The terms are confusing: immigration, emigration, migration. They are all similar in meaning, but individually mean slightly different things.
Following are the definitions from the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
Immigration: to come to a country to live there
Emigration: to leave one’s place of residence or country to live elsewhere
Migration: to move from one country or place to live or work in another
Here’s an example how of the terms are used:
People emigrated from Ireland to the United States starting in 1845 to escape the Potato Famine. When they arrived to these shores they were immigrants. They might, further, have migrated from New York to Boston, Philadelphia or other parts of the country to pursue work.
Now that we’ve sorted that out…
All Americans—North or South—emigrated to these two continents. Native Americans arrived in North America around 13,000 years ago and Europeans only 1,000 years ago, at most. They came for lots of reasons: following a source of food, by accident, exploration, and seeking riches, to name a few.
No one knows why the first Native Americans came to North America. They came on the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and they stayed (it’s called Beringia, if you are interested). Twelve thousand years later early Europeans, Leif Erikson and bunch of other Norsemen, found the east coast of North America by accident (it’s not clear where—it’s speculated that it could have been anywhere from Newfoundland to Cape Cod), but they didn’t stay for long and weren’t permanent immigrants.
Over the next five hundred years, other Europeans touched eastern shores, including the Portuguese and Basques who came to the North Atlantic to fish the rich cod beds and must have at least glimpsed North American shores in their travels and perhaps even built temporary camps to salt their fish, but they didn’t stick around permanently either.
The explorer Columbus—although never finding the Spice Islands that he sought—did establish the idea of leaving behind some of his sailors on the islands he “discovered” in the role of in loco parentis until he could come back with more people. These colonists were the first unwitting immigrants in the new world.
Other explorers followed Columbus and St. Augustine, Florida, was settled by the Spanish in 1565, a settlement was made by the French in Port Royal in 1605, and the English claimed the eastern seaboard and made their first permanent settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, around 1610. The race to emigrate to these toeholds was on.
Even early on European immigrants came for lots of reasons: to escape religious persecution, to seek riches, to flee war, to make war, to feed their families. Later immigrants came in waves, usually for a very specific reason, like the Irish mentioned earlier on. The Irish were literally starving to death between 1845 and 1852 and an estimated one million people died during the famine. The only way to survive was to emigrate and that’s what another one million did. Lots of other ethnic groups followed, like Jews escaping pogroms and persecution in Russia in the late 19th century, or Poles and Italians seeking a living in Connecticut’s thriving manufacturing industries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s not really any different now: people emigrate from what’s familiar to them to become immigrants in a new place—a place totally unfamiliar to them—for the exact same reasons: to escape religious persecution, to seek riches, to flee war, to make war, or to feed their families. The news, particularly now, presents these stories every day, but it’s not a new story. It’s a story repeated over and over again for hundreds of years and will undoubtedly continue to repeat itself for hundreds more.
Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Company, Casting Shop Employees, from the Collection of the Connecticut Digital Archives