Public Release: 

Immigration has become hallmark of America's image at home and abroad

University of Washington

PHILADELPHIA - Even though the American government and people have not always embraced immigrants with open arms, the image of the United States as a land of opportunity and refuge has become the focal point of the nation's identity at home and around the world, says the incoming president of the Population Association of America.

"The founding fathers did not intend for the United States to become a nation of immigrants, but that is what happened," said Charles Hirschman, a University of Washington demographer.

Speaking here Friday (April 1) at the group's annual meeting, Hirschman will look at the two great waves of immigrants shaped and altered the country in the 20th century, or the so-called American century.

The children and grandchildren of the first big wave of immigration that extended from 1880 to 1924 played a significant roll in support of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal social welfare programs of the 1930s that transformed the country, according to Hirschman. In the 1960s, descendents of the first wave backed the social and racial reforms of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. And, in 1965, they also supported easing of the restrictive 1924 national origins legislation that closed the door to immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to America. This in turn sparked a second wave of immigrants, primarily from Latin America and Asia.

The United States would be a far different place without those immigrants and their descendents, he said. Other studies have shown that the population of the U.S. would be around 90 million, rather than the 270 million enumerated in the 2000 census if it only included descendants of those people who arrived in America before 1800.

The other most striking impact has been a broadening of the population's diversity. The foreign-born population of the country declined from almost 14 percent in the early 20th century to less than 5 percent in 1970 before rebounding to between 11 and 12 percent currently. By using a wider definition of the immigrant community, Hirschman said the present share of the population with recent family roots in the cultures and languages of other countries is closer to 20 or 25 percent of Americans. This definition includes all persons living in households with a foreign-born person and the second generation which doesn't necessarily live in immigrant households but still has some sense of belonging to the immigrant world.

Hirschman noted that immigration fueled the growth of many of America's big cities in the 20th and 21st centuries. In the early 1900s, the U.S. was still a nation of farms and small towns. Nearly two-thirds of native-born whites who were third or higher generation Americans lived in rural areas. Immigrants clustered in big cities, and in 1900 roughly three-quarters of the population of New York, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, San Francisco, Buffalo, Milwaukee and Detroit were immigrants or children of immigrants. Today, although immigrants increasingly live in suburbs surrounding most metropolitan areas, Hirschman said it is the central cities that provide the first opportunities for most immigrants, just as they did a century ago.

Newcomers also have had a major impact on the nation through their impact on popular culture. Immigrants and their children made seminal contributions and helped shape the growth of the Hollywood film industry, the Broadway stage and popular music -popular culture products that have been exported around the country and the world.

"In a society which has relatively few cultural touchstones, immigrant artists are free to define 'Americanness' in novel ways," Hirschman said.

"The new immigrants who have arrived since 1965 are also changing the structure and culture of American society in new directions that cannot be clearly seen at present. One important direction is the creation of a more cosmopolitan and tolerant society. The presence of immigrant is a hedge against the parochial view of us versus them. Many of us are them, and even if we are not, we increasingly have neighbors and members of our extended families who are. This may be the real legacy of the American century," he said


For more information, contact Hirschman at (206) 543-5035 or He can be reached at the Philadelphia Marriott Hotel through Saturday at (215) 625-2900.

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