Many Americans view immigration through a highly politicized lens, but it’s essential to the nation’s prosperity. The United States relies on immigration to bolster population growth and family reunification and to fill jobs. But the system is struggling to keep up with current demands, and legislative reform remains stalled.
Most immigrants are legal and come through three broad categories: family (the spouses, children, or parents of U.S. citizens), employment (a wide range of categories such as unskilled workers and investors), and humanitarian (including refugees and asylum seekers). A little more than two-thirds of permanent immigrants come through family-based pathways, while another 14-15 percent come through employment paths, and the rest arrive as refugees or asylum seekers, diversity visa recipients, or on other nonimmigrant worker programs.
Some people leave their home countries because they are being persecuted for their religion, political views, sexual orientation, or other reason, while others feel it is unsafe to stay at home for reasons such as poverty, gang violence, natural disasters, or war. These migrants often seek protection in the United States, and some are granted asylum or refugee status.
While it is important to recognize the challenges that immigrants face, the nation also must remember the contributions they make, both economic and social. In addition to boosting the economy and driving innovation, immigrant entrepreneurs launch businesses that create thousands of high-paying jobs for natives. They help to rebalance the labor market by increasing demand for low-skilled workers and decreasing competition for native-born workers in high-skill occupations. And they help to keep the nation comparatively young, mitigating the fiscal costs of funding retirement benefits for baby boomers.
The United States was built on migration. Early arrivals were white European settlers, and later came the enslaved Africans brought here to work on agricultural and industrial production. After achieving independence from Great Britain, the United States passed its first naturalization law in 1790, which required that individuals live in the country for two years to become citizens.
Between 1880 and 1930, when the largest waves of migration occurred, immigration reached a peak as more than 27 million people settled in America. This surge fueled concerns that American society was being transformed and led to new restrictions, including literacy requirements in the 1917 Immigration Act and national-origins quotas in the Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson–Reed Act.
Despite its history of contentious debates, the United States has continued to value the contributions of immigrants, and this is no different in our present era. Immigrants—both legal and unauthorized, high-skilled and low-skilled, and from a wide variety of backgrounds—are making a difference in the economy, providing vital services, and enriching our culture. The nation should welcome these hardworking individuals, not turn them away. Instead, we should redouble efforts to modernize our outdated immigration system so it can keep up with the country’s needs.