Waves of Immigration

Two charts reveal how East Boston’s foreign-born population has changed over time.

East Boston has always been a neighborhood of immigrants, but who those immigrants are has changed over the course of history in tandem with world events. From a first wave in the 1800s of Irish immigrants pushed by the Irish Potato Famine, to the current trend of immigration from Central and South America and Southeast Asia, there has been an ebb and flow in the makeup of East Boston’s foreign-born population.

Boston’s Foreign-Born Population

Looking at the makeup of Boston’s foreign-born population can tell us how East Boston’s population has likely changed over time. Boston’s immigrant population started out predominately Irish, then transitioned to Italian and Russian, then Asian, and now it is majority Latin American.

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Source: U.S. Census

At the beginning of the ninteenth century, Boston’s maritime commerce began booming, sending merchants and missionaries across the globe where they fostered connections that would bring migrants flowing back. The first wave of immigrants that followed was primarily made up of Irish Catholics, driven in part by the promise of jobs and in part by the great potato famine of the 1840s.

In 1880, the second wave of immigrants, primarily Italian and Russian, began to take over. The surge of Italian migration was due in large part to thousands who were displaced by natural distasters in Southern Italy—there was widespread disease and crop failure in the 1880s and in 1906 the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius followed by the 1908 massive earthquake in Sicily. The Italians were closely followed by an influx of Russians that was mostly comprised of Jews fleeing the 1881–1883 Tsarist rule that placed restrictions on their work and settlement and persecuted them with violence.

The third wave of immigrants, primarily Chinese workers coming from Asia, began around the same time. The first Chinese workers arrived in 1875 but the flow was curtailed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which banned the admitance of Chinese laborers. It was followed by the 1917 Immigration Act which created an “Asiatic barred zone.” When the ban on Asian immigration was finally lifted in 1943, the influx of waiting immigrants was spurred by a stream of refugees after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

The fourth and current wave of immigrants are majority Latin Americans, and followed the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act lifting the quota restrictions based on national origin. This allowed increasing numbers of people to enter from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. This newfound access was seized on by a wave of Central Americans fleeing 1980s violence, repression, and civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They were joined by a backlog of Latin Americans waiting to take advantage of previous policies: the 1958 Azorean Refugee Act, the 1961–1966 Cuban refugee programs in the wake of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and the 1961 lifting of restrictions on the Dominican Republic.

Although less information exists on the historical makeup of the foreign-born population in East Boston, we can still see some of the same trends that occured citywide. In the second wave, East Boston also had an influx of Italian and Russian immigrants, but the Italian population far exceeded the levels across the rest of Boston. And, currently, East Boston is experiencing a strong 4th wave of Latin American immigrants that is overtaking a declining third wave of Asian immigrants.

East Boston’s Foreign-Born Population

East Boston experienced similar trends in the foreign-born population, except with a faster decline in the Russian population, and more dramatic majorites in the waves of Italian and Latin American immigrants.

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Source: U.S. Census Data