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Changing Faces of Immigration to Massachusetts

By Peter Ciurczak

May 6, 2021

Over the last half-century Massachusetts received immigrants from nearly all corners of the globe—ranging from relatively close Caribbean and Latin American nations like the Dominican Republic and Brazil, to far-flung Asian countries like China and Korea. While these workers, professionals and families all come to the Bay State for different reasons, as they arrive they bring with them their own strengths and traditions that give Massachusetts its rich multicultural variety. This tool allows us to look back over the last several decades and the global events and trends that have accounted for this diversity.

Almost every period examined in this article saw the state’s foreign-born population increase over the previous period, with the total number of immigrants growing significantly since 1980. As Massachusetts’ immigrant population grew, it also changed—the largest share now coming from Asian and Latin American countries, as compared to Europe and the Caribbean from earlier periods. Ultimately, all this growth has made Massachusetts the seventh largest state by share of foreign-born in 2019. 

To visualize where these recent immigrants come from, we’ve created the interactive tool above. It shows non-citizen Massachusetts residents born abroad who have immigrated within five years of each census since 1980, and 2019’s American Community Survey (i.e., data labeled as "2019" looks at estimates of arrivals from 2015 to 2019). Use it to switch between recent immigration periods and highlight up to 20 of the leading countries of immigration to Massachusetts. Across the decades, these shifting patterns of immigration show the impacts of federal and global change—and the Commonwealth’s own unique draw.

The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which included the lifting of discriminatory immigration quotas, among other reforms, introduced the global era of immigration to the U.S. At its passage, families of naturalized citizens, skilled laborers and others gained access to the country in ways and numbers that were previously impossible. Many of these new immigrants arrived seeking economic opportunity, while others came to escape conflicts and natural disasters. Portuguese immigrants are a good example of the former. Between 1976 and 1980, more than 15,000 Portuguese arrived in Massachusetts, often joining Portuguese populations like those in New Bedford and Fall River—originally formed by ocean-savvy newcomers in the late 19th century who had bolstered the region’s fishing fleets and set down roots. Haitian migrants are an example of the latter, as those who were able to do so fled the regimes of U.S. backed Haitian dictators François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, and later, the fallout from 2010’s devastating earthquake.

Russia was also a major source of immigration across the late 20th century. Loosening emigration restrictions in the late 80s and the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991 allowed and motivated new movement for the country’s residents, and in particular its skilled scientists and researchers, many of whom joined the burgeoning Massachusetts knowledge economy (select “1990” and “2000” in the tool to see Russian immigration jump to the top 10). Likewise, as China loosened emigration restrictions under Deng Xiaoping in the 80s, Chinese immigration to Massachusetts surged. Since 1980, China has consistently ranked in the top three countries for immigration to Massachusetts. No other country has ranked as high for as long.

Important Caribbean and Latin American communities have also grown significantly over the years. Haiti and the Dominican Republic consistently send enough migrants to Massachusetts to rank among the top 10, while Brazil makes its appearance in 1990 in the top three—and stays there across every subsequent period. Many of these more recent Brazilian immigrants came seeking work after the collapse of the Brazilian economy in the 1980s, and leaned on Greater Boston’s already robust Portuguese speaking population for housing and job assistance.

Through all these periods, one thing becomes clear. Massachusetts is indeed a hub, welcoming immigrants from countries across the globe rather than from any single region. Often these immigrants settle in already extant communities of their compatriots, but wherever they wind up, they bring their skills and with their stories tie Massachusetts’ own history to the world’s.

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