“The United States has always been energized by its immigrant populations. America has constantly drawn strength and spirit from wave after wave of immigrants. They have proved to be the most restless, the most adventurous, the most innovative, the most industrious of people.” – Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States
The American Dream – the promise of a better future – has been luring hopefuls from around the world to the United States throughout its history. Whether fleeing from religious persecution, seeking political refuge, or simply a new start, people continue to flock to the land of opportunity. In fact, the US may be the most desired immigration destination.
Since the vast majority of the United States population has descended from immigrants, Americans should be more open and accepting toward immigrants, right? Alas, it's not so simple. Despite the obvious facts that most Americans are products of immigration, the nation has had a long history of negative response to changes brought by newer immigrants. The controversy over immigration – both legal and illegal – has sparked many political debates.
Many factors contribute to public opinion on immigration, including the length of time specific ethnic and racial groups have been in the United States, acts of terrorism, and the increased unemployment rates caused by the struggling economy.
Studies have shown that Americans view earlier immigrant groups more favorably than more recent immigrant groups. Waves of immigrants who arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly those from Europe, are today viewed more positively than those who came to the United States in the late 20th century.
However, Americans have often viewed immigrants as a threat. After terrorist attacks, including the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center and those carried out on September 11, 2001, public sentiment shifted to support decreasing the number of legal immigrants. Positive views on immigration dropped from 62% to 52% after the 9/11 attacks. The recent bombing at the Boston Marathon in April also created backlash against immigration as well as other immigrants. With the belief that terrorists come from outside of the US came a rise in xenophobia (fear and hatred of strangers or foreigners or of anything that is strange or foreign – Merriam-Webster).
But what has the strongest effect on public opinion regarding immigration seems to be the economy. Higher unemployment rates lead to stronger anti-immigrant sentiment. An Angus Reid poll in the summer of 2010 found that 59% of those surveyed believed immigrants stole jobs from American-born.
These fears about immigrants have pushed politicians into working toward finding a satisfying solution and immigration reform.
History of US immigration:
The United States has taken 3 different approaches to immigration over its history, according to law professor Hiroshi Motomura. Early in US history, the government encouraged immigration, doling out benefits like voting rights and homesteads to anyone who intended to stay in the country. By the 1880s, immigrants who could support themselves were allowed to stay without the benefits received by citizens, including voting rights. In more recent history, the government immigration policies have shifted to allow for reunification of families, and often give priority to those who have been in the country the longest.
There have been three main waves of arrivals to the United States: Until the mid-19th century, most immigrants came from Northern Europe; by the early 20th century, the largest numbers came from Southern and Eastern Europe; and since 1965, the majority of new immigrants to the United States come from Latin America and Asia.
Over the 17th and 18th centuries, between half a million and one million immigrants arrived in the United States from Europe. About half of the European immigrants during this time were indentured servants. An indentured servant is defined by Merriam Webster as “a person who signs and is bound by indentures to work for another for a specified time especially in return for payment of travel expenses and maintenance.” The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed for free white people to become citizens after a period of residency. In the beginning of US history, only about 8,000 people immigrated each year, but this number saw a major uptick around 1820.
The first time the US government restricted immigration was with the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of convicts and forced laborers or prostitutes from Asia. After the California Gold Rush, when the Chinese had migrated en masse to the country, there were many new laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, aimed at protecting jobs for Americans.
The 1921 Emergency Quota Act incorporated a cap on the number of immigrants allowed from each country, drastically reducing the number of immigrants in such a way as to prevent Southern and Eastern Europeans from entering, particularly Jews, Italians, and Slavs. The cap was lowered and made permanent in 1924 by the National Origins Act. These acts came during a time of economic downturn – less than 280,000 immigrants arrived in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, and by 1933, the number was around 23,000, with many people leaving the country.
From 1929 to 1939, the Mexican Repatriation program pushed between 400,000 and 2 million Mexicans back to Mexico. Many Mexicans had arrived after the Chinese exclusion laws increased the need for cheap labor, and also to escape the Mexican Revolution from 1910 to 1920. The government claimed the exodus was voluntary, but many Mexicans were deported. The 1954 Operation Wetback was a program that saw 1,075,168 illegal immigrants from Mexicans deported, and it has been widely criticized for the use of a racial slur in its name, and its indiscriminate deportation to random locations in Mexico under poor conditions.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sponsored by Ted Kennedy finally abolished the national-origin quotas, effectively equalizing the immigration policy with an emphasis on skills and reconnecting families. The act resulted in increased immigration from non-European nations, and drastically changed the nation's demographics. European immigrants dropped from 60% of the total in 1970 to 15% of the total in 2000. Immigration doubled from 1965 to 1970, and again between 1970 to 1990.
The Immigration Act of 1990, signed by George H.W. Bush, increased legal immigration from 500,000 immigrants allowed each year to 700,000, and created several classes of visas, including the Diversity Immigrant Visa. The emphasis was on family reunification, as well as employment.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) changed immigration policy so that any criminal activity can get immigrants (even with a green card) deported, as well as mandatory detention.
From 2000 to 2005, 8 million immigrants arrived in the United States – the most for any 5 year period ever. About 3.7 million of these were undocumented. Since 1986, Congress has passed seven amnesties for illegal immigrants.
In 2006, the US accepted more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined. Since the ethnic quotas on immigration were removed in 1965, first generation immigrants quadrupled from 9.6 million in 1970 to 38 million in 2007.
Immigration Policy in the US
Immigrants to the United States must meet a sponsorship requirement to be approved. Sponsors must be US citizens or permanent residents, and can be a relative or prospective employer. A sponsor takes financial responsibility of the immigrant during their stay in the United States. Other classes of visas are given to those with special employment status for the government, religious workers, or those who meet the diversity requirement, who do not need a sponsor.
About 2/3 of legal immigration each year (legal permanent resident status) are due to family reunification, compared to only about 13% for employment, and about 17% for humanitarian reasons (including refugees).
Immigrants seeking asylum, that is, refugees, account for about 10% of the total annual immigration. The US allows greater numbers of refugees than the UK or Canada – between 2005 and 2007, 40,000 refugees were accepted each year. Since 1975, about 1.3 million refugees have come to the United States from Asia. Since 2000, the main nations of origin for refugees are Somalia, Liberia, Sudan, and Ethiopia. In 2009, President Bush capped refugee entry at 80,000 annually, and it has remained around that level.
Top 5 Countries of Origin for New Legal Permanent Residents in 2012:
Dominican Republic: 41,566
Immigrant Origins by Region:
Much of the controversy surrounding the issue of immigration is in regard to illegal immigrants (or undocumented immigrants), and moving to increase the ability to immigrate legally, thus reducing the need to immigrate illegally.
An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently live in the United States. Most of these are from Mexico and Latin America. Research by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 56% of illegal immigrants were from Mexico, while another 22% came from elsewhere in Latin America, 13% from Asia, 6% came from Europe or Canada, and 3% from Africa or elsewhere. The number of new illegal immigrants is continuously higher than that of legal immigrants since the 1990s reforms. With the economic downturn, the number of illegal immigrants from Mexico has fallen due to fewer available jobs.
Proposed solutions to the issue of illegal immigration have ranged from building a fence along the entire southern border of the United States, to increasing enforcement of immigration laws, especially by going after the American companies that employ undocumented workers (famously Wal-Mart). Other options include amnesty and the guest worker program.
The guest worker program, which was supported by President George W. Bush, is the source of much controversy over illegal immigration. The guest worker program allows temporary residency via a work visa.
H-1B visas are a type of guest worker that brings highly skilled workers. H-2 visas are a class of temporary and seasonal work visas. The H-2A visa brings in low-skilled laborers for agricultural work, while the H-2B visa allows for non-agricultural work. These visas have been widely debated and often reformed. President Bush had begun discussions with Mexican President Vicente Fox before 9/11, but after the attacks, talks did not resume until the 2004 plan: Fair and Secure Immigration Reform. The act, which passed in the Senate, only to be defeated in the House, sought to amend the laws regarding:
Connecting workers and employers
Compassion and allowing re-entry
Requirement to return home at end
No no preferential Green Card for guest workers
Give American workers priority
Enforce illegal immigrant laws
The Controversial Arizona State Legislature passed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhood Act, which has been widely criticized by civil rights organizations for its extreme policy and encouragement of racial profiling. The law made it a crime to not carry legal documentation of immigration status, and the low standard of “reasonable suspicion” was required for law enforcement. Opponents called for concern of the law's potential to discriminate and violate civil rights, and thousands protested the law and boycotted the state.
Immigration reform has been high on the agenda of President Barack Obama since his reelection. The focus is on reunification of families who have been torn apart by deportation of the undocumented parents, whose American-born children know no other home but the United States.
President Obama assembled a “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group formed to discuss immigration reform. The eight Senators are: Michael Bennet (D-CO), Richard J. Durbin (D-IL), Jeff Flake ((R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), John McCain (R-AZ), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
The current proposal is the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, which would allow for the creation of the W-visa( visa for lower-skilled temporary workers). The act allows workers to enter legally to work for a registered employer, who must pay a fee to the bureau and must be clear of any labor violations. Wages must be the same as other employees or the prevailing wage (not the federal minimum wage), and workers would receive all labor rights, and would not be independent contractors. Workers would be protected from any discrimination regarding their W-visa status, but must leave if unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days. The visa expires after 3 years, but can be renewed once, and workers can bring their spouse and minor children. American workers would get first priority for jobs, and foreign workers cannot take the place of striking workers or if unemployment exceeds 8.5% locally, with the goal to prevent immigrant workers from replacing American workers. The agreement sets the cap at 20,000 W-visas in the first year, 35,000 in the second year, and 55,000 in the third year, 75,000 fourth year.
However, opponents say there are many loopholes and difficulties enforcing these rules. Additionally, hiring workers on a visa takes more time, money than hiring an illegal worker or American worker. The proposal works to find a way for undocumented workers to move towards citizenship, priority for legal immigrants, especially those with advanced degrees in STEM fields, and better enforcement of these regulations.
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), its first incarnation proposed in 2001, is a bill that sought to provide permanent residency for students who arrived as an undocumented immigrant, and who meet a list of requirements. Students who fall under the DREAM Act are those who graduate from high school, and complete university or military service, among other requirements. The federal bill has yet to pass, despite several proposals, but state-level DREAM Acts went into effect in several states in November 2012.
President Obama ordered a deferment to deportation of young undocumented immigrants, brought as children, who matched the specified criteria on June 15, 2012, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA allows temporary residency and work status in the country, and serves as a workaround with the same result as the DREAM Act without going through the legislation process.
A waiver went into effect on March 4, 2013, allowing illegal immigrants who can show extreme hardship caused by deportation to apply for legal visas from within the country.
A group of undocumented young adults from around the United States, members of the organization DreamActivist, decided to test the DREAM Act in an organized protest by voluntarily leaving the US, returning to Mexico, and then attempting to get through immigration under the deferment. They are currently being held at an immigration detention center. The organization has launched the Bring Them Home campaign, pleading for support from public officials, including President Obama and his Gang of Eight.
Economics of Immigration
As much of the negative sentiment over immigration surrounds the issue of jobs, it's important to understand exactly how immigration affects the economy. Many Americans believe that immigrants drain government benefits via social services and lower the wages all around, but others believe that immigrants mean workers, and workers mean economic growth. And then there's the fact that many immigrants take low-skilled, hard labor jobs that many American workers simply don't want, like agriculture, dangerous jobs, and service jobs.
A study by the United States National Research Council study: The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, conducted in the late 1980s found that immigrants actually contribute $10 billion to the economy annually. While immigrants may cause a net loss in terms of taxes paid compared social services received, but they result in increased pay for skilled workers, lower prices for goods and services provided by immigrant labor, more efficiency and lower wages for owners of businesses. The study also found that immigrants do compete with domestic workers for low-skilled job, but they may specialize in jobs that prove beneficial to domestic workers.
Immigration also helps facilitate trade between the country of origin of the immigrants and the US, stimulating the economy in that regard. Many major companies in the US were founded by immigrants. The Kaufmann Foundation found that immigrants are 40% more likely to be entrepreneurs than natives.
The economic success of immigrant groups has varied. Earlier European immigrants arrived poor, but within a few generations, they had assimilated economically to match their peers. While this trend did not carry over to Hispanics, who seem to have stalled with even third generations still less wealthy, Asians had the highest median income per household of any race group in 2008.
Studies regarding the economic effects of immigrants are mixed. The Hamilton Project found that immigrants actually raise living standards for the whole country, boost demand, increase productivity, lower prices, and contribute to innovation. However, a 2007 report from the Congressional Budget Office suggest that immigrants do create a net cost to state and local governments, while estimated costs for federal government vary widely: the Urban Institute claimed a cost of $1.9 billion in 1992, and a similar study by Rice University put the cost at $19.3 billion in 1993. A 2009 Cato Institute study explained that legal immigrants pay in taxes more than they collect from the government while illegal immigrants will get more than they pay. The study found that legalizing low-skilled illegal workers would boost the national GDP $180 billion over 10 years.
Unemployment rates show that immigrants aren't stealing jobs from American workers, but rather doing other jobs that wouldn't have existed or been done by domestic workers, suggesting immigration levels don't hurt employment prospects.
According to NPR, only about 3% of illegal immigrants work in agriculture, 33% work in the service industry, 16% in construction, and 17% in production, installation, and repair. Furthermore, restriction of some temporary worker visa laws have resulted in the loss of produce, left to rot without the necessary labor to harvest, which happened in Georgia after the 2011 change to immigration law HB 87.
Population Growth and Diversity
Yet another argument regarding immigration is the issue of population growth. Birthrates in developing countries are declining worldwide, and immigration helps keep the population from rapidly declining, as seen in aging populations like Japan. The US Census Bureau estimates that the population will grow from 281 million to 397 million between 2000 and 2050. Without immigration, the growth would reach 328 million. The Pew Research Center estimated that 82% of the population growth from 2005 to 2050 will be from immigration.
Increasing diversity is another factor in immigration. The Census Bureau predicts that by 2050, people of Hispanic descent will make up a quarter of the population, partly caused by immigration from Latin America. The Pew Research Center puts that estimate at 29% - and the estimate for non-Hispanic whites down to 47% from the former estimate of 67%. The PRC also believes Asian population should triple by 2050. Non-hispanic whites are predicted to become minority in many of the largest cities. California has dropped from 80% non-Hispanic white in 1970 to 42.3% in 2008.
The ever-changing demographics have caused social and racial tensions throughout the history of the country – with conflicts between newly arriving cultures and established cultures in the communities, as well as between new groups, with competition to thrive, and whether the cultures assimilate.