Immigration is not a marginal theme in American history; it has been a crucial axis of America’s distinctive development from the very beginning. All Americans, except Native Americans, had at one time been strangers to the land they now claimed as their own. The process of social re-mixing eventually yielded a new society, less provincial, less narrowly devoted than the ones the immigrants had left behind.

Immigrant diversity made America different, not in colorful little ways, but in large ways that were essential to its development. Americans had to learn to live with many cultures, many versions of truth. The unsettling process shook millions free from their homelands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, churning them from the lands of northern and western Europe. In the 1870s more than 280,000 newcomers a year, mostly from Germany, Ireland, Great Britain, and the Scandinavian countries of western and northern Europe entered the United States. Only a decade later, “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe accounted for the bulk of the twenty-three million immigrants from Europe, the largest migration in history, who came crowding into America’s ports between 1880 and 1920. These immigrants brought to their new land much valuable experience and important gifts, but to longer-settled Americans their cultures, languages, and folkways were strange and threatening. Their diversity contributed to the evolution of American liberty. And like other immigrants before them, they peopled the land, pushed back its frontiers, built its cities, laid its tracks, worked its factories, and enriched its cultures. 

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