The odds are very likely, you and the majority of people you know wouldn’t live in the US and maybe wouldn’t even exist were it not for immigration. The vast majority of people who are natural born citizens of the US got here because someone in their family made the trip here decades or centuries ago. One of the fiercest debates in the US today has to do with immigration.

Should people be allowed to immigrate to the US, and if yes, who should be allowed to make the move? What can be done about people who migrate without the required documentation and what should the country do about people who are undocumented, but who have managed to build up a life for themselves in the US?

Understanding the immigration debates starts with understanding what immigration looks like in the US.

A Brief History of US Immigration

The US has had three major waves of immigration during its history. The first big wave took place during the colonial period when people traveled over from Spain, France, and England and established colonies on the east coast.

In those days, and even after the Revolutionary War, which brought an end to British colonialism in the US, immigration was an accepted fact and something that was freely encouraged, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Whether people were fleeing religious persecution or just wanted a new start, they could come to the US without having to fill out massive amounts of paperwork or wait for approval.

In fact, the US didn’t put any policies restricting immigration or who could come to the US until the end of the 19th century.

That first policy was the Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882. The act prevented laborers from China from making their way to the US. Like modern debates on immigration, it was fueled in part by a fear that Chinese immigrants were stealing jobs and driving labor down. It was also fueled by racist fears that allowing Asian immigrants into the US would dilute the purity of the white race.

Additional laws restricting immigration were passed in 1885 and 1887, although the federal government was mostly content to leave the illegal immigration debate up to the states at the point.

The period between 1900 and 1920 saw another massive wave of immigrants to the US, this time mainly from areas of Europe. More than 14.5 million people moved to the US during that time.

The swell of immigrants led to more laws concerning who could be admitted to the US. For example, one requirement was that an immigrant needed to be able to read and write in his or her native language. The US also introduced country quotas, in an attempt to limit the number of people arriving from certain parts of the world.

Major changes around the world after World War II led to an influx of refugees in the US, from places such as the USSR, and after the revolution, Cuba.

In 1965, the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act got rid of country quotas and sought to bring together families who were separated by immigration. Under the new law, people in the US were able to sponsor their relatives from other countries.

As a result, the number of immigrants from countries in South America and Asia swelled, as they were no longer restricted by low quota allowances.

Today, the immigration reform debate rages on, with some hoping to restrict further who can come to the US and others hoping to open the door to even more people.

What Types of Immigrants Are There?

Immigrants fall into several extensive categories, and within some of those classes, into narrower subtypes. There are four broad types of immigration status:

  • Citizen/Naturalized Citizen. A citizen is someone who was either born in the country or who lived in the country for at least three years as a permanent resident and became “naturalized.”  As a citizen, there’s no risk of being deported.
  • Permanent/Conditional Resident. A permanent resident is someone who has a green card and can live and work in the country on a continuous basis. You can get a green card through sponsorship, either from a relative or employer or by participating in a refugee program. A conditional resident is a green card holder who has been married to a citizen for less than two years when he or she received the green card.
  • Non-Immigrant. A non-immigrant is a person who is in a country legally but on a temporary basis. A non-immigrant might be a person with a student visa, a business person, or someone who has been granted protected status temporarily (such as a victim of trafficking)
  • Undocumented. A person who immigrated to the country without applying for or receiving the appropriate visas is known as an undocumented immigrant. Another term is an “illegal alien.” A person can also become undocumented if he or she enters the country with the appropriate paperwork or visa, but lets that documentation expire without renewing it and without returning to his or her home country.

What’s the Argument Against Immigration?

One of the immigration debate topics questions whether or not people should even be allowed to move from one country to another, legally or not. You can break the arguments against immigration down into three major categories. There’s the economic argument against it, the cultural argument against immigration, and the security argument against it.

The economic argument against immigration goes something like this: “Immigrants come to our country and take our jobs. They use up our resources by applying for welfare and other social programs. They make economic inequality a reality.”

The economic argument against immigration persists, even though statistics have shown that immigration tends to have a positive effect on the economy, according to Fortune. For example, the more low-skilled immigrants who are allowed to travel to the US, the more the cost of services such as childcare drop. An increase in skilled immigrants also has a positive effect on the economy.

The second argument against immigration worries that people who immigrate to places such as the US no longer “assimilate.” That argument is mostly incorrect, according to the Cato Institute, which found that today’s immigrants are more likely to assimilate than those from previous generations.

For many people, national and personal safety and security might be the elephant in the room when it comes to immigration. Those who are against immigration worry that lax policies will let in more bad apples than good ones and that letting people in increases the risk for terrorist attacks.

While recent terrorist attacks did occur at the hands of people who held green cards and had immigrated to the US after being sponsored by family members, Newsweek reports that the risk for a terrorist attack from an immigrant is very low. In fact, you are more at risk for being attacked by a person who is a citizen of the US than by someone who immigrated here, legally or not.

Who Should Be Allowed to Immigrate?

Other topics included in the immigration debates focus on who should be allowed to immigrate, and by extension, who should be allowed to remain in a country. Some argue that only the best and brightest, or the richest, from other countries should be allowed to move to and live in a new country.

Other people argue that a wealthy, well-off country must provide care and protection to refugees and to others who have to flee their homes because of war, famine or political upset.

Those who are in favor of looser immigration policies compare the current system to a form of global apartheid, according to CNN. A person who’s lazy and unwilling to work hard, but who is born in the US, has more opportunities than a person who’s smart and talented but happens to have been born in a more impoverished, less developed country.

The Undocumented Immigrant Question

Another issue in the immigration debate concerns what to do about people who are undocumented or the children of immigrants who came to a country without the right documentation.

In the US, one program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, provided people had arrived in the US during their childhood with a two-year deferment on deportation, plus a work license. The program offered protection to more than three-quarters of a million people since it was signed into law in 2012.

Debates over immigration have been ongoing in the US and other parts of the world for centuries. While politicians might pass laws to either block certain people from entering a country or to protect people who have already immigrated, it’s unlikely that there were ever be consensus or total agreement when it comes to the immigration question.

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