Current Issues of Immigration in America

By: Nancy Salvato

For a great many people born in this great nation, citizenship is taken for granted. However, aliens, seeking permanent residences, have long appreciated the abundance of wealth and opportunity available to citizens residing in this country.

By Today’s Standards

The United States has a good economy with significant potential for employment. In comparison, the European market is suffering serious decline. Welfare state mechanisms keep newcomers and native workers out of the workforce and on the dole. Unemployment exceeds 20 percent, with younger workers paying heavily for pensioners through high taxes. This has resulted in a serious brain drain of EU science and tech graduates seeking employment in the United States.1

Non Citizens

Non-citizens entering the United States are categorized as: 1) Lawful permanent residents (LPRs), foreign-born individuals admitted to reside permanently in the United States; entering the US through family-sponsored immigration (more than three-quarters of all regular immigration into the United States), employment-based immigration, or through refugee and asylum admissions. Permanent residents may be admitted through the diversity visa lottery program, which allots additional immigration visas to countries that are underrepresented in US immigration streams. According to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in 2003, legal immigrants totaled 705,827.2

2) Non-immigrants; foreigners in the United States temporarily, this category includes tourists and those who fill the temporary needs of US employers. There were over 27.8 million temporary workers in 2003. In recent years, non-immigrant admissions have declined, resulting in a “reduction in tourism, foreign student enrollments at US universities, cultural and scholarly exchange, and business travel.” 3

3) Undocumented migrants (illegal immigrants) “Enter the US by avoiding official inspection, passing through inspection with fraudulent documents, entering legally but overstaying the terms of their temporary visas, or somehow violating other terms of their visa.” 4 As of 2003, there were likely between 9 and 10 million illegal residents in the United States. 5

All things considered.

To achieve citizenship, all naturalization applicants must demonstrate good moral character and a favorable disposition toward the United States. Additional requirements include maintaining a record of continuous residence and physical presence in the United States, an ability to read, write and speak English, and knowledge of the principles of the U.S. Constitution. Requirements may be modified or waived for certain applicants, such as spouses of U.S. Citizens.

The LPR Category is also a factor when deciding a person’s eligibility for U.S. citizenship in any given year. There are no limits on the number of applications considered from a spouse, parent, or minor child of a legal resident. A limited number of adult sons and daughters, siblings of adults, spouses and children of non citizens can apply for citizenship. Legally employed priority workers take precedence over unskilled and religious workers, or investors. There are humanitarian concerns for refugees or asylees, and those categorized, “cancellation of removal” i.e., longtime illegal aliens, whose deportation would cause hardship for American family members. Finally, priority is given to people from countries other than primary sources of current immigration. 6


Rule of Naturalization (1790), allowed “‘any alien, being a free white person’ and ‘of good character’ who had resided in the United States for two years to become a ‘citizen of the United States’ by taking an oath in court ‘to support the constitution of the United States.’”7

American naturalization law and practice is based on social-contract theory-the agreement of individuals to create and live under a government, giving it the power to make and enforce laws. That a citizen of one country has the right to transfer his allegiance to another is a logical extension of this idea. One reason for the War of 1812 is that British and French, not recognizing the idea of “voluntary expatriation” would board our ships and impress sailors who they believed owed allegiance to their countries of origin.8

Chirac v. Lessee of Chirac (1817), affirmed that “‘the power of naturalization is exclusively in congress,’ notwithstanding any state laws to the contrary.”9

Groups of people were collectively naturalized as a result of additional territory ceded to our country during expansion. 10

The Immigration Act of 1882 levied a 50 cents tax on all aliens to defray expenses resulting from immigration regulation and care of new arrivals. Authorities could deny entry to “convicts (except those convicted of political offences), lunatics, idiots and persons likely to become public charges.” 11

Subsequent legislation denied entry to prospective immigrants with a dangerous contagious disease, tuberculosis in any form, persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists, idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; unaccompanied children under 17 years of age, anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States, and persons found to be or certified mentally or physically defective because it may affect the ability of such aliens to earn a living. Head tax was increased, as well. Eventually literacy tests, previously vetoed by Grover Cleveland, William Taft, and Woodrow Wilson, were passed by Congress.12

The 1924 Immigration Act was more restrictive, allowing around 150,000 to enter the United States. Those of Anglo-Saxon origin made up over two-thirds of the quota and no Japanese were allowed entry (as had been true of the Chinese since 1880). Those of Southern or Eastern European origin were extremely limited. 13

McCarran-Walter Act imposed more rigid restrictions on entry quotas and stiffened existing law relating to the admission, exclusion and deportation of dangerous aliens as defined in the Internal Security Act. 14

Immigration and Nationality Act (1952) imposed overall limits on immigration, while continuing to favor Europeans, over other regions. 15

Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments (1965) abolished the national origins quota system and replaced it with a seven-category preference system. Of the 290,000 people allowed entry, 120,000 were reserved for immigrants from the Western Hemisphere. This limit did not include “immediate family members” of US citizens.16

Migration to the United States was no longer dominated by European immigrants; Latin American and Asian groups make up the bulk of aliens settling in this country today. 17

Refugee Act (1980) expanded the number of persons considered refugees.18

Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) (1986) granted amnesty to illegal immigrants who had resided in the United States for a certain period of time. Steep penalties were placed on those hiring or harboring unauthorized residents. There was also to be enhanced border control. 19

Proposition 187 (CA 1994) denied undocumented immigrants access to public schools, medical care, and other social services. Public employees and law enforcement officials were required to report suspected undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. 20

Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWOR) (1996), known as Welfare Reform Act, limited access to legal protections for non-citizens. Legal and undocumented immigrants were denied access to federal public benefits, such as Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), and food stamps. 21

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) (l996) hastened deportation of illegal immigrants who committed crimes. 22

Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) (l996) made it easier to arrest, detain, and deport non-citizens. 23

The American Competitiveness in the Twenty-First Century Act (2000) increased the number of temporary work visas.24

Although dual citizenship has been prohibited since 1795, millions of American citizens are also citizens of other countries because 1) Countries of origin do not recognize renunciation of loyalty made in the American citizenship oath. 2) Some have one American parent and one foreign parent. 3) Foreign-born children are often adopted by American parents. Courts have ruled against expatriating citizens who maintain dual citizenship, despite statutory law.25


As of March, 2004 there were around 34 million immigrants living in the United States. Roughly 700,000 to 900,000 residents are granted legal status in any given year. About half the immigrants entering this country are illegal. Immigrants currently make up12 percent of our population and of this number, almost one third of these people are of Mexican descent. 26 About one sixth of the people emigrating to the U.S. each year are under forty, highly educated, European born; former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, Romania, France.27


The United States admits more temporary workers, trainees and their dependants (nearly 1.5 million) than new immigrants (155,330) under the permanent employment-based categories. These temporary workers may stay in this country anywhere from three months to ten years. However, rules for the program are cumbersome, and sanctions are rarely applied against employers who hire unauthorized workers. The result is that many employers opt out of using temporary workers.28

In 2004, President Bush praised proposed a temporary guest-worker program in which, “Immigrants willing to work in jobs for which US workers are scarce may be granted a three-year work visa, which could be renewed once for an additional three years. After those six years, the workers would be required to return home.” 29

Although President Bush is not offering blanket amnesty, critics believe that, “a guest-worker program would reward those who entered the US illegally and encourage more illegal immigration.”30 Because there is no potential for eventual permanent residency, critics believe his proposal “provides too little incentive for immigrants to participate in the guest-worker program.”31

Polls taken after 9/11 indicate that most people do not believe we are doing enough to protect our borders from illegal aliens. Because of a heightened fear of terrorist attack, the American people agree there is a need for more controlled immigration. 32

State and local government bear most of the financial burden incurred by low skilled, low wage earning workers dependent on government services such as education, criminal justice, and emergency medical care. 33 Immigrants traditionally have had a tendency to settle in CA, NY, TX, FL, NJ, and IL.34 35 percent of aliens living in the United States have limited English proficiency, speaking English “not well” or “not at all”. In nine states (CA, TX, AR, NM, NC, NE, CO, ID, & GA), over 40 percent of the foreign born are limited English proficient (LEP). 35 About one fifth of the populations in TX, AZ, AR, and CO are LEP. The highest percentage of non-English speakers, reside in the South. 36


The United States is a nation made up of immigrants. Our country serves as a beacon to those seeking political, religious, and economic freedom.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(Emma Lazarus, 1883)

We cannot close the U.S. borders, nor should we want to isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. However, there is a real problem of illegal immigration which must be addressed in order to protect the physical security of our country and ease the excessive financial burden placed on the individual states. For if the United States ceases to exist as we know it today, who will welcome the huddled masses yearning to breathe free?

35, 36 English Abilities of the US Foreign-Born Population

Migration Policy Institute

28 Large-Scale Temporary Worker Programs Already a Reality in the U.S. Immigration System

2, 3, 4, 5, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, 31, 34 A New Century: Immigration and the US

6, 26, 32, 33 Current issues of immigration in America

1, 27 America Still Beckons

7, 8, 9, 10, 25 Congress and the Naturalization of Immigrants

11, 12, 13, 14 Immigration to the USA 1860-1960

Copyright © Nancy Salvato 2006

Nancy Salvato is the President of The Basics Project, ( a non-profit, non-partisan research and educational project whose mission is to promote the education of the American public on the basic elements of relevant political, legal and social issues important to our country. She is also a Staff Writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, where she contributes on matters of education policy.

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