Immigration Milestones

An immigrant is a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence. The first known use of the term was in a textbook, American Geography, by Jedidah Morse published in 1789. See the timeline below for important milestones in U.S. immigration history.

by Catherine McNiff
1565–1800 1801–1850 1851–1900 1901–1950 1951–present


1565 The Spanish establish the first permanent European settlement in the United States, in St. Augustine, Fla.


Spanish immigrants settle in what is now Texas and New Mexico.


More than 20,000 immigrants swell the population of New England.


The War of 1812 stalls immigration.


More than ten million European immigrants come to America, settling mostly in the Midwest from Britain, Ireland, and Germany.


143,439 immigrants arrive


599,125 immigrants arrive.


Irish Potato Famine sends thousands to America. Failed revolutions throughout Europe contribute to the mass exodus.


1,713,251 immigrants arrive.


80,000 Mexicans are granted citizenship at the end of the Mexican-American War.


California Gold Rush fuels immigration from China, as well as massive internal migration.


The first year the U.S. Census asks all free persons their place of birth.


The anti-immigration party, the Know-Nothings, gain seats and power in Congress.


2,314,825 immigrants arrive.


Drawn by the Homestead Act, European settlers flock to America to cultivate their portion of the American West.


Riots in New York City involving countless immigrants who oppose compulsory military service.


Thanks in large part to the labor of Irish and Chinese immigrants, the First Transcontinental Railroad is completed.


2,812,191 immigrants arrive


At a meeting of the Workingmen's Party of the United States in San Francisco, thousands of participants turned rioters, smashing and burning more than a dozen Chinatown businesses.


5,246,613 immigrants arrive.


The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in New York Harbor.


In Chan Ping v. United States, the Supreme Court rules that the federal government has the right to exclude foreigners under the sovereign powers outlined in the Constitution.


The Office of the Superintendent of Immigration is established.


Ellis Island opens.


8,795,386 immigrants arrive.


The Melting Pot opens in New York City. The play likens the assimilation of immigrants to a fiery crucible.


The Mexican Revolution spews thousands across the border seeking refuge and work.


5,735,811 immigrants arrive.


The Dillingham Commission (1907) publishes a 42-volume report detailing the threats posed by immigration on American society.


A strike in the Lawrence, Mass. textile mills was helped along by the pro-immigration union established in 1905, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) lasted more than two months.


Immigrant silk workers went on strike in Paterson, New Jersey, assisted by the IWW.


The Red Scare: the successful Russian Revolution causes panic in the United States; thousands of immigrants are seized and hundreds are deported because of the "communist menace."


4,107,209 immigrants arrive.


The Border Patrol is created to combat smuggling and illegal immigration.


Governor Al Smith of New York is Democratic nominee for president, marking the first time a son of immigrant parents is a major party candidate.


532,431 immigrants arrive.


Japanese internment begins as a result of WWII.


In Galvan v. Press, the Supreme Court rules that the government can deport individuals if they were ever members of the Communist Party, without regard to the amount of time they belonged or if they did not fully understand the ideology of the party.


Seven Los Angeles area Palestinian activists and the wife of one activist born in Kenya (the L.A. Eight) were arrested, accused of links with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and threatened with deportation beginning in 1987. Over the next 20 years, the case, which tested the rights of non-citizens to freedom of speech, went before the U.S. Court of Appeals four times, the Supreme Court once, and the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) multiple times. Finally, in 2007, the BIA dismissed all charges against Khader Hamide and Michel Shehadeh, the only two of the eight who had permanent resident status and were therefore the focus of the investigation. The government agreed not to seek the deportation of either man based on related political actions or connections in the future and they in turn agreed to not apply for citizenship for three years.


On May 1, the National Immigrant Solidarity Network (NISN) and other pro-immigrant groups urged illegal immigrants and their supporters to stay home from work and school and to boycott American businesses, calling it the Great American Boycott. More than 1.5 million supporters turned out to support immigration reform in what was considered the largest day of protest in U.S. history.


During the Great American Boycott II, one rally in Los Angeles turned violent. In 2009, the L.A. City Council agreed to pay nearly $13 million to people injured or mistreated in the 2007 May Day melee in MacArthur Park.


On April 11, officials in Maricopa County, Ariz., intercepted a package intended for controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio that contained explosive materials. The package, sent through the U.S. Postal Service, was discovered by a postal employee. The 80-year-old lawman, who describes himself as "America's toughest sheriff," has served for two decades and is best known for his unequivocal stance in the undocumented immigration debate. Arpaio has logged more than 35,000 arrests of people accused of being in the country illegally and was the target of a Department of Justice investigation in 2010, looking into possible racial profiling.

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