The United States as Diaspora

         World maps are useful for visualizing how continents relate to each other spatially. However, they are less useful for visualizing the vast movements of millions of people who, in constantly flowing streams, settle and resettle within and between continents, creating diasporas throughout the world. Each such person has a developing story, and such stories have inspired a genre of literature known as diaspora fiction. The short stories being examined this term are examples, having been inspired by collective experiences of people, from four different regions of the world, who resettled in the United States, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adici, from Nigeria, Neel Patel of India, Lara Vapnyor from Russia, and Junot Diaz from the Dominican Republic, while unique, can be studied against the backdrops of the histories both of their home countries and the United States diaspora into which they resettled. Each culture and each history carries its own story, within the overall drama of immigration in the United States.


Based on latest figures provided by Rob Picheta, in 2018 alone, 13.6 million people throughout the world fled their homelands. That was an increase of 2.3 million since the previous year. Counting movement within countries, there were 25.9 million refugees world wide, the highest in history. 37,000 were being forced from their homes every day.  Picheta estimates that at least one in every 108 people has been displaced, either within his/her own country,  into an adjacent country, or driven out of his/her own countries into refugee status on another continent.

The current  U.S. Migration Policy Institute report estimates that about 20% of migrants worldwide are living in the United States. The total number of U.S. immigrants is estimated at 40.4 million. This is at least 13% of the 2018 U.S. Census total population estimate of 327.216 million people living in the United States. Among the largest recent arrivals are those from India and China (largest), the Caribbean (Dominican Republic, Cuba and Haiti), and Nigeria (the largest newcomers). MPI reports that most people immigrating to the United States are from fifteen different countries that, together, account for 37% of the 44.5 million U.S. immigrants. Moreover, 57% of that total reside either in greater New York, Miami or Los Angeles, California.

The diaspora fiction being studied this term represents various aspects of the collective experiences of immigrants from four different countries. Their communities are of different sizes, and each constitutes a differnet percentage of the overall community of immigrants in the United States: Nigerians (219,000, .5%), Indians from India (2,611, 100, 5.9%), Jews from Russia (750,000, .9%), and Dominicans from the Dominican Republic (1,057,000, 2.8%).

The MPI reports that, in the State of New York itself, by 2017,  had an estimated 22.9% of the populationthat  was born outside the United States. That is about 4,540,381 people, an increase of 17.4% since the year 2,000. The MPI also estimates sizes of the New York diasporas of authors being studied this term. As of 2017, the New York populations were as follows: Nigerian, 32,000, India, 161,000, Russian Jews, 1.1 million, and Dominicans, 494,000. The stories  being studied were written, based on stories of such people who left their homes for America, seeking asylum from: war, political conflicts, poverty, human rights violations and/or to economic security that could not be found within some of least economically developed communities in the world.


Of the 44.5 million U.S residents born outside the United States, 31% came before 1990. 22% came between 1900-1991.  26% came between 2000-2009.  21% came in 2017 or later. The largest percentage increases of immigrants came from Asia (mostly India and China) and from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Africa. However, in the last few years, immigration from Mexico has declined.

In terms of percentages of unauthorized immigrant within various ethnic groups, the Migration Policy Institute estimates the following breakdown.

  • Africa   3.2%             (318,000)
  • Asia       16 %             (1.8 million)
  • Caribbean  3%         (351,000)
  • Europe  5 %              (579,000)
  • Mexico/Cen. Am  67%  (7.6 million)
  • South America         6% (685,000)


Prior to 1880, most immigrants to the United States were from  Northern European countries. Some were fleeing various disasters such as the Irish Potato Famine, while others came seeking opportunities brought by the Industrial Revolution and opportunities associated with the expansion of U.S. borders into the Southwest. During the 1850’s, however, Chinese immigrants began resettling in order to participate in California “God Rush” mining opportunities. Between 1880 and 1930, an estimated 27 million immigrants came to the United States,  with the largest percentage from Asia.

As number of people resettling into the United States surged, ambivalence towards immigrants led to a series of laws designed to control it. In the closing decades of the 19th century, these factors included the Industrial Revolution and  the California “gold rish” in America, concurrent famines in Europe (such as the Irish Potato Famine), and economic crises connected to European residential patterns that shifted from rural to urban, escalated  the numbers of people moving to the United States.


The Page Act of 1875, blocked slaves from Asia and Chinese women from being brought into the country. It also barred indentured servants and women from Asia. The 1882 Imigration Act attempted to manage this flow. It attempted to admit people who attempted to pass through America’s ports mostly to those who were already American citizenship. Others were asked to pay a non-citizen head tax, creating a budget for managing immigration. It also barred those with criminal histories, mental instability and those unabe to support themselves (“inadmissible aliens”). Such persons could be expelled from ships headed to America because they were considered likely to become “public charges”. The Act created the first federal immigration bureau, and laid the foundation for future progressively more restrictive immigration legislation.


Eventually the above laws were followed by the Scott Act (1888), The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), and the 1917 Immigration Act (known as the “Asiatic Bar Zone”). These three Acts were the first ones to discriminate against people of specific national origins. The Chinese Exclusion Act barred all migration of prospective laborers from China. It was mostly a response that such migrants would threaten their job security of California’s citizens, and that such people would not integrate into American culture.  The 1917 Act also added a literacy test which attempted to limit immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1924 instituted national origin quotas.


When the Chinese Exclusion Act expired, it was extended for ten years by the Geary Act, and made permanent in 1902. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enforced until passage of the Magnuson Act of 1943 which allowed 105 Chinese immigrants per year to enter the country. It was not abolished entirely until the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 abolished direct racial barriers. However, such restrictions were not placed on people comprising the “Great Waves” from Northwestern Europe, (1880-1930), seeking to benefit from the U.S. Industrial Revolution. The system, in effect, maintained a largely Protestant population with roots in Northwestern Europe.


This system remained in place until the new Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which, consistent with the Civil Rights Movement of the time, abolished the national origins formula. Instead, a system was put in place to base numbers admitted on proportions of their presence in the population at large. It was also designed to control the overall number of unskilled immigrants. It also permitted immigrant families to reunite.







Hipsman, Faye, and Doris Meissner, “Immigration in the United States; New Economic, Social, Political Landscapes with Legislative Reform on the Horizon”. 


Migration Policy Institute, “Immigration Data Matters”.

Zong, Jie,  Jeanne Batalova and Micayla Burrows, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States.”

Zhao, Xiaojian, , Immigration to the U.S. after 1945″, Oxford Research Encyclopedia