A data visualization shows 200 years of immigration to the U.S. represented as a thickening tree trunk.
Each "cell" of color represents 100 immigrants, and each ring is a decade. Northeastern University

To depict how waves of immigrants shaped the United States, a team of designers looked to nature as a model.

Updated: December 17, 2018

Immigration is one of the most contentious issue of our time, and research shows that simply fact-checking common misconceptions and myths about immigration—that newcomers bring criminality, snatch jobs from Americans, and are a drain on the economy—doesn’t seem to change anyone’s minds. But what if we replaced the current ideologically charged narrative with something else—something, well, kind of beautiful?

Northeastern University’s Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, Avni Ghael, and Felipe Shibuya have created a striking visualization to do just that: They’ve depicted 200 years of granular immigration data as the colorful cross-section of a tree that thickens over time.

“I wanted to portray the United States like an organism that’s alive and that took a long time to grow,” said Cruz, an assistant professor at Northeastern. ”[The visualization] also contains the underlying message that the country was built on diversity.”

In science, the technique of studying climatic and ecological change over time via tree rings is known as dendrochronology. The bigger, older, and mightier the tree, the more rings it has, and the more data can be extracted. The method has allowed researchers to place specifics dates on ancient environmental conditions going back millennia.

Here, the metaphorical mighty tree is the United States, and if you follow the metaphor to its logical conclusion, it has been made thicker and stronger by the waves of immigrants who have arrived over the decades. Each colored “cell” represents 100 immigrants; over time, the algorithm deposits them in concentric rings, with each ring marking a decade. The older ones encase the core, and newer ones wrap around surface. The colors and the direction of growth represent the origins of the immigrants. The yellow cells depicting immigrants from Latin America, for example, are layered by the computer algorithm towards the bottom of the circle—signaling that they come countries south of the U.S.; those from Asia grow outwards towards the left. (Cruz noted that while the trajectories of Native American and enslaved populations are also of course integral to the story of the country, but this dataset did not include information on these groups.)

Look closely at the mesmerizing data visualization, and you’ll start seeing trends reflecting the political and economic realities of America. Here’s Cruz in National Geographic:

These immigration “rings” expand during years when certain welcoming factors are prevalent, such as when American immigration policies become less restrictive and its economy offers greater opportunity. The “rings” tend to stay slim during years of war or economic upheaval.

For example, the tree trunk swells after the 1965 Immigration Act, which replaced previous policies that intentionally excluded immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Europe. That legislation helped shape the demographics of the country for decades afterward: The cells start getting more colorful, and the rings thicken more towards the west and south.

Cruz and his team has also replicated this idea for smaller geographies within the U.S.—a cartogram of states as a forest of trees, if you will. Here, the colored parts of the rings are the immigrants, and the grey ones represent the native-born population.

And here’s a close-up of immigration to four states that have been some of the key gateways:

Perhaps Cruz doesn’t explicitly intend for it, but one effect of this approach is that it makes the viewer see that immigration’s role in the country’s demographics is something natural and organic—a response to various environmental conditions, like the dry and rainy seasons that alternately limit and encourage the growth of a tree. It also reveals that, while immigration is not the only part of the historical process that fed America’s growth, it is essential. The U.S. is a nation of immigrants, right down the very core.

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