U.S. Immigration Flows, 1820-2013

Between 1820 and 2013, nearly 79.5 million immigrants have become lawful permanent residents of the United States according to the Department of Homeland Security’s records. The chart below shows the volume of U.S. immigration by immigrant continent of origin for each decade since 1820. (Note that the volume of immigration drops for 2010-2013 because the decade is only partially complete.)

Volume of US Immigration and Continent of Origin by Decade

There have been three major waves of immigration into the United States since 1820, marked by both the volume of immigration flows and the nationality of the immigrants. Between 1840 and 1889, the first wave, the U.S. received 14.3 million immigrants, the majority from Northern/Western European countries such as Germany, Ireland, and the United Kingdom. Between 1890 and 1919, another 18.2 million arrived in the second wave, mainly from Southern/Eastern European countries such as Italy, Russia, and Poland. Since 1960, nearly 38 million immigrants have arrived in the United States in the third wave of immigration. These immigrants are largely from Latin American countries like Mexico and Asian countries such as China, India, and Vietnam. A small but growing share of immigrants are from African countries such as Egypt and Ethiopia.

Although immigration to the United States is widespread, there are only six countries that have sent more than one million immigrants to the U.S. in a 10-year time period: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Russia, and Mexico. A focus on these specific countries in the chart below more clearly highlights the three unique waves of immigration to the United States. The bulk of immigration from Germany and Ireland occurred prior to 1900; between 1840 and 1859, immigration from these two countries accounted for more than 70% of all immigration to the United States.

6 Countries with 1 million or more immigrants

Immigrant flows from Italy, Russia, and Austria-Hungary peak between 1890 and 1919. Between 1900 and 1909, each of these countries sent more than 1 million migrants (2 million from Austria-Hungary, 1.9 million from Italy, and 1.5 million from Russia). Together, the 5.4 million immigrants from these three countries accounted for 66% of all legal immigration to the U.S. between 1900 and 1909.

Mexican migration is sparse prior to 1950, but increases significantly in the following decades. Since 1960, more than 7 million legal permanent residents have immigrated to the United States from Mexico. Nearly 2.8 million immigrated between 1990 and 1999, the single largest 10-year flow from any country in any decade. Mexican immigrants accounted for 28% of all immigrants to the United States during the 1990s.

How has immigration impacted North Carolina? Read about it here.

About Rebecca Tippett

Rebecca Tippett is Director of Carolina Demography at UNC-Chapel Hill's Carolina Population Center.
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