Immigration in the U.S. : Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Last updated on June 11th, 2024 at 11:54 am

Wherever there have been humans, there has always been immigration. There are many popular theories about the origin of humans. Some speculate that as a species, we originated in a single point and slowly migrated to populate different parts of the planet, long before the concept of countries or borders even existed. This goes the same for Immigration in the U.S.

You could say immigration is a massive part of the human experience. Here at Remitly, we believe in immigration in every sense of the word. It’s a means for improving lives, pursuing dreams, and diversifying our global communities.

In this post, we’ll explore the topic of immigration by discussing its history and benefits for both immigrants and the United States. Read on to learn more and discover helpful resources for immigrants navigating a new chapter.

A brief history of immigration to the U.S.

Before the more recent waves of European settlers, Viking explorers reached North America in 1000 A.D., landing in Canada’s Newfoundland. Vikings stayed in the region for at least 500 years before returning to Greenland.

During the late 16th century and early 17th century, the Americas were rife with colonizers from Great Britain, Spain, and France occupying territories primarily in the northern region of the Americas. All of them were immigrants by today’s standards.

The British Royal Crown ruled the first thirteen American colonies for several decades, but soon residents established their local governments. Elections largely determined who would fill essential roles.

As Britain sought more control over territories, the settlers resisted and fought for their independence during what is now known as the American Revolutionary War. The colonies officially declared independence in 1776 as a group of colonial immigrants founded the United States of America.

The U.S. became known worldwide as a land of opportunity, and the promise of a better life inspired others to immigrate to the U.S. over the next three centuries. During the 19th and 20th centuries, most came from Italy, Ireland, England, Germany, Hungary, and Poland to pass through Ellis Island off the coast of New York City for processing.

19th and 20th centuries

Immigration in the U.S.

In 1886, the people of France gifted the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of friendship between the two countries for the U.S. centennial celebration. The statue has stood within view of Ellis Island ever since.

By 1910, there were over 13.5 million legal immigrants in the United States. World War I and World War II brought more immigrants to the United States. Labor shortages resulted from World War II, so the Bracero Program of 1942 allowed Mexican laborers into the U.S. to fill jobs.

As the Holocaust swept through Europe, private citizens and religious organizations began helping resettle refugees seeking asylum in the United States. Their efforts inspired the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, representing the first refugee legislation in the United States.

Each decade that followed brought immigrants from new parts of the world. People came to the U.S. from Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and India, African nations like Nigeria, and Central and South American countries like Brazil and Guatemala.

As immigration continued, the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government sought to improve the system.

Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — a landmark for proponents of diversity in the United States because it abolished a quota system that only allowed a certain number of immigrants and refugees. This new preference system reunited immigrant families and attracted immigrants who were highly-skilled workers to boost the economy of the United States.

In 2012, President Barack Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protects children of illegal immigrants from deportation but doesn’t provide U.S. citizenship or a path to naturalization.

Immigration in the U.S. today

Immigration in the U.S.

The history of immigration in the United States has led us to our present moment. Although immigrants in search of the American dream arrive, the country hasn’t done much to improve or reform the immigration system since the 1960s.

Most people agree that things need to be done to change how immigration works, but so far, lawmakers have struggled to work together to come up with viable solutions. Let’s look at the current state of immigration in the United States.

How many immigrants came to the U.S. in 2022?

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted nearly every facet of life in the U.S., and immigration is no exception. On March 20, 2020, President Donald Trump initiated Title 42, a policy that requires asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S. southern border to remain in Mexico or return to their home countries while the government processes their claims. Additional restrictions on international travel further hindered immigration.

Although Title 42 remained in effect throughout 2022, other restrictions eased. In 2022, more than 1 million immigrants came from the U.S., primarily from China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Due to a slowing of emigration, the U.S. saw the highest level of net migration between the U.S. and other countries since 2017. Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Texas were the most popular states for immigrants to settle in.

More than 900,000 immigrants already in the country became U.S. citizens in 2022. The total number of newly naturalized citizens was the highest since 2008 and the third highest since the country’s founding.

How many immigrants are allowed in the U.S. each year?

The Immigration and Nationality Act allows the U.S. to issue up to 675,000 permanent immigrant visas annually. This number gets divided across all American visa categories, except for family reunification visas. There are no limits on issuing permanent visas for U.S. citizens’ spouses, parents, and immigrant children under the age of 21.

Refugees also don’t fall under permanent immigrant visa limits. Instead, the President and Congress establish annual ceilings for refugee admissions from certain countries. In 2021, the limits from various regions were:

  • Africa: 22,000
  • East Asia: 6,000
  • Europe and Central Asia: 4,000
  • Latin America/Caribbean: 5,000
  • Near East/South Asia: 13,000

The 2021 policy also allowed 12,500 additional refugees from anywhere in the world to enter on a case-by-case basis — 62,500 refugees during the year.

Why do people immigrate to the U.S.?

People immigrate to the U.S. for several reasons, including:

  • Work opportunities: Immigrants unable to find work in their home countries may travel to the U.S. for new opportunities. In some cases, employers seek foreign workers and sponsor them for H1-B visas that allow them to work in the U.S. temporarily. Other times, immigrants seek permanent residence in the U.S. to work or start their own businesses or side hustles legally.
  • Living conditions: Americans generally enjoy a higher standard of living than people in many other parts of the world. In some cases, fathers and mothers come to the U.S. and complete the naturalization process so their children can immigrate. Parents may also work abroad and send money home, so their families can achieve financial goals at home.
  • Education: Many people come to the U.S. to study. Some are here for a short period to learn English or participate in a cultural exchange program. Others receive student visas that allow them to remain in the country for years to complete degree programs.
  • Safety: People may choose to immigrate to escape persecution due to their religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Violence, wars, and natural disasters may also drive people from their homes.
  • Family: Reunification is a major reason for immigration. Newcomers may be joining a spouse, parent, or child who relocated to the U.S. or to get married.

How does immigration affect the U.S. economy?

Immigrants are vital to the U.S. economy and benefit the economic system by:

  • Preventing labor shortages: Population growth has slowed dramatically in the United States. However, the U.S. economy continues to grow. Immigrants can serve as the workers needed to prevent labor shortages.
  • Creating new jobs: Immigrants start new companies at twice the rate as U.S.-born people. Their businesses then go on to employ U.S. citizens.
  • Filling key jobs: Immigrants make up a large share of front-line workers in the United States. Immigrants are more than a third of people working in farming, fishing, and forestry, or building cleaning and maintenance. Plus, more than a fourth of all food manufacturing and construction workers were born outside the United States.
  • Supporting government programs: Immigrants pay taxes on wages to help support key government programs like Social Security and Medicare. With a large share of the native-born U.S. population aging and retiring, immigrants are vital to keeping these important programs going.

How are immigrants treated in the U.S. today?

What it means to be an American continues to change. In 2016, 60% of Republicans and 50% of Democrats said that being born in the U.S. was important to being “truly American,” but in 2020, the share of people who felt that way declined to 46% and 25%, respectively. These statistics point to the fact that as a whole, Americans are more open to immigrants than they were even just a few years ago.

Many cities and counties have taken steps to help immigrants feel safe in their communities. Through sanctuary policies, local governments limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement to build trust between law enforcement and immigrant populations. Some U.S. sanctuary cities provide financial, legal, and educational resources for immigrants.

Still, immigration remains a controversial topic in the U.S., and the opinions and attitudes of Americans vary greatly.

Generally, the biggest concern among Americans is the security and safety risks posed by illegal immigration. Nearly three-quarters of respondents in a 2022 study said that increased security on the United States-Mexico border was at least somewhat important.

At the same time, 72% said that it was somewhat important to allow children brought to the U.S. illegally as children to stay in America. A majority of people also thought that it was important to take in refugees, establish a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and make it easier to sponsor family members who wish to immigrate to the United States.

These statistics suggest that Americans are willing to welcome immigrants who come to the U.S. through legal channels.

Resources for immigrants to the U.S.

Many programs exist to help people deal with the challenges of immigration. If you’re a recent immigrant or considering immigration, resources are available through:

What’s ahead for immigration to the U.S.?

Immigration will undoubtedly continue to drive the U.S. economy and allow people worldwide to start new lives in the United States. Unfortunately, arguments over the details of the U.S. immigration system will also persist.

As of February 2023, Title 42 remained in place. When the program ends, the number of immigrants crossing the border will skyrocket.

Some lawmakers have proposed keeping the program in effect indefinitely while lawmakers work to reform the immigration system. It’s unlikely that this legislation will prove successful, but it’s unclear when Title 42 may end due to ongoing legal battles surrounding the policy.

Another area of contention is the DACA program. While protections were still in place for current DACA recipients, the U.S. government was not accepting new applications for the program as of February 2023. Many lawmakers support reinstating the program and creating a path to citizenship for DACA recipients.

Change in the Public Charge Rule

On December 23, 2022, President Joe Biden changed the Public Charge Rule to make it easier for people who receive public assistance for housing, healthcare, and other needs to obtain permanent residency. These changes may make it possible for more low-income individuals to receive a U.S. immigration visa.

In January 2023, the Biden administration announced expansions to the refugee program to allow more people from Cuba, Haiti, and Nicaragua to enter the United States. However, this program requires refugees to apply while still in their home countries and wait for a decision before arriving at the U.S. border. The federal government also launched an online portal to allow for faster processing of applications.

The measures taken in late 2022 and 2023 will help reform the immigration system, and we can remain hopeful that more positive changes are ahead.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding many issues related to immigration, immigrants should keep a close eye on U.S. immigration news updates. Staying informed about the current U.S. immigration policy in 2023 and beyond will ensure prospective immigrants know how to legally enter the U.S. to find work, pursue education, or reunite with family.