Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Research Encyclopedias, American History. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 05 May 2021

Immigration to American Cities, 1925–2017free

  • Charlotte BrooksCharlotte BrooksDepartment of History, Baruch College


The Immigration Act of 1924 was in large part the result of a deep political and cultural divide in America between heavily immigrant cities and far less diverse small towns and rural areas. The 1924 legislation, together with growing residential segregation, midcentury federal urban policy, and postwar suburbanization, undermined scores of ethnic enclaves in American cities between 1925 and the 1960s. The deportation of Mexicans and their American children during the Great Depression, the incarceration of West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II, and the wartime and postwar shift of so many jobs to suburban and Sunbelt areas also reshaped many US cities in these years. The Immigration Act of 1965, which enabled the immigration of large numbers of people from Asia, Latin America, and, eventually, Africa, helped to revitalize many depressed urban areas and inner-ring suburbs. In cities and suburbs across the country, the response to the new immigration since 1965 has ranged from welcoming to hostile. The national debate over immigration in the early 21st century reflects both familiar and newer cultural, linguistic, religious, racial, and regional rifts. However, urban areas with a history of immigrant incorporation remain the most politically supportive of such people, just as they were a century ago.


Before 1924, the vast majority of the newest immigrants to the United States came from southern and eastern Europe, practiced Catholicism or Judaism, and lived in the industrial cities of the northeast and Midwest. Congress’s passage of the 1924 Immigration Act reflected the deep unease among native-born white Protestants about urban America and the racial status of the newcomers, as well as their growing role in US cultural, religious, and political life. The 1924 act placed very restrictive quotas on southern and eastern European immigration, and it ended all immigration from Asia. Although the law did not create quotas for the independent nations of the Western Hemisphere, it did require immigrants from Canada and Latin America to pay a new head tax, pass a physical examination and a literacy test, and possess a passport. Despite the 1924 law, the immigrant populations in American urban centers remained fairly stable until after World War II, when federal housing, transportation, and economic policy encouraged “white flight” to the suburbs Between the 1940s and 1970s, European immigrants and their children, whom most other Americans now saw as fully “white,” slowly abandoned the central cities for suburban areas. During the same period, black migrants from the South streamed into racially segregated northern and western cities, which often deteriorated because of private disinvestment, job flight, and government policies that favored suburbs and white Americans over inner cities and people of color. The passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, however, changed the fortunes of a significant number of US cities. As new Asian, Latino/a, and African immigrants arrived in the United States, large numbers settled in in older urban areas and often helped to revitalize them. By the 1990s, the majority of the newcomers were moving directly to suburban communities, many of which had no previous tradition of immigration. In these areas, the political and social response to the new immigration has varied tremendously, even within metropolitan areas.

The Immigration Act of 1924 and the Rural-Urban Divide in America

Before the late 19th century, immigrants to the United States came primarily from northern and western Europe, who settled both in urban and rural areas and included large numbers of Protestants. By the turn of the century, however, immigrant newcomers were increasingly Jewish or Catholic or, occasionally, Eastern or Russian Orthodox Christian or Muslim. Almost all found homes in urban areas, usually in the Northeast or Midwest, and they often lived in visible ethnic enclaves, where they supported immigrant-focused businesses, worshipped at heavily immigrant churches, read foreign-language newspapers, and sometimes ran their own schools.

Figure 1. This thriving street market on turn-of-the-century New York’s Lower East Side catered largely to Jewish immigrants. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19044.

In 1924, the US Congress passed and president Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act), which dramatically restricted southern and eastern European immigration to the United States and ended all Asian immigration. The law built on earlier restrictive measures, including the literacy tests and the Asiatic Barred Zone of the Immigration Act of 1917 and the “emergency quotas” of the Immigration Act of 1921. Over time, the 1924 act made a tremendous impact on the nation’s urban areas because of the concentration of immigrants there.

The 1917, 1921, and 1924 laws all reflected the rise of nativism in the early 20th-century United States. Many native-born Protestants of northern and western European ancestry viewed the non-Protestant newcomers with growing alarm, claiming that they posed a threat to American culture, unity, and democracy. Native-born white Protestants also embraced popular eugenics and race science to argue that the new immigrants were biologically inferior to “old stock” Americans. These critics ignored the low wages and terrible working conditions many urban immigrants had to contend with and instead blamed their destitution, bad health, and poor living conditions on their alleged inferiority. During World War I, nativists even asserted that immigrants from the combatant nations were too often “hyphenated Americans” with dubious loyalties. On the Pacific Coast, European Americans of all backgrounds bemoaned the arrival of Japanese and Korean immigrants, derided the Punjabi Sikhs, and segregated the Chinese Americans.1

Although perceptions of racial and religious difference played the largest role in the passage of restrictive immigration laws, the arguments for these laws also reflected a growing rural-urban divide in the United States. By the turn of the century, population growth and economic dynamism were far greater in the urban areas than in the rural ones. This slowly undermined the influence and centrality of farms and small towns to the nation’s cultural and political life, and the residents of these places fought back: the loudest proponents of immigration restriction included some of the most scathing critics of urban America and its growing influence on mass culture, especially the new forms of entertainment—motion pictures, radio, and jazz music. Many nativists belonged to organizations, such as the Second Ku Klux Klan, with particular strength in small-town and rural America. They also tended to live in parts of the nation with relatively few immigrants, such as the South. They abhorred the political radicalism and labor activism they associated with the heavily immigrant cities. They also supported Prohibition at far higher rates than urban residents and blamed immigrants for the wave of crime that the 18th Amendment had set in motion.2

These nativists celebrated the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which as a piece of legislation largely achieved its aims. Immigration dropped sharply beginning in the late 1920s. In 1914, the peak year of immigration, more than 1.2 million people arrived in the United States; by the late 1920s, that number had fallen to about 300,000 annually, and it had plunged to about 30,000 per year by the mid-1930s.3 But the passage of the 1924 Act did little to repair the urban-rural cultural and political divide. This was clear in 1928, when Al Smith, New York’s Catholic governor and a native of Manhattan, won the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Across the country, Smith’s opponents used widespread anti-Catholic bigotry to discredit him, and he lost the election by a wide margin. But besides the larger religious issue, Smith also grappled with the fact that many voters saw him as too representative of immigrant urban America.4

The post-1924 drop in immigration initially seemed to have little impact on the nation’s urban centers, where the overall populations continued to rise until 1950 because of domestic migration and natural increase. But the rate of urban population growth slowed between 1930 and 1940, and the proportion of foreign-born residents in the nation’s cities fell to about 12 percent in 1940, down from a high of 21 percent in 1900.5 Before World War II, a number of different factors had preserved immigrant enclaves as second-generation residential areas, even as the actual percentage of their foreign-born populations shrank. Traditions of racial segregation prevented Asian Americans in urban California, Afro-Caribbeans in New York, and Mexican Americans in the towns and cities in the Southwest from leaving the few neighborhoods in which they could live.6 The organization of Catholic religious, educational, and social life around geographically bounded parishes encouraged many of the children of European immigrants to remain in their home parishes.7 The continued concentration of factories in inner cities also kept second-generation industrial workers tied to such places.

Figure 2. In western and southwestern cities, segregation often confined Mexican Americans to a few rundown neighborhoods. This 1939 photo shows how railroad tracks divided the Mexican quarter of San Antonio, Texas, from other parts of the city. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USF34-032524-D.

Policy Changes, Racial Shifts, and the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, many of these workers became stalwart supporters of President Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration included numerous New York activists, such as Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, who had long experience working in the city’s immigrant communities. Although Roosevelt himself romanticized rural life, his administration focused much of its attention on city dwellers, including the millions of immigrants and their children living in the industrial centers. Determined to prevent their radicalization, especially through exposure to communist or fascist movements, federal officials pushed Congress to pass the New Deal programs to create public-works jobs, low-cost housing, and health clinics and to establish unemployment insurance and old-age pension programs for salaried and mass-production workers. With the backing of the White House and the Democratic Party, the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) organized millions of immigrant and second-generation industrial workers, including autoworkers and steelworkers.8

The CIO was able to organize successfully because it reached across ethnic and racial lines, breaking with the older unions’ traditions of segregation and employers’ attempts to pit different racial and national groups against each other in order to break strikes. The CIO also managed to unite urban workers because mass culture and mass consumption were reshaping the identities, politics, and economic choices of immigrants’ children in cities across the country. Chain stores began to replace the pushcarts and small shops of the first generation. Second-generation Americans, whose parents had once viewed each other with suspicion, now bonded in public schools and on shop floors over their shared enjoyment of nationally syndicated radio shows, sports, and movies.9

But federal and local officials also used the New Deal to divide immigrant groups in ways that reshaped the cities in the decades that followed. In towns and cities in the West and Southwest, Bureau of Immigration agents rounded up destitute Mexicans and deported them, often together with their Mexican American citizen children, in a bid to create more work for “native born” people. The authorities in Los Angeles, California, with the cooperation of the Mexican consul, deported so many Mexicans and Mexican Americans that the Mexican American population dropped by almost 30 percent.10

New Deal housing programs essentially institutionalized patterns of racial segregation that were just a decade or so old in most urban areas. Federally funded public housing separated whites, African Americans, Latinos, and Chinese Americans and completely excluded other Asian Americans, and administrators denied Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance to integrated neighborhoods and almost all people of color. These programs supplemented racialized aspects of other New Deal legislation, such as the exclusion of (predominately nonwhite) agricultural and domestic workers from the old-age pension system (later known as Social Security) and from unemployment insurance, to essentially create a two-track social-welfare system in the United States for whites and people of color.11

In creating a stratified social-welfare state, federal officials essentially affirmed southern and eastern European immigrant and second-generation “whiteness” and helped to undercut older ways of defining race. At the turn of the century, race could refer to ethnicity, nationality, religion, or color, and immigration officials, civic leaders, and racial theorists alike frequently listed Jews, Italians, Russians, and “Negroes” as some of the many races living in the United States. Now, however, federal administrators categorized all people of wholly European ancestry as “white,” regardless of their religion or national origin. This practice gave immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and their children an incentive to define themselves as “white,” since this racial status allowed them access to neighborhoods and federal programs that were closed to people of color. It also encouraged some Latino immigrants and their children, especially those with lighter skin, to “pass” as Spanish or French, since doing so offered greater residential and employment opportunities in cities where “white” residents routinely racialized Latinos.12

World War II

World War II deepened European immigrants’ and their children’s stake in whiteness. The US military largely divided soldiers based on race, placing African Americans and Japanese Americans in segregated units; Filipino and Chinese American soldiers could serve in “white” units, but only because China and the Philippine Commonwealth (an American colony slated for independence) were US allies. At the same time, the military confirmed the “whiteness” of southern and eastern European immigrants and their children by placing them in white units, which received better treatment, accommodations, food, and recreational opportunities than the nonwhite ones. Wartime mobilization and production also reshaped heavily immigrant cities. Millions of Americans, including immigrants and their children, moved to wartime boomtowns, especially on the West Coast, for work. Because of labor shortages, Mexican Americans, Chinese Americans, and other immigrants of color, many of them women, took jobs that employers had long reserved for white men. However, the racial segregation of urban America actually grew worse because of wartime housing shortages, with those on the “white” side of the divide enjoying far more housing options.

The war deeply influenced Mexican American life in the Southwest in ways that eventually reshaped the region’s cities. Beginning in 1942, the US government’s Bracero Program allowed thousands of Mexicans to enter the country as farmworkers to alleviate wartime labor shortages. Many of these braceros stayed on and eventually resettled in urban areas across the Southwest. (The program eventually ended in the early 1960s.) Drafted at high rates, Mexican Americans also worked in large numbers in the defense plants of overcrowded cities like Los Angeles, where wartime tensions exacerbated existing racial and ethnic antagonisms. In 1943, Anglo soldiers and sailors attacked Mexican and Mexican American residents of Los Angeles in what became known as the Zoot Suit Riot. After that, members of the Mexican American community began to organize for political power, a process that continued in the postwar era across the urban Southwest through groups such as the GI Forum and the Community Service Organization.13

On the West Coast, President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 gave the US military the authority to remove all people of Japanese ancestry, both aliens and citizens, from their homes and place them in concentration camps in remote areas. Although most of the 120,000 Japanese Americans designated for incarcertation lived on farms, tens of thousands made their homes in older, heavily segregated areas of Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and, especially, Los Angeles. African Americans migrating to the booming West Coast from the South often moved into the homes the Japanese Americans had left behind. When the US government allowed Japanese Americans to resettle to areas outside the West Coast during the war, most ended up in the cities of the Midwest and Intermountain West, Chicago being the most popular destination. Forced to give up their farms and homes in 1942, Japanese Americans who returned to the Pacific Coast after the war also faced rural vigilantism. Thousands now moved to cities, making Japanese Americans a largely urban community.14

Figure 3. Los Angeles’s “Little Tokyo” Japanese American business district in April 1942, as the US government was incarcerating the city’s large Japanese American population. Due to racial segregation and wartime housing shortages, thousands of African American migrants from the South soon moved into the shops the Japanese Americans had left behind. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USF34-072254-D.

Postwar Suburbanization

The Servicemen’s Bill of Rights of 1944 (popularly known as the GI Bill), together with existing federal housing programs and postwar urban renewal and highway legislation, completed many of the transformations that the war had set in motion. Private developers used mass-production techniques to build tens of thousands of tract homes in the suburbs of cities from New York to Los Angeles. They marketed such homes to GI Bill recipients and families who qualified for Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage guarantees, almost always refusing to sell homes to people of color and, sometimes, to Jews, including veterans. Before 1948, when the Supreme Court forced the FHA to change its policies, it had openly required such racial restrictions, and the agency continued to practice covert racial discrimination until the late 1960s. The programs encouraged “white” Americans, including millions of second-generation southern and eastern European Americans, to abandon the inner cities and move to the segregated suburbs. By the 1960s, many inner-city areas were predominately nonwhite.

These shifts did not completely undermine old immigrant neighborhoods or the second generation’s sense of ethnicity. Numerous second-generation Catholics still chose to live in their home parishes, and large percentages of second-generation American Jews remained in inner-city areas. Many of the new suburbs of older, heavily immigrant cities attracted specific ethnic or religious groups, such as the heavily Jewish Scarsdale, New York, or the substantially Italian American and Irish American suburbs west of Philadelphia.15

In some places, the war even revived immigrant enclaves because the conflict had prompted certain adjustments to America’s restrictive immigration laws. In 1943, Congress repealed the old Chinese Exclusion Act, enabling Chinese immigrants to naturalize and allowing a token number to immigrate yearly. Congress made similar allowances for South Asians and Filipinos in 1946. In 1945 and 1946, new legislation enabled Chinese American veterans and citizen men and women to bring China-born spouses to the United States, and thousands of Chinese women finally joined their husbands in America for the first time. One result was the revitalization of old Chinatown areas, many of which had become family neighborhoods by the early 1950s. Simultaneously, the US government regularized the status of thousands of Chinese students and professionals who were stranded in the United States after the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland in 1949.16

Congress also begrudgingly passed bills aimed mostly at helping war refugees from formerly Nazi-occupied areas of Europe. In 1948, one such piece of legislation allowed the admission of about two hundred thousand displaced persons, but only by mortgaging the quotas for their nations of origin well into the future. Determined to keep out Jews, anti-Semites in Congress wrote a bill that used occupational preferences, geographical definitions, and cutoff dates to prevent their entry and favored refugees from communism. Eventually Congress revised the legislation to remove some of these hurdles, and about four hundred thousand displaced persons from central, eastern, and southern Europe and China entered the United States between 1948 and 1952, with smaller numbers coming after 1953 under the new Refugee Relief Act.17 The vast majority of these new entrants initially settled in American cities, but relatively few chose to live in the old ethnic enclaves; their aspirations, backgrounds, and occupations were often quite different from those of earlier immigrants.18

By the 1960s, suburbanization and the flight of industry from inner-city areas had undermined the remnants of many of the older ethnic enclaves of American cities. So did white resistance to the Second Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans left the South annually for life in the urban north. In parts of Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other older cities, white residents, many of them the children of turn-of-the-century immigrants, sometimes used violence to prevent black, Asian, and Latino integration of their neighborhoods and schools.

Eventually, many of these holdouts left for the suburbs, too. Accepted as “white,” European immigrants and their children followed Cold War defense jobs along the new, federally funded highways—some of which cut through and destroyed the old enclaves—to the government-underwritten suburbs, where people of color still could not live. Those barred included Asian American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino immigrants, who frequently shared their neighborhoods with black Americans—another group that faced tremendous discrimination in housing and employment.

Figure 4. Postwar planners in Dallas and many other major urban centers often built federal highways through older immigrant neighborhoods or used the new freeways to wall off the areas where immigrants and native-born people of color lived from other parts of the city. Courtesy of National Archives and Prints Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, NWDNS-412-DA-5298.

Still, by the mid-1950s, middle-class, well-educated Asian Americans, including many GI Bill recipients and former “stranded students” from China, began to experience increasing residential mobility; this was tied to Cold War perceptions of them as more desirable than other groups and as “allies” in the struggle against communism—the first stirring of the “model minority myth.” Yet working-class Asian Americans and recent Chinese refugees continued to live in older areas of the West Coast cities, especially in neighborhoods recently abandoned by the children of southern and eastern European immigrants. Their neighbors increasingly included not just blacks but also Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose population grew quickly during the 1950s and 1960s because of both legal and undocumented immigration.19 As a result of government policies and the practices of private industry, by the 1960s, what became known as the “urban crisis” was increasingly visible in the United States: inner cities were segregated, impoverished, and deprived of the benefits of a rapidly growing economy, while the almost wholly white suburbs thrived around them. People who could leave the inner cities did, despite their ties to urban ethnic and religious institutions that usually dated to the early 20th-century tide of immigration.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 and the “Urban Crisis”

The restrictionist Immigration Act of 1952 (often called the McCarran-Walter Act) reaffirmed the old national- origins basis of American policy. But in 1965, Congress passed and President Johnson signed a tremendously significant piece of legislation, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (sometimes called the Hart-Cellar Act). The 1965 legislation eliminated the national-origins basis of US immigration policy and replaced it with a system that divided the world by hemispheres. The Eastern Hemisphere, which included Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, received a 170,000-person annual quota, and no one country could use more than 20,000 slots of that quota. The slots were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, with preferences for family reunification and for immigrants with certain professional and technical skills. Unlike earlier legislation, the new law created some limits for immigration from the Americas: the Western Hemisphere received a 120,000 person quota, without any country cap. Congress also established quotas for refugees, no longer forcing presidents to rely on executive actions and quota mortgaging.

Legislators anticipated that the 1965 bill would enable older southern and eastern European relatives to join families in the United States. In fact, the new law encouraged far more substantial immigration from Asia and Latin America than Congress had anticipated. In the 1970s alone, more immigrants entered the United States from Asia than had come in all the previous years combined. Hundreds of thousands of people from politically turbulent and economically underdeveloped parts of Latin America also arrived in large numbers, either legally, using the new law, or by circumventing it as undocumented immigrants. At the end of the Vietnam War, thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia also entered the United States under the new refugee quotas.20

The 1965 legislation had a substantial and fairly rapid impact on many cities across America. Rioting and disinvestment devastated scores of inner-city areas in the 1960s and 1970s, but hundreds of thousands of new immigrants flocked to many the same places in the 1970s and afterward. Some of the new arrivals replaced business owners who were leaving riot-scarred areas; others established their own small businesses, including garment factories and specialty-food manufacturing plants. Thousands of trained doctors and nurses from such places as Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Haiti, and Hong Kong took positions that had been vacated by the native-born professionals leaving inner-city hospitals for more well-funded institutions in the suburbs. Significant numbers of Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union also settled in major cities such as New York in the 1970s, even as the native-born populations of such places fell.21

At the apex of the urban crisis, then, the newest immigrants were helping to slowly revitalize the crumbling cities, from the South Asians settling in northern New Jersey’s industrial centers to the Mexicans and Koreans building businesses in Los Angeles. The process continued for the next two decades, as the gradual opening of the People’s Republic of China and the end of the Cold War further transformed the demographics of America’s foreign-born population. In the 1980s, mainland Chinese became the largest group of immigrants from Asia, and Eastern Europeans and Russians left their homelands to resettle in cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. Legislative reforms in the 1980s and 1990s enabled more African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants to move to the United States. Thousands settled in major metropolitan areas, including New York City and Miami.22

Like the Europeans who had arrived in the early 20th century, the new immigrants often created visible ethnic enclaves in the cities where they settled. A few of these, such as Little Korea and Little India in Manhattan, or heavily South Asian Devon Avenue in Chicago, developed almost exclusively as business districts serving co-ethnics from across the metropolis. However, most of these neighborhoods mixed business and residential use. Some reflected the new arrivals’ own styles of urbanism, such as the Oak Cliff area in Dallas, whose heavily Latino/a immigrant population created a neighborhood designed for pedestrians and small businesses and centered on a central plaza.23 Other neighborhoods played important regional roles, including the heavily Fujianese area of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which became a transit and employment hub for Chinese restaurants across the East Coast and the South. Although these new enclaves were sometimes identified with a single ethnic group, they were frequently home to a mix of different immigrants attracted by nearby public transportation, low-cost housing, and religious or social-service institutions. East and Southeast Asians flocked to Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento; Koreans and Chinese to Flushing, Queens; Hmong, Latinos, and Somalis to Frogtown in St. Paul; and Mexicans, Central Americans, and Chinese to Los Angeles’s San Gabriel Valley.

The social and political effects of the new immigration on urban America only slowly became apparent. In the 1970s and 1980s, as the economy struggled, immigrants and those in heavily immigrant ethnic groups experienced a strong backlash. Shrimping crews in New Orleans complained that Vietnamese arrivals were taking their jobs. Working-class whites in Miami charged that Cubans received preference in construction work. In Monterey Park, just outside Los Angeles, the city council in the 1980s passed one of the first “English only” laws and a slow-growth ordinance, reflections of local unease about the rapid influx of immigrants from Taiwan. Sometimes, dislike and fear of racialized immigrants exploded into violence, as in impoverished Lawrence, Massachusetts, where white residents clashed with Latinos in a two-day riot in 1984.24

Anti-Asian hate crimes spiked during this era, often reflecting resentment of Asians’ perceived economic success or cultural difference. The most infamous crime occurred in Detroit, when two unemployed autoworkers who blamed Japanese competition for their plight murdered Chinese American Vincent Chin. Minorities, most of them native-born, also participated in some of the attacks on new immigrants. The “Dotbusters” who attacked and terrorized Indian residents of Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1987 included not just Anglo but also Latino men.

Federal disinvestment in urban areas and social-welfare programs also helped create tensions between long-time residents of color and new immigrants in American cities. In fact, both groups grappled with many of the same problems. Latino immigrants particularly struggled with police brutality, which was a factor in riots involving heavily immigrant Latino communities in Houston (1978); Perth Amboy, New Jersey (1988); Washington, DC (1991), and a number of other cities. Conservative politicians contributed to the friction by praising Asian immigrants as “model minorities” who worked hard and eschewed social-welfare programs, supposedly in contrast to native-born blacks and Latinos. Such pronouncements ignored the great diversity in the recent immigration from Asia, which included well-educated professionals and penniless refugees and working-class people who used public assistance programs.25 The inflammatory rhetoric encouraged sometimes explosive resentment of Asian Americans by other minority groups. In some Brooklyn neighborhoods, African American and Afro-Caribbean residents boycotted Korean-owned stores after protest leaders claimed Korean businesses received US government backing in order to destroy black communities. When riots broke out in Los Angeles in 1992 after the white police officers who beat motorist Rodney King were acquitted, blacks, whites, and Latinos looted and destroyed many Korean American-owned businesses.26

Despite such tensions, many older urban areas eventually succeeded in incorporating the recent immigrants into local political coalitions that also included native-born people of color. In San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, people of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Filipino ancestry built coalitions with African Americans and Latinos and became a rising political force in local and state politics. Mexican Americans and other Latinos also emerged as a major factor in Los Angeles area politics by making common cause with other people of color. Because of the entrenched political machines in New York City’s heavily immigrant outer boroughs, immigrant political incorporation there has proceeded at a slower pace.27 Either way, though many of the most successful politicians in such communities have been second-generation people, they often rely on substantial support from naturalized immigrants.

Immigration to the Suburbs

After 1965, several long-time centers of urban immigrant life were once again attracting huge numbers of newcomers, especially Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago.28 By the 1980s and 1990s, though, most of new immigrants were bypassing the older urban areas that had once been such magnets for them and moving directly to suburbs and smaller cities, which offered greater economic opportunities. Immigrants also poured into regions with little history of immigrant incorporation, especially parts of the South, such as the Atlanta, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte metropolitan areas. In a number of such places, the new immigration became a heated political issue, and the debates focused not only on the division of resources such as jobs and social-welfare spending but also on more ill-defined cultural and racial issues. Some suburbs of Atlanta and Dallas, two new gateways for immigrants from Asia and Latin America, crafted English-only ordinances and laws aimed at landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants. The small city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, did the same in 2006 in a swipe at the large number of Mexican, Dominican, and other Latino immigrants moving there. But elsewhere, such as suburban areas of Washington, DC, Austin, Texas, and Minneapolis, local officials have focused on immigrant economic, educational, and social incorporation rather than exclusion.29

Figure 5. President George W. Bush participates in a naturalization ceremony at New York’s Ellis Island. Since 1965, most immigrants to the United States have come from Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Courtesy of National Archives and Prints Administration 7369336.

Debates about immigration in America now revolve around a host of issues, including but not limited to religion, language, culture, race, and economic impact. Fears about the relationship of immigration to national security have flared up repeatedly since the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Since the attacks, immigrants and native-born people perceived to be Arab or Muslim have often faced harassment even in cities with large Arab American and Muslim populations.

The diversity of immigrants in the 21st century and the distinctiveness of different regions and urban and suburban areas of the United States make generalizations about the future of both quite difficult. However, the 2016 election of President Trump has undoubtedly created a climate of fear among recent immigrants, especially those living in the country unlawfully. Trump’s election and his racist comments about certain immigrant groups also clarified the ways in which immigration has changed politics and attitudes in many parts of urban and suburban America. In recent years, scores of cities and suburbs have adopted “sanctuary city” laws intended to protect immigrant residents whose contributions civic leaders and ordinary citizens alike recognize and value. The Trump administration’s January 2017 attempt to use an executive order to bar foreign-born Arabs and Muslims from entering the United States sparked large demonstrations in immigrant-friendly cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Seattle. At the same time, many pro-immigrant cities and suburbs are in conservative states such as North Carolina and Texas, where state officials with federal assistance have attacked sanctuary statutes and targeted cities for stricter immigration enforcement. The degree to which immigration will continue to contribute to the revitalization of America’s urban and suburban areas is now increasingly uncertain.

Discussion of the Literature

Because different immigrant groups and specific cities vary so widely, no broad survey of immigrants in urban America really exists. The fields of 20th-century urban America and 20th-century immigration history are rich and incredibly diverse, and occasionally they overlap in a study of a specific group in a specific place. Excellent works about specific immigrant groups and their children in various cities in the first half of the 20th century include Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890; Russell Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity; Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950; Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America; Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco; George Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945; and Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America.30 On the impact of the Immigration Act of 1924, see Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America.31 An overview of immigration in New York City is Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York.32

Significant thematic works on immigrants, their children, and the way they understood race, gender, religion, sexuality, labor, and the city before World War II include Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939; Robert A. Slayton, Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy; George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940; and Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1940.33

Scholarship about immigrants and their children in midcentury and postwar cities and suburbs includes Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California; Lilia Fernandez, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago; Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics; John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North; Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed; Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II; and Maria Cristina Garcia, Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994; and David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America.34

Much of the scholarship on post-1965 immigrants and their children in American cities and suburbs is in sociology, geography, American studies, and related areas rather than in the field of history. Some notable works include Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California; Willow Lung-Amam, Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia; Audrey Singer, Susan W. Hardwick, and Caroline B. Brettell, eds., Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America; Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California; Warren Lehrer, Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America; Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York`s Two Great Waves of Immigration; Tarry Hum, Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park; and Robert Vargas, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio; and Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America.”35

Primary Sources

Because of the diversity of cities, suburbs, and immigrant groups, the type and availability of primary sources about immigrant life in urban areas varies widely. The US Government’s decennial Census of Population and Housing offers an invaluable overview of the foreign-born population of America’s cities during the 20th century. National Archives facilities, especially at College Park, Maryland, contain detailed community maps, neighborhood surveys, and housing-project records for heavily immigrant areas. Individual community newspapers, from the Mexican American La Opinión of Los Angeles to the Polish-language Dziennik Związkowy of Chicago to the Chinese Qiao Bao of New York, provide insider accounts of political, social, and economic life. Many cities, especially beginning in the 1960s, undertook detailed surveys of immigrant communities in the process of developing educational and social-welfare programs for them. More recently, university-community partnerships have produced noteworthy digital collections of oral histories from local immigrant and second-generation residents.

Further Reading

  • Brooks, Charlotte. Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic, 2008.
  • Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
  • Guglielmo, Thomas A. White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Holdaway, Jennifer, Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, and Mary C. Waters. Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2010.
  • McGreevy, John T. Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
  • Sánchez, George J. Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Sugrue, Thomas. The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.
  • Vallejo, Jody. Barrios to Burbs: The Making of the Mexican American Middle Class. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013.
  • Waters, Mary C. Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.


  • 1. Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001), 81–127.

  • 2. George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 233–234; and John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (New York: Athenaeum, 1963), 286.

  • 3. Annual Report of the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1949 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1949), 95.

  • 4. Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014), 148, 202–205.

  • 5. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940, Population, Volume II: Characteristics of the Population, Part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1943), 19–20.

  • 6. Charlotte Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends: Asian Americans, Housing, and the Transformation of Urban California (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 21–31, 60–64; Shannon King, Whose Harlem Is This, Anyway? Community Politics and Grassroots Activism during the New Negro Era (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 22–23; and Nestor Rodriguez, “Urban Redevelopment and Mexican American Barrios in the Socio-Spatial Order,” in Latino Urbanism: The Politics of Planning, Policy and Redevelopment, ed. David R. Diaz and Rodolfo D. Torres, 87–89 (New York: New York University Press, 2012).

  • 7. John T. McGreevy, Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 7–28.

  • 8. Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 252–289.

  • 9. Cohen, 100–158, 324–360.

  • 10. George J. Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 213.

  • 11. Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 70–111.

  • 12. George Lipsitz, “The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the ‘White’ Problem in American Studies,” American Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1995): 372–374; and Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 62–63.

  • 13. Shana Bernstein, Bridges of Reform: Interracial Civil Rights Activism in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 80–99, 138–151.

  • 14. Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 159–170.

  • 15. Joshua Zeitz, White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 11; and James Wolfinger, Philadelphia Divided: Race and Politics in the City of Brotherly Love (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 191.

  • 16. Xiaojian Zhao, Remaking Chinese America: Immigration, Family, and Community, 1940–1965 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 78–93; and Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 130–165.

  • 17. Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 21–26, 36–50.

  • 18. Stanislaus A. Blejwas, “Old and New Polonias: Tensions within an Ethnic Community,” Polish American Studies 38, no. 2 (1981): 74–75; George Minton, “Integration of Displaced Persons into U. S. Economic Life,” Monthly Labor Review 75, no. 6 (1952): 612; and Hsu, Good Immigrants (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ), 231–233.

  • 19. Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 194–227.

  • 20. David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 89–156.

  • 21. Reimers, 99–122.

  • 22. Yoku Shaw-Taylor, “The Changing Face of Black America,” Contexts 8, no. 4 (2009): 62–63.

  • 23. Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, “Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (2014): 817–819.

  • 24. Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945–2000 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 121–122.

  • 25. Ellen D. Wu, The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 151–209, 242–251.

  • 26. Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), 82–108; and Nancy Abelman and John Lie, Blue Dreams: Korean Americans and the Los Angeles Riots (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 7–8, 156–157.

  • 27. Charlotte Brooks, Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 209–242; Manuel Pastor, Juan De Lara, and Rachel Rosner, “Movements Matter: Immigrant Integration in Los Angeles,” in Unsettled Americans: Metropolitan Context and Civic Leadership for Immigrant Integration, ed. John Mollenkopf and Manuel Pastor (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016), 109–111.

  • 28. Pew Research Center, “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change through 2065.” Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends, September 28, 2015, 73.

  • 29. Audrey Singer, Susan W. Hardwick, and Caroline B. Brettell, eds., Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008).

  • 30. Thomas Guglielmo, White on Arrival: Italians, Race, Color, and Power in Chicago, 1890–1945 (Oxford University Press, 2003); Russell Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Robert Orsi, The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem, 1880–1950, 3rd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); and Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American; and Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, Claiming the Oriental Gateway: Prewar Seattle and Japanese America (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012).

  • 31. Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).

  • 32. Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

  • 33. Cohen, Making a New Deal (New York: Cambridge University Press); Robert A. Slayton, Back of the Yards: The Making of a Local Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Chauncey, Gay New York (New York: Basic Books); and Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1940 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).

  • 34. Brooks, Alien Neighbors, Foreign Friends (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Lilia Fernandez, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012); Zeitz, White Ethnic New York (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press); McGreevy, Parish Boundaries (Chicago: University of Chicago Press); Gerald Gamm, Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001); Joshua B. Freeman, Working-Class New York: Life and Labor since World War II (New York: New Press, 2000); Maria Cristina Garcia, Havana USA: Cuban Exiles and Cuban Americans in South Florida, 1959–1994 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); and Reimers, Still the Golden Door (New York: Columbia University Press).

  • 35. Timothy Fong, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994); Willow Lung-Amam, Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017); Audrey Singer, Susan W. Hardwick, and Caroline B. Brettell, eds., Twenty-First Century Gateways: Immigrant Incorporation in Suburban America (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2008); Wendy Cheng, The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Warren Lehrer, Crossing the BLVD: Strangers, Neighbors, Aliens in a New America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003); Nancy Foner, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York`s Two Great Waves of Immigration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003); Tarry Hum, Making a Global Immigrant Neighborhood: Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014); Robert Vargas, Wounded City: Violent Turf Wars in a Chicago Barrio (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); and Andrew Sandoval-Strausz, “Latino Landscapes: Postwar Cities and the Transnational Origins of a New Urban America,” Journal of American History 101, no. 3 (December 2014): 804–831.