Immigration is a form of migration that signifies the intention of a person to settle permanently in a new country. Motivating factors are generally economic, social, and political. Despite a long history in the United States and some other countries of receiving immigrants, most people who move from one country to another do not intend to leave their homelands permanently. In recent decades, millions of refugees have been driven by civil war, natural disaster, and persecution to seek safety outside of their countries. Millions of others leave for temporary work. At one point in the 1970s, for example, about 10% of the labor force in both France and West Germany was made up of foreigners. Ironically, while Italians sought and found work through temporary-worker programs in central and northern Europe, northern Africans, Turks, and others illegally migrated to Italy for the same reason.
Early U.S. Immigration
Large new countries such as Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and Canada, as well as the United States, actively recruited permanent settlers (immigrants). The United States started as a nation of immigration in the 17th century, as recruiters from different colonies urged citizens from northern and western European countries to become Americans. Of those early immigrants, a majority spoke English and became farmers. The vast majority were Protestants. Continuing waves of German immigration, however, beginning in the 17th century, made many native-born Americans nervous about the capacity of American society to absorb the foreign-speaking newcomers. Then, following large-scale Irish-Catholic immigration to the United States in the mid-19th century, Americans wondered whether or not their essentially Anglo-Protestant culture could be retained.
By 1880, though, the great fear of German-speaking and Irish-Catholic immigrants was over. Employers who still sought worker-immigrants, and not just temporary workers, looked increasingly to southern and eastern Europe. When Italians, Greeks, Turks, Russians, Slavs, and Jews arrived in large numbers, however, new anxieties arose about making Americans of so many different kinds of strangers.
Employers in the West and Southwest had never found it necessary or desirable to recruit laborers as immigrants. Instead, they relied upon alien workers from Asia, who were made ineligible for citizenship under U.S. naturalization laws, and, increasingly, upon sojourner migrants from Mexico, whose muscle was wanted but who were not welcome as members of American society. Prejudice against the Asians was so strong that in 1882 Congress passed the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts preventing the importation of Chinese laborers. However, the system of sojourner Mexican workers, some of whom came lawfully and others illegally, was permitted to continue. During World War I this was formalized in the first of a series of temporary-worker programs through which workers were imported to do hard agricultural labor with the understanding that they would be sent back to Mexico when the work was finished.
Immigrants, on the other hand, were encouraged to participate in American institutions. By 1917 (when a literacy test was enacted), though, most Americans were convinced that there were too many immigrants. Their opposition to newcomers from eastern Europe particularly resulted in the passage of a law in 1924 that put a sharp limit on the number of immigrants permitted to come to the United States (154,000 annually plus the wives and minor children of U.S. citizens). This law also established national-origin quotas aimed at sharply reducing immigration from southern and eastern European countries on the ground that such immigrants were not as likely as those from northern and western Europe to make good Americans (Asians had already been excluded in 1917).
Events following World War II caused a revision of this restrictionist policy. Congress passed several acts to admit refugees, who, under U.S. laws, could easily adjust their status to that of immigrant. By the early 1960s it was clear that the U.S. national-origins quota system of selecting immigrants was bad policy, not only because it failed to handle refugee situations, but also because it was totally inconsistent with the growing civil rights consciousness of Americans.
Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 repealed the national origins provision, created an enlarged annual ceiling for immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere with an equal limit of 20,000 for every country and a new preference system to allocate visas based primarily on admitting immigrants with close family ties in the United States (and a much smaller number who had special skills desired by the United States). For the first time, a ceiling was placed on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere of 120,000. In 1976, country limitations were set for Western Hemisphere countries at 20,000, and in 1978 a worldwide ceiling was established for numerically restricted immigrants at 270,000, with the understanding that spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens would still be admitted without restriction.
Despite the passage of these amendments, immigration policy continued to be a matter of national concern for two main reasons: the first was the eruption of conflicts producing large numbers of refugees, as when South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to the Communists in 1975; the second was the large, and increasing, inflow of illegal aliens from all over the world, especially Mexico.
The first issue—how to prepare for and regulate the flows of refugees to the United States—was dealt with by the Refugee Act of 1980, which provided for the uniform admission of refugees. The issue of illegal aliens was particularly difficult. The last major temporary-worker program (the bracero program) had been terminated in 1964 and was followed by an informal system of labor recruitment by employers, particularly in agriculture, primarily throughout the West and Southwest. So large had the flow of illegal aliens become that it was customary for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to report over one million apprehensions annually in the late 1970s, when Congress created a bipartisan select commission on immigration and refugee policy. In 1981 this body made several recommendations to deal with illegal immigration. These included the imposition of penalties for employers who knowingly and willfully hired illegal aliens, based in part on a system for identifying those persons eligible to work and the legalization of a substantial number of the existing stock of illegal aliens so as to remove them from the status of an underclass of workers not fully protected by U.S. law.
The Reform Act of 1986
After five years of intense discussion, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, embracing these recommendations. It enlarged upon one of the other recommendations of the select commission to expedite the entry of temporary workers into the United States under full protection of U.S. laws, by establishing programs for special agricultural workers who were made eligible for permanent resident alien status and eventual citizenship.
Although illegal immigration was not expected to disappear, Congress was trying to take measures to close the back door so as not to jeopardize overall immigration policy. This reform act signaled an effort both to end exploitation of illegal workers and to make family relationships and needed skills, not national origin, the bases for selection. This represented a transformation in U.S. immigration policy. Whereas immigrants used to be overwhelmingly European, by the end of the 1980s none of the European countries was a leading sender of immigrants, and almost half of all immigrants to the United States were coming from Asian countries, with at least 25% of the remainder coming from Spanish-speaking nations.
Immigration Act of 1990
Congress passed legislation in 1990 to increase the number of specially trained workers (and immediate family members) eligible for specific jobs from 54,000 to 140,000. An additional 55,000 "diversity" visas were made available to nationals of countries that had been restricted under provisions of earlier Acts. Legal immigration increased and in a few years went over one million, on account of aliens legalized under the 1986 law adjusting their status to that of immigrant. In 1994 and 1995, all legal immigrants averaged slightly more than 750,000, a number that was higher than the average for the 1980s but lower than for the first decade of the 20th century.
Changes in Immigration Law in 1996
Congress authorized a substantial increase in funds to apprehend, detain, and deport illegal aliens. It severely tightened rules for those claiming asylum and for illegal aliens who tried to prevent their deportation in order to avoid severe hardship. Although Congress took no action to reduce the number of immigrants admitted legally each year, it made immigrants ineligible for Supplementary Security Income, Medicaid, and the Food Stamp Program, except under unusual circumstances, programs that are available to impoverished, aged, disabled, and/or blind citizens. Congress also required that families who sponsored eligible immigrants to show their household income to be at least 125 percent above the poverty line.
Bibliography: Anderson, Dorothy, et al., eds., American Immigration, 10 vols. (1999); Barkan, Elliott R., And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s (1996); Bodnar, John, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (1985); Foner, Nancy, ed., New Immigrant in New York (1987); Fuchs, Lawrence H., The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity, and the Civic Culture (1996); Isbister, John, The Immigration Debate (1996); Kraut, Alan M., The Huddled Masses: The Immigrant in American Society, 1880–1921 (1996); Ueda, Reed, Post-War Immigrant America: A Social History (1994).