200 Years Of U.S. Immigration (And Anger About Immigration), In A Beautiful Visualization

No matter how many times anti-immigrant sentiment bubbles up, we can’t escape the fact that most of us are descended from immigrants.

200 Years Of U.S. Immigration (And Anger About Immigration), In A Beautiful Visualization
[Top Photo: byvalet via Shutterstock]

In a little over a decade, most new Americans will be immigrants, not babies–the first time that immigration has been the primary driver of population growth since 1850. A new visualization charts the rising swell of the current wave of immigration, and shows how U.S. immigration has changed over the last two centuries.


“Immigration is a hot-button issue in the U.S.,” says researcher Natalia Bronshtein, who created the visualization. “Much has been said and written about it, but I wanted to get a birds-eye view of immigration over centuries–not just a few years. Getting my hands dirty with the data and writing code to visualize it is the first step in further data exploration.”

Each bulge in the chart coincides with a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment. In the mid-1800s, people were rioting against Irish and German immigrants (and a century earlier, Ben Franklin was already arguing that Germans were ruining the country, saying “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their Own Nation”). Today, as part of the largest current group of immigrants, Mexican-Americans get the attention.

The visualization, though simple at first glance, includes the details of how many immigrants are coming from each country. “I think that if a picture is better than a thousand words, an interactive data visualization is better than a thousand pictures,” says Bronshtein. “A visually appealing representation of mundane immigration statistics is an instant attention-grabber, but it also allows one to drill down into the details. This is important because many infographics and articles cherry-pick data without giving the reader an opportunity to look for the devil in the details.”

The chart shrinks each time Americans react against immigration with new laws and restrictions. In 1924, when the country set strict quotas on immigration, favoring certain European countries, the flow of immigrants quickly dropped. In 1965, when policies changed to allow immigration from around the world, the current wave began to grow.

Now (by the most recent 2013 statistics), there are around 41.3 million immigrants in the country, more than at any other time in our history as a nation of immigrants.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.