Often called a melting pot of cultures, the United States is home to the largest population of immigrants in the world. Although the country was primarily founded by immigrants, not everyone who lives in the US today has a favorable view on immigration. Immigration USA tends to be a controversial issue, with politicians and others often advocating for reform.
To understand the issue of immigration USA, it helps to look closely at the country’s policy, United States immigration statistics, and how people feel about immigration to the United States.
United States Immigration Statistics
The US has a substantial population of immigrants, with Pew Research Center putting the total number of people born in a foreign country and living in the US at over 40 million. According to Pew’s data, one-fifth of the world’s migrants were in the US in 2015.
Changes in the United States immigration policy has led to an upswing in the number of people who make to the country, and where those immigrants come from. Pew notes that since the US put its current immigration laws into place in the 1960s, four times as many immigrants came to the country.
In the 1970s, immigrants made up less than 5 percent of the US population. Today, they make up more than 13 percent.
Despite fears of rampant “illegal” immigration, the vast majority, more than three-quarters, of people who move to the US do so with the proper documents and visas. Nearly half of all immigrants are naturalized citizens.
It is worth noting that although undocumented immigrants make up the minority of immigrants, the number of undocumented people in the country has increased considerably in recent years. According to Pew, the population of undocumented immigrants was around 3 million in 1990. By 2007, the population of undocumented people had swollen to more than 12 million.
People from some countries are more likely to immigrate to the US than from others. The countries with the largest immigrant population in the US include:
- Mexico – 11.6 million
- China – 2.7 million
- India – 2.4 million
- Philippines – 2.0 million
- El Salvador – 1.4 million
Undocumented Immigrants in the US
One of the most significant issues facing immigration USA has to do with people who move to the country without first obtaining the appropriate documents or people who remain in the US even after their visas have expired.
People who don’t have the right paperwork are usually called undocumented immigrants, or, more casually, “illegal immigrants.”
Although the number of undocumented immigrants in the US did increase significantly from the 1990s into the early part of the 21st century, there has been a decrease in the number of undocumented people in recent years.
In 2017, the USA Today reported that the number of undocumented immigrants in the country had remained flat for about eight years. While it reached a peak of more than 12 million in 2007, the number has since fallen to approximately 11.3 million, according to Pew.
The US population tends to make several assumptions about undocumented immigrants, but these assumptions often prove to be somewhat inaccurate. For example, one assumption is that all undocumented people come from Mexico.
While the majority of undocumented immigrants to the US were from Mexico for many years, that number has since fallen. According to Pew, there were 5.6 million undocumented immigrants from Mexico in the US in 2015-2016, a drop of nearly one million since 2009.
As the number of undocumented immigrants from Mexico has dropped, the number of immigrants without the right paperwork from countries in Central America and China has increased.
Another issue that is often confused by the US population is the number of people who are working in the country without the appropriate paperwork. Undocumented immigrants make up just a small percentage of people who work or who are looking for work in the country — only 5 percent of the total workforce, or around 8 million people.
An Overview of United States Immigration Policy
In the US, immigration policy wasn’t always so complicated. When European colonists first began making the trip to what would become the US, “immigrating” here was as simple as hopping on a boat and making the journey successfully. Those who survived the trip across the Atlantic didn’t need to fuss around with passports or visas once they got to the shore.
But as the population increased and as people continued to make the trip over to the US, sometimes from Europe, increasingly from Asia, those who had set up homes in the US began to feel a bit concerned that made there were too many people coming over.
Although there was some form of immigration policy on the books since the earliest days of the country’s founding, the first law restricting immigration didn’t get passed until 1875. The Immigration Act of 1875 made it illegal for those with a criminal record to immigrate to the US.
A few years later, in 1882, the US passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented laborers from China from entering the US. The act also prevented Chinese immigrants who were already in the US from becoming naturalized.
An act passed in 1903 banned anarchists from coming to the US, making it the first law to prevent someone from immigrating based on his or her political beliefs.
In the 1920s, immigration policy in the US evolved once again, as the country introduced quotas. Under the quota system, only a specific number of people from a specific country were allowed to move to the US each year. The quotas were based on how many people from various countries were living in the US at the time of the most recent census.
The quota system also had a nationwide cap on the number of people who could travel to the US from any country. At the time, it was 350,000. A revision of the law in 1924 reduced the total cap to 124,000.
In 1965, the US repealed the quota system with the Immigration and Nationality Act. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the act was designed to bring in more skilled workers to the US and to reunite families who had been separated by immigration.
Under the act, people were able to sponsor immediate family members, and there were no caps on the number of people who could immigrate to the US with family sponsorship each year.
Although before the 1965 law the majority of immigrants to the US had been from European countries, after the law, the scales tilted and the majority of immigrants began to be from Asian and South/Central American countries.
Another significant milestone in the development of US immigration policy was the passing of the Refugee Act in 1980. While the US had passed laws as needed throughout the years to handle the migration of refugees from specific countries, the 1980 law was the first time that the country introduced a general policy for people seeking asylum.
Recent Policy Changes and Ongoing Debate
US immigration policy has continued to evolve over the years, with politicians calling for reform of the policy every so often and with new acts and laws passed to update or attempt to improve the policy.
For example, in the mid-1990s, the US passed the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which add new consequences for people who tried to cross the border without the appropriate documents and also increased the size of border control.
More recently, policy and reform has focused on what to do about the undocumented recent immigrants to the United States. One law sought to provide a “path to citizenship” for the undocumented, according to 538.com. It also would have increased the number of visas for skilled workers and reduced the priority placed on reuniting families.
The bill didn’t pass, though, and immigration reform has remained a hotly contested issue for the past few years.
Another immigration policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was put into place by executive order by President Obama. Under the policy, called DACA, children who were brought to the US illegally were given a chance to remain in the US for a renewable, two-year period. Participants in DACA were also eligible for work permits.
Nearly 700,000 people, under the age of 31, enrolled in the program. But a change in administration put their fate into the question, as the new president canceled it. Those enrolled in DACA would start to see the effects of the cancellation in March of 2018.
Other recent changes in US immigration policy concern the number of refugees who are permitted into the country. In 2016, nearly 85,000 refugees were allowed into the US. In 2017, new restrictions reduced that number to 45,000 people.
The current political climate has had a major impact on immigration in the US. How immigration reform and policy shakes out over the next few years is likely to be very different from how it played out in the country’s earlier history.