Immigration and Immigrants

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Immigration and Immigrants

Immigrants are individuals who leave their country of origin to settle in another state. For the receiving state, this process is known as immigration, and for the sending state this phenomenon is emigration . For much of history, there were no restrictions on immigration. Thus, millions of Western European people migrated to the New World—now known as North and South America—as well as to areas of Africa and the South Pacific.

Unlike almost all other countries, the United States, Canada, and Australia continue to consider themselves to be "immigrant states," and to a large extent the data bear this out. From 1820 until the mid-1990s, over 60 million immigrants arrived on America's shores. In the decade of the 1990s, more than 10 million immigrants came to the United States. The immigration influence in Canada can be seen in the fact that immigrants presently make up more than 16 percent of the population. And, with the exception of Israel, Australia has the highest proportion of the population born in other nations.

Yet, there has been a dark, racist side to this immigration story. In the United States, ethnic restrictions were first directed against Chinese immigrants in the 1880s and Japanese immigrants after 1907. In the 1920s, the United States took aim at all of those who were not from Northwestern Europe by instituting the National Origins Quota System, which severely limited immigration from all other areas of the globe. It was not until the mid-1960s that the nativist and racist premise behind U.S. immigration policy was removed. This brought about an enormous change in U.S. immigration policy, and by the early 2000s Asians had become the largest segment of U.S. immigration (37.3%) whereas Northwestern Europeans constituted only 5.2 percent (and falling).

Australia followed a "white Australia" immigration policy until 1964. However, by the end of the twentieth century, a large and growing proportion of the immigrant population were coming from Asia as well as from non-Englishspeaking countries in Europe and the Middle East. Finally, although Canada's 1923 Immigration Act barred Chinese and most other Asians from immigrating (this was removed in 1962), Asians presently make up more than half (53%) of the immigrant population.

what do aliens look like today?

Notwithstanding the language in Emma Lazarus's famous poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty—"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free"—the vast majority of immigrants (at least legal immigrants) are not the "wretched refuse" referred to by Lazarus. Rather, immigrants often look much like the native population in terms of age, education, and professional status. This is true not only for those who are admitted on the basis of possessing certain kinds of job skills but also to a certain extent for those who are immigrating for family reunification purposes as well. For example, the median age of the foreign born population who entered the United States between 1980 and 1990 was 28.0 years, whereas the native-born population was 32.5 years. Although 37 percent of the immigrant population did not finish high school before coming to the United States, 26 percent of both native and immigrant populations held at least a bachelor's degree, although immigrants are twice as likely to hold a doctorate as native-born Americans.


One of the longstanding concerns of receiving states is that immigrants groups will not assimilate and will not become "members" of their new country. In upholding restrictions directed against Chinese nationals in the case of Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889), the U.S. Supreme Court accused Chinese immigrants of remaining "strangers" in their new country, "residing apart by themselves, and adhering to the customs and usages of their own country. It seemed impossible for them to assimilate." Certainly, Chinese migration no longer looks anything like this—if, in fact, it ever did look like this. However, the rates in which immigrants naturalize (or become citizens in their new country) vary widely. In Australia only 50 percent of the immigrants from English-speaking countries take Australian citizenship compared with 80 to 90 percent for all other immigrant groups. In the United States, the highest rates of naturalization are from immigrants from Asia and Africa, and the lowest rates are from the neighboring nations of Canada and Mexico.

illegal immigration

Legal migration constitutes only one segment of the worldwide migration phenomenon. In addition to this, many developed countries have a sizeable (although that size is seldom known) population of undocumented aliens. In the United States in the mid-1980s the undocumented alien population was estimated somewhere between 5 and 16 million. This, in turn, prompted passage of the Immigration Reform Control Act of 1986 (IRCA), which granted legal status to millions of illegal aliens who had been living in the United States. Also as part of this act, the government instituted a program of employer sanctions that made it a federal crime to employ illegal aliens. Supporters of IRCA claimed that it would eliminate illegal migration to the United States. However, it has been ineffective, and there are presently millions of illegal aliens in the United States.

asylum seekers

As noted previously, most countries do not see themselves as immigrant states. Because of this, many foreign nationals seek entry as asylum seekers. In Western Europe these numbers have increased exponentially. Great Britain is typical of this phenomenon. In 1979 there were only 1,600 applicants for asylum.

This number increased to 30,000 in 1990 and then 44,000 in 1991. In 1999 there were 71,000 applications. In 1996, 40 percent of the asylum applications were from Africa, 35 percent from Asians, and 25 percent by Europeans (mainly those fleeing from the fighting in the former Yugoslavia), although it is noteworthy that more than half of the successful grants came from the latter group.

One of the great challenges now facing Western states is the large numbers of individuals from poor and violent states that continue to attempt to immigrate, much like Westerners did not so long ago.

See also: Citizenship; Naturalization.


Adler, Leonore Loeb, and Uwe P. Gielen, eds. Immigration: Immigration and Emigration in International Perspective. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.

Alienikoff, T. Alexander, David Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura. Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. 5th ed. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing, 2003.

Borjas, George J. Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Castles, Stephen. Ethnicity and Globalization: From Migrant Workers to Transnational Citizen. London: Sage, 2000.

Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 U.S. 581 (1889).

Lynch, James P., and Rita Simon. Immigration the World Over: Statutes, Policies, and Practices. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.

Pickus, Noah M., ed. Immigration and Citizenship in the 21st Century. Lanham, MD Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.

Portes, Alejandro, and Ruben G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. 2nd ed Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996.

Linda Cornett,

Mark Gibney

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Immigration and Immigrants