Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
Between 1820 and 1924, nearly thirty-six million immigrants entered the United States. Prior to the Civil War, the vast majority of immigrants were northern and western Europeans, though the West Coast received Chinese immigration from the late 1840s onward. In mid-century, the United States received an unprecedented influx of Irish and German immigrants, who included a large number of Catholics and the poor. At the turn of the 20th century, the major senders of immigrants shifted to southern and eastern Europe, and Asians and Mexicans made up a growing portion of newcomers. Throughout the long 19th century, urban settlement remained a popular option for immigrants, and they contributed to the social, cultural, political, economic, and physical growth of the cities they resided in. Foreign-born workers also provided much-needed labor for America’s industrial development. At the same time, intense nativism emerged in cities in opposition to the presence of foreigners, who appeared to be unfit for American society, threats to Americans’ jobs, or sources of urban problems such as poverty. Anti-immigrant sentiment resulted in the introduction of state and federal laws for preventing the immigration of undesirable foreigners, such as the poor, southern and eastern Europeans, and Asians. Cities constituted an integral part of the 19th-century American immigration experience.