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11.1: History and Background

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    Immigration is the act of foreigners passing or coming into a country for the purpose of permanent residence. Immigration occurs for many reasons, including economic, political, family re-unification, natural disasters, or poverty. Many immigrants came to America to escape religious persecution or dire economic conditions. Most hoped coming to America would provide freedom and opportunity.

    Immigration to the United States has been a major source of population growth and cultural change. Different historical periods have brought distinct national groups, races and ethnicities to the United States. During the 17th century, approximately 175,000 Englishmen migrated to Colonial America. Over half of all European immigrants to Colonial America during the 17th and 18th centuries arrived as indentured servants. The mid-nineteenth century saw mainly an influx from northern Europe, the early twentieth-century mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe, and post-1965 mostly from Latin America and Asia.

    Historical Race/Ethnic Population Demographics in America: A Brief Statistical Overview

    • 1790—Population 4 million
      • 1 person in 30 urban=3.33
    • 1820—Population 10 million
      • 1 Black to 4 whites=25% Black population
      • 14000 immigrants per year for decade
      • Almost all from England and N. Ireland (Protestants)
      • 1 in 20 urban=5%
    • 1830—Population 13 million
      • 1 Black to 5 whites=20 Black population
      • 60,000 immigrants in 1832
      • 80,000 immigrants in 1837
      • Irish Catholics added to mix
    • 1840—Population 17 million
      • 1 in 12 urban=8.33
      • 84,000 immigrants
    • 1840-1850—immigration1.5 million Europeans
    • 1850—Population 23 million
      • Irish 45% of foreign-born
      • Germans 20% of foreign-born
    • 1850s—immigration2.5 million Europeans
      • 2% of the population of NYC were immigrants
      • In St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee the foreign-born outnumbered the native-born
    • 1860—Population 31.5 million
      • 26% of the population of free states were urban
      • 10 of the population in the South were urban
      • Irish immigrant population in America=1.5 million
      • German immigrant population in America=1 million
    • 1900—Population=76.1 million
    • 2002—Population=280 million
    • 2010—Population=309 million

    For a more striking look at the history of immigration to the United States, please watch the video below by Metrocosm:

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): "Here is Everyone Who Has Emigrated to the United States Since 1820." 2 Centuries of U.S. Immigration From 1920 to 2013, 79 million people obtained lawful permanent resident status in the United States. This map visualizes all of them based on their prior country of residence. The brightness of a country corresponds to its total migration to the U.S. at the given time. 1 dot = 10,000 people. (Text-based data table).
    (Fair Use; Metrocosm via YouTube)

    Contemporary Immigration

    In recent years, immigration has increased substantially which is conveyed in the Figure 3.1.2 below. In 1965, ethnic quotas were removed; these quotas had restricted the number of immigrants allowed from different parts of the world. Immigration doubled between 1965 and 1970, and again between 1970 and 1990. Between 2000 and 2005, nearly 8 million immigrants entered the United States, more than in any other five-year period in the nation’s history. In 2006, the United States accepted more legal immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries in the world combined. Though, as Table 3.1.3 reveals, fewer individuals received their authorized permanent resident status from 2016 through 2018. According to the U. S. and World Population Clock provided by the United States Census Bureau, the most current U. S. population count is 330,065,778 and rising.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Legal Immigration in the United States, 1820-2020 (Data from Schaefer, 2015; United States Department of Homeland Security, 2013)

    Table \(\PageIndex{3}\): Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Region of Birth: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018 (Data from the United States Department of Homeland Security)

    Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Region of Birth Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018
    Region of Birth 2016 2017 2018
    Total 1,183,505 1,127,167 1,096,611
    Africa 113,426 118,824 115,736
    Asia 462,299 424,743 397,187
    Europe 93,567 84,335 80,024
    North America 427,293 413,650 418,991
    Oceania 5,588 5,071 4,653
    South America 79,608 79,076 78,869
    Unknown 1,724 1,468 1,151

    Recent Immigration Demographics

    Until the 1930s most legal immigrants were male. By the 1990s, women accounted for just over half of all legal immigrants. Contemporary immigrants tend to be younger than the native population of the United States, with people between the ages of 15 and 34 substantially over-represented. Immigrants are also more likely to be married and less likely to be divorced than native-born Americans of the same age.

    Immigrants come from all over the world, but a significant number come from Latin America. In 1900, when the U.S. population was 76 million, there were an estimated 500,000 Latinx. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, one-quarter of the population will be of Hispanic descent. This demographic shift is jointly fueled by higher fertility rates amongst the Latinx population as well as immigration from Latin America.

    Immigrants are likely to move to and live in areas populated by people with similar backgrounds. This phenomenon has held true throughout the history of immigration to the United States.

    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): Selected Characteristics of Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Country of Birth: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018 (Data from the Department of Homeland Security)

    Selected Characteristics of Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Country of Birth Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018
    Country of Birth 2016 2017 2018
    Mexico 174,434 170,581 161,858
    China 81,772 71,565 65,214
    Cuba 66,516 65,028 76,486
    India 64,687 60,394 59,821
    Dominican Republic 61,161 58,520 57,413
    Philippines 53,287 49,147 47,258
    Vietnam 41,451 38,231 33,834
    El Salvador 23,449 25,109 28,326
    Haiti 23,584 21,824 21,360
    Jamaica 23,350 21,905 20,347
    This chart shows that immigration from Asia outnumbered Latin x since 2010
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Among New Immigrant Arrival, Asians Outnumber Latinx (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.)

    Although Europe has been the traditional sending region for immigrants to the U.S., the post WWII era (after 1946) shows a significant increase in migration from Mexico, South and Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia. (Recent data is conveyed in Table 3.1.4 and Figure 3.1.5 above). The latest migration trend also involves people from Africa. Please visit the following websites for more information: Foreign Born Data Tables and The Statistical Abstracts of the United States.

    Public Opinion Toward Immigrants

    American attitudes toward immigration are markedly ambivalent. American history is rife with examples of anti-immigrant opinion. Benjamin Franklin opposed German immigration, warning Germans would not assimilate. In the 1850s, the nativist Know Nothing movement opposed Irish immigration, promulgating fears that the country was being overwhelmed by Irish Catholic immigrants.

    In general, Americans have more positive attitudes toward groups that have been visible for a century or more, and much more negative attitude toward recent arrivals. According to a 1982 national poll by the Roper Center at the University of Connecticut, “By high margins, Americans are telling pollsters it was a very good thing that Poles, Italians, and Jews emigrated to America. Once again, it’s the newcomers who are viewed with suspicion. This time, it’s the Mexicans, the Filipinos, and the people from the Caribbean who make Americans nervous.”

    In a 2009 Gallup Poll, 50% of Americans thought that immigration should be decreased, 32% thought it should stay at its present level, and only 14% thought it should be increased (Morales, 2009). As the text notes, fear of job competition is a primary reason for the concern that Americans show about immigration. Yet another reason might be their fear that immigration raises the crime rate. A 2007 Gallup Poll asked whether immigrants are making “the situation in the country better or worse, or not having much effect” for the following dimensions of our national life: food, music and the arts; the economy; social and moral values; job opportunities; taxes; and the crime situation. The percentage of respondents saying “worse” was higher for the crime situation (58%) than for any other dimension. Only 4% of respondents said that immigration has made the crime situation better (Newport, 2007.)

    However, research conducted by sociologists and criminologists finds that these 4% are in fact correct: immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans, and immigration has apparently helped lower the U.S. crime rate (Immigration Policy Center, 2008; Sampson, 2008;Vélez, 2006). What accounts for this surprising consequence? One reason is that immigrant neighborhoods tend to have many small businesses, churches, and other social institutions that help ensure neighborhood stability and, in turn, lower crime rates. A second reason is that the bulk of recent immigrants are Latinos, who tend to have high marriage rates and strong family ties, both of which again help ensure lower crime rates (Vélez, 2006). A final reason may be that undocumented immigrants hardly want to be deported and thus take extra care to obey the law by not committing street crime (Immigration Research Library, 2008).

    Reinforcing the immigration-lower crime conclusion, other research also finds that immigrants’ crime rates rise as they stay in the United States longer. Apparently, as the children of immigrants become more “Americanized,” their criminality increases. As one report concluded, “The children and grandchildren of many immigrants—as well as many immigrants themselves the longer they live in the United States—become subject to economic and social forces that increase the likelihood of criminal behavior” (Rumbaut & Ewing, 2007, p. 11).

    As the United States continues to address immigration policy, it is important that the public and elected officials have the best information possible about the effects of immigration. The findings by sociologists and other social scientists that immigrants have lower crime rates and that immigration has apparently helped lower the U.S. crime rate add an important dimension to the ongoing debate over immigration policy.

    One of the most important factors regarding public opinion about immigration is the level of unemployment; anti-immigrant sentiment is highest where unemployment is highest, and vice versa. In fact, in the United States, only 0.16% of the workforce are legal immigrants. A more recent survey by the Pew Research Center (see Figure 3.1.6 below) suggests a more positive view of U. S. immigrants in which they are seen as a source of "strength."

    Immigrants are Seen More as a Strength than a Burden to the Country since 2012
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): U. S. Immigrants are Seen More as a Strength than a Burden to the Country (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.)

    Unauthorized Immigration to the United States

    Unauthorized immigration refers to to the act of entering the United States without governmental permission and in violation of the United States Nationality Law, or staying beyond the termination date of a visa, also in violation of the law. An undocumented immigrant in the United States is a person (non-citizen) who has entered the United States without government permission and in violation of United States Nationality Law, or stayed beyond the termination date of a visa, also in violation of the law. The undocumented immigrant population is estimated to be between 7 and 20 million. More than 50% of undocumented immigrants are from Mexico.

    While the majority of undocumented immigrants continue to concentrate in places with existing large Hispanic communities, undocumented immigrants are increasingly settling throughout the rest of the country. A percentage of undocumented immigrants do not remain indefinitely but do return to their country of origin; they are often referred to as sojourners, which are people that leave or emigrate from their home country with the intention of returning to their homeland one day.

    The continuing practice of hiring unauthorized workers has been referred to as the magnet for unauthorized immigration. As a significant percentage of employers are willing to hire undocumented immigrants for higher pay than they would typically receive in their former country, undocumented immigrants have prime motivation to cross borders. But migration is expensive and dangerous for those who enter without authorization. Participants in debates on immigration in the early twenty-first century have called for increasing enforcement of existing laws governing unauthorized immigration to the United States, building a barrier along some or all of the 2,000-mile (3,200 km) U.S.-Mexico border, or creating a new guest worker program.

    Unauthorized Immigrants are Almost a Quarter of U. S. Foreign-born Population 23%

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Unauthorized Immigrants are Almost a Quarter of U. S. Foreign-born Population (Used with permission; Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.)

    Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Internally Displaced People

    In 2013, the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide exceeded 50 million people for the first time since the end of World War II. Half these people were children. A refugee is defined as an individual who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster, while asylum-seekers are those whose claim to refugee status has not been validated. An internally displaced person, on the other hand, is neither a refugee nor an asylum-seeker (Ritzer, 2015). Internally displaced persons have fled their homes while remaining inside their country’s borders. In the case of the United States, the 2018 Camp Fire displaced many residents in Paradise, California. Unfortunately there was not enough housing available or being built fast enough for all former city of Paradise residents to be able to return, thus making them internally displaced.

    The war in Syria caused most of the 2013 increase, forcing 2.5 million people to seek refugee status while internally displacing an additional 6.5 million. Violence in Central African Republic and South Sudan also contributed a large number of people to the total (United Nations, 2014).

    The refugees need help in the form of food, water, shelter, and medical care, which has worldwide implications for nations contributing foreign aid, the nations hosting the refugees, and the non-government organizations (NGOs) working with individuals and groups on site (United Nations, 2014). Where will this large moving population, including the sick, elderly, children, and people with very few possessions and no long-term plan, go?

    Given current immigration policies, specifically admissions ceilings, the United States is not a frequent destination for refugees and asylum-seekers, although it is sought out by displaced individuals. This means that as of September 2019, there was 339,386 pending asylum applications. However, in 2018, only 25,439 people were granted asylum. As far as refugees, the United States recognized a total of 22,405 people as refugees. Again, while there is great demand by displaced folks, the United States is limiting the amount of refugees it recognizes and asylum applications it approves. Table 3.1.8 below lists the top five countries that the United States recently recognized the largest amounts of refugees from - with striking annual reductions. Per the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the biggest declines in refugee recognition tend to be from predominantly Muslim countries.

    Table \(\PageIndex{8}\): Selected Characteristics of Refugee Arrivals by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018 (Data from the United States Department of Homeland Security)

    Selected Characteristics of Refugee Arrivals by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018
    Country of Nationality 2016 2017 2018
    Total 84,988 53,691 22,405
    Democratic Republic of Congo 16,370 9,377 7,878
    Burma 12,347 5,078 3,555
    Syria 12,587 6,557 62
    Iraq 9,880 6,886 140
    Somalia 9,020 6,130 257

    Regarding contemporary asylum cases, individuals from China have the highest amounts of asylums granted affirmatively and defensively. According to the American Immigration Council (2020), an affirmative asylum is a person not in removal proceedings who may affirmatively apply for asylum through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The American Immigration Council (2020) defines defensive asylum as a person in removal proceedings who may "apply for asylum defensively by filing the application with an immigration judge at the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Department of Justice. In other words, asylum is applied for as a defense against removal from the U.S." The second largest group of individuals being granted affirmative asylum are currently persons from Venezuela and for defensive asylum, it is people from El Salvador. With regards to the religious background of refugees, Blizzard and Batalova (2019) note, "2016 marked the only time since 2009 when the United States resettled more Muslim refugees than Christians. In that year, 84,994 refugees were admitted; of these, 46 percent (38,900) were Muslim and 44 percent (37,521) were Christian. More than half of Muslim refugees in 2016 were from Syria (32 percent) or Somalia (23 percent)."

    Table \(\PageIndex{9}\): Selected Characteristics of Individuals Granted Asylum Affirmatively by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018 (Data from the Department of Homeland Security)

    Selected Characteristics of Individuals Granted Asylum Affirmatively by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018
    Country of Nationality 2016 2017 2018
    Total 11,634 15,846 25,439
    China 1,387 2,820 3,844
    Venezuela 316 482 5,966
    El Salvador 1,380 2,121 1,177
    Guatemala 1,285 1,996 1,337
    Egypt 679 1,020 1,427

    Table \(\PageIndex{10}\): Selected Characteristics of Individuals Granted Asylum Defensively by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018 (Data from the Department of Homeland Security)

    Selected Characteristics of Individuals Granted Asylum Defensively by Country of Nationality: Fiscal Years 2016 to 2018
    Country of Nationality 2016 2017 2018
    Total 8,728 10,663 13,248
    China 3,108 2,795 3,061
    El Salvador 764 1,355 1,786
    Honduras 618 956 1,188
    Guatemala 636 953 1,021
    India 315 470 956

    It is clear that the rates for asylum granted defensively are much lower than those of asylum granted affirmatively. This seems to be consistent with a much tougher stance on immigration on behalf of the Trump administration, so folks facing removal proceedings are not likely be rewarded with asylum.

    Contributors and Attributions


    • American Immigration Council. (2020, June 11). Asylum in the United States. American Immigration Council.
    • Blizzard, B. & J. Batalova. (2019). Refugees and asylees in the United States. Migration Policy Institute.
    • Budiman, A., Tamir, C., Mora, L., & Noe-Bustamante, L. (2020, August 20). Facts on U.S. immigrants, 2018. Pew Research Center.
    • Current, R.N., Williams, T.H., Freidel, F., & Brinkley, A. (1987). American History: A Survey. 6th ed. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
    • Colby, S.L. & Ortman, J.M. (2015). Projections of the size and composition of the u.s. population: 2014 to 2060. U.S. Census.
    • Dinnerstein, L., & Reimers, D.M. (2009). Ethnic Americans: A History of Immigration. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
    • Immigration Policy Center. (2008, September 10). From anecdotes to evidence: Setting the record straight on immigrants and crime. Immigration Research Library.
    • López, G., Bialik, K., & Radford, J. (2017, May 3). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Pew Research Center, 3(1),1.
    • Mock, B. (2007). Immigration backlash: Hate crimes against Latinos flourish. Immigration Research Library.
    • Morales, L. (2009, August 5). Americans return to tougher immigration stance.
    • Newport, F. (2007, July 13). Americans have become more negative on impact of immigrants.
    • Ritzer, G. (2015). Introduction to Sociology. 3rd ed. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.
    • Rumbaut, R.G., & Ewing, W.A. (2007). The myth of immigrant criminality and the paradox of assimilation: Incarceration rates among native and foreign-born men. American Immigration Council.
    • Sampson, R.J. (2008). Rethinking crime and immigration. Contexts, 7 (2), 28–33.
    • Schaefer, R. T. (2015). Racial and Ethnic Groups. 14th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson.
    • The White House. (2021, January 20). Fact Sheet: President Biden Sends Immigration Bill to Congress as Part of His Commitment to Modernize our Immigration System.
    • United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. (2014). World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision, Highlights. ST/ESA/SER.A/352.
    • United States Department of Homeland Security. (2013). Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2012. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics.
    • United Stated Department of Homeland Security. (2020). Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2018.
    • Vélez, M.B. (2006). Toward an understanding of the lower rates of homicide in Latino versus Black neighborhoods: A look at Chicago. In J. Hagen, R. Peterson, & L. Krivo (Eds.), The Many Colors of Crime: Inequalities of Race, Ethnicity, and Crime in America (pp. 91-107), New York: New York University Press.
    • Waters, M.C., & Ueda, R. (Eds.). (2007). The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration since 1965. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.