The United States is fundamentally an immigrant nation. American migrants have moved throughout the North American continent; they began from British colonial origins and progressed through subsequent land settlements, acquisitions, and expansions. This process brought the absorption and naturalization of many foreign-born populations. Throughout its history, the US has been a destination for immigrants from around the world. More legal and illegal immigrants enter the US than any other single country; 20% of all people in the world living outside their country of birth reside in the US.
- According to the US Census Bureau, there were approximately 38 million foreign born people in the US in 2007, or around 12% of the total US population. These include legal (those with visas, foreign permanent residency, refugee or asylum status, and naturalized citizens) and illegal immigrants (undocumented temporary and permanent residents).
- Just ten countries contribute half of all immigrants to the US. Mexican-born immigrants make up the largest percentage of immigrants living in the US (30%). Others include those from the Philippines (4.5%), India (3.9%), The People’s Republic of China (3.6%, excluding Taiwan and Hong Kong), El Salvador (2.9%), Vietnam (2.9%), Korea (2.7%), Cuba (2.2%), Canada (2.2%) and the Dominican Republic (2.0%).
- The five top states in terms of number of foreign-born residents are California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. These states, along with New Jersey and Arizona, consistently rank in the top tier for absolute numbers and absolute growth of immigrant populations. However, between 2000 and 2007, the greatest percentage increase in foreign-born residents was found in South Carolina, Arkansas, Nevada, Tennessee and Alabama. Once a coastal phenomenon, immigrant communities may be found throughout the interior of the country. Family and/or community ties usually determine an immigrant’s destination within the US.
- Of these 38 million foreign-born residents, 16 million (42.5%) are naturalized citizens. The US is considered generous and liberal by international standards in the manner and scope of its naturalization policies. There are three main routes to citizenship: birth on US soil (regardless of the status of the child’s parents), birth to US citizens living abroad, and legal naturalization involving residency and testing requirements.
- Approximately 30% of the US foreign-born population is considered illegal, undocumented or unauthorized. The Pew Hispanic Center reports that 44% of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants have arrived since 2000, with around 800,000 arriving each year from 2000-2004 and an estimated 500,000 per year in the period 2005-2008. The decline is thought to be due to a combination of the weakening US economy, development in countries of origin and stricter border control measures.
- Most unauthorized immigrants in the US are from Mexico and other Latin American countries. Illegal immigrants (or aliens) make up 4% of the total US population (foreign and native born combined) and less than 5% of the total labor force. More immigrants derive their illegal status from overstaying legal entry permits than from sneaking through borders.
- With increasing labor segmentation in the economy, the US is seen by many experts to be trending toward structural dependence on immigrant labor. This dependence includes illegal immigrant labor, as native workers eschew certain low wage, unskilled jobs. For this reason, studies have shown that unskilled immigrant labor does not generally displace native workers. Studies have also shown that raids and deportation of illegal workers in unskilled professions may lead to an increase in native employment in those sectors, but turnover among natives in these jobs is much higher than with immigrant laborers. Currently, native-born workers do not appear to provide a reliable pool of labor for certain jobs in agriculture, construction and janitorial services, among others.
- Many studies conclude that immigrant labor in the US, even illegal immigrant labor, contributes to overall economic growth. It creates more jobs and, in some cases, raises wages. The exception is the negative effect on wages of unskilled native-born workers without a high school diploma. This group tends to experience small wage declines due to competition from immigrant labor.
- It has been shown that immigrants as a group pay more in taxes in the US than they receive in public benefits over their lifetimes. Although measurement is difficult, this is thought to be true for illegal immigrants as well.
- Remittances from migrant workers in the US are a major source of income for Mexico, comprising the second largest revenue source behind oil. Immigration expert Julia Preston has pointed out that these remittances end up benefiting the US economy as well by bolstering the purchasing power and consumer demand of Mexicans for US products (Mexico is the US’ third largest trading partner after Canada and China).
- Skilled or highly educated immigrants are a special category of immigrants, and are treated differently than unskilled laborers with respect to work permits and recruitment. There is high demand in the US for immigrants with technical and engineering backgrounds, as well as those in the medical profession. In 2008, all 65,000 visas set aside for the purpose of recruiting such workers were taken in one day.
- The US also gains highly skilled immigrants through matriculation at American universities. The US National Science Board reported that in the US in 2008, 60% of all engineering doctorates and 50% of all math and computer science doctorates were awarded to foreign-born students, many from developing countries like India. However, post-graduate employment visas are competitive to get under current US policy, and these workers are in high demand globally. Some believe US competitiveness in the future is related to attracting and keeping these immigrants, as native-born populations lag behind in science and math achievement.
- US immigration policy puts a high priority on family reunification. In 2007, 1.1 million new legal immigrants entered the US. Nearly half were immediate relatives of a US citizen, 18.5% came through family-sponsored programs, and 15.4% came through employment-sponsored programs. A small percentage made financial investments in the US that facilitated their legal immigration status.
- The US runs a diversity lottery program, providing legal residency permits by lottery to a pool of applicants drawn from under-represented countries. Four percent of legal immigrants entered this way in 2007. In 2008, Russian immigrants became eligible for this program for the first time.
- Nearly 13% of legal immigrants in 2006 were granted refugee or asylum status. Most of the 41,000 refugees admitted were from just ten countries: Burma, Somalia, Iran, Burundi, Cuba, Russia, Iraq, Liberia, Ukraine and Vietnam. Another 26,000 were granted asylum, with half of these coming from China, Haiti, Venezuela and Colombia. California and Minnesota become home to the largest number of refugees to the US.
- The US burden of proof for those fleeing persecution is high; it requires documented evidence and/or witnesses as well as confirmation that an applicant was singled out for harsh treatment, rather than simply a member of a group experiencing discrimination. Applicants must also prove that they have no other place of refuge, that the US was their first and only choice for asylum, and that they have some means of financial support (this can be charity or NGO assistance). They must also submit to a medical exam and interview with INS officials.
- The official ceiling on the number of refugees that could be admitted into the US was set at 70,000 in 2006, down 70% from a high of 231,700 in 1980. Ceilings currently apportion refugee spots by region of origin, with 20,000 reserved for Africa, 15,000 for East Asia, 15,000 for Europe and Central Asia, 5,000 for Latin America and the Caribbean and 5,000 for the Near East and Central Asia. Another 10,000 spots are geographically unrestricted.
Immigration Policy in the US
US immigration policy has changed over time, but remains fairly liberal by comparison with other countries. The most significant change has been to erase restrictions on immigrants from certain countries of origin, particularly Asian countries. Asian immigrants were excluded in varying degrees over much of American history, but today they comprise a significant portion of total US immigration, second only to Latin Americans. At various times in history, other exclusions have applied, including restricting people with mental and physical defects and those considered to be anarchists or Communists.
Legal restrictions have at times been contradictory. The 1986 Immigrant Control Act granted amnesty to 3 million undocumented residents, yet also introduced sanctions and fines on employers who hired illegal immigrants. The 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act and Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act are considered modern America’s most restrictive laws. Together, these tightened restrictions on green cards, introduced minimum income requirements for those sponsoring immigrants, strengthened border controls, and instituted limits on public benefits to non-citizens. Pro-immigration laws passed from 1997-2000 eased many of these controls and restrictions, but the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001 ushered in a new era of immigration regulation. Among the most controversial practices instituted by the new Department of Homeland Security is increased detention of immigrants awaiting status clarification.
One constant and growing trend has been to place priority on family reunification. The US is considered exceptional in its granting of citizenship to every child born on US soil, even if the parents are not citizens or even legal residents. The other primary path to citizenship involves naturalization. To become naturalized citizens, individuals must be 18 years or older, meet minimum legal residency requirements, pass a test verifying the ability to read and write English and basic knowledge of US government and history, and be considered persons of “good moral character.”
Immigration policy in the US is influenced by powerful interest groups on both sides of the immigration debate. On one side are employers who benefit from immigrant labor, immigrant communities, civil rights advocates, and even trade unions that in recent years dropped opposition to immigrant membership. On the other side are those who cite concern over immigrants replacing native workers, and those who worry that immigrants and their children are changing the social and cultural identity of the United States. Although immigrants pay taxes (even illegal workers often pay some income tax), there are those who feel that illegal immigrants should not be entitled to the same public services as native populations.
These debates have intensified over the years. In 2007, the country engaged in considerable rancor over immigration reform when the Bush Administration attempted to pass a comprehensive bill addressing a wide range of concerns over US immigration policy and enforcement. The bill would have provided an incremental $4 billion for border security and increased penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. The bill would have also created new guest worker visas, cleared application backlogs and provided legal status for millions of illegal workers. It was this last provision that most believe caused the bill to fail to pass in the Congress.
Another controversial component of the proposed legislation would have enhanced the importance of a potential migrant’s skill profile, awarding points on the basis of education and other factors. Many feared this represented a break with the American tradition of honoring family reunification. Strict guest worker provisions that would have potentially made family relocation difficult generated the same concerns.
With the failure of 2007 federal immigration legislation, states and cities became responsible for formulating their own policies concerning the rights, protections, responsibilities, and entitlements of immigrants in a highly charged political environment. The result has been mixed. In the wake of the failed legislation, the US deported a record number of illegal immigrants (350,000), yet it also naturalized a record number of new citizens (1 million) and reduced application backlogs and waiting times.
Effect on the Demographics of American Society
A report released in February 2008 by the Pew Research Center projects that the total US population will increase from 303 million in 2005 to 438 million in 2050. People who are immigrants during this period and their descendants will account for 105 million, or 67%, of this increase. The ethnic composition of America will significantly change, with the percentage of non-Hispanic whites slipping from 67% in 2005 to 47% by 2050. The population growth of non-Hispanic whites is expected to largely remain steady during this period, as is the growth of the new immigrant population. The critical factor behind the projected discrepancy is the difference in fertility rates between the immigrant populations (Asian and Hispanic) and non-Hispanic whites. Factoring in the different birth rates of first, second, and third generation immigrants, Pew was able to project that immigrants arriving after 2005, and more significantly, their children and grandchildren, will account for 82% of total US population growth between 2005 and 2050. Hispanic populations are expected to increase from 42 million to 128 million; Asians are expected to increase from 14 million to 41 million. The US is thus likely to become more diverse, and by proportions greater than previously projected.
Next: Going Forward: Policy Considerations