Immigration to the United States:

Journey to an Unfinished Nation

Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midgley


On a normal day, some 70,000 foreigners arrive in the United States. Most are welcomed at airports and borders: more than 60,000 of them are nonimmigrants who come to the US as tourists, business visitors, students or foreign workers. Another 2,500 arrivals are immigrants or refugees whom the US has invited to join American society as permanent residents. Finally, there are 5,000 unauthorized aliens. About 4,000 are apprehended every day, most along the US-Mexican border just after entry, but at least 1,000 elude detection at the border, or slip from legal to unlawful status after legal entry, as when a tourist takes employment.

Is the arrival in the US each day of the equivalent of a small city to be welcomed or feared? The fact that there is no single answer helps to explain American ambivalence about immigration. On the one hand, the United States celebrates its immigrant heritage, telling and retelling the story of renewal and rebirth brought about by the newcomers. On the other hand, Americans have worried since the days of the founding fathers about the economic, political, and cultural effects of newcomers. Concerns about certain sorts of immigrants-- prostitutes, contract workers, and Chinese--led to qualitative restrictions on immigration in the 1880s. The view that there were too many immigrants, and that they were coming from the wrong countries, led to quantitative restrictions in the 1920s, including a quota system that attempted to stop immigration changing the ethnic composition of the American population.

On October 3, 1965, at the crest of the civil rights movement, the basis of selecting immigrants was changed. National quotas were abolished, replaced by a complex system that grants priority to three groups of foreigners: those with US relatives, people needed to fill vacant US jobs, and refugees. The 1965 law had unexpected consequences. Most immigrants began to come not from Europe, but from Latin America and Asia. Changes in the US economy and society in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as growing emigration pressures in Mexico and Central America, made controlling unauthorized migration a major political issue.

At the end of the 20th century, immigration is as contentious an issue as it was at the beginning. Instead of coalescing around middle-of-the-road solutions, as American opinion has on other complex issues, such as how to provide for the retirement of the baby boom generation, debates over what to do about immigration are often driven by the extremes of "no immigrants" and "no borders."

At one extreme are organizations that want to reduce it sharply or stop it. Chief among them is the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), founded twenty years ago by persons interested in reducing the population growth associated with immigration. FAIR charges that immigrants are contributing greatly to population growth and environmental degradation, displacing American workers with lower skills and depressing their wages, and bringing a degree of cultural and language diversity that threatens the bonds that hold America together. FAIR calls for a temporary stop to immigration so that, during the pause, recent arrivals and Americans would have time to adjust to each other. Minimal immigration, perhaps 200,000 to 300,000 immediate relatives and refugees a year, would be allowed during the pause.

At the other extreme, the Wall Street Journal advocates a five-word constitutional amendment: "there shall be open borders." The editorials of the leading US business paper advocate high levels of immigration chiefly for economic reasons: more people mean more consumers and more workers, helping the economy grow. Other groups favor immigration from particular countries or regions, such as the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Emerald Isle Immigration Center. The belief that borders artificially divide humanity underlies opposition to immigration controls by the Catholic Church and other religious organizations , Many support immigration in general because they think it is a defining part of the American national identity, past and future.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Under the motto e pluribus unum,, from many, one, US presidents frequently remind Americans that they or their forebears all left another country to begin anew in the US.. Immigration permits immigrants to better themselves. It also strengthens the US, which is why the Commission on Immigration Reform, created by Congress, spoke for most Americans when it asserted in 1997 that: "a properly regulated system of legal immigration is in the national interest of the United States."

The CIR recommended many changes to US immigration policies. Its recommendations were controversial, because immigration raises fundamental questions. Who are we? What kind of a society have we built, and whom shall we welcome to it? What should we do for the integration of newcomers? How shall we deal with those who arrive uninvited?

This Population Bulletin lays out current immigration patterns and policies in the United States, and reviews the previous peaks and troughs of immigration, providing an historical perspective on contemporary trends. Examination of previous immigration laws and policies reveals wide swings in the approach to controlling the number and characteristics of newcomers. In the past, as in the present, immigration laws have often produced dramatic consequences, some of them quite unintended. Resolving the fundamental economic, social and political issues raised by immigration requires weighing the choices or tradeoffs between widely shared but competing goals in American society. Some of these tradeoffs are examined below.

Part I. Immigration Patterns and Policies

Most countries are emigration, transit and immigration nations--many are all three--and the North American migration system is unique in including some of the largest volume flows, such as migration between Mexico and the US, and the largest flows in per capita terms--more than 10 percent of those born in Dominican Republic or El Salvador have emigrated to the US or Canada. Canada receives about 225,000 immigrants a year, a very high per capita intake of planned immigrants.

Immigration Trends

More than 6.1 million immigrants were admitted to the US between 1991 and 1996. Over 1.8 million immigrants were admitted in one year, 1991. Many them had in fact arrived earlier; 1991 was the year that the US recognized as immigrants the unauthorized foreigners legalized in 1987-88.

Some 916,000 legal immigrants were admitted in FY96. Immigration levels have averaged one million per year in the 1990s, up from about 600,000 in the 1980s, 450,000 in the 1970s, and 330,000 in the 1960s. As immigration was increasing, its origins were changing. During the 1960s, most immigrants were from Europe; now they are mostly from Latin America and Asia.

Figure 1--Immigration by decade and source: p 14 INS Yearbook, 1996 or newer

Box 1-- Immigrants, Refugees, Nonimmigrants, and Unauthorized Aliens--edited to conform to text as per rec of SFM

All persons in the United States are defined by law as U.S. citizens or aliens – aliens are persons who are citizens of another country. Under the laws of the United States aliens may be immigrants; refugees or asylees; nonimmigrants; or unauthorized.

Immigrants are citizens of other countries who have been granted a visa that allows them to live and work permanently in the United States and to become naturalized U.S. citizens. Immigrant visas are normally issued to foreigners at US consulates in their home countries. Along with a foreign passport, the visa entitles them to enter the United States. Once here, immigrants receive a card from the INS indicating they are permanent residents. This card used to be green, so that immigrants are still referred to frequently as "greencard holders."

Refugees are persons outside their country of citizenship who fear persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion if they return. Some are resettled every year in the United States: the number--118,500 in FY96-- is determined annually by the President in consultation with Congress. Asylum applicants arrive in the United States and request safe haven here: their number depends on how many aliens show up asking to be recognized as refugees--128,200 applied in FY96. Most asylum applications are rejected--in FY96, 22 percent of the applications considered resulted in foreigners being recognized as refugees and permitted to resettle in the US.

Nonimmigrant visa holders are persons who are granted temporary entry into the United States for a specific purpose, such as visiting, working, or studying. There are many categories of nonimmigrants. 25 million nonimmigrants were admitted in FY96; 80 percent were tourists (visitors for pleasure) and 15 percent were business visitors. Nonimmigrants who enter and leave the US several times are counted several times, but Mexicans with border crossing cards entering US border areas for up to three days are not included in these nonimmigrant admissions data, nor are Canadians, who can enter the US for up to six months without visas.

The US has 25 types of nonimmigrant visas, including A1 visas for ambassadors, B2 visas for tourists, P1 visas for foreign sports stars who play on US teams and TN visas for Canadians and Mexicans entering the US to work under NAFTA. Some foreigners are able to visit to the US without visas; their entry is recorded. The Visa Waiver Pilot Program permits visitors from 26 mostly European countries from which there are few suspected unauthorized aliens to enter without visas for up to 90 days if they have round trip tickets.

Unauthorized or undocumented migrants are foreigners in the United States with no visa at all. About 60 percent of the unauthorized migrants in the US are believed to have slipped across the Mexico-U.S. border, entering without inspection. The other 40 percent entered the United States legally, often as tourists, and then violated the terms of their entry by staying too long or taking paid work.

The INS estimated that there were five million foreigners living without authorization in the US in October 1996, up from 3.9 million in October 1992, indicating a rate of increase of 275,000 a year. Thus about two percent of US residents are unauthorized migrants. According to INS estimates, there are about 2.7 million unauthorized Mexicans in the US, followed by 335,000 El Salvadorans, 165,000 Guatemalans, and 120,000 Canadians; there were an estimated 70,000 illegal Poles.

Some two million of the unauthorized foreigners in 1996 were in California (40 percent), followed by 700,000 in Texas (14 percent), 540,000 in New York (11 percent), 350,000 in Florida (seven percent), 290,000 in Illinois (six percent), and 135,000 in New Jersey (three percent). About six percent of California residents and four percent of Texas residents are thought to be undocumented foreigners.

In US law, immigrants are foreigners who are entitled to live and work permanently in the US and, after five years, to become naturalized US citizens. Legal immigration is sometimes described as entering the US through the front door. There are four types of front-door entrants. By far the largest category is for relatives of US residents; in 1996, two-thirds of the immigrants were granted entry because family members already resident in the US formally petitioned the US government to admit them.

Spouses, children and parents of US citizens may enter the US without limit--there are no quotas that lead to queues--and 300,000 entered in FY96. Other categories of family members have annual limits. 183,000 spouses and children of legal immigrants and 65,000 adult brothers and sisters of US citizens were admitted in FY 1996. The waiting lists for entry under these categories are long. For example, in early 1999, Mexican immigrants waited five years for their spouses and children to join them in the US, and there was a 20-year wait for US citizens from the Phillipines to be joined by their brothers and sisters.

The second-largest category of immigrants is that of refugees and asylees: 14 percent of all immigrants in 1996 were foreigners granted safe haven. In FY96, about 40 percent of the refugees who arrived were from the ex-USSR, followed by 16 percent from Bosnia. Refugees and asylees must wait one year to become immigrants.

The third group is immigrants and their family members admitted for economic or employment reasons. In 1990, the US raised the annual limit on the number of immigrants admitted for economic reasons. Most of the 117,500 economic immigrants (including family members) were already in the US; immigration changed their status from nonimmigrant or unauthorized migrant to immigrant.

The fourth group is miscellaneous, but is dominated by the so called diversity category; some 59,000 diversity immigrants arrived in FY96. Since 1990 the diversity immigrant program has permitted the entry of up to 55,000 immigrants a year from countries that had sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants in the previous five years. Applicants from those countries are selected through a lottery. Because many Asians and Latin Americans are admitted in other categories, most diversity visas go to nationals of European and African countries.

The diversity program addressed an unintended consequence of the 1965 amendments to US immigration law. Giving priority to family unification meant that, after 1965, US immigration policy favored the relatives of those who had recently immigrated, and the visas reserved for economic/employment immigrants favored those with ties to US employers. The relative lack of family and business networks made it hard for nationals of other countries, such as Ireland, to immigrate.

Table 1. Alien Entrants to the US in FY96

Number of Persons



Immediate relatives of US Citizens


Other family-sponsored immigrants




Refugees and Aslyees


Diversity immigrants


Other Immigrants


Estimated emigration




Visitors for Pleasure


Visitors for Business


Temporary Workers/Trainees


Foreign Students and Dependents


Illegal Immigration

Alien apprehensions


Aliens deported


Alien smugglers*


Estimated illegal population (October 1996)


Additional illegal settlers per year (1992-96)


Sources: INS 1996 Statistical Yearbook. Emigration and illegal data are unofficial.

* In FY96, the INS opened 1900 cases against smugglers, including 482 investigations into Category 1 smuggling rings-- organizations which either moved 250 illegal immigrants each month, moved aliens more than 100 miles, had revenues of more than $50,000 a month, or also dealt in drug trafficking, prostitution or other criminal activities.

Once they reach the United States, immigrants normally stay. The INS estimates that, between 1901 and 1990, emigration was equivalent to about 31 percent of immigration. Emigration peaked during the depression of the 1930s, when more people emigrated from the US than immigrated; emigration during the 1980s was estimated to be 1.6 million, equivalent to about 22 percent of immigration., Because family members of US citizens are allowed in with relative freedom, return migration is believed to be decreasing. In making population projections for the period 1995 to 2050, the Census Bureau assumed that 220,000 US residents would emigrate each year.

Nonimmigrant visa holders are persons who come to the United States to visit, work, or study. The US wants most types of nonimmigrants--airlines and hotels advertise for foreign tourists--so there are no limits on most categories of nonimmigrants. The number of nonimmigrants has more than doubled in the past 15 years, primarily because of the growing number of tourists. Foreigners also arrive to work temporarily in the United States: 227,000 temporary foreign workers arrived in 1996. They ranged from Canadian hockey players to Mexicans who harvested tobacco in North Carolina and Virginia, from Indian computer programmers to European artists and entertainers.

Several categories of nonimmigrants are of special interest. The number of temporary foreign workers has increased five-fold since 1980, mostly because more H-1B professionals in specialty occupations were admitted; many are computer programmers. Their admission is controversial, and the H-1B program was revised in 1998 by the American Competitiveness Act. This Act increased the number of H-1B visas available by 142,500 over the next three years, but also introduced a $500 visa fee, to be paid by US employers, for each H-1B application or renewal. These visa fees are to be spent on scholarships and training for Americans to learn programming skills, thus reducing the need for H-1B workers in the future. In addition, US "body broker" firms that employ primarily H-1B foreign workers must attest or certify that they did not lay off US workers in order to make room for the foreigners. Almost 40 percent of H-1B workers admitted in recent years graduated from three schools in India.

A second category of special interest is that of foreign students. Some 427,000 foreign students and family members were admitted to the US in FY96; the Institute of International Education reported that there were 481,280 foreign students in the US in 1997-98. Over half of the foreign students in the US are from Asian countries, led by 47,073 Japanese, 46,958 Chinese, and 42,890 Koreans. The US universities with the most foreign students were New York University with 5,000, Boston University, and Columbia.

Foreign students initiate the process of coming to the US by applying for admission to one of the 22,300 US educational institutions that have been approved to admit foreign students. After the student is admitted to the institution, i.e., after the student presents test scores that indicate that she can successfully complete the work, so-called "designated school officials" in these US institutions provide the foreign student with an I-20 Form, which the student takes to a US consulate in her country. At the US consulate in China, Japan or another country, the student must convince the consular officer that she has sufficient English language ability and funds to pursue the planned course of study in the US.

The enrollment of foreign students in US colleges and universities is encouraged by the US government for several reasons. American students benefit from interacting with foreign students, and scientific progress is speeded when especially able people from the rest of the world can study and pursue research in the favorable environment of American institutions. The reputation of the United States abroad is advanced by allowing foreign students and academics to study and work in the country. Some colleges rely on the tuition fees of foreign students for a significant part of their income.

At the same time, some foreigners use study in the US as a route to employment or immigration. The regulations require that foreign students have enough money to study without working in the US, but many seek permission to work while they study, and some look for US employers who will sponsor them for immigration. A three-year Pilot Foreign Student Employment Program was abandoned in 1995 after the US Department of Labor found that foreign students were using it as a back- door way to work in the US. The National Science Foundation in 1999 reported that 63 percent of the 55,000 foreign-born students who earned doctorates in science and engineering from U.S. institutions between 1988 and 1996 said they planned to stay in the US, with especially high percentages among Chinese and Indians.

As the terms are used by the US government, "immigrants" and "non-immigrants" are aliens, i.e. people of foreign nationality, who are legally present in the United States. Unauthorized foreigners, also referred to as illegal aliens, deportable aliens and undocumented workers, are persons in the US in violation of US immigration laws. No one knows exactly how many unauthorized foreigners are in the United States: the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) apprehended over 1.6 million in 1996. In recent years the INS changed its border enforcement strategy from apprehending unauthorized aliens in the US to deterring their entry by closely spacing lights and agents on the border on the stretches where illegal entries are most frequent.

This strategy has caused aliens to attempt entry in more remote areas, but does not seem to have deterred them from trying. The US-Mexican Binational Study on Migration reported that most Mexicans attempting illegal entry hire guides - polleros or coyotes -- for $500 to $1000 to help them cross the border, and that the probability that an alien succeeds in eluding the INS and entering the US is about 70 percent on any one attempt.

The chief ways that the INS removes unauthorized foreigners are imposing "voluntary" return, and deportation. Most Mexicans apprehended by the INS agree to voluntary return, which means that they admit they are illegally in the US, and agree to leave without a hearing by an immigration judge. The INS also deports foreigners, i.e., proves to an immigration judge that the person in question is not entitled to be in the country and should be removed. Once deported, it is hard for a foreigner to return legally to the US. In FY96, over 50,000 foreigners were deported; two thirds had been convicted of committing crimes in the US.

Public Opinion

Americans worry that immigration is increasing the size, and changing the composition, of the population. Public opinion surveys show that a majority of Americans want both legal and illegal immigration reduced. Polls suggest that, from 1965 to 1993, the proportion of Americans favoring more immigration was stable at about seven percent. The percentage of Americans who want immigration reduced has generally been more than 50 percent, e.g., 65 percent of those polled in 1993 wanted immigration reduced. By 1997, the percentage of Americans who wanted immigration reduced dropped to 46 percent in one poll. This 1997 poll still found that 79 percent of respondents were very or somewhat concerned that immigrants were overburdening the welfare system and pushing up taxes; 63 percent were concerned about immigrants taking jobs from Americans or causing racial conflict.

The debate became more heated in the 1990s, especially in California, the destination of a third of all immigrants. Factors contributing to the increased importance of immigration included the recession of 1990-91, which was especially severe in California, the debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA, and the search for ways to balance the federal budget. Several well-publicized events in which foreigners committed acts of terrorism in the US, such as the bombing of New York’s World Trade Center and a shooting at CIA headquarters, led to calls for more controls over foreigners.

The most recent major polls reveal American ambivalence toward immigration. In a Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll conducted in December 1998, 72 percent of respondents agreed that the US "should not increase immigration because it will cost US jobs and increase unemployment;" 20 percent of respondents agreed that the US "should increase immigration to fill jobs companies have trouble filling." A major conclusion of the poll was that, despite the booming US economy, most Americans remain generally opposed to freer trade and more immigration. 50 percent of respondents were against both immigration and freer trade, while 10 percent were pro-immigration and pro-trade.

A January 1999 Public Policy Institute of California poll found, however, that 52 percent of Californians considered Mexican immigrants a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills, while only 36 percent described them as a burden for their use of public services and schools. Latinos considered Mexican immigrants a benefit by a 70-20 margin, and other racial/ethinc groups by 45-42 percent. When asked if the federal government's increased border patrols and fences (Operation Gatekeeper) would make a big difference in preventing illegal immigration, 13 percent of respondents thought new border control efforts would make a big difference, 51 percent thought they would make some difference, and 35 percent thought they would make no difference.

Many politicians and researchers dismiss concerns about immigration by pointing out that fears voiced in the past that the United States was accepting too many and the wrong kinds of immigrants were not borne out by the course of events. For example, Benjamin Franklin worried that German immigrants could not be assimilated: why, he asked, should "Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them?" Less than two centuries later, a descendent of these immigrants, Dwight Eisenhower, was elected President of the United States.

At the end of the twentieth century, the unchallenged preeminence and vigorous national identity of the United States is powerful evidence that it is possible for newcomers to shift their national loyalties and make new lives here. That is made most obvious, perhaps, when public trust is placed in naturalized citizens like Madeleine Albright, the current US Secretary of State, or General John M. Shalikashvili, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1993 to 1997.

America continues to celebrate its immigrant heritage, with mass naturalization ceremonies on July 4 designed to associate immigration with the founding of the United States. Politicians everywhere remind Americans that they share with each other the memory that they or their ancestors left their homes and moved to the United States. With such an immigrant heritage, the burden of proof in debates about the proper level of immigration is on those who want to reduce it. They normally make one or more of four arguments:

1. immigration adds to U.S. population growth and, therefore, to environmental problems.

2. immigrants depress wages and working conditions in the labor markets where they are concentrated, and where some Americans are forced to compete with them

3. immigrant workers willing to work at low wages can slow the modernization and globalization of the U.S. economy.

4. large numbers of Hispanic and Asian immigrants are arriving in a society that is not sure on what terms they are to be accommodated and integrated. If these immigrants retain their language and culture with public support in schools, and become eligible for preferences in universities, on the labor market, and in winning public and private business contracts because of their ethnicity, will immigration contribute to the "dis-uniting" of America?

These concerns demonstrate that immigration and integration are linked issues, so that the fortunes of immigrants, and their effects in the economy, in the political system, in schools, and in society affect attitudes toward further immigration.