The British and other Europeans were the first to colonize American territory that until then had been inhabited solely by Native Americans. It is presumed that around 1.5 million Native Americans was already living in the country when CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS discovered it. With the invasion of foreign people and consequent battles and wars in the name of exploration and independence, Native Americans were forced out by the newcomers and restricted to reservations: unsuitable areas of land where there was little chance of surviving without government assistance and no hope of retaining their past lifestyle. Some tribes were almost wiped out and by 1920 Native Americans numbered only 350,000. Although most tribes lost their language and culture, some persevered, and today they number almost 3 million (0,9 % of the American population), only one-third still living in reservations.
Not all immigrants to America were willing immigrants. Between 1619 and 1808 half a million Africans were shipped over as slaves. Until the abolition of slavery in 1863, Africans and their descendents born on American soil were used as free labour in the cotton fields and mines, on the railroads, as servants, concubines and nannies. After 1863 they were freed, but they did not benefit from equal rights for a long time: they suffered segregation and were refused education and decent housing, facing restrictions in almost every aspect of their lives. It was not until 1963, that the US government gave in to pressure caused by political activity in the form of racial awareness raising and demonstrations, and passed a law prohibiting all kinds of racial discrimination.
Although America had been colonized by the Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, Germans and the Swedes, the British remained the dominant colonizers. In North America, English became the official language in most of the territory and three in four Americans are of British or Irish descent.
Between 1840 and 1860 millions of Europeans left their homeland to head for America as a result of famine, poverty or political instability in their countries of origin. During the American Civil War (1861–1865) the Union encouraged immigration, especially from Germany, conceding lots of land in exchange for service in the Union army. Jews and the Irish were also great beneficiaries of this immigration wave. In the late 19th century a special port of entry, Ellis Island, where the Statue of Liberty stands today, was built to process the massive influx of foreigners. People came from Europe, South America, Asia and Africa in search of a new life. Between 1880 and 1900, nine million European immigrants entered the country, bringing about an increase in the population of 40 %.
On economic grounds, immigration is very restricted nowadays. Increased population growth is generally seen as problematic for a country – it is seen as a depletion of already scarce government resources and job availability. The fact that an increase in population can also create a greater demand for products, housing, services and infrastructure, in turn creating jobs and economic activity is often ignored or seen as secondary.
Each country has enacted immigration laws that regulate how many immigrants from which countries are allowed access. The United States is still one of the few countries that allows entry to a great number of immigrants, but it is not as easy as it was in the past. For example, immigrants are required to prove employable skills or fulfil the 'playboy' criterion of having enough money to be independent before being granted a resident's permit.
Partly as a result of this policy, there are huge numbers of illegal immigrants living in the US, tempted to risk a life on the wrong side of the law to escape the poverty in their homelands. These people are called 'economic migrants'. Although the American Immigration Law of 1990 allows 675,000 immigrants a year to enter the country, it is believed that, in the year 2000, around 50,000 people entered the country illegally and that 5 million are living there without a residency permit.
In the year 2000 most immigrants came from the following ten countries:
Of people born in the US, 39 million are of Irish descent, 22% are of German ancestry and Jews number more than six million.
In 2002 the Census Bureau estimated that 288,368,698 people were living in the country. This was a 2.47 % increase on 2000 (slightly more than 31 inhabitants per km2). The three most populated cities are (also according to the 2002 census): New York with 8,084,316 inhabitants, Los Angeles with 3,798,981 and Chicago with 2,886,251. New York is the third greatest metropolitan area of the world and Los Angeles is the eighth. A metropolitan area is a large population centre divided into several cities or towns.
Judging by the 2000 estimate, the population growth rate is of 0,91 % per annum. The great majority of the population is Caucasian (white European), followed by African American, Hispanic (people of Latin American descent), Asian American and others. For every 1,000 persons, 14.2 babies are born every year, compared to 8.7 deaths. Life expectancy averages 77.12 years (men live to 74.24 years, while women live to 79.9 years). The majority of people are between 15 and 64 years old and women are the predominant sex.
On religion, over half the American population claim to be Protestant (52 %). The second largest religion is Catholicism (24.5 %). Third come people of no religion, accounting for 13.2 % of the population. Next come religions such as Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Pagan. 54 % claim to be regular members of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque.
Due largely to British colonization, English is the main spoken language, although in some states Spanish is fast gaining as the predominant language for a majority of the population. Although other languages are commonly used in America (Spanish, French, various Native American languages like Lakota or Navajo) 97 % of residents speak English well or very well. In some states French, Spanish or Hawaiian are official languages.
Below are the ten most spoken languages in the US (In the year 2000):
|the Philippine dialect Tagalog||0,5 %|
The wide spread of other languages besides English, especially Spanish, has caused controversy. Spanish speakers argue for a bilingual nation, while English speakers vindicate the passing of a law declaring English the official language of the United States.
The tradition of immigration in America has certainly influenced American cultural life. When immigrant populations reach a critical mass, it is no longer the American culture that influences them, but they who transform American society. By bringing habits and traditions from their native cultures, they enrich American culture and its character. Although many newcomers preferred to adopt an American way of life, there are those who kept their traditions. But when living in another country, the assimilation process into the dominant culture is inevitable. When an immigrant community does not live enclosed in its own world, it is possible that immigrants, usually the offspring of immigrants, and Americans learn to live together in an atmosphere of mutual respect, each retaining what is valuable from their culture and willing to learn from each another.
More than a 'melting pot', the President JOHN F. KENNEDY (1917–1963) described the US as being
“a nation of people with the fresh memory of old traditions who dare to explore new frontiers”.
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