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.

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Immigration Topic Overview

"Immigration." Opposing Viewpoints Online Collection, Gale, 2021.

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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 remain legally as permanent or conditional residents. People in the country without permission are considered undocumented immigrants. Tourists, foreign students, and others who visit or reside in a country temporarily are not considered immigrants.

According to the United Nations (UN) Department of Economic and Social Affairs' (DESA) International Migration 2020 report, 51 million immigrants were living in the United States—nearly one-fifth of the total number of immigrants globally and the most immigrants of any nation. The American Immigration Council reported that immigrants accounted for an estimated 14 percent of the US population in 2021. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, in 2017 more than three-quarters of immigrants were residing in the United States with authorization, while nearly one-quarter were considered unauthorized. Among authorized immigrants, nearly 59 percent were naturalized citizens, foreign-born lawful permanent residents who met the legal requirements outlined by Congress to obtain US citizenship, while some 35 percent held lawful permanent residency, and 6 percent held temporary lawful residency.

More than 3.7 million immigrants became US citizens from fiscal year (FY) 2015 to FY 2019, an annual average of nearly 760,000 people, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Some 834,000 immigrants became naturalized US citizens in FY 2019, which marked an eleven-year high. However, in FY 2020 the number of immigrants who took the oath to become naturalized citizens dropped to 625,400. The COVID-19 pandemic was a major contributing factor to the decline.

The closure of international borders in an attempt to halt the spread of the virus disrupted immigration into the United States. USCIS reported receiving fewer immigration applications, while the closure of field offices and support centers between March and June 2020 and extended social distancing measures delayed required in-person interviews and biometrics documentation processes. As the Delta variant spread starting in the summer of 2021, the administration of President Joe Biden announced the extension of restrictions on nonessential travel into the United States over the land borders with Canada and Mexico into October 2021.

Immigrants often perform needed work in their adopted countries and help expand local and national economies. Numerous studies have shown that immigrants represent an outsized proportion of startup founders and small business owners. However, citizens sometimes resent immigrants due to cultural biases, fear of losing their own economic opportunities, and political partisanship. Immigration policies during the presidency of Donald Trump reflected these concerns by attempting to sharply curtail both legal and undocumented immigration. President Biden campaigned in 2020 on restoring and expanding immigration opportunities. The Biden administration released a blueprint for immigration policy reform in July 2021, stressing "a fair, orderly, and humane immigration system."


  • Immigration is the act of moving to a foreign country with the intention of settling there permanently. Immigrants are 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.
  •  Immigrants can enter the United States legally as refugees fleeing persecution, through family sponsorship, or through a visa lottery.
  •  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.  


Motivations and Impact

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 as refugees or political asylum grantees. Obtaining such recognition, however, requires extensive vetting, and the process can take several years. 

Others come to the United States for economic reasons. They may be attracted by the country's entrepreneurial culture or to pursue high-paying jobs. Others work low-paying jobs in the hope that their children can access educational and career opportunities unavailable in their home countries. Immigrants also come to the United States to reunite with family members who immigrated previously, or as the spouse of a US citizen.

Origin countries are affected when large portions of their populations decide to resettle somewhere else. The outflow of talented, industrious people has led to a condition informally called "brain drain," as the origin country loses educated and skilled citizens. The economies of many origin countries, however, benefit from remittances, money sent by immigrants to their family members after securing employment in the destination country.

The impact of immigration on receiving countries has stirred debate among those who feel that immigrants enhance the population and those who view immigrants as a threat. Liberals tend to consider immigration as a net benefit, noting that most immigrants pay taxes, work jobs that native-born Americans are often unwilling to perform, and enrich their local communities. Conservatives have typically expressed more suspicions, citing concerns that immigrants take jobs away from US citizens and abuse government services. Some media outlets have been accused of sensationalizing stories involving immigrants, promoting the idea that immigrants contribute to such social problems as crime and disease even though studies have indicated that immigrants are less likely to engage in criminal behavior than native-born citizens.


Historical Immigration in the United States

The United States is a country that was originally populated by Native Americans. 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 in order to be naturalized. Though the residency requirement changed to longer periods through subsequent legislation, the first significant change occurred in 1868 when Congress passed the Fourteenth Amendment, which extended citizenship to anyone born in the United States, including those who were formerly enslaved. The federal government extended naturalization rights through the Naturalization Act of 1870 to all white people and people of African descent, however it 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 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. The Chinese Exclusion Act reflected a growing concern among some Americans that immigration needed additional regulation. 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 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. Because immigration from Latin American countries, including Mexico, was not restricted under the Johnson-Reed Act, immigration from those countries increased in the years subsequent to the law's passing. In 1942, months after Mexico joined the United States in declaring war on Germany, Italy, and Japan, the two countries came to an agreement in which the Mexican government would send agricultural workers to the United States, which led to Congress creating the Bracero Program the following year. As part of the agreement, Mexican workers filled vacancies created when the native-born labor force left to fight in the war. After the war ended and soldiers returned to civilian life, US president Harry Truman commissioned a report on the effects of migrant labor that concluded the Bracero Program, as well as a wave of undocumented immigrants that accompanied it, had hurt the hiring prospects and earning power of native-born workers. In response to the report, the administration of 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 1975 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. Following the US withdrawal of armed forces in Vietnam in 1975, Congress amended existing immigration legislation with the Refugee Act of 1980, which revised the government's definition of a refugee to align with the UN definition and enabled a greater 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. Reforms passed during the 1990s expanded the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to allow more legal 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.


Childhood Arrivals

In 2001 lawmakers first introduced the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which aimed to provide legal immigration status to undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the United States as children. Though the law has been introduced on several occasions, it has never passed.

In 2012 the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under the presidential administration of Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which authorized such undocumented immigrants to work legally and deferred deportation if the immigrant remained in good legal standing. Nearly 700,000 immigrants obtained DACA status, allowing them to work and attend school legally.

In 2017 the Trump administration announced its intention to end the DACA program. Several federal courts issued injunctions against ending the program, which the Trump administration appealed to the Supreme Court. On June 18, 2020, the Supreme Court ruled that the administration's decision to end DACA was "arbitrary and capricious" and did not adequately justify shutting down the program. In December 2020 a New York federal judge ordered the Trump administration to fully restore DACA, including accepting new applicants for the first time since 2017.

President Joe Biden issued an executive order on January 20, 2021, fully reinstituting the DACA program as it stood before the Trump administration. However, on July 16, 2021, a federal judge in Texas ruled that President Obama had lacked the constitutional authority to create DACA and that while current recipients will continue to have protection, no new applications would be permitted. The Biden administration announced that they would appeal this decision.


Legal Immigration Issues

People who intend to legally immigrate to the United States must apply for a visa at a US consulate or embassy. The application process includes an interview, a criminal background check, a review of financial information, and a medical examination. Applicants also require sponsorship from a US citizen or lawful permanent resident (LPR), typically a relative or employer.

Aspiring immigrants who lack specific, in-demand work skills or who are not immediate relatives of a legal US resident 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.

Immigrants fleeing dangerous situations or persecution can apply for asylum to obtain refugee status. International and US law requires the United States to accept refugees who would be endangered by being returned to their home countries.

Family-sponsored immigration accounts for the largest portion of successful applicants. Under family reunification rules, LPRs and US citizens can sponsor close relatives to immigrate and join their family members 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.

Though the Trump administration placed its highest emphasis on preventing illegal immigration, official administration positions on legal immigration departed sharply from the norm of encouraging legal immigration that had been in place since 1960s. Administration officials took various steps to limit it, 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 a number of Trump administration executive orders, including restoring protected status for some temporary residents, increasing refugee and asylum openings, 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. In May 2021, following pressure from activists and advocacy groups, Biden announced that the refugee admission limit would be raised from 15,000 to 62,500 persons for 2021. President Biden has also pledged to renew work on comprehensive immigration reform legislation.


  • Do you think the characterization of the United States as a "nation of immigrants" is accurate, and why do you think this characterization is so popular?
  • What historical developments have contributed to lawmakers making US immigration policy more restrictive, and do you think placing restrictions on immigration was an appropriate response? Explain your answer.
  • In your opinion, should the federal government make it easier for more immigrants to enter the country legally? Why or why not?


Immigration Process and Barriers

USCIS facilitates the legal immigration process. The first step toward naturalization is to become a lawful permanent resident. Family-sponsored immigration accounted for nearly 58 percent of naturalized citizens in FY 2020. Spouses made up the highest percentage of naturalized citizens whose immediate relatives petitioned for their legal status. Refugees (12 percent) and asylees (4 percent) made up a combined 16 percent of naturalized citizens in FY 2020, while those with employment-based status made up 14 percent.

Applicants for naturalization are required to pass a test measuring a basic understanding of US history, government, and English language competency. USCIS reported a failure rate of only 9 percent of test takers in September 2020. Applicants pay fees to adjust their immigration status. In 2021 the naturalization application cost $725 per person. The average number of years between obtaining lawful permanent residency and citizenship is 7.1 years. Average time spent as lawful permanent residents before obtaining citizenship varies by country of birth, spanning from the longest for Mexican applicants at 12.5 years to the shortest of 4.3 years for applicants from Iraq. Women made up the majority of naturalized citizens in FY 2020 at 55.7 percent compared to 44.3 percent of men. Thirty- to forty-four-year-old naturalized citizens made up the largest age group.

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. Mexico was the top country of birth for US naturalized citizens from FY 2015 to FY 2019, followed by India, the Philippines, China, and Cuba. These five countries combined accounted for 35 percent of all newly naturalized citizens in FY 2020. Though Mexico represented the country of birth with the highest percentage of US naturalizations during the FY 2015 to FY 2019 period (15.3 percent), the largest share of naturalizations came from Asia. For example, India (6.7 percent), the Philippines (5.3 percent), China (4.8 percent), Vietnam (3 percent), South Korea (2 percent), and Pakistan (1.5 percent) combined made up nearly one-quarter of the total.

US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is one of the key agencies charged with enforcing federal immigration laws. Undocumented immigration is a highly charged political issue in the United States. Immigrants who enter the country without satisfying established legal requirements, commit fraud during the immigration process, or overstay a legitimate visa are considered undocumented immigrants. Some individuals come into the country by crossing at the US-Mexico border or the US-Canada border without authorization. According to the Pew Research Center, in the decade between 2007 and 2017, the number of immigrants in the United States without authorization declined from 12.2 million to 10.5 million. Many factors have contributed to this decline, including deportations, strict border enforcement, and a trend in the decline of Mexican immigrants entering without documents along with an increase in those who left the United States voluntarily. While most Americans and American politicians agree that illegal immigration should be curtailed, they often disagree on the best approach.

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