The global movement of people from one country to another introduces complex questions for governments, citizens, and immigrants. Read the overview below to gain a balanced understanding of the issue and explore the previews of opinion articles that highlight many perspectives on immigration.

Embedded Style Sheet

Access Through Your library >> 

Topic Home     |     Social Issues     |     Literature     |     Lifelong Learning & DIY     |     World History
Embedded Style Sheet

Immigration Topic Overview

"Immigration." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2023.

View Fast Facts
Access Through Your Library
See More Articles
Institutions: Shop Resources

Immigration is the act of moving from one's home country to another nation with the intention of settling there permanently. Immigrants may or may not become citizens of their new countries of residence. In the United States, immigrants may become naturalized citizens or obtain permission to remain as legal "permanent" or "conditional permanent" residents. People in the country without permission are considered unauthorized immigrants. Tourists, foreign students, and others who visit or reside in a country temporarily are not considered immigrants.

According to a 2020 Pew Research Center analysis, forty million immigrants reside in the United States, making up 13.7 percent of the population. An estimated one million new immigrants enter the United States annually. More than three-quarters of immigrants in the United States have authorization, with the remainder considered unauthorized immigrants. Compared to other countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States accepts the largest numbers of immigrants, but the number of immigrants admitted each year make up a smaller percentage of the country's overall population than most other OECD countries.

American attitudes toward immigration shifted significantly in the first decades of the twenty-first century. Pew surveys revealed that 63 percent of US adults considered immigration an economic and social burden to the country in 1994. By 2019, however, 66 percent considered immigration a source of social and economic strength for the country. Despite the shift, the United States continues to experience deep political divides on attitudes toward immigration.

Advocates point out that immigrants often provide labor and services in important economic areas, helping to meet workforce demands and expanding the economy at the local, state, and national levels. Others assert humanitarian and human rights arguments, such as helping people fleeing poverty and violence and allowing those in search of economic opportunities to improve their quality of life. Critics view immigration primarily as a security concern and threat to the employment and wages of citizens. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, extreme political partisanship and rhetoric have inflamed anti-immigrant bias based on xenophobia, nativism, racism, and Islamophobia.

Congressional lawmakers have tried and failed for several decades to pass bipartisan deals on comprehensive immigration reform to fix what many Americans consider a broken and antiquated system. Meanwhile, presidential administrations have advanced differing priorities. Immigration policies during the presidency of Donald Trump sharply curtailed both authorized and unauthorized immigration. The succeeding Joe Biden administration released a blueprint for immigration policy reform in July 2021, stressing "a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system." Data from the US Census Bureau found that immigration declined sharply in fiscal year (FY) 2021, a decrease of nearly half compared to FY 2020, which experts largely attributed to travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. As emergency restrictions lifted, US enforcement agencies reported record highs in the number of unauthorized migrant encounters along the southern US border during FY 2022.



  • Immigration is the act of moving to a foreign country with the intention of settling there permanently. Immigrants can be beneficial to their new local economies, yet political and cultural biases contribute to fears that immigrants will take jobs or commit crime.
  • The United States had few immigration restrictions until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese workers from immigrating, though who could become a citizen was limited to free white men and their children by the Naturalization Act of 1790 until 1868. Later laws used quotas that limited immigrants from primarily nonwhite countries. The quota system ended in 1965.
  • Refugees are people who immigrate to escape natural disasters, war, or political persecution. Economic migrants are people who immigrate to find better jobs or improve their standards of living.
  • Undocumented immigrants enter and stay in a country outside of official legal channels. This can include crossing a border outside of authorized points of entry or overstaying a legal temporary visa. Preventing illegal entry and enforcement of laws against undocumented immigrants is a highly charged political issue in the United States.
  • The Trump administration strongly opposed both legal and illegal immigration and changed several enforcement processes and priorities in controversial ways. Since taking office, the Biden administration has sought to modify or reset many of these policies.



US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) facilitates the official immigration process, which is often complex and varies by individual. Would-be immigrants residing outside of the United States must apply for a visa at a US consulate or embassy to obtain documentation for entry. The application process includes an interview, a criminal background check, a review of financial information, and a medical examination. Immigrants already residing in the United States with temporary status may apply to adjust their status, depending on their situation. Applicants for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status often require fiscal sponsorship from a US citizen or LPR, typically a relative or employer. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) reported that 740,000 people became LPRs in FY 2021.

People may choose to emigrate, or leave their countries of origin to reside elsewhere, because they face untenable challenges in their home country. Some migrants come to the United States fleeing religious or political persecution, or escaping war or criminal violence. In such situations, prospective migrants may apply to enter the country with refugee status or apply for political asylum once they are in the United States or reach the international border. Obtaining authorization to immigrate as a refugee requires extensive vetting, and the process can take several years. The waiting period must be spent outside of the United States, with few exceptions. International and US law requires the United States to accept asylum seekers who meet the burden of proof that they would be endangered if repatriated to their home countries.

Decisions on granting refugee and asylum-seeking status are often based on the political relationship between the United States and the country of the immigrant's origin. The US admitted 11,445 refugees and evacuated some seventy-six thousand Afghan nationals to the country for resettlement during the 2021 calendar year. President Biden increased the FY 2022 refugee cap to 125,000 people, though analysts predicted this figure would be difficult to achieve. The number of individuals admitted as refugees dropped sharply from more than 20,000 in FY 2019 to less than 9,000 in FY 2021. Similarly, the number of individuals granted asylum dropped from more than 46,500 in 2019 to about 17,700 in 2021. Asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, and several other Central American countries saw significant increases in asylum grant rates.

Many immigrants come to the United States for economic reasons. They may be attracted by the country's entrepreneurial culture or to pursue jobs or higher wages. Some employment-based immigration visas provide permanent residency for individuals and their immediate family in specialty professions, for those who possess exceptional and desired abilities, or skilled workers in high demand. Other types of immigrants work low-paying jobs in the hope that their children can access educational and career opportunities unavailable in their home countries. The economies of many origin countries often benefit from remittances, money sent by immigrants to their family members after securing employment in the destination country.

Immigrants also come to the United States to reunite with family members who immigrated previously, or as the spouse of a US citizen. Under family reunification rules, LPRs and US citizens can sponsor close relatives to immigrate and join their family members residing in the United States. For US citizens, eligible relatives are limited to the sponsor's spouse, children, parents, and siblings. For LPRs, eligible relatives are limited to the sponsor's spouse and unmarried children. DHS reported that 65 percent of new LPRs in 2021 were family-sponsored. Aspiring immigrants lacking employment or family connections may apply through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which provides as many as fifty thousand visas each year through a lottery system to residents of countries with low rates of immigration to the United States.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is one of the key agencies charged with enforcing federal immigration laws. Immigrants who enter the country without satisfying established legal requirements, commit fraud during the immigration process, or overstay a legitimate visa are considered unauthorized immigrants. Some individuals come into the country by crossing US borders from Mexico or Canada without authorization. Others enter on a valid temporary visa and overstay the term limit. However, the number of individuals who overstay their temporary visas represents a very small minority of authorized entries. DHS calculated that people on temporary visas did not depart as required less than 1.5 percent of the time, or a total of almost 685,500 events out of more than 46 million admissions in FY 2021.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of immigrants take the oath to become US citizens. Among authorized immigrants in 2019, nearly 65 percent were naturalized citizens, foreign-born LPRs who completed the legal requirements outlined by Congress to obtain US citizenship. Pew estimated that the total number of naturalized citizens in the United States reached 22.1 million that year. According to USCIS, some 834,000 immigrants became naturalized US citizens in FY 2019. In FY 2020 the number of new naturalized citizens dropped to 625,400. Population experts cite the COVID-19 pandemic as a major contributing factor to the decline. USCIS reported that the number of naturalizations rebounded in FY 2022, reaching 967,400, the country's second highest annual recorded amount. USCIS cited significant progress in processing the backlog of applications as contributing to the historical number.

Applicants pay fees to adjust their immigration status and must meet other requirements. In 2022 the naturalization application cost $725 per person, including fees for biometric measurements. Applicants for naturalization must pass a test measuring a basic understanding of US history, government, and English language competency. USCIS reported a failure rate of only 3.9 percent of exam takers, including those that repeat the exam, from 2009 to 2021. The average period between obtaining LPR status and naturalized citizenship measured 7.3 years.



The territory that today makes up the United States was originally populated by Indigenous Peoples. White European settlers were the first immigrants, and they forcibly brought enslaved Africans to the country. As the nation evolved to include the descendants of all of these groups, migration to North America became central to its character. However, shortly after securing independence from Great Britain, the United States passed the Naturalization Act of 1790, the country's first immigration law, which applied only to white people and required individuals to live in the country for two years before qualifying for naturalization. The residency requirement changed to longer periods through subsequent legislation.

The first significant change to US immigration law occurred in 1868. The Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including those who were formerly enslaved. The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended naturalization rights to all white people and people of African descent. However, the act also had the effect of establishing legal justification to deny the option of citizenship to nonwhite immigrants who were not from Africa. In 1882 the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese workers from entering the United States until its repeal in 1943. This law was the first and only time the federal government effectively banned the population of an entire country from entry outside of wartime, until the Trump administration enacted travel bans on several Muslim-majority nations in 2017. During the late nineteenth century, Congress also passed legislation banning convicted criminals, sex workers, the mentally ill, and migrants deemed incapable of caring for themselves.

As immigrants arrived from an increasingly diverse set of origin countries, some Americans voiced their anxieties that the demographics of the country would change. These concerns led to further restrictions on immigration, including the imposition of literacy requirements through the Immigration Act of 1917 and the imposition of national quotas as part of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, commonly referred to as the Johnson-Reed Act. Together with the Great Depression (1929–1939) and the Second World War (1939–1945), these laws sharply limited immigration to the United States in the 1930s and early 1940s.

Reduced immigration contributed to labor shortages, particularly on farms in western states. A 1942 agreement between allied Mexico and the United States during World War II led to Congress creating the Bracero Program the following year. As part of the agreement, Mexican workers filled vacancies created when the US native-born labor force left to fight in the war. After the war, US president Harry Truman commissioned a report concluding that the Bracero Program hurt the hiring prospects and earning power of native-born workers. Truman's successor, Dwight Eisenhower, proposed sanctions on employers who hired undocumented immigrants and launched an initiative to deport millions of Mexicans with the offensive yet official designation, Operation Wetback. Many of these deportees had originally legally entered the United States through the Bracero Program.

Following calls for reform to immigration law, the nationality quota system was abolished as part of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The law replaced the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which had upheld the quota system in place since the 1920s. The new act instituted a preference system that favored immigration by skilled workers and relatives of US citizens and resident aliens. Immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America increased in subsequent decades as a result.

As a result of the US withdrawal of armed forces in Vietnam in 1973, Congress amended existing immigration legislation with the Refugee Act of 1980, which revised the government's definition of a refugee to align with the United Nations' (UN) definition and enabled a larger number of refugees from Vietnam and other war-torn countries to resettle in the United States than had previously been allowed.

The presidential administration of Ronald Reagan addressed concerns about undocumented immigration through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which imposed penalties on employers who hired undocumented immigrants and created a path to amnesty for undocumented immigrants without criminal records who had entered the country before 1982. Comprehensive reforms passed during the 1990s expanded the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to allow more sanctioned immigration while also addressing concerns about undocumented immigration and criminal behavior among legal immigrants.

Several immigration laws were proposed and enacted in the early twenty-first century in response to security concerns following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and concerns about undocumented immigration. In 2002 the federal government approved state and local police cooperation with federal immigration enforcement efforts through 287(g) agreements, which were originally proposed as part of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.

Despite more welcoming attitudes toward immigration among the American public during the first decades of the twenty-first century, political polarization surrounding immigration became sharply divided. Under successive presidential administrations, Congress failed to pass major legislation on immigration. Instead, it acted on select bills on narrow issues such as specific immigration programs or border security measures. States passed laws that either expanded or restricted police cooperation with federal immigration authorities.



Immigration continues to stir debate among those who feel that immigrants enhance the population and those who view immigration as having an overall negative effect on US society. A Pew analysis published in 2020 found that 88 percent of Democrats considered immigration a strength while 44 percent of Republicans considered immigration a burden. Democrats and Republicans also express wide ideological differences regarding federal immigration policy priorities.

Democrats generally consider immigration as a benefit, noting that most immigrants pay taxes, work jobs that native-born Americans are often unwilling to perform, and enrich their local communities. A 2022 Pew analysis found that the majority of Democrats felt that federal immigration policy should prioritize taking in refugees (85 percent), making family sponsorship easier (80 percent), allowing children brought to the US to remain (88 percent), and providing a pathway to amnesty (80 percent). Democrats often assert that US immigration laws are too restrictive.

Republicans typically express more opposition, believing that immigrants take jobs away from US citizens and depress wages, draw more benefit from tax dollars than they contribute, worsen social problems, and resist cultural assimilation into US society. The same 2022 Pew analysis found that most Republicans felt that federal immigration policy should prioritize deportations of unauthorized immigrants (79 percent) and enhanced border security (91 percent). Republicans often assert that US immigration laws are too permissive and lack sufficient enforcement.

Immigrants come to the United States from all over the globe, but trends change over time and are heavily influenced by geography as well as US immigration and foreign policies. USCIS reported that for FY 2021, Mexico continued to be the top country of birth for US naturalized citizens (13.9 percent), followed by India (7 percent), the Philippines (6 percent), and Cuba (5.9 percent). DHS reports that, collectively, Asian countries of birth made up the largest proportion at 36.3 percent, followed by North America (including Central America and the Caribbean) at 35.4 percent, European countries at 9.5 percent, African countries at 9.3 percent, and South American countries at 8.9 percent.



  • Why you think the United States has often been characterized a "nation of immigrants"? Do you agree with this description? Why or why not?
  • Do you believe that US immigration policy should treat potential immigrants from high-income Western countries differently from those from low-income countries? Explain your reasoning.
  • In your opinion, should the federal government make it easier or more difficult for more immigrants to enter the country? Explain your answer.



Though the Trump administration placed its highest emphasis on preventing unauthorized immigration, official administration positions on sanctioned immigration departed sharply from norms encouraging immigration in place since the 1960s. Administration officials took steps to limit immigration, including drastically reducing the numbers of refugees and asylum recipients and cutting visa and permanent residency approvals. Legal immigration numbers declined by 49 percent during the Trump presidency.

Upon taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden took several steps to expand legal immigration opportunities. He repealed several Trump administration executive orders, including restoring protected status for some temporary residents, increasing refugee and asylum openings, halting family detentions, and ending attempts at discriminatory bans on entry, such as the Trump administration's attempt to prevent all entry into the United States by citizens of some Muslim countries.

The Biden administration's July 2021 blueprint for immigration policy reform sought to address root causes that spur unauthorized immigration, including corruption, violence, security, and economic crises in Central American nations, in an effort to stem the flow of asylum seekers. The Biden administration prioritized deportations for unauthorized immigrants found guilty of violent crimes and targeted transnational criminal organizations. Though the Biden administration continued to conduct large-scale deportations, immigration arrests within the United States dropped from one hundred thousand in FY 2020 to seventy-four thousand in FY 2021.

The Biden administration continued public health measures implemented by his predecessor during the COVID-19 pandemic aimed at stemming the tide of unauthorized immigration and asylum seekers along the southern border. Restrictions on nonessential travel into the United States over the land borders with Canada and Mexico were lifted in October 2021. Court orders required the Biden administration to retain a Trump-era policy known as Title 42, which allowed rapid expulsions of migrants who crossed the US border and required asylum seekers at the southern border to wait in Mexico for the duration of their proceedings. A November 2022 court order struck down Title 42 but placed a five-week hold on lifting the policy. In December 2022 the Supreme Court halted the lower court's ruling pending additional hearings in 2023.

Republican governors and state officials in border states engaged in political disputes targeting the immigration policies of the Biden administration. Texas governor Greg Abbott deployed the National Guard and state troopers to increase arrests along the border and pledged to use $4 billion in state funding on physical barriers and border security efforts. Florida governor Ron DeSantis advanced legislation granting select local police officers the authority to enforce immigration laws. Their supporters argue that these states are filling in a gap in security enforcement neglected by the federal government under the Biden administration. Organizations such as the Immigrant Legal Resource Center warned that such policies would increase racial profiling of Latinx population and violations of civil rights, and lead to isolation of immigrant communities.

Rights advocates also accused Abbott and DeSantis of using immigrants as political pawns and engaging in human trafficking in 2022. Both governors recruited migrants to fill buses and flights sent to northern states and Washington, DC. The buses and flights targeted political opponents and sanctuary cities where city officials were unprepared to receive them. Supporters argued these tactics were intended to pressure the Biden administration to relieve the heavy burden of unauthorized immigration on border states. The strategy resulted in legal scrutiny, including federal inquiries, a criminal investigation, and several lawsuits.

Immigrant rights advocates express concern about discrimination in the application of federal policy. They point to disparities in the treatment of unauthorized immigrants and asylum seekers from two conflict-torn countries: the poor and primarily Black Caribbean nation of Haiti and the high-income European nation of Ukraine. The Washington Office on Latin America reported in February 2022 that the Biden administration deported or expelled more twenty thousand Haitians back to a country racked by political instability, widespread gang violence, displacement, and an increasing humanitarian crisis. In contrast, the Migration Policy Institute reported that following the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Biden administration expanded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to nearly sixty thousand eligible Ukrainians residing in the United States and permitted entry to about twenty thousand unauthorized Ukrainian immigrants at the US-Mexico border seeking asylum from February until late April 2022.


Embedded Style Sheet
View Fast Facts >>
Access Through Your Library >>

Looking for information on other topics?


Access Through Your Library >>