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Immigration and the United States

Immigration is the arrival of new individuals into a habitat or population. It is a biological concept and is important in population ecology, differentiates from emigration and migration (1). Between 1892 and 1954, over 12 million immigrants entered the United States through the portal of New York Harbor, called Ellis Island (2). Although most entered through the harbor, some came into ports throughout the United States, such as Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, Savannah, Miami and New Orleans. First and second class passengers were not required to undergo the inspection process upon arrival at Ellis Island. These passengers were put through a cursory inspection onboard ship; the theory was that if a person could afford the purchase that priced ticket, they were less likely to become a public burden. The Federal government believed that the more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions or hospitals; thus not becoming overly taxing to the State. They only had more thorough inspections if the passenger was sick or had legal issues. Third class and “steerage” passengers fared much differently. They spent many hours in cramped, unsanitary conditions traveling to the United States and then more while waiting to be allowed to enter the US. The two agencies responsible for processing people through Ellis Island were the US Public Health Service and the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization Service (later the INS).

Lady Liberty

Immigration into the U.S. is an issue that makes for much debate. Supporters of current immigration levels include corporate interests that profit from cheap foreign labor, ethnic lobbies seeking to increase their political base, and religious activists, humanitarians, and civil libertarians who focus on human rights and other ethical concerns. Opponents include nativists who view non-European immigrants as a threat to American culture, environmentalists who dread immigration-fueled population growth, and labor advocates who fear that immigration is taking jobs from U.S. citizens and depressing U.S. wages. On the right of the political spectrum, free marketers square off against cultural conservatives. On the left, civil rights and ethnic advocacy groups oppose environmentalists and job protectionists. Current policy is a reaction to the Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the number of immigration visas and allocated them on the basis of national origin. Since the quotas for each nationality were based on its proportion of the U.S. population, the system favored northern Europeans and discriminated against Asians. In the 1960s national quotas were finally abolished on equity grounds. Equal opportunity and family reunification became top priorities, opening the door to much larger flows from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia.

Refugees became a large immigrant category with arrivals from Cuba in the early 1960s and early 1980s; as well as from Southeast Asia in the 1970s, after the collapse of U.S.-supported governments. In 1996 the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service authorized 911,000 legal immigrants for family reunification. This represents an increase of almost 30% from the 1995 figure of 716,000. When illegal immigrants receiving amnesty are included, the 1996 total is around one million. In recent years, the largest group of legal immigrants have come from Asia (37%), followed by Mexico/the Caribbean/Central America (32%), and Europe (18%). About 150,000 people apply for political asylum annually, and the backlog of applications for political asylum stands at about 450,000. Over the past 15 years, North Carolina has had the highest rate of increase of Latino immigration of any Southern state – accounting for more that 27 percent of the state’s population growth. According to a new report from The Century Foundation, the response of the State of North Carolina to Latino immigration has been a mixed one. North Carolina is one of five state case studies (also Iowa, Georgia, Minnesota, and Nebraska) featured in a report from the Century Foundation in 2006, Immigration’s New Frontiers: Experiences from the Emerging Gateway States, which looks at how, in the absence of federal immigration policy, “new destination” states, have tried to address a range of challenges posed by both documented and undocumented immigrants, many of whom have limited English and low incomes. The state studies show how communities, have dealt with the challenges created by the new immigrants in policy and service areas such as law enforcement, health care, housing, education and workers rights.


Americans are increasingly concerned about immigration. A growing number believe that immigrants are a burden to the country, taking jobs and housing and creating strains on the health care system. Many people also worry about the cultural impact of the expanding number of newcomers in the U.S.

Yet the public remains largely divided in its views of the overall effect of immigration. Roughly as many believe that newcomers to the U.S. strengthen American society as say they threaten traditional American values, and over the longer term, positive views of Latin American immigrants, in particular, have improved dramatically.

Reflecting this ambivalence, the public is split over many of the policy proposals aimed at dealing with the estimated 11.5 million-12 million unauthorized migrants in the U.S. Overall, 53% say people who are in the U.S. illegally should be required to go home, while 40% say they should be granted some kind of legal status that allows them to stay here.

From the PEW Hispanic Center and the PEW Research Center for the People and the Press:

Increasing Immigration Worries

Immigrants today…

Sept 2000

Dec 2005

Mar 2006

Are a burden because they take jobs, housing:




Strengthen the US with their hard work & talents:




Don't know:





But Only Pockets of Deep Concern

Immigration a 'very big' community problem:

National Survey 21 Metropolitan Surveys*



Las Vegas:




Washington DC:




Latinos Viewed More Positively

Immigrants from Latin America:

April 1997

Mar 2006

Work very hard:



Have strong family values:



Often go on welfare:



Significantly increase crime:



Divided over What to Do
Illegal immigrants should be:
Required to go home: 53 (total %)
    No temp worker option: 27
    Allow temp worker program : 25
Allowed to stay: 40 (total %)
    Under temp worker program: 7
    Possible to stay permanently: 32
Don’t know: 7 (total %)

* Results from separate surveys conducted in these five metropolitan areas.
All numbers reported as %.

Information from the following websites helped create this document

In Focus: The Immigration Debate
Immigration - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Immigrating to The United States in the Modern Era

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