The Melting Pot Today [Includes Video]
Between 2000 and 2010, nearly 14 million immigrants entered the country. This was one of the largest immigration waves since 1900. The peak year during that decade was 2006, when 1.26 million immigrants came to America. After 2006 the numbers dropped. This was due to the economic downturn in 2008, which made jobs scarcer. But despite decreased demand for new labor, immigrants continued to enter the country at the rate of over 1 million per year. 1
The ethnic makeup of immigration in the twenty-first century is vastly different than in the past. Before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, 75 percent of the foreign-born population was from Europe. In 2015 only 11 percent of foreign-born U.S. residents were from Europe. The major countries of origin shifted to Mexico, China, and India. In that year, people from Mexico made up the largest share of the foreign-born population, with 27 percent. People from China followed with 2.7 million, and people from India with 2.4 million. The rest of the nation's immigrants were from other countries in Central and South America. 2
The total population of foreign-born people in the United States in 2015 numbered 43 million. Just under half that number were naturalized citizens. Women account for more than half of all legal immigrants. 3 Many more men than women used to immigrate to the United States. This changed after 1965, when the focus of immigration policy shifted from employment to family reunification under the 1965 Immigration Act. Over half of all immigrants are now admitted based on family ties. Also, immigrants at the time of their arrival are much younger than in the past. The U.S. Census Bureau notes that people between the ages of fifteen and thirty-four are now the largest age group among immigrants.
Undocumented Immigration by the Numbers
Official immigration numbers do not include undocumented immigrants. Many undocumented immigrants come into the country without reporting their entry to federal officials. Others come into the country on a temporary visa but do not leave when it expires. A large portion of undocumented Page 45 | Top of Articleimmigrants come looking for jobs, many in agriculture. Some people who enter as international travelers simply decide to stay. They find jobs or connect with relatives with legal status.
In the past, undocumented immigrants came and went from the country as seasonal workers. During the chain migration that followed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the trend turned toward undocumented immigrants coming to America and staying permanently. They were able to stay because they had the support of family members who were in the country legally. After the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act granted amnesty to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants, the number of unauthorized people living in the country rose sharply. In part, this was because undocumented immigrants believed they too would eventually be given amnesty.
The other reason undocumented immigration rose in the 1990s had to do with the thriving U.S. economy during those years. Undocumented immigrants came looking for jobs and decent wages. Many were able to send money to families left behind in their home countries. The number of undocumented immigrants in the country peaked in 2007. As with legal immigration, it dropped after the economic downturn in 2008. States also started passing tougher laws restricting the hiring of undocumented immigrants. It is estimated that, as of 2014, there were Page 46 | Top of Articlebetween 11 and 12 million unauthorized immigrants in the country. Pew Research Center, a policy research group, estimates that 5.6 million are from Mexico. Other estimates suggest there are an additional 1.1 million who have not been counted in any surveys. 4
The Debate over Undocumented Immigration
Undocumented immigration is an issue of great concern in the United States today. Most people agree that the government must do more to reduce or stop the flow of undocumented immigration into the country. But there is sharp disagreement about what to do with those who are already here. Supporters of strict enforcement call for deporting Page 47 | Top of Articleundocumented immigrants. In their view, these workers are taking jobs from citizens, as well as driving down wages. They say that undocumented immigrants cost taxpayers money because they strain government services. They also claim that there are many more undocumented immigrants than surveys suggest. Ronald Rector and Jamie Hall of the Heritage Foundation, a policy organization, say, “In reality, the number of illegal immigrants who are present in the country but not recorded in census surveys is largely unknown and could be much higher than 1.1 million.” 5
On the other side of this debate are those who want immigration laws to be less strict. Supporters of a more open immigration policy state that undocumented workers make up less than 5 percent of the labor force, and therefore are not taking large numbers of jobs away from Page 48 | Top of Articlecitizens. They also point out that almost two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have been in the country for at least ten years. “Mexicans are not invading the United States,” said journalist Jorge Ramos in 2017. “The undocumented population has remained stable at about 11 million for the last decade.” 6 In the view of Ramos and others, the undocumented immigrant problem is exaggerated.
People on opposite sides of the immigration debate share a concern about unauthorized immigrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border. Those who attempt it, including Mexicans and people from Central American countries, face many dangers. Some die of exposure to heat or risk drowning. Others pay high fees to smugglers, known as coyotes, to be taken across the border. Supporters of stricter enforcement believe it can help solve the problem by discouraging people from making the dangerous journey. Supporters of less strict immigration laws believe that allowing more immigrants to enter legally will help solve the problem.
Melting Pot or Salad Bowl
America has been called a melting pot because American society is a blend of its citizens' diverse backgrounds. Immigrants from everywhere in the world came together to make one America. They did so by assimilating, learning English, and adopting American values. As the historian Victor Davis Hanson observes, the melting pot also refers to the process of intermarriage and integration—people Page 49 | Top of Articleblending together in families and communities. There is growing concern, however, as to whether assimilation is still taking place. “Sometime in the late twentieth century,” Hanson writes, “America largely gave up on … one common culture and opted instead for multiculturalism, in which each particular ethnic group … saw itself as separate from the whole.” 7
The increased presence of ethnic enclaves, which reflect the immigrants' nations of origin, is sometimes used as evidence of lack of assimilation. Some immigrant groups continue to speak their native languages. They may also tend to spend time with each other rather than with nonimmigrants, and focus on their particular group's concerns. Some thinkers have asked whether America is no longer a melting pot but instead a salad bowl. The salad bowl image suggests that America is an assortment of ingredients tossed together but not blended. Another way to put this is that, instead of having a single culture, we have many cultures, or a multicultural society.
In a multicultural society, immigrants maintain their ethnic identities and heritage without completely assimilating. Some have claimed that assimilation is no longer possible. In 1991 Martha Farnsworth Riche, a demographer (someone who studies population statistics), argued that “we have left the time when the nonwhite, non-Western part of our population could be expected to assimilate to the dominant majority.” She predicted that “in the future, the majority will have to do some assimilation of its own.” 8 In a multicultural America, the “salad dressing” that will hold it all together is U.S. law and the economy.
The wave of Hispanic immigration to the United States since the late twentieth century had a major impact on the American scene. Never before in American history had such a large wave of immigrants been dominated by a single ethnic group. Over the years, Hispanic culture has become widespread in the United States. Many entertainers, sports stars, politicians, and business people are of Hispanic descent. Companies are eager Page 51 | Top of Articleto cater to the large and growing Hispanic market. The growing Hispanic portion of the population has prompted further thinking about assimilation and the melting pot vs. the salad bowl.
Public Attitudes about Immigration
The issue of immigration has stirred mixed feelings among native-born Americans and naturalized citizens. Historically, citizens have looked more kindly on immigrant groups that have been in the country for a long time. They tend to not trust recent arrivals. This has been true since the late 1800s, when the origins of immigration shifted to southern and eastern Europe. At that time, many Americans thought that Poles, Jews, and Italians were bad for the country. Since the beginning of the Hispanic immigration wave, many Americans have held negative views of arrivals from Latin America. Today, Americans hold more positive views of immigrants from Asia and Europe than from Latin America, the Middle East, or Africa.
Public views of immigration's impact on the economy have shifted since the 1990s. In 1993 a Gallup poll found that close to two-thirds of Americans thought immigrants did more harm than good for the economy. This was after a recession when the economy was in decline and jobs were hard to find. A 2005 Gallup poll found that 49 percent of Americans thought immigrants hurt the economy. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 49 percent of Americans believed immigrants were good for the economy, and 40 percent believed they were bad for the economy because they drove down wages. 9
On the specific issue of jobs, a majority of Americans now believe that immigrants have a positive effect Page 52 | Top of Articleon the job market. Gallup found in 2017 that 72 percent of Americans believe immigrants take jobs that citizens do not want. The same poll revealed that 60 percent of Americans say that immigrants have no effect on their own job. This suggests that most Americans do not feel they are in direct competition with immigrants for work. It is worth noting that Americans' opinions on immigration levels cover a wide spectrum. There are those who want to keep immigration levels high or allow them to grow higher. At the opposite end, there are those who wish to sharply reduce immigration. In the middle are those who view immigration as generally positive but in need of some adjustments. 10
Immigrants and Politics
The mixed views Americans hold about immigration make finding agreement difficult. Immigrants have gotten involved in the debate because they have a vested interest in the outcome. Taking part in the democratic process has always been important to immigrants. Immigrants tend to have a higher rate of civic participation than native-born Americans. This is because many immigrants come from nations that do not have democratic freedoms or the ability to vote and take part in community discussions. In the United States, only born or naturalized citizens can legally vote. Any immigrant, however, can take part in public discussions, protests, or gatherings. Policy analyst Michele Wucker points out, “In some cities … immigrants have won the right to vote in certain local elections, particularly for school boards…. Others are educating their fellow immigrants about their rights and responsibilities, and teaching them English.” 11
Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. As a result, they are a major focus for both the Democratic and Republican parties. In presidential elections their support has proved vital in states with large Hispanic populations, like California and Arizona. Hispanic voters tend to favor Democrats. In the 2016 presidential election, the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, won 66 percent of the Hispanic vote, and the Republican, Donald Trump, won 28 percent. The numbers were roughly similar for the Democrat and Republican candidates in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. 12
Hispanics are a politically active group, and a number of elected leaders are of Hispanic descent. In 2017, thirty members of the U.S. House of Representatives and three U.S. senators were Hispanic, representing both political parties. Two state governors were Page 54 | Top of ArticleHispanic, and there were approximately 240 Hispanic mayors. This was a low representation compared to the size of the Hispanic population. But the number of Hispanics in public office has been growing along with the size of the Hispanic voting bloc.
What the Future May Hold
Immigrants have played a major role in the growth of the U.S. population. The nation's population was 193 million in 1965, the year the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed. By 2015, America was home to 324 million people. Of the 131 million added to the population in that fifty-year period, 72 million are linked directly to immigration. Without immigration, the population would have risen 30 percent instead of 67 percent. The Hispanic share of the population rose from 4 percent in 1965 to 18 percent fifty years later. 13
The next fifty years could bring further major changes to the U.S. population. If current trends hold, by 2065 it is estimated that the U.S. population will be 441 million. It is estimated that 88 percent of that increase will be a result of future immigrants. The percentage of whites will drop from the current Page 55 | Top of Article62 percent to 46 percent of the total. Hispanics will make up 24 percent and Asians 14 percent. This means that by 2065 there will be no clear ethnic or racial majority in America. This will be a major cultural change for a nation that has been mostly white since it was founded.
Predictions of the future size and makeup of the U.S. population are based on current trends of growth and immigration. Any number of unforeseen circumstances could change this outcome. It is clear, though, that as long as America remains a destination for immigrants worldwide, it will be a nation that is constantly changing.
1. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. “Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2010.” 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. August 2011 . https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Yearbook_Immigration_Statistics_2010.pdf .
2. Pew Research Center. “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065.” September 28, 2015. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-sdriving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/ .
3. Zong, Jie, and Jeanne Batalova. “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigrants and Immigration in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. March 8, 2017. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-andimmigration-united-states#Workforce .
4. Rector, Robert, and Jamie Hall. “National Academy of Sciences Report Indicates Amnesty for Unlawful Immigrants Would Cost Trillions of Dollars.” Heritage Foundation. December 22, 2016. http://www.heritage.org/immigration/report/national-academysciences-report-indicates-amnesty-unlawful-immigrants-would .
5. Rector and Hall. “National Academy of Sciences Report Indicates Amnesty for Unlawful Immigrants Would Cost Trillions of Dollars.”
6. Ernst, Douglas. “Univision's Jorge Ramos: ‘Trump Effect’ Driving Down Illegal Immigration.” Washington Times, March 10, 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/mar/10/jorge-ramos-trump-effect-driving-down-illegal-immi/ .
7. Hanson, Victor Davis. “America: History's Exception.” National Review, June 9, 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/436347/america-melting-pot-immigrant-culturemade-country-great .
8. Quoted in Williamson, Chilton, Jr. The Immigration Mystique: America's False Conscience. New York: HarperCollins, 1996, 129.
9. Swift, Art. “More Americans Say Immigrants Help Rather Than Hurt Economy.” Gallup. June 29, 2017. http://www.gallup.com/poll/213152/americans-say-immigrantshelp-rather-hurt-economy.aspx .
10. Swift, “More Americans Say Immigrants Help Rather Than Hurt Economy.”
11. Wucker, Michele. Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting It Right. New York: PublicAffairs, 2006, 228.
12. Krogstad, Jens Manuel, and Mark Hugo Lopez. “Hillary Clinton Won Latino Vote but Fell Below 2012 Support for Obama.” Pew Research Center. November 29, 2016. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/29/hillary-clinton-wins-latino-vote-butfalls-below-2012-support-for-obama/ .
13. Pew Research Center. “Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S., Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065.” September 28, 2015. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2015/09/28/modern-immigration-wave-brings-59-million-to-u-sdriving-population-growth-and-change-through-2065/ .