I wrote this paper to show what immigration is doing to america
America has, is, and will always be a nation of immigrants: the great melting pot. In the years that have passed since Emma Lazarus’ poem was inscribed on the Statue of Liberty “the golden door” Americans have seen times when the door was open wide and times when it was close shut to most immigrants (Sure 4). Many people look at the present immigration problems as a purely modern dilemma. The truth is America has always struggled with the issue of immigration, both legal and illegal. Changing times, however, makes it imperative that our government reexamines and adjusts today’s immigration laws to today’s standards. Those standards, however, are not easily defined. Too often the issue of immigration is used as a political tool or is lost in heated moral debates (Sure 6). In any discussion about immigration there will be those who claim it is good for our nation and those who claim it is ruining the nation.
Americans are now faced with a new dilemma; the nation must decide not whether it is willing to accept new immigrants, but whether it can afford new immigrants (Briggs 240). More often than not, the bottom line in any debate of this sort is money; will more or less immigration mean more or less money for those already in America? All new immigrants, both legal and illegal must be considered in this equation. Congress can attempt to ease the burden of legal immigration by passing restrictive laws and only allowing inside those who they believe will become self-sufficient. Congress must also find a way to slow the flow of illegal immigration by enforcing the laws already in place Mont 16).
America most certainly has immigration problems, but eliminating immigration will not fix them all together. In fact, America will never eliminate immigration, because no matter how tightly the door is closed some illegal immigrants will get through (Marley 879). Since America continues to be seen as a nation of prosperity, opportunity, and freedom there will be those who wish to come to America. Immigrants have always come to America looking for a better life and Americans are always forgetting that their forefathers were once looking for that same life.
Throughout most of America’s history immigration was seen as a natural process that benefited the nation (Divine 2). There were no clearly defined policies on immigration until the 1890’s. During this time the country started questioning the economic benefits of more immigrants. In May 1921, the first bill in American history dealing with immigration was passed. This bill restricted European immigration and created the quota system (Divine 5). The downward turn in the economy could justify this turn toward restriction. Who could argue for more immigrants when the nation’s own citizens could not find work. The slowing economy and the “spirit of intense nationalism” in the United States at this time made immigration a hot topic (Divine 23). After the depression hit, everyone agreed that there was a “need to limit immigration,” of course the extent of those limits was not easily agreed upon (Divine 77).
World War II brought a new set of immigrants, and eventually the passing of the Displaced Persons Act of 1947. This allowed people, displaced by war to enter the country above quota limits (Divine 128). Since then our legislators have been faced with numerous proposals concerning immigration, too many in fact to mention. Those proposals show a definite shift in America’s attitude toward immigration. Since the 1920’s immigration has not been seen as a natural process, but a process that could overwhelm a nation if left unchecked (Divine 2).
In recent years the immigration policy has found itself in a state of flux going back and forth between pro and anti immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990 is one of the more current policies to regulate immigration. This policy set a flexible annual limit on immigration at a rate of 700,000 immigrants per year until 1994 when the number dropped to 675,000. This number of course does not include refugees and those seeking asylum (“Immigration . . . “). If these numbers seem, staggering one must take into account the estimated “300,000 to 400,000 illegal immigrants” added to the nations population each year (Suro 8).
In the mid-90’s there was a shift in America’s immigration policy to “close the doors and end the current era of immigration” (Suro 8). In President Clinton’s 1995 State of the Union Message he said: “It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.” (“Immigration . . . “). This attitude led to the Immigration Enforcement Improvements Act of 1995, which was meant to secure our borders, make deportation of illegal easier, and discourage the employment of illegal aliens (“Immigration . . . “). In essence this was a proposal to enforce the laws already in place. This was a strong attempt by the government to limit illegal immigration while facilitating legal immigration. Now, due to the lack of credible data, it is unclear if this legislation worked. What is clear is the continuing struggle to find a balance in the immigration system. In the past, immigration was somewhat balanced; a good economy meant more immigrants and a slower economy saw a decrease in immigration (Amselle 60). However, there are those who now feel the United States has absorbed all the people it can (Amselle 60).
On the other hand, there are those like Joel Kotkin of the Progressive Policy Institute who feel that the large numbers of immigrants are “working age adults,” that America needs to “offset the growing number of pensioners” (Amselle 60). Even if the immigrant population can offset the number of pensioners, the number of resources in the country will still be divided among a much larger population. One must also take into account the number of illegal immigrants added to the population. They will also be replacing those retiring pensioners at a lower wage with no taxes or social security payments. America has a large population of baby boomers and will need working-age persons to fill the void left by their retirements, but there must be a limit to the number of immigrants we become dependant upon and a dramatic decrease in illegal immigrants (Amselle 60).
America is experiencing a period of economic health, but history shows that this upward economy will not last indefinitely. The working poor is concerned that illegal immigrants may be holding down wages and taking the few unskilled jobs that are available (Kirschten 16). These are legitimate fears that call into question the government’s ability to regulate immigration. Tax paying citizens are also concerned that the tax dollars they pay each year are being used to help educate illegal immigrants and not those who are rightfully in this country (Amselle 60). When there is a large population of immigrants in an area citizens tend to view them in a hostile manner because of the perceived notion that illegal immigrants are using resource meant for legal residents (Bean 204).
The United States immigration policy does not allow people to immigrate if they are expected to be dependant on public services. Yet in 1993 approximately 12% of the 5.9 million recipients of Supplemental Security Income benefits were immigrants, which account for about 5% of the population (Mont 15). Statistics such as these add to the growing anti-immigrant sentiment among American citizens. This anti-immigrant attitude was clearly reflected in 1994 with the passing of California’s Proposition 187 (Kirschten 16). Although Proposition 187 was aimed at curbing the health care cost of illegal immigrants, most Americans simply see it as an immigrant issue and pay little attention to details concerning the status of those immigrants actually receiving benefits. Actions such as Proposition 187 can create a very hostile and possibly dangerous atmosphere for all immigrants (Kirschten 16).
The main concern with illegal immigration is the strain it can place upon the economy. Illegal immigration is not only bad for the nation, but for the illegal immigrant as well (Mont 16).Illegal workers have no recourse in the law makes them susceptible to unscrupulous business people who will exploit them simply to make money. The supply of illegal workers has created a part of the United States business economy that works outside government regulations (Suro 34). Illegal immigrants face lower wages, unsafe work environments, and a lack of benefits. This in turn keeps wages low and makes it difficult for legal residents to get these jobs. Most employers are looking at the bottom line and illegal immigrant workers mean fewer wages and benefits cost, which add up to more profit. The government passed laws in 1986 making it unlawful to hire illegal immigrants; then they failed to fund the enforcement of these same laws (Suro 32).
In reality illegal aliens make up less than “2% of the population,” but what seems like an insignificant number of people have had great impact on our nation (Suro 50). The irony of the entire situation is that while the nation is calling for an end to illegal immigration, no one is forcing illegal immigrants to leave (Suro 35). While illegal aliens violate the law with their presence, we guarantee their children access to public education and emergency medical care (Suro 35). This is just one example of the many contradictions in America’s immigration policies.
These contradictions are what lead to the frustration many people feel toward a system that is no longer in control. Many citizens, especially the working poor, feel that illegal immigrants receive more benefits then they deserve. The reality of illegal immigration is that it has been an increasingly difficult problem to solve. For three decades now our government has been trying to find ways to alleviate the number of illegal immigrants in the nation. One attempt was the Amnesty program in the mid-90’s for those who had been in the country since 1992 (Suro 40). However, this covered only about 60% of the illegal population and drew much debate from California. Which is ironic seeing as how California is often at the forefront of the campaign against illegal immigration (Suro 40). Illegal immigration has become a familiar part of American society and will not likely see much improvement in the next millennium.
Our government has tried to curb the flow of illegal immigrants with such actions as the North American Free Trade Agreement NAFTA, which is expected to reduce illegal migration from Mexico (U.S. Immigration . . . 5). The problem is the timing of such policies; NAFTA is expected to work only after a decade in which Mexico can produce the jobs needed. The INS also reported that by the year 2000, the population of prime labor age in America would drop by 8.5 million (U.S. Immigation. . . 5). That is a large loss of labor and can only be offset by the immigrant population. The key is to make sure that the legal immigrant population offsets this decrease. That is what the government attempted to do with the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (Marley 880). The intent was to cut back on crime, terrorism, and welfare fraud. However, they fell short of their intent because the inadvertently clumped all immigrants together, both legal and illegal (Marley 885).
America will continue to allow immigrants to enter the country for numerous reasons; such as those who take up a common cause against a foreign foe, as a gesture of shame after some foreign debacle, for economic reasons, and for purely humanitarian purposes (United States). Recently we saw our government agree to accept 20,000 Kosovar refugees, and financially help with 20,000 more in Albania (United States). Now 20,000 is a tiny gesture in the big picture, but in a world of crises how often can our government afford such gestures. Can America continue to play the role of the last true hope for the “huddled masses” of the world?
In the past, Americans were proud to be that one shining hope in the world. They were willing to accept the tired and poor, but America has changed and immigration must change also. To those in underdeveloped countries the Statue of Liberty and her invitation to a better life must be hard to resist. What they do not see is what lies beyond her golden torch, a country teeming with people in fierce competition for that elusive dream of a better life. The days of “give me your tired, your poor” may have to end, but our door should always be open to those longing to work toward a better tomorrow in a land of freedom.
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Bean, Frank D., Barry Edmonston, and Jefferey S. Passel. Undocumented Migration to the United States:IRCA and the Experience of the 1980’s.Washington: The Urban Institute Press, 1990.
Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest. 2nd ed. Armonk: Sharpe, 1996.
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Kirschten, Dick. “Supply and Demand.” Government Executive 31 (May 1999): 16.
Marley, Bruce Robert. “Exiling the new felons:The consequences of the retroactive application of aggravated felony convictions to lawful permanent residents.” San Diego Law Review 35 (1998 Summer): 855-895.
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