"In the latter half of the twentieth century, the nation witnessed a new phenomenon of illegal immigration—immigrants coming mostly from Mexico."
America has historically been a land of immigrants. From its founding in the colonial era to the 1920s, the United States welcomed a wave of immigrants—first mostly from northwestern European countries such as England, Ireland, France, and Germany and later from Italy, Poland, Russia, and other parts of eastern Europe. Also during this period hundreds of thousands of African slaves were brought to the country against their will. Individual states regulated immigration during the nation's early years. The first significant federal immigration law was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, but in 1921 the US government created a quota system that placed numerical limits on immigration according to nationality; this law strongly favored immigrants from northwestern Europe. The Immigration Act of 1965 ended this discriminatory national-origins quota system and created a system that gave preference to family members of US citizens or legal residents, retaining limits on overall immigration numbers. In the latter half of the twentieth century, the nation witnessed a new phenomenon of illegal immigration—immigrants coming mostly from Mexico. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) tried to address this issue by granting amnesty to approximately three million unauthorized immigrants already living in the United States at that time, while creating sanctions against employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants. In recent decades, however, immigrants have continued to enter the United States illegally, prompting policy makers to once again consider immigration reform legislation. Not surprisingly, the scope and characteristics of current immigration to the United States have recently been the subject of much interest.
According to an analysis of US Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan research organization, the total US immigrant population—both legal and unauthorized immigrants—has grown over the last decade to a record 40.4 million in 2011. This means that immigrants now make up about 13 percent of the total US population, lower than the past peak of 15 percent in 1890, which occurred during the earlier period of high immigration from Europe. This modern immigration wave, unlike the first tide of mostly European immigrants, has been dominated by people from Latin America (about 50 percent) and Asia (27 percent).
Census data shows that Mexico is the country of origin for about 29 percent of the immigrants residing in the United States (or about 11.7 million)—clearly the largest US immigrant group. These Mexican immigrants live mostly in the west and southwest parts of the country—in states like California (37 percent), Texas (21 percent), and Arizona (4 percent)—but also in several other states such as Illinois (6 percent) and Georgia (2 percent). Other countries, such as China (5 percent), India (4 percent), the Philippines (4 percent), Vietnam (3 percent), El Salvador (3 percent), Cuba (3 percent), Korea (3 percent), the Dominican Republic (2 percent), and Guatemala (2 percent), make up another 29 percent of the immigrant population.
The majority of new immigrants are young or middle-aged—72 percent are twenty-five to sixty-four years old, 9 percent eighteen to twenty-four years old, and 7 percent age seventeen or younger. Only 13 percent were sixty-five or older. A little more than half of these immigrants are female. About 17.5 million out of 40.4 million are naturalized US citizens, and the rest are legal permanent residents—legal residents here on temporary student or work visas—or unauthorized immigrants. About 47 percent of the total foreign-born population in the United States is Hispanic, and Spanish is the leading second language spoken after English. Out of the 33.6 million immigrants over the age of twenty-five, about a quarter, or 27 percent, have a college degree while a third, or about 32 percent, do not even have a high school diploma.
The main statistic that has been in the news recently, however, is the number of unauthorized or illegal immigrants. According to Jeffrey Passel, a demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center, a project of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, there are now 11.1 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. This figure is down from a peak of about twelve million in 2007, largely because of decreased immigration from Mexico due to the US recession and stricter border enforcement. In fact, the majority of all unauthorized immigrants come from Mexico—about 58 percent of all unauthorized immigrants (or six million) as of 2010. About half (46 percent) of these unauthorized immigrants have children, some of whom are themselves illegal but many of whom were born in the United States and are therefore US citizens, even though their parents are not legal residents. According to Passel, there are about 4.5 million US citizen children with undocumented parents.
Almost two-thirds of unauthorized immigrants appear to have permanently settled in the United States—they have been here for ten years or more. According to some estimates, up to 40 percent are people who came to the country under a legal visa but then stayed after their visa expired. Many unauthorized immigrants work as low-wage farm workers, helping to pick America's food crops. Others have found niches in the construction industry, dairy operations, or meat-packing plants. Many adult illegal immigrants are poorly educated—about 47 percent have less than a high school education. Many live in poverty and make far less than the $50,000 median annual income for US-born residents.
How to deal with this phenomenon of illegal immigration is a central issue in today's immigration debate, along with other issues such as how the United States should structure its immigration policies to attract more highly skilled and highly educated immigrants. The authors of the viewpoints included in Current Controversies: Immigration address some of these topics, including whether immigration is a serious problem, whether the US government adequately enforces immigration laws, whether illegal immigrants should be granted a path to citizenship, and whether immigration reform will improve the US immigration system.