Historically, there have been several key periods of immigration to the United States. The first was the colonial period of immigration (1607 to 1775), which involved mainly European immigrants (British, German and Dutch). The British arrivals formed the largest group of colonial immigrants and many young people came to work in the United States, where they were employed as indentured servants to work on farms. Dutch arrivals settled in what is now New York, in settlements along the Hudson River, from around 1826 (New York City was originally named New Amsterdam before it was taken over by the British).
Other key periods of immigration include the years between 1790 and 1849. By 1850, the population had grown to around 23 million, with roughly 2,250,000 being born abroad. Many immigrants were attracted to the USA at this time by cheap farm land, as well as difficult conditions at home, such as the Potato Famine (1845-1849) in Ireland, and the failed revolutions of 1848, which drove activists and intellectuals away from Europe towards the United States, attracted by employment opportunities and freedom there. During the period up to 1830, most population growth was the result of internal increase and those born in America made up 98.5% of the population, but this had decreased to 90% by 1850. Other events that increased the rate of immigration to the USA included the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848 – sixty thousand Mexican residents in the New Mexico Territory and ten thousand living in California were made U.S. citizens, as well 2,500 other foreign born California residents) and the California Gold Rush (1849 – 100,000 miners were attracted from Europe, Australia, Latin America, China and the eastern U.S.).
From 1850-1930, there was a rise in the number of German immigrants settling in America, especially in the Midwest (5 million Germans emigrated during this period in total). Also, more and more Irish Catholics continued to arrive, mainly due to the Great Famine in Ireland. The United States became more accessible to the rest of the world after 1870 due to the increasing prevalence of larger and faster steam-powered ships, which were cheaper to use. Many new immigrants came from areas such as Southern Europe and Russia, and were usually between 15 and 30 years of age. This continued growth in immigration was soon slowed down by the Great Depression of the 1930s – the number of immigrants arriving in the United States decreased from around 280,000 in 1929 to around 23,000 in 1933.
One of the most significant pieces of legislation concerning immigration in the United States was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which removed immigration quotas for different countries, leading to an increase in the levels of non-European immigration to the United States. Evidence for this increased level of non-European immigration is the decreasing proportion of total immigration that consisted of Europeans: The number of immigrants from Europe to America decreased from 60% in 1970 to 15% in 2000. In recent times, immigration has continued rising, with immigration doubling between 1965 and 1970, and between 1970 and 1990. There has also been more legislation passed to encourage more immigration, such as the Immigration Act of 1990 (increased legal immigration to the U.S. by 40%), as well as several amnesties passed by Congress and presidents (such as Ronald Reagan) for illegal immigrants.
Immigration has had a number of effects on the USA. In terms of where immigrants permanently settle, seven American states have the majority of the USA’s foreign-born population: California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and Illinois. These states make up 44% of the USA’s overall population, and the total immigrant population of these seven states accounts for 70% of the USA’s total foreign born population (as of year 2000). The top five countries for the origin of immigrants in the United States are Mexico, Philippines, China, India and Vietnam (with Mexico being the country with the highest number of nationals living in the USA).
Demographically, it is predicted that the demographics of the American population will change dramatically over the next century. By 2050, according to the Pew Research Centre, it is predicted that the percentage of the American population made up by non-Hispanic whites will drop from 67% in 2005 to 47% of the total population, compared to the 1960 figure of 85% for non-Hispanic whites.
There are plenty of different views as to whether immigration has provided economic gains for the USA. According to some estimates, immigrants contribute up to $10 billion to the American economy. According to a report by the United States National Research Council (“The New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal effects of immigration), immigration results in an overall gain for the economy, due to reduced prices of goods and services produced by immigrant labour and higher salaries for higher-paid workers. It is currently unclear whether illegal immigration provides the same benefits to the economy as legal immigration. Although illegal immigration is a cost to most states, there is currently no measurement of the total cost of illegal immigration to the United States as a country, so it is hard to come to reliable conclusions. Although there are 21 million immigrants in the workforce, this does not mean that the native workforce are missing out on jobs, as immigrants are more likely to be taking jobs which would not have existed if the immigrant workers were not in America. There is also a large body of evidence to suggest that many of the immigrants are doing jobs that American workers do not want to do, such as a report by the Pew Hispanic Centre in 2006, which showed that Americans’ employment prospects have not been affected negatively by immigration to the USA.
Economic criticisms of immigration have often been about the additional strain on public services, especially from poorer immigrants. A third of immigrants do not have any health insurance, and just under a third of adult immigrants did not finish high school. Hispanics have accounted for 41% of the increase in people without health insurance between 2000 and 2006, which places extra pressure on the healthcare system. Critics of immigration, such as the Centre for Immigration Studies, would also point to statistics showing that 25.8% of Mexican immigrants live in poverty, which is more than twice the rate for Americans, as of 1999. Advocates of reduced immigration (particularly Hispanic immigrants) would look at statistics such as those from the Heritage Foundation, which show that the number of poor Hispanics in the USA increased from 6 million in 1990 to 9.2 million in 2006.
Other economic issues related to immigration include the provision of home loans to illegal migrants by banks that were looking for a new source of income, which may be linked to an unusually high level of house repossessions during the subprime mortgage crisis of the financial crash of the late-2000s. Research into immigration, such as that carried out by Jason Richwine (a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute), has suggested that certain immigrant groups, especially Hispanic immigrants, find it more difficult to reach the same levels of economic prosperity as the general population than other immigrant groups, such as white Europeans, even after several generations residing in the USA.
Politically, it could be argued that the Democrat party has benefited from a more diverse electorate, as immigrants have been shown to be more likely to vote for the Democrats, rather than the Republican Party. The religious beliefs of immigrants can also influence the overall votes of the electorate, as more religious immigrants tend to be more strongly conservative than those immigrants who hold no religious views. Immigration has also led to increased lobbying of the government by various groups with different interests, such as pro-immigration and anti-immigration organisations, as well as business groups. Immigrants are more likely to be employed in sectors of the economy where business groups have the greatest lobbying power, and are least likely to be employed in sectors where unions have the most influence. According to some analysts, it was the strong immigrant vote (especially Hispanic) in the 2012 U.S. presidential election that helped Barack Obama gain a second term in the White House, according to the news agency Reuters. This has presented issues for the Republican Party, which has not been as successful as the Democrats at attracting the vote of the increasingly growing number of migrants that make up the electorate, and the presence of immigrants in the electorate may force the Republican Party to add policies to their manifesto that take a friendlier approach to immigration.
The attitude of the American public towards immigration can be best described as mixed: Americans view immigrant groups that have been present in the USA for many decades more favourably than immigrant groups that have recently migrated to the USA. The September 11th terrorist attacks in New York resulted in a change in the public’s attitude towards immigrants – in a study conducted in 2002, 55% of Americans were shown to hold the view that legal immigration should be reduced. These findings were repeated in a study in 2006 by the Centre for Immigration Studies, where 68% of people thought legal immigration levels were too high, as opposed to just 2% who thought they were too low. Americans have been shown to have more negative feelings towards immigrants if they lived in an area where unemployment rates were high, or if they do not come into contact with immigrants very often.
Unsurprisingly, the American public views illegal immigration in a much more negative light than legal immigration. It is widely agreed that the largest group of illegal immigrants are Mexicans (56%), followed by other Latin American countries (22%), Asia (13%), Europe and Canada (6%) and Africa and the rest of the world (3%). Illegal immigrants in the USA are more likely to be settled in areas where there is already a high Hispanic population, and are more likely to be less educated than other sections of the American population, as well as having lower incomes. The children of illegal immigrants are more unlikely to finish high school than the rest of the American population, possibly due to pressures to work at a younger age than American children, and not having enough money to continue to higher education.
The estimate for the current number of illegal immigrants in the USA is 11,555,000, with California (2,930,000), Texas (1,640,000) and Florida (980,000) being the states with the highest numbers of illegal immigrants in them. The estimated top three countries of origin for illegal immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. There are three ways that illegal immigrants can enter the United States: Illegal entry, visa overstay and Border Crossing Card violations. Estimates by the Pew Hispanic Centre suggest that around 50% of the total number of illegal immigrants entered the USA through illegal entry, such as across the US-Mexico border, which has become infamous for the dangerous journeys that Mexicans have to make in order to cross from Mexico into the USA. While areas of the USA-Mexico border near cities and other urban areas have fences and are well guarded, other parts of the border in more rural areas, such as deserts and mountainous regions, have very little or no law enforcement in operation, so many Mexicans attempt to cross into the USA in these areas, resulting in several hundred illegal immigrant deaths per year in this area. Some experts, such as Dr Douglas Massey of Princeton University, have argued that the continued building of fences and other defences aimed at preventing illegal immigration is simply driving illegal immigrants into more isolated and rural desert and mountainous areas, which has resulted in a larger number of deaths of these immigrants.
Around 4.5 million illegal immigrants have entered the USA as a result of overstaying their visa. However, the authorities can use data, such as biometric information, passport details and travel information collected by the US-VISIT programme, to attempt to track down illegal immigrants entering the United States in this way. A smaller amount of illegal immigration is due to Border Crossing Card violations, which allows crossings of the border into the USA for a certain period of time.
People around the world continue to migrate to the USA today, because it is perceived to be a prosperous country where there are lots of opportunities. The most common basis on which foreign nationals became Legal Permanent Residents (LPRs) in 2009 was family reunification, which accounted for two thirds of immigration to the USA. Other foreign nationals became LPRs on the basis of their employment skills (13%) or for humanitarian reasons (17%).
Overall, it is clear that the United States has a long association with immigration, and that the continued immigration of people from around the world in its early history was due to the perceived opportunities that were seen to be available in America by people in Latin America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Canada and the rest of the world. This still holds true today, with almost 14 million immigrants entering the country from 2000 to 2010, and almost a million people becoming U.S. citizens in 2008 alone.
Contributed by Michael Moore