Immigration in America's Future: Social Science Findings and the Policy Debate

By David M. Heer | Go to book overview

1 Overview

One of the most contentious issues facing the United States today is immigration policy. Two basic questions have emerged: What should be the number and characteristics of the immigrants to be admitted legally to the United States every year? And what should be done about illegal immigration to the United States? The two questions are obviously related. Suppose, in answer to the first, we decided to allow entry to anyone who wished to come to the United States as a permanent legal resident. In adopting this policy, we would also eliminate undocumented immigrants (i.e., persons whose arrival had been outside the law)--and so we would also have adopted a policy with respect to the second question. Conversely, if we decided to impose very tight restrictions on legal immigration and therefore decreed that most persons who wanted to immigrate to the United States would not be allowed a legal slot, we would magnify the problem of illegal immigration.

Why has immigration policy become such an important issue? A major reason is the tremendous increase in the volume of immigration. During the decade ending on September 30, 1992, the total number of persons granted the status of permanent legal immigrant was almost 9 million. During the previous decade the number had been less than 5 million, and in 1963-1972 it had been only around 3.5 million. Moreover, of the nearly 9 million persons who became permanent legal immigrants between 1983 and 1992, more than 2.7 million received that status only because the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 converted them from their status as undocumented immigrants. 1

Nevertheless, the 1990 census showed that only 7.9 percent of the total population of the United States was foreign-born (some 20 million persons out of a total of about 249 million). 2 Although this was the highest proportion of foreign-born since 1940, the number fell far short of the record: 14.8 percent in 1930. 3

Perhaps another reason the salience of immigration policy has increased is the changing nationality composition of America's immigrants. As recently as 1951-1960, more than half of all immigrants to the United States were from Europe and only 6 percent from Asia. By 1981-1990 only 10 percent of all immigrants came from Europe and 37 percent from Asia. Moreover, there was an even greater shift in the

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