II. U.S. Immigration: A Historical Overview
Throughout history, U.S. immigration policy has been shaped by two contending views: One advocates that the United States should serve as a refuge for the world’s dispossessed; the other believes that immigration policy should benefit the United States by granting admissions for people who add to the economy and society but excluding those who may become a burden (Fix & Pastel, 1994). Many of the core elements of the U.S. immigration policies existed in the colonial era, but comprehensive immigration policies under the form of federal laws did not emerge until the end of the 19th century. In regard to federal laws, regulations of immigration to the United States can be divided in two distinct periods. The first period was characterized by immigration restrictions, beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which, among other provisions, suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers and removed the rights of Chinese immigrants to become citizens. From 1822 to 1965, several other immigration policies were implemented to define the quality and quantity of persons who could be admitted to the United States as immigrants. Criminals, prostitutes, physically and mentally ill people, and those who were illiterate were barred from entering the United States. National-origin exclusions were expanded to the Japanese in 1907 and to all Asians in 1917. The quantitative restriction on immigration was imposed in 1924 under the National Origin Act, which determined admission quotas for European countries based on the proportion of each country’s population present in the United States during the 1890 census. Consequently, a majority of immigrants to the United States before 1965 hailed from European countries.
A new era characterized by a shift toward a more liberal immigration policy began in 1965, with the Immigration and Nationality Act (also called the Hart Cellar Immigration Reform Act of 1965).The national-origin quota system was replaced by a system that gave admission preference for two categories: (1) relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents and (2) people with job skills deemed useful in the United States. The law also created different admission caps for countries in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. As a result, the number of female immigrants, as well as the number of immigrants from Asia and Mexico, increased substantially. Three other major immigration policies were implemented between 1980 and 1990, representing a trend toward more open immigration. First, the Refugee Act of 1980 created a comprehensive refugee policy and set up a permanent and systematic procedure for admitting refugees. Second, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 addressed the issue of illegal immigration. It sought to enhance enforcement by increasing border enforcement and instituting employer sanctions for knowingly hiring illegal aliens. The law also created two amnesty programs that gave certain types of unauthorized aliens a legal status in the United States. Under these amnesty programs, almost 3 million people illegally living in the United States became lawful permanent residents. Third, the Immigration Act of 1990 increased legal, employment-based, and skill-based immigration. It tripled employment-based immigration with its focus on skills needed in the U.S. economy. A new trend emerged in 1996, however: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 addressed border enforcement and the use of social services by immigrants. The law increased the number of border patrol agents, introduced new control measures, and reduced government benefits to immigrants.
Since 1820, the year when immigration statistics first became available, the numbers of immigrants coming to the United States have steadily increased, even during the period of immigration restrictions. The number of foreign-born persons admitted to the United States as legal permanent residents in 1820 was less than 10,000, but this number has been increased to more than 1 million since 2000. These legal permanent residents are officially defined as immigrants. Besides legal immigration, illegal immigration is an important issue in the United States. Over the years, seasoned workers from many countries have been recruited to work in the United States under nonimmigrant visas for a limited period of time. A major source of illegal immigration has come from temporary workers and tourists who overstay their nonimmigrant visas. Foreign nationals who illegally enter the United States by crossing the border have also contributed to the illegal immigrant population. By 2006, the foreign-born population in the United States (including both legal and illegal immigrants) reached 37.5 million, accounting for 12% of the U.S. population. The illegal immigrant population was estimated at 12 million, or one third of the foreign-born population. In this research paper, the term immigrants refers to foreign-born persons who are admitted to the United States as legal permanent residents or those who are allowed to resettle in the United States but do not have yet a permanent resident status. This group is also considered the first immigrant generation.