8 Famous Immigrants From American History

by Eliza Castile

Following Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries and refugee resettlement, it seems like now might be a good time for a history lesson. Not only was the United States founded by a group of refugees, but there have also been scores of famous figures in American history who were immigrants. People have been seeking opportunity in the (so-called) Land of the Free for centuries, and without them, we would be a substantially different — and, I would argue, poorer — place than we've grown up to be. It's also a stark reminder of why banning immigration from certain places, even temporarily, is so disconcerting.

In fact, this weekend marks 100 years since the passage of the sweeping Immigration Act of 1917. Sometimes known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, this law severely restricted the immigration of "undesirables," such as anarchists and people with disabilities, from other countries and imposed a literacy test on those who were deemed fit to enter. It banned travel from countries along the Asiatic Barred Zone, including Saudi Arabia and the Pacific Islands. Many view this legislation as the precursor to the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which completely barred immigration from Asia and lowered existing immigration quotas.

Does all that sound familiar? It should. And it should be setting off tons of red flags for you, too.

No matter where they're from, immigrants have always been viewed as "dangerous" by some — often unfairly. Currently, Muslims are the target of this fear, but in the past, it's been directed at immigrants from Ireland, Japan, Italy, Mexico, and far too many other countries. In fact, most of the people in favor of the travel ban today are probably descendants of immigrants themselves if you go back far enough. Who knows what their lives would have been like had they come to the U.S. when their country of origin was feared?

This isn't to take away from the discrimination endured by Muslim people today, but to point out that history repeats itself. We have the power to change that, though — to stop history from repeating itself where that repetition would do irreparable harm to us as a nation. Call your representatives. Protest the executive order issuing the temporary ban. Take action. Make your voice heard.

With that in mind, here are eight famous Americans who were immigrants, and the amazing things they accomplished.


Alexander Hamilton

As you probably know from the famous musical based on his life, Alexander Hamilton was instrumental in founding the United States. Before his death in a duel in 1804, he served as George Washington's assistant, persuaded New Yorkers to ratify the Constitution, and became the first United States Secretary of the Treasury.

And yet, despite all the effort he put into creating the United States, he wasn't actually born in the colonies. Instead, he was born on the Caribbean island Nevis and moved to the future United States in 1772.


Andrew Carnegie

Andrew Carnegie is one of the most famous industrialists in American history, not least because his life embodies the idea of the American dream. Born in 1835, he worked his way up from railroad jobs to owning the largest steel corporation in the world by 1889. Later in life, he sold his business and turned to philanthropy.

His biography reads like a particularly patriotic screenplay, but Carnegie was actually born in Scotland and spent the first 13 years of his life there before moving to the United States.


John Muir

If you haven't heard of John Muir, you've definitely heard of his buddy Theodore Roosevelt — that's them hanging out in the picture above. Born in Scotland in 1838, Muir immigrated to the United States when he was 11 with his family. After an injury that left him temporarily blind, he traveled across the country, largely by foot. He eventually claimed California as his home, which worked out well for both parties: Muir went on to become a powerful naturalist and advocate for conservation, founding the Sierra Club and helping establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.


Joseph Pulitzer

If you've ever read a book because it won the Pulitzer Prize, you have the massively influential newspaper editor Joseph Pulitzer to thank. Born in Mako, Hungary, in 1847, Pulitzer immigrated to the United States in his teens despite knowing little English. He wound up in St. Louis, Missouri, where he built a reputation as a journalist. By the end of his life, he was one of the most well-known reporters of his time.


Ayn Rand

You don't have to like Ayn Rand to acknowledge her influence on American philosophy and literature. The author of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged was famous for promoting self-interest and the philosophy of Objectivism. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1905, she moved to the United States in 1926; she became a citizen after marrying actor Frank O'Connor in 1931.


Nikola Tesla

It's safe to say Nikola Tesla is the internet's favorite inventor, although he was rather less popular in his time. The genius was born in Croatia in 1856 — some say in the middle of a lightning storm — and moved to the United States in 1884, with little other than letters of recommendation and his clothes. Among other inventions, we have him to thank for alternating current electrical systems as well as the Tesla coil, both of which are still used today.


Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar

Winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in astronomy, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar was one of the foremost astrophysicists of the 20th century. Born in Lahore, India, he studied in several universities around the world before accepting a position at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death.


Madeleine Albright

One of the most recognizable faces in American politics, Madeleine Albright is an accomplished diplomat who became the first woman to serve as Secretary of State in 1996. Born in Prague, Albright fled Czechoslovakia at the beginning of World War II and eventually settled in Denver, Colorado. Needless to say, she's not happy with the current refugee ban.