Immigrants and the United States

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Most people in the world will have to leave their homes, villages, towns, or cities at some point in their lives. For some, this will be a temporary move while they seek work or study in another part of the world. Others will need to escape conflict, economic hardship, or human rights abuses. Still, others are compelled to leave by environmental factors such as climate change or natural disasters. Together, these factors create a world in which millions of people are constantly on the move.

For most, the decision to migrate is not easy. The prospect of leaving their families, communities, and countries behind is frightening. But for many migrants, it is the only way to provide food and shelter for themselves and their children.

Immigration shapes the United States in profound ways, from demographics and economy to culture and politics. Over the centuries, four major peak periods of migration have driven fundamental transformations in the country: westward expansion and shift to agricultural production in the 19th century, emergence of cities and the industrial economy after 1900, and the rise of services and knowledge-based economies since 1970.

Today, immigrants make up more than a quarter of the nation’s population. In addition, they provide two-fifths of the nation’s health care and social assistance workers. They also contribute significantly to the economy as business owners, professionals, and laborers in agriculture, manufacturing, construction, and services. One in seven Americans has at least one immigrant parent.

Many immigrants are highly educated in their home countries and bring skills to America that can help them find good jobs, such as engineering, computer science, nursing, and law. However, a significant number of migrants are not college-educated. In some cases, financial need propels them to get jobs that require little or no training and pay very low wages. They do so in the hope that they will be able to earn enough money to support their families back home.

While the United States has a long tradition of welcoming skilled and hardworking immigrants, the political debate over immigration has become contentious in recent years. Much of the public perception about immigrants is based on misconceptions and stereotypes, such as those depicted in popular movies and TV shows that portray illegal or undocumented immigrants as dangerous criminals.

To better understand the complex issues surrounding immigration, students need to learn about the different types of migrants and the challenges they face. Use the articles in this section to start a class discussion and give students an opportunity to share their personal experiences with immigration.