Immigration: Shaping and Reshaping America

Article excerpt

REVISED AND UPDATED 2ND EDITION

Millions of foreigners enter the United States each day. Most are not immigrants planning to settle permanently. The vast majority are tourists, businesspeople, students, and temporary workers from other countries who are here for a few days, weeks, or months. But about 2,600 daily become legal U.S. residents, and another 1,400 are added to the population of unauthorized foreigners.

The recent waves of immigrants have brought greater diversity to the U.S. population: While Europe was the source of most immigrants throughout our history, most immigrants now come from Latin America and Asia. Illegal immigration began rising in the 1970s, and it continues to be a high-profile issue. The flow of illegal immigrants was the first major immigration issue debated in Congress in the 21st century.

Is the arrival of so many foreigners from so many different countries to be welcomed or feared? There is no single answer, which helps to explain why Americans are ambivalent about immigration. The United States has always celebrated its immigrant heritage, and American leaders often recount the story of renewal and rebirth brought by newcomers from abroad. At the same time, Americans have always worried about the economic, political, and cultural changes caused by immigration.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks inside the United States, a new worry has surfaced-the fear that some foreigners may enter the country to harm large numbers of Americans. The United States today is grappling with finding the right balance between welcoming foreigners and protecting Americans.

Immigration and integration are much-debated issues, often framed by extreme positions that advocate severe limits on foreigners entering the United States or that favor removing most restrictions. The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), for example, charges that large-scale immigration contributes to excessive population growth and environmental degradation, displaces low-skilled American workers and depresses their wages, and threatens the cultural bonds that hold Americans together. Consequently, FAIR calls for a sharp reduction in immigration-to perhaps 150,000 a year-and argues that an "immigration time out" would have the added benefit of allowing recent arrivals and Americans time to adjust to one another.

Other groups, such as the Cato Institute, offer another perspective, often articulated on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. They propose removing many of the limits on immigrants and instituting a foreign-worker program.1 More immigrants mean more workers and more consumers and an expanding economy. From this pro-business perspective, the benefits of having immigrant workers offset potential costs, including lower wages for workers who compete with newcomers. Other groups value immigrants for injecting a new entrepreneurial spirit into the U.S. economy.2 Some groups, such as the American Immigration Law Foundation, are concerned with protecting the rights of foreigners in the United States, while the Catholic Church and some other religious groups oppose immigration controls because they believe that national borders artificially divide humanity.3 Finally, groups such as the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform favor more immigration from particular countries or regions.

Whether immigrants are viewed as an asset or threat, the United States acknowledges its history as a nation of immigrants. U.S. presidents frequently remind Americans that, except for Native Americans, they or their forebears left another country to begin anew in the "land of opportunity," suggesting that immigration allows individuals to better their lives and at the same time strengthens the United States. Yet immigration also brings many changes that raise fundamental questions for Americans. Who are we? What kind of a society have we built, and whom shall we welcome to it? …