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Southern Cultures 13.4 (2007) 24-44

New People in the New South
An Overview of Southern Immigration
Carl L. Bankston III

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New York, Chicago, and San Francisco are fixed in our imaginations as the great American immigrant settlements. The Immigration Station at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

The classic, stereotypical U.S. immigrant destination is a large city in the North, Midwest, or far West. New York, Chicago, San Francisco are fixed in our imaginations as the great American immigrant settlements. Until recently, most people rarely considered the U.S. South when they thought of new arrivals from other countries. For much of American history the South had very few foreign-born people, and from 1850 to 1970, it was home to a smaller percentage of immigrants than any other region (see Figure 1). Even during the great period of migration from 1880 to 1920, a time when massive waves of newcomers arrived on American shores, only about 2.5 percent of the people in the southern states were foreign-born. After 1970, however, the proportion of southerners who were immigrants began to increase sharply. By 1990 the South had a greater percentage of immigrants than the Midwest, and although the West had become the primary immigrant destination by the end of the twentieth century, its rate of proportional increase had begun to level off somewhat by the early twenty-first century, while the immigrant portion of the South continued to grow. Even the gap between the South and the Northeast, the old immigrant center of the United States, had begun to narrow in the early 2000s.1

The primary reason for the South's increase in immigration is economic opportunity, a fundamental motivation for migration. Long existing in pockets of [End Page 24] the South, economic opportunity has become much more widespread and vibrant in recent decades, attracting migrants experiencing worsening conditions in their home countries. In addition, improved means of international transportation enable immigrants to travel greater distances, ranging from more distant home countries to destinations further inside the host countries. Like transportation, improved means of establishing community have increased immigration to the South, and immigrants tend to settle where they establish communities, for reasons of mutual support and access to information about opportunities that often travel along lines of ethnicity or nationality.

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Figure 1
Percentage of People in the Regions of the United States Who Were Foreigh-Born, 1850–2005

The making of a global South is a relatively new phenomenon, yet these dynamics that drive recent immigration to the region have deep historical roots. There is continuity, as well as change, in the integration of the South into a more closely interconnected world. Immigration early in the South's history was a product of the same social and economic forces that have fostered the more recent immigration to the region.

The Old South

In 1850 Louisiana had the largest concentration of immigrants in the South, about 75,000 people and approximately one-quarter of Louisiana's free population. New Orleans, the largest port in the South and the second largest in the nation after New York, was a natural point of entry for people from other countries. Between 1820 and 1860, over half a million immigrants arrived in Louisiana. Given Louisiana's French history and the large French-speaking population in the state during the nineteenth century, it is easy to assume that France would be the [End Page 25] place of origin for most of the state's foreign-born residents. Many immigrants to Louisiana were, in fact, from France. About 15,000 people in Louisiana in 1850, or one out of five immigrants in the state, gave France as their birthplace. The largest immigrant group in Louisiana, though, came from Ireland. An estimated 26,580 Louisianans, or nearly 38 percent of the state's immigrants, were born in Ireland in 1850. The Irish are generally described...