42.2 million – the number of people in the United States in 2014 who were classified as immigrants. From the first indigenous people crossing the ice bridge to North America to European expansion to now with people from all over the world, the US has always been a land of immigration. There have been policies and acts throughout the years that reflect the time period, societal need, customs and political perceptions during that era. Immigration has always been a hot issue, and between the election coming up in November and the Syrian refugee crisis, the light is shining on it more than ever.
History of Immigration
From its beginning, North America has been a land people traveled to for a plethora of reasons, many of which still hold true today. Throughout modern history, people came here for economic opportunity, freedom of religion, freedom from prosecution and the good ol’ desire for adventure. We were a land of opportunity with cheap land and ample availability of work for farmers, fishers, carpenters, tradesmen and craftsmen. Many of the white immigrants began their time in North America as indentured servants. Indentured servants are people who purchased an indenture or contract to work and receive a stipend for a number of years and then be free to pursue their own work after the “contract” ended. These young men became land owners and also needed labor, which lead to the Transatlantic Slave Trade bringing many people from West Africa to the colonies. Many people also emigrated from Europe in order to practice their religion (mostly Quakers and Protestants) in ‘purity’ and free from prosecution.
Most of the immigrants to the US at this point in time were a mixture of people from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Sweden and Africa. In the first half of the 19th century the number of immigrants more than doubled from 742,564 to 1,713,25. This was in part due to repeated crop failures in Germany and the Irish Potato Famine which forced many of their citizens to emigrate for survival. The start of the Industrial Revolution also contributed to immigration due to availability of new jobs for tradesmen and craftsmen.
In the 1840s, people from Mexicans and Chinese started representing a larger fraction of immigrants. This trend was partially due to the US winning the Mexican-American war and Mexico forfeiting the territory that makes up Texas, California and other parts of the American Southwest. All Mexicans already living in this area became American citizens (in other words, they didn’t some to the US, the US came to them). That same year, gold was found in California creating an influx in immigration and movement across the US in the promise of striking it rich.
In the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, advances in technology, like steam-powered ships, increased immigration due to better mobility and decreased cost. The industrial revolution provided jobs needed by many of the new immigrants flocking to the United States. Ellis Island opened in 1892 and was the main point of immigration in the United States until 1954. It is estimated that 40% of Americans can trace their heritage through Ellis Island, go here for a passenger search to see if you can! Also check out these pictures from the LibertyEllisFoundation.org of Ellis Island when it was in use.
Throughout the 20th century, the United States struggled with growing anti-immigration sentiments and the need for relocation of refugees world wide due to WWI, WWII and the Vietnam War. Illegal immigration also grew and many people called for legislation and action to limit the number of undocumented people getting through US borders.
History of Immigration Legislation
The pendulum has swung back and forth on immigration many times in our history. The first attempt at regulating immigration was the Naturalization Act of 1790. Under George Washington, this act stated that naturalization was only to be given to white, free men of good character who had lived in the US for at least two years. This act was then amended, once in 1795 to require residency for citizenship of five years and then in 1798 to require fourteen years. There were also two controversial acts in 1798, the Alien Friends Act and the Sedition Act, which allowed the president to deport aliens who were considered “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States” and restricted people who were critical to the federal government. Both expired by 1801. Thomas Jefferson repealed the Naturalization Act and reduced residency requirement back to five years in 1800 and officially outlawed international slave trade in 1808.
The first anti-immigration movement was in the 1850s known as “The Know Nothing” movement, where Protestant men aimed to effect the legislative process by causing congress to fear the country being taken over by German and Irish Catholics. This was followed by legislation that encouraged immigration during the Civil War called the Homestead Act of 1862 which offered land at very low costs to settlers who agreed to live on and develop it for five years.
This is also the time that anti-Chinese sentiment started and many different acts were passed reflecting this state of thought in the county. The Anti-Coolie Act was established to tax landowners for using cheaper Chinese labor in an attempt to protect white laborers in 1862. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese people and the Scott Act amended the Chinese Exclusion Act to no longer allow Chinese immigrants to re-enter the country after they had left. Here is an anti-Chinese propaganda poster from the Library of Congress.
Throughout 1880 and 1930 new policies were introduced aimed at getting better trained and skilled workers as immigrants so they were seen as ‘contributors’ to society. These policies ranged from barring polygamists and people suffering from mental illness and contagious disease in the Immigration Act of 1891 to requiring knowledge of the English language and some literacy skills in the Immigration Act of 1917. The Immigration Act of 1917 also barred homosexuals, idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, insane persons, alcoholics, and other categories.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 limited the number of immigrants to 350,000 and that number was then reduced again in 1929 by the National Origins Act to 150,000 people. There were many policies throughout this time to restrict immigration and send people back to their native lands due to the Great Depression.
Throughout WWI and WWII the United States had issues with having enough people to fight and support the country back home. They started programs allowing Mexicans to work in the US, repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act and allowed women to work. In 1948, the Displaced Persons Act was enacted to allow up to 200,000 refugees displaced by World War II to enter the United States. In addition, a preference system is established for family members of U.S. citizens.In 1975, Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act resettled about 200,000 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees in the U.S.
In 1980, the Refugee Act was passed. This act defines refugees as a person who flees his or her country “on account of race, religion, nationality, or political opinion” and considers refugees in a different category from immigrants. It also grants the president and Congress the authority to establish an annual quota on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S.
Throughout the rest of the 20th century there were immigration reform acts that aimed to document the legality of immigrants and set caps on the number of immigrants allowed in the country. The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa Lottery (DV lottery or the green-card lottery) to allow entry to 55,000 immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States each fiscal year.
In 2014, President Barrack Obama announced he was going to take executive action to delay the deportation 5 million illegal immigrants to keep families together. For a complete timeline of all immigration legislation go here.
Statistics on Immigrants
There is no doubt that immigration has been increasing over the years. Below is a table from the Migration Policy Institute detailing the increasing size of the immigrant population from 1970 to 2014.
According to the same study, Mexican immigrants account for the largest immigrant group at 28% followed by India and China. Around 47% of the immigrations in 2014 were naturalized and the remaining 53% were lawful permanent residents, unauthorized immigrants and legal residents on temporary visas. Forty-six percent of immigrants in 2014 reported having Hispanic or Latino origin. It is estimated there are below 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States in 2016, a decrease from the last six years. There are almost 1 million LGBTQ immigrants in the United States today. Approximately 50% of the 42.1 million immigrants in 2014 were “Limited English Proficient”. Below is a table that breaks out immigrant occupation from the same study.
In 2012, 69.4% of foreign-born immigrants received a high school diploma and 11.6% had a master’s, professional or doctorate degree and more than half of the foreign-born population are homeowners. Although illegal immigrants gain most of the national attention, it is important to recognize many people are legally immigrating to the US and are qualified, educated people.
The bills introduced this year focus on many different areas of immigration: punishments for crimes by illegal immigrants, enforcement of immigration law and policies about Syrian and other refugees.
There are bills aimed at deportation and punishment of illegal aliens who commit crimes. One of which is “Sarah’s Law”, or S. 3124, which would require U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to take into custody certain people who have been charged in the United States with a crime that resulted in the death or serious bodily injury of another person. There is also “Kate’s Law – Stop Illegal Reentry Act”, or S 2193, which would increase the maximum prison term for an alien who reenters after being denied admission, excluded, deported, or removed from two years to five years. It establishes a 10-year maximum prison term for an alien who reenters after being denied admission, excluded, deported, or removed on 3 or more prior occasions and a 5-year mandatory minimum prison term for an alien who reenters after being removed following a conviction for an aggravated felony or following 2 or more prior convictions for illegal reentry.
The US Congress introduced S 2538, or ICE Agent Support Act of 2016, to provide resources and incentives for the enforcement of immigration laws in the interior of the United States.
Some states have been adamant against accepting Syrian refugees in fears that it will bring terrorists onto our soil. Just as a reminder, Syrians are resettling all over the world due to a five year long civil war that has torn the country and families apart and surrounded them with constant violence and danger. Here is an infographic depicting the number of Syrian refugees in the US in 2016 and states willing to accept their resettlement by migrationpolicy.org – if you remember the US pledged to 10,000 refugees this year.
For a little context, neighboring Turkey has accepted 2.7 million refugees, and Germany has accepted 600,000.
The US introduced the Resettlement REFORM (Re-Evaluation of Financing Our Refugee Mission) Act, or HR 4267, which would authorize a state to refuse, without penalty, to expend refugee resettlement assistance with respect to an alien who “is a national of a country that is a state sponsor of terrorism or a terrorist sanctuary, or has no nationality and the country in which the alien last habitually resided is a state sponsor of terrorism or a terrorist sanctuary”. Arizona introduced HB 2370 which would allow the state to refuse to help refugees if it can’t ensure they have undergone thorough background checks and also would require the federal government to fully compensate the state for any costs that the state incurs for the placement of refugees. Missouri introduced HCR 97 which would specify that state funding will not support Syrian refugees and Missouri will not allow Syrian refugees to settle in the state.
The US introduced HR 4731, titled the “Refugee Program Integrity Restoration Act of 2016” which would impose new caps on refugee resettlement limits, discriminate on religious grounds, redefine the word “refugee,” and give local and state governments broad powers to refuse resettlement. The new definition of who is a “refugee” states that protection from violence would not be offered “if that violence is not specifically directed at the person.” This impacts the Syrian refugee crisis because the violence of the war is not directed at them as “individuals,” but occurs as part of the broader civil war. Jennifer Quigley of Human Rights First stated, “If you look at the situation in Syria, Russia is bombing entire townships, not singling people out as individuals, but targeting them regardless because they are in a war zone. The language in this bill is a huge change from existing standards and would drastically narrow the definition of who constitutes a refugee.”
North Carolina currently has five different bills relating to immigration reform: H 100, H 1069, H 1086, S 868 and H 482. These bills range from tightening E-Verify statutes to protect jobs for citizens and deny jobs to illegal immigrants, disallow all basic use of community ID cards, punish “sanctuary cities” by withholding state funds, make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to vote and punishing employers who misclassify workers as legal.
The Syrian crisis is not the only refugee crisis. Michigan introduced HR 0009 which is a resolution to urge the President of the United States to allow an additional 25,000 refugee visas for displaced Iraqis, with preference for placement in Michigan. The US introduced S 3106 the “Secure the Northern Triangle Act”. This is meant to create a coordinated regional response to better protect refugees and asylum seekers from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
America is a land built on immigration. We are a melting pot. Most of our ancestors are not from here and we have all experienced the benefits from being able to immigrate to this land. People come here and make our lives better and believe in and love our country. This story of a West Point graduate that went viral is proof. Idrache worked his way through one of the nation’s most prestigious military schools after immigrating to the United States from Haiti, earning his citizenship and serving for two years as an enlisted soldier with the Maryland Army National Guard, according to Army records. When he responded to the story going viral he said, “I woke up this morning and found my face all over Facebook and with it myriad of amazing comments about my accomplishments,” Idrache wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “I am humbled and shocked at the same time. Thank you for giving me a shot at the American Dream and may God bless America, the greatest country on earth.” Here is the picture that went viral.
This valedictorian’s speech when viral when she made a bold proclamation in her graduation speech: “I am one of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States. I decided to stand before you today and reveal these unexpected realities, because this might be my only chance to convey the truth to all of you that undocumented immigrants are people, too.” She is headed to Yale University this fall, a college currently ranked 3rd in the United States.
On the other side of this, here is a photo of a family when the U.S.-Mexico border opened for 3 minutes in an initiative called “Opening the Door of Hope”.
Our system is broken. Families are separated. People whose lives are falling apart and whose families are in danger are not getting the help and protection they need. I understand that taking in refugees and the challenges of illegal immigrants is difficult and expensive, but they are humans whose lives matter and who love their families. This is such a difficult issue because how much of their burden should be on us, as American citizens, to help save and improve their lives.