Immigration to the United States

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The United States of America has had a long history of immigration, from the first Spanish and English settlers to arrive on the shores of the what would become the United States to the waves of immigrants from Europe in the 19th century to immigration in the present day. Throughout American history immigration has caused controversy.

Historical immigration

Colonial-era immigration to North America

According to the source, The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy by Kory L. Meyerink and Loretto Dennis Szucs, the following were the countries of origin for immigrants coming to the United States before 1790:

Group Immigrants before 1790
Africa 360,000 (almost all as slaves)
England 230,000
Ulster 135,000
Germany 103,000
Scotland 48,500
Ireland 8,000
Netherlands 6,000
Wales 4,000
France 3,000
Jews 2,000
Sweden 500

Early immigration laws prevented Asians and Africans from entering the USA legally (except as chattels in the latter case). For most Europeans, however, immigration was relatively free and unrestricted until the 1800s and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Voluntary migration from Europe

The population of the colonies that later became the United States grew from zero Europeans in the mid-1500s to 3.2 million Europeans and 700,000 African slaves in 1790. At that time, it is estimated that 3/4 of the population were of British descent with Germans forming the second-largest free ethnic group and making up some 7% of the population.

Between 1629 and 1640 some 20,000 Puritans emigrated from England, most settling in the New England area of North America. In an event known as the Great Migration, these people became the Yankees of New England, who later spread out to New York and the Upper Midwest.

From 1609 to 1664, some 8,000 Dutch settlers peopled the New Netherlands, which later became New York and New Jersey.

Between 1645 and 1670, some 45,000 Royalists and/or indentured servants left England to work in the Middle Colonies and Virginia.

From about 1675 to 1715, the Quakers made their move, leaving the Midlands and North England behind for Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. The Quaker movement became one of the largest religious presences in early colonial America.

Germans migrated early into several colonies but mostly to Pennsylvania, where they made up a third of the population by the time of the Revolution.

Between about 1710 and 1775, around 135,000 Irish people left Ulster (the northern province of Ireland) and settled in western Pennsylvania, Appalachia and the western frontier: these places later would become Kentucky and Tennessee.

See also: European colonization of the Americas

Unfree labor: Slave trade, indentured servitude and convict shipments

The majority of African slaves came to the future United States before it gained independence. The numbers remain less than clear, but it is believed that some 300,000 slaves arrived in the British North American colonies before Independence, and some 100,000 were imported in the period between the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War. The slave trade was made illegal in 1808, upon the expiration of a constitutional clause prohibiting such a law (Article 1, section 9).

A large number of indentured servants, from the British Isles, Ireland and Continental Europe (especially Germany), came to the future United States during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with the bulk arriving in the half-century before 1776. Most served terms of four to fourteen years and arrived in the colonies of Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia.

And while history tends to emphasize the British shipment of convicts to its Australian colony, some 50,000 European convicts also crossed the seas to North America in an earlier penal transportation system between 1700 and 1770.

About 1.8 million Irish immigrated to North America during the Great Potato Famine

Immigration 1790 to 1849

Germans made up almost one-tenth of the population of the country by the end of the 18th century. At least 500,000 Germans immigrated in the first half of the 19th century. 20,000 came in the years 1816-1817, fleeing a famine. Some 61,000 fled to America after the failed Revolutions of 1848.

Immigration 1850 to 1930

The 1850 United States census was the first federal U.S. census to query about the "nativity" of citizens—where they were born, either in the United States or outside of it—and is thus the first point at which solid statistics become available. From the US Census[1], this chart shows the place of birth of the non-native population. Note that the same immigrant will be counted in each census during which they lived, so the numbers are of the cumulative number of living non-native citizens.

Country or area 1930 1920 1910 1900 1890 1880 1870 1860 1850 Line
1          Total 14,204,149 13,920,692 13,515,886 10,341,276 9,249,547 6,679,943 5,567,229 4,138,697 2,244,602 1
3     Europe 11,784,010 11,916,048 11,810,115 8,881,548 8,030,347 5,751,823 4,941,049 3,807,062 2,031,867 3
4         Northern and Western Europe 5,850,256 6,241,916 7,306,325 7,204,649 7,288,917 5,499,889 4,845,679 3,773,347 2,022,195 4
5             Northern Europe 3,415,551 3,501,149 3,953,947 3,917,815 4,056,160 3,212,431 2,867,926 2,271,661 1,358,887 5
6                British Isles 2,147,733 2,172,723 2,573,534 2,783,082 3,122,911 2,772,169 2,626,241 2,199,079 1,340,812 6
7                    United Kingdom 1,402,923 (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) 7
8                        Great Britain 1,224,091 1,135,489 1,221,283 1,167,623 1,251,402 917,598 770,414 587,775 379,093 8
9                            England 809,563 813,853 877,719 840,513 908,141 662,676 550,924 431,692 278,675 9
10                            Scotland 354,323 254,570 261,076 233,524 242,231 170,136 140,835 108,518 70,550 10
11                            Wales 60,205 67,066 82,488 93,586 100,079 83,302 74,533 45,763 29,868 11
12                            Great Britain n.e.c. (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 951 1,484 4,122 1,802 (NA) 12
13                        Northern Ireland 178,832 (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) (X) 13
14                    Ireland 744,810 1,037,234 1,352,251 1,615,459 1,871,509 1,854,571 1,855,827 1,611,304 961,719 14
15                Scandinavia 1,267,818 1,328,426 1,380,413 1,134,733 933,249 440,262 241,685 72,582 18,075 15
16                    Denmark 179,474 189,154 181,649 153,690 132,543 64,196 30,107 9,962 1,838 16
17                    Finland 142,478 149,824 129,680 62,641 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 17
18                    Iceland 2,764 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 18
19                    Norway 347,852 363,863 403,877 336,388 322,665 181,729 114,246 43,995 12,678 19
20                    Sweden 595,250 625,585 665,207 582,014 478,041 194,337 97,332 18,625 3,559 20
21             Western Europe 2,434,705 2,740,767 3,352,378 3,286,834 3,232,757 2,287,458 1,977,753 1,501,686 663,308 21
22                Low countries 206,375 207,038 172,534 127,719 107,349 86,461 65,157 37,353 11,161 22
23                    Belgium 64,194 62,687 49,400 29,757 22,639 15,535 12,553 9,072 1,313 23
24                    Luxembourg 9,048 12,585 3,071 3,031 2,882 12,836 5,802 (NA) (NA) 24
25                    Netherlands 133,133 131,766 120,063 94,931 81,828 58,090 46,802 28,281 9,848 25
26                Austria 370,914 575,627 626,341 275,907 123,271 38,663 30,508 25,061 946 26
27                France 135,592 153,072 117,418 104,197 113,174 106,971 116,402 109,870 54,069 27
28                Germany 1,608,814 1,686,108 2,311,237 2,663,418 2,784,894 1,966,742 1,690,533 1,276,075 583,774 28
29                Switzerland 113,010 118,659 124,848 115,593 104,069 88,621 75,153 53,327 13,358 29
30                Other Western Europe (NA) 263 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 30
31         Southern and Eastern Europe 5,918,982 5,670,927 4,500,932 1,674,648 728,851 248,620 93,824 32,312 9,672 31
32             Southern Europe 2,133,092 1,939,600 1,544,149 539,968 216,387 66,249 30,416 21,726 8,152 32
33                Greece 174,526 175,976 101,282 8,515 1,887 776 390 328 86 33
34                Italy 1,790,429 1,610,113 1,343,125 484,027 182,580 44,230 17,157 11,677 3,679 34
35                Portugal 108,775 103,976 77,634 40,376 25,735 15,650 8,973 5,477 1,274 35
36                    Azores 35,611 33,995 18,274 9,768 9,739 7,512 4,431 1,361 (NA) 36
37                    Portugal 73,164 69,981 59,360 30,608 15,996 8,138 4,542 4,116 1,274 37
38                Spain 59,362 49,535 22,108 7,050 6,185 5,121 3,764 4,244 3,113 38
39                Other Southern Europe (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 472 132 (NA) (NA) 39
40             Eastern Europe 3,785,890 3,731,327 2,956,783 1,134,680 512,464 182,371 63,408 10,586 1,520 40
43                Czechoslovakia 491,638 362,438 219,214 156,891 118,106 85,361 40,289 (NA) (NA) 43
45                Hungary 274,450 397,283 495,609 145,714 62,435 11,526 3,737 (NA) (NA) 45
47                Lithuania 193,606 135,068 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 47
48                Poland 1,268,583 1,139,979 937,884 383,407 147,440 48,557 14,436 7,298 (NA) 48
49                Romania 146,393 102,823 65,923 15,032 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 49
50                Soviet Union 1,153,628 1,400,495 1,184,412 423,726 182,644 35,722 4,644 3,160 1,414 50
51                Turkey in Europe 2,257 5,284 32,230 9,910 1,839 1,205 302 128 106 51
52                Yugoslavia 211,416 169,439 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 52
55     Asia 275,665 237,950 191,484 120,248 113,383 107,630 64,565 36,796 1,135 55
56         Armenia 32,166 36,628 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 56
57         China 1/ 46,129 43,560 56,756 81,534 106,688 104,468 63,042 35,565 758 57
58         India 5,850 4,901 4,664 2,031 2,143 1,707 586 (NA) (NA) 58
59         Japan 70,993 81,502 67,744 24,788 2,292 401 73 (NA) (NA) 59
61         Syria 57,227 51,901 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 61
62         Turkey in Asia 46,654 11,019 59,729 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) 62
64     Africa 18,326 16,126 3,992 2,538 2,207 2,204 2,657 526 551 64
67     Oceania 17,343 14,626 11,450 8,820 9,353 6,859 4,028 2,140 588 67
71     Latin America 791,840 588,843 279,514 137,458 107,307 90,073 57,871 38,315 20,773 71
72         Caribbean 106,241 78,962 47,635 25,435 23,256 16,401 11,570 7,353 5,772 72
73             Cuba 18,493 14,872 15,133 11,081 (NA) 6,917 5,319 (NA) (NA) 73
75         Central America 651,976 491,330 223,651 107,290 79,045 69,106 42,736 27,699 13,458 75
76             Mexico 641,462 486,418 221,915 103,393 77,853 68,399 42,435 27,466 13,317 76
77             Other Central America 10,514 4,912 1,736 3,897 1,192 707 301 233 141 77
78         South America 33,623 18,551 8,228 4,733 5,006 4,566 3,565 3,263 1,543 78
79     Canada 1,310,369 1,138,174 1,209,717 1,179,922 980,938 717,286 493,467 249,970 147,711 79

Immigration in Detail

Between 1850 and 1930 about 5 million Germans immigrated to the United States with a peak in the years between 1881 and 1885, when a million Germans left Germany and settled mostly in the Midwest.

Between 1840 and 1930, about 900,000 French Canadians left Canada to emigrate to the United States and settled mainly in New England. Given the French-Canadian population at the time, this was a massive exodus. 13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestry in the 1980 census. Indeed, a large proportion of them have ancestors who emigrated from French Canada.

The years 1910 to 1920 were the highpoint of Italian immigration to the United States. Over 2 million Italians immigrated in those years, with a total of 5.3 million immigrating between 1820 and 1980.

About 1 million Swedes immigrated to the United States within this period, due to famine, poverty and religious oppression in Sweden. This accounted for around 20% of the total population of Sweden at that time. Most of them where from the southern parts of Sweden and settled mainly in the Midwest after their arrival in America. Minnesota in particular has a large proportion of people with Swedish ancestry.

From 1880 to 1924, around 2 million Jews moved to the United States, mostly fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe. After the 1920s Jews who tried to flee Nazi Germany were often denied access to the United States, highlighted by the tragedy of the S.S. St. Louis.

Laws concerning immigration and naturalization

The first naturalization law in the United States was the 1795 Naturalization Act which restricted citizenship to "free white persons" who had resided in the country for five years. The next significant change in the law came in 1870, when the law was broadened to allow both Whites and African-Americans, though Asians were still excluded from citizenship. Immigration was otherwise unlimited.

In 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act specifically forbade Chinese immigration, overturning the 1868 Burlingame Treaty which had encouraged it. The "temporary" ban was extended repeatedly and made permanent in 1904. It was the culmination of decades of agitation, particularly by Californians, who had passed their own Anti-Coolie Act in 1862. The ban was deeply resented but was not repealed until 1943, and only then to reward a wartime ally. In order to avoid the same humiliation, the Empire of Japan negotiated the Gentlemen's Agreement in 1907, a protocol that required Japan to prevent her citizens from emigrating to the U.S. in exchange for better treatment of those already living there.

Congress also banned persons because of their health, beliefs, or lack of education. An 1882 law banned entry of "lunatics" and infectious disease carriers, and the 1901 Anarchist Exclusion Act kept people out because of their political beliefs. A literacy requirement was added in Immigration Act of 1917.

On May 19, 1921, the United States Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act establishing national quotas on immigration. The quotas were based on the number of foreign-born residents of each nationality who were living in the United States as of the 1910 census. A more complex quota plan replaced this "emergency" system under the Immigration Act of 1924. One major change was that the reference census used was changed to that of 1890, which greatly reduced the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Immigrants from most of the Western Hemisphere, however, were admitted outside the quota system.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act) revised the quotas again, basing them on the 1920 census. For the first time in history racial distinctions were omitted from the U.S. Code. Nevertheless, most of the quota allocation still went to immigrants from Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany. Its anti-subversive powers are still in force and have been used to bar the entry of countless individuals based upon their political expressions.

The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 (the Hart-Cellar Act) abolished the system of national-origin quotas. There was for the first time a limitation on Western Hemisphere immigration (120,000 per year), with the Eastern Hemisphere limited to 170,000. Most of these numbers were allocated to immigrants who were relatives of United States citizens.

In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed, creating for the first time penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants. IRCA also contained an amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the United States, and mandated the intensification of the activities of the United States Border Patrol, increasing the militarization of the US-Mexico border.

By one account, the actual number of annual legal immigrants was estimated at 500,000 to 600,000 in 1989, subsequently increased and is now well over 1 million, not including illegal migration or temporary work visas.

Several pieces of legislation signed into law in 1996 marked a turn towards harsher policies for both legal and illegal immigrants. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act vastly increased the categories of criminal activity for which immigrants, including green card holders, can be deported and imposed mandatory detention for certain types of deportation cases. As a result, well over 1,000,000 individuals have been deported since 1996.

See also: List of United States Immigration Acts

Contemporary immigration

Contemporary immigrants settle very predominantly in seven states: California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. The combined total immigrant population of these seven states formed 70% of the total foreign-born population as of 2000.

There are a number of discernable categories of immigrants to the United States, each with unique and shared issues.

Legal immigration

Advocates of reduction in legal immigration include both those that want an overall reduction in immigration and those that want the U.S. to adopt a skills or economically-based immigration policy more similar to that of Canada or New Zealand, as well as others that want the U.S. to return to an immigration policy that focuses more on immigrants from European countries of a more similar cultural basis or level of economic development as the United States.

Work visas

There are a number of employment-based temporary (described as "nonimmigrant" by the USCIS) and permanent ("immigrant") categories, including the following:


The H-1B classification is for professional-level jobs that require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in a specific academic field. In addition, the employee must have the degree or the equivalence of such a degree through education and experience. Before the H-1B petition can be filed with Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the employer must file a “Labor Condition Application (LCA) with the Department of Labor demonstrating that it is paying the required wage for this position in the geographic region where the job is located. The required wage for the position is the higher of the “actual wage” that is paid to other employees in this position or the “prevailing wage” which is determined by government surveys and the state labor office offices.

As a general rule, a person who is in one nonimmigrant status may not change status or change employers in that status until he or she applies with USCIS for a such a change, and such change is granted. However, a provision called “H-1B portability” permits certain individuals already in the United States in H-1B status to commence employment for a new employer once a new employer’s H-1B petition is filed with USCIS.

At the dawn of the 21st century, the controversy revived when many high-tech and software-engineering workers started to arrive from abroad on "H-1B" visas. H-1b expansion was widely unpopular, but was supported by a number of different groups, including campaign donations from corporate interests and from persons who support the arrival of persons from abroad who are highly skilled. Critics claimed that these visas decreased the wages of American citizens, displaced American citizens, enabled corporations to enforce extreme workplace discipline and get around laws concerning working conditions, created national security problems and increased the risk of transmitting new diseases to the United States. However, except for isolated cases of abuse, these fears are mostly unwarranted. In order to obtain an H-1B visa, the employer must show that it will pay the higher of the prevailing local wage or the wage it pays other U.S. who have similar education and experience. The employer is not required to prove there are no American workers available to perform the work unless the employer has a high percentage of current workers in H-1B status ("H-1B dependent"). Also, it is illogical to belive that foreign workers pose more of a threat of disease than ordinary tourists. However, some economists saw H-1b expansion as an assault on the American middle class that benefited the wealthy and made it impossible to maintain traditional American standards of living, or provide incentives to improve productivity as rapidly as nations like Japan with more restrictive immigration policies.

The companies who imported the workers usually argued that the U.S. lacked enough American citizens to do the work. A few economists argued that, whatever the truth of that assertion, importing the workers provided more benefits to the U.S., and otherwise the recruiting companies would simply offshore the entire operation. It was claimed this would likely prove worse for the U.S. economy as a whole, because in the first scenario foreign national workers living in the United States would at least spend money in the United States, while the multi-national corporations that would purportedly export the jobs to overseas locations would probably not pass down as much of the savings to the U.S. consumer who purchased for them.

L-1 intracompany transferee

The L-1 classification is for international transferees who have worked for a related organization abroad for at least one year in the past three years that will be coming to the United States to work in an executive or managerial (L-1A) or specialized knowledge capacity (L-1B).

To qualify as an international executive, the employee must meet the following requirements:

  • Direct the management of the organization or a major component or function;
  • Establish the goals and policies of the organization, component, or function;
  • Exercise wide latitude in discretionary decision-making; and
  • Receive only general supervision or direction from higher-level executives, the board of directors, or stockholders of the organization.

To qualify as an international manager, the employee must meet the following requirements:

  • Manage the organization or department, subdivision, function or component of the organization;
  • Supervise and control the work of other supervisory, professional or managerial employees, or manage an essential function within the organization, or a department or subdivision of the organization;
  • The authority to hire and fire, or recommend hire/fire and other personnel actions (such as promotion and leave authorization), or if no employees are directly supervised, functions at a senior level within the organizational hierarchy or with respect to the function managed; and
    • Exercises discretion over the day-to-day operations of the activity or function for which the employee has authority.

To qualify as a specialized knowledge transferee, the employee must meet the following requirements:

  • Possess knowledge of the company product and its application in international markets; or
  • An advanced level of knowledge of processes and procedures of the company.

An employee has specialized knowledge if the knowledge is different from that generally found in the particular industry. Possible characteristics of an employee who possesses specialized knowledge including knowledge that is valuable to the employers competitiveness in the market place; knowledge of foreign operating conditions as a result of special knowledge not generally found in the industry; has worked abroad in a capacity involving significant assignments which have enhanced the employer’s productivity, competitiveness, image or financial position; possesses knowledge which normally can be gained only through prior experience with that employer; or possesses knowledge of a product or process which cannot be easily transferred or taught to another individual.

TN Visa (TN-1) for Canadians/Mexicans to work in the United States

General Information about TN Status Since the effective date of January 1, 1994, (NAFTA) facilitates travel to and employment in the United States (U.S.) of certain Canadian and Mexican workers. NAFTA created TN classification for eligible Canadian and Mexican professional workers and affected terms of Canadians’ admissions to the U.S. under other classifications. A TN position must require services of a NAFTA professional whose profession is noted in Appendix 1603.D.1 (see attached Appendix 1603.D.1); the TN employee must possess the credentials required as well as proof of qualifying citizenship. TN status allows unlimited multiple entries to the U.S. for the period of service required by the U.S. employer (includes foreign employers), up to a maximum of one year, extendible indefinitely as long as the temporary purpose of the employment continues.

There is no annual limit on Canadians granted TN status.

Self-Employment in the U.S. Not Permitted TN: Members of Appendix 1603.D.1 professions who are self-employed outside the U.S. may pursue business relationships from outside the U.S. (e.g. contracts for services) with U.S.-based companies and obtain TN status to engage in these prearranged activities in the U.S. However, under TN classification an alien is not permitted to come to the United States to engage in self-employment in the United States, nor to render services to a corporation or other entity in which he/she is a controlling owner or shareholder. Other NAFTA Admissions Categories Nationals Canada and Mexico may also seek admission as B-1 (business visitor), E-1 (treaty trader), E-2 (treaty investor), or L-1 (intra-company transferee) nonimmigrants under NAFTA. This bulletin does not address those alternatives.

TN Processing and Admissions Procedure Canadians may apply for TN-1 classification directly at a U.S. Class “A” port-of-entry, at a U.S. airport handling international traffic, or at a U.S. pre-flight/pre-clearance station in Canada1. Documentation must include:

  • Proof of Canadian citizenship,
  • $50 filing fee,
  • Proof of required Appendix 1603.D credentials; and
  • Letter from U.S. employer (or a sending employer in Canada) describing nature and duration of professional employment and salary/wages in the U.S2.

Canadian citizens are visa exempt and do not need consular visas to travel or apply for admission to the U.S. TN-1 applicants at land ports-of-entry must also pay a modest I-94 fee.

TN-2 non-immigrants from Mexico must be approved beneficiaries of I-129 petitions filed by prospective US employers and approved by the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Nebraska Service Center. Documentation must include:

  • Proof of Mexican citizenship,
  • Form ETA-90353 Labor Condition Attestation (LCA) certified by the US Labor Department,
  • $130 filing fee,
  • Proof of the purpose for entry, and proof of participation in a permitted NAFTA professional activity.

Mexicans applying for admission to the US under TN-2 classification must obtain visas at US consulates. Note that the above requirements will sunset on December 31, 2003. On and after January 1, 2004, Mexican TNs will file the necessary paperwork with a Department of State Consulate in Mexico in order to receive a TN visa. Visit the Department of State web site for more information on the procedures Mexican citizens must follow in order to obtain a TN visa.

Family Members Spouses and unmarried children under 21 of Canadian and Mexican professionals obtain TD status. They can be included on the application of the TN principal (no separate filing fees) and admitted for the same duration of stay. TD nonimmigrants may study in the US under this classification, but are not authorized for employment. Canadian dependents’ eligibility may be adjudicated at a US port-of-entry. Although Mexican family members are automatically included in TN petitions filed at the Nebraska Service Center, they must file separate application for TD visas at US consulates. Note: Dependents are not required to be Canadian or Mexican citizens.

K Visa for Immediate Relatives

United States citizens or legal permanent residents (LPR) may petition the USCIS for a K temporary visa for fiancé(e)s, spouses and unmarried dependant children of said fiancé(e)s and spouses. In the case of fiancé(e)s, this K-1 visa will allow them to stay in the United States for 120 days to marry the petitioning citizen or LPR and apply for an adjustment of status to legal permanent resident. In the case of spouses, the K-3 visa is valid for two years and may be extended indefinitely as long as the marriage on which it is based is not dissolved. The holders of K-3 and K-4 status are eligible for work authorization and may leave and re-enter the United States as long as their visas are still valid.

Adjustment of Status

Adjustment of status is the final step of what is commonly called the green card process, i.e. that of becoming a legal permanent resident. It requires that the foreign national in question file an I-485 Application for Adjustment of Status, most often based on a preexisting and approved or approvable I-140 Immigrant Petition for Alien Worker or I-130 Petition for Alien Relative. (Due to comprehensive immigration reform in 2002, I-485 applications and I-130 or I-140 petitions may be filed concurrently given the immediate availability of an immigrant visa number.) The application must be filed with an I-693 Medical Examination of Alien issued by a licensed Civil Surgeon and a G-325A Biographic Information form, which documents provide a complete medical and immunological history as well as a record of the foreign national's place of employment and residence for the last five years. The USCIS then sets a date for the foreign national to have their fingerprints, picture and signature recorded for their FBI background check and entry in the USCIS database. An interview with a USCIS officer may also be required, depending on the circumstances of each case.

A pending adjustment of status application entitles the applicant to work and travel authorization in the forms of an Employment Authorization Document (EAD) card and Advance Parole documents that must be renewed on a yearly basis. The application may be considered abandoned if the applicant does not attend a biometrics appointment or interview. Applications may also be denied for any of the following reasons:

  1. The underlying immigrant petition is denied or withdrawn
  2. The applicant is found to have entered or resided in the United States illegally
  3. The applicant is judged as undesirable on the grounds of prior criminal convictions, affiliation with unsuitable political parties or organizations (e.g. former members of the Communist Party), poor character or debilitating health problems

If an adjustment application is approved, a permanent residency card valid for ten years is issued to the applicant. Legal permanent residents are free to work and reside in the United States and may leave and re-enter without a visa. After five years for employment-based adjustments and three years for family-based, LPRs are eligible to apply for naturalization.

Political asylum

In contrast to economic refugees, who generally do not gain legal admission, other classes of refugees can gain legal status through a process of seeking and receiving political asylum, either by being designated a refugee while abroad or by physially entering the United States and requesting asylee status thereafter.

Asylum is offered as part of the United States' obligation under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Under these agreements, a refugee is a person who is outside his or her country of nationality (or place of habitual residence if stateless) who, owing to a fear of persecution on account of a protected ground, is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of the state. Protected grounds include race, nationality, religion, political opinion and membership of a particular social group. The signatories to these agreements are obliged not to return or "refoul" refugees to the place where they would face persecution.

Advocates of refugee protection claim that for the most part, such persons are fleeing warfare; escaping persecution based on political or religious beliefs; or are victims of torture in their countries of origin. Critics claim the process has been widely abused and large numbers of people claim persecution simply to obtain the benefits of living in the United States. Some asylum cases have been also granted based on sexual orientation or gender, where cultural norms of the home country create and sustain conditions that make life unsafe or unbearable for the individual. As of 2004, recipients of political asylum faced a wait of 14 years to receive permanent resident status after receiving their initial asylee status, because of an annual cap of 10,000 green cards for this class of individuals.

Miscellaneous legal immigration

Member of Congress may submit private bills granting residency to specific named individuals. A special committee vets the requests, which require extensive documentation. Congress has bestowed the title of "Honorary Citizen of the United States" to six people. The only two living recipients were Winston Churchill and Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (Mother Teresa), the other instances were posthumous honors.

The Central Intelligence Agency has the statutory authority to admit up to one hundred people a year outside of normal immigration procedures, and to provide for their settlement and support. The program is called "PL110" after the legislation that created the agency, Public Law 110, the Central Intelligence Agency Act.

Illegal immigration

One consequence of laws restricting the number and ethnicity of persons entering the USA is a phenomenon referred to as illegal immigration, in which persons enter a country and obtain work without legal sanction. In some cases, this is accomplished by entering the country legally with a visa, and then simply choosing not to leave upon expiration of the visa. In other cases people enter the country surreptitiously without ever obtaining a visa. Often, people entering in this fashion are economic refugees—a class of refugee not recognized by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the Immigration and Naturalization Service); these persons have left their home country in a desperate bid to provide financial support for themselves and/or their families. This is particularly true in cases where "minimum wage" in the U.S. is several times what the average laborer earns in a given country; such immigrants often send large portions of their income to their countries and families of origin.

Much of the controversy today with immigration to the U.S. involves an increasing number of activists calling for a reduction in illegal immigration. Critics of these activists say that those who call for an end to "illegal immigration" really advocate an end to all immigration, but do not realize it. Two claims made against immigration reduction activists by those opposed to restrictions on immigration are:

  1. All the problems associated with illegal immigration (race to the bottom in wages, etc.) also apply almost equally to legal immigrants.
  2. They allegedly misunderstand the immigration process and do not realize that many immigrant workers who they see as replacing American citizens in jobs they can do have immigrated completely legally, albeit without citizenship (this number exceeds the number of illegal immigrants on a per-country basis).

On the other hand, immigration reductionists make the point that illegal immigrants do not pay income taxes, social security taxes, or other taxes collected only from citizens with social security numbers, yet those illegal immigrants do utilize the services and structures paid for by public money.

Political issues surrounding immigration

Debates over immigration numbers

In recent years a debate has arisen over the effect of high immigration levels into the United States on such issues as labor, wages, and ecology. A movement has emerged which supports lower levels of legal and illegal immigration into the U.S. The most important of these groups is the Federation for American Immigration Reform. See: immigration reduction. There is also the issue of illegal immigrants coming to the US and giving birth, thus having children who are American citizens. This further taxes already overburdened services.

Immigration in popular culture

The history of immigration to the United States of America is, according to the claims of some, the history of the United States itself and the journey from beyond the sea is an element found in the American myth, appearing over and over again in everything from The Godfather to "The Song of Myself" to Neil Diamond's "America" to the animated feature An American Tail.


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See also

External links


Immigration policy

Current immigration

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