The Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886 as a tribute to the freedom and opportunity that the New World represented. The stirring inscription describes the then-popular view of the United States as a place of refuge and hope. Yet only four years prior, the first immigration restrictions had been passed by Congress. A refuge the New World might be, provided that one was not a former criminal, a pauper, or arriving from China.
Nonetheless, over 18 million new Americans arrived by 1910. At that time, an estimated 15% of all Americans were new immigrants. Gradually, new and tougher immigration laws were implemented, many of which had the effect (unintended or not) of effectively limiting immigration to those from Western European nations, particularly the UK.
Immigration law in the United States changed dramatically with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. This new law abolished quotas based on national origin, and also gave preference to immigrants with needed job skills.
By the 1980s, there was growing concern over the number of illegal immigrants in the workforce. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 imposed penalties for the first time on employers who intentionally hired illegal immigrants.
The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 radically changed the immigration debate in the U.S., putting national security at the forefront of public concern, and especially border security. Racial profiling concerns were weighed against concerns about the threat of terrorism as young Middle Eastern men were routinely detained for security screening.
The Current Wave
The United States is currently in the middle of the largest wave of immigration since the turn of the 20th century. An estimated one in ten United States residents today is a new immigrant. Today, the majority of immigrants are from Latin America and Asia. Among these recent immigrants, an estimated 275,000 each year are arrive illegally. The debate over illegal immigration and proposed “amnesty” programs is one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics today.