprooted by disasters, such as terrible flooding or drought (lack of rain).

Some people have become immigrants against their will. Many early African immigrants to North and South America came in chains. They were captured in Africa, shipped to foreign lands, and forced to work as slaves.


Except for Native Americans, all people came to the United States from someplace else. For nearly 500 years, immigrants have landed on America’s shores seeking a better life.

Most immigrants came to America for economic reasons. Immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Latin America came willingly. Throughout American history, immigrants often worked low-paying, dangerous jobs that other people refused to do.

Immigrants from around the world helped shape American life. Many immigrants absorbed the customs and language common to most Americans. They also brought their own traditions, including music and foods. Over time, many of these traditions became part of American life.


The first European immigrants to America hoped to colonize new lands. By the mid-1500s, Spaniards had ventured into Florida, California, and the American Southwest. French immigrants arrived in the early 1600s and built their first colony in Canada. The English also arrived in the early 1600s. They established 13 colonies along America’s Atlantic Coast.

In the 1700s, England became the major power in colonial North America. But many European immigrants came to live in the English colonies. They included people from Sweden, Holland, Germany, Scotland, and Ireland.


From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, millions of European immigrants poured into the United States. Many now came from other European lands, including Russia, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. By the mid-1800s, immigrants were arriving from China and other parts of Asia, too.

Some people who wanted to come to America were not allowed to. During the 1850s, political groups such as the Know-Nothing Party opposed letting immigrants into the country. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed a law to keep out new Chinese immigrants. To keep out sick people, laws required immigrants to pass physical examinations.


By the mid-1800s, most American immigrants landed in cities on the East Coast, especially New York City. Immigration stations were opened to examine the newcomers.

In 1892, the newly formed Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) opened a big station at Ellis Island in New York’s harbor. About 12 million people passed through Ellis Island before it closed in 1954.


During the 1800s, most immigrants lived in cities on the East Coast. Many were very poor. They had little money to travel and stayed where they arrived. They searched for work in factories and packed into tiny, shabby apartments where disease easily spread.

If immigrants could afford it, they traveled by railroads and rivers to other parts of the country. Those seeking jobs in industry went to cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Chicago. Immigrants with enough money to buy farmland often went to the Midwest.


In the early 1900s, new laws restricted immigration. Congress passed quotas for immigrants. This meant that only a certain number of immigrants were allowed from each country. Many Asian people were barred from entering America.

After World War II ended in 1945, the United States opened its doors to people fleeing war-torn Europe. In 1952, the U.S. government lifted the ban on Asians wishing to enter the country.


Immigrants still come to the United States seeking freedom and economic opportunity. Most new immigrants no longer come from Europe. They come mainly from Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Asia.

Today, the U.S. government limits the number of immigrants allowed into the country each year. People who sneak illegally into the United States are called illegal aliens. They can be sent back to their home countries.




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