The Importance of Immigration

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Since ancient times, people have moved from one place to another in search of opportunity or a better life. Today, international migration plays a central role in political and policy debates across the globe. In the United States, immigrants make up nearly a third of the population. They work in many professions and contribute to the economy. Many also start businesses, helping to fuel America’s innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition, many immigrants have made significant contributions to the country’s culture and heritage.

Immigration is the international movement of people into a country other than that of their birth, regardless of whether they have taken on citizenship in their new home or not. International migrants are often referred to as “foreigners,” but the term immigrant is more accurate because it implies a permanent move into a foreign country.

During the early modern era, the American colonies grew as a result of immigration from Europe and Africa. As the nation evolved into a constitutional democracy, the government established policies to control and limit immigration. In the ensuing centuries, immigration boomed and tailed depending on economic, social, and political factors.

In the mid-20th century, international migration increased dramatically following World War II and as many former colonial powers opened their borders to citizens of Asia and Africa. As a result, the main countries of origin for migrants to the United States shifted from Europe to Latin America and Asia. In 1965, Congress passed a law that transformed the basis for selecting immigrants by abolishing national quotas in favor of a system that prioritized those with family members living in the United States, those needed to fill specific job vacancies, and refugees.

Today, the number of authorized immigrants stands at 11.2 million. About a quarter are naturalized U.S. citizens, and more than half are lawful permanent residents. Most immigrants come from Mexico (25%), followed by China, India, the Philippines, and El Salvador. The share of asylum seekers is smaller.

Many migrants experience serious challenges in their efforts to enjoy their human rights and fully participate in society, particularly if they are women or minorities. They may face discrimination in housing, education, employment, and health care. They can suffer from the effects of climate change, conflict, and natural disasters. They can also be exposed to dangerous working conditions.

For those who seek to understand the history of immigration in the United States, there is a wealth of information available through public records, family histories, and archival and manuscript collections. These resources provide insight into the many reasons that people choose to leave their homes and seek out a different one, and the challenges they face along the way. They can help inform the future decisions we make about immigration.