From colonial times to the present day, immigrants have shaped and invigorated the United States - and, at times, been the focus of divisions and conflict. Until recent decades, the vast majority of those who chose to make the journey to the United States were of European origin. Most of today's immigrants come from Latin America and Asia. But, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, wherever people come from, the most common reasons for seeking a new life in the United States remain the same.
In the late 1990s, civil war in Sierra Leone displaced tens-of-thousands of people. Among them, then-teenager Mariam Jalloh, who remembers her first encounter with rebel forces.
“They broke into our school. They took so many people out of the school, and my best friend was shot in front of me,” says Ms. Jalloh.
Rebels also killed Mariam Jalloh's father and a brother, torched her home and took her captive. She was later rescued by West African [ECOMOG] troops, who intervened in Sierra Leone in 1998. She fled to Guinea, then to Canada. Today, she goes to school outside Washington, having been granted asylum in the United States.
Elsewhere in the Washington area, a Bolivian who identifies himself as "Roberto" tells a different story. Roberto is one of many illegal immigrants who stand along a busy street hoping to be offered day labor.
“I came with the same goal as every immigrant who comes here: to get ahead, to help my family. I have two daughters, and in my country, I could not provide them with economic security, or educational opportunities. That is why I came here,” says Roberto.
Roberto has not seen his wife and children for nearly five years. But he sends them money every month, and hopes one day to bring them to the United States.
American University history Professor Alan Kraut says Mariam and Roberto's stories mirror those of millions of immigrants from other lands and past eras.
“Today's immigrants, whether they are coming from Latin America or Southeast Asia, have a great deal in common with those who have come from Italy, Poland, Russia, Ireland, other countries in the past. They are coming for economic reasons and economic opportunities, or they are coming to escape oppressive political regimes. But they are certainly coming for very similar reasons,” says Professor Kraut.
Mariam Jalloh says she wants to become a U.S. citizen, and that she is grateful for the opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming a registered nurse. “There is nothing impossible here. If you want to do it, and you are strong enough, you will do it. I think I will do it,” says Mariam Jalloh.
But for Roberto, who lacks a work visa, employment options are limited. He says daily life for him and other illegal immigrants is a challenge. "Hispanics work in restaurants, as janitors, in construction, in all forms of hard labor. But we are the most marginalized people in this country,” says Roberto.
Historian Alan Kraut compares the experiences of some of today's Hispanic immigrants with those of another group: poor Irish Catholics who arrived in large numbers in the mid-1800s before the concept of visas even existed, and who had to struggle for both an economic foothold and broader societal acceptance. He says, despite being a nation of immigrants and their offspring, established communities have not always been welcoming to new arrivals.
“There is an old immigrant saying: "America beckons, but Americans repel." So, it is not always an easy transition. There are opportunities in the United States, but sometimes, there are also costs. Americans are not always delighted with the rush of immigrants across our borders,” says Alan Kraut.
Immigrants have historically been accused of "stealing" jobs from native-born workers, depressing wages and salaries, and over-burdening government services.
In 1882, the United States suspended immigration from China - a ban that would last until World War Two. In 1994, Californians voted to bar illegal immigrants from state-provided welfare, education and non-emergency medical care.
Tensions have sometimes flared to violence, from the 1871 slaying of 19 Chinese by a white mob in Los Angeles to riots by Cuban exiles in 2000, after Federal agents took shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives.
Today, polls show many Americans believe U.S. immigration laws are ineffective and the nation's borders inadequately enforced.
One thing is clear: the United States remains an attractive destination for immigrants. Net U.S. immigration, arrivals minus departures, both legal and illegal, stands at about one-point-three-million people a year.
It accounts for about one-fourth of total population growth, according to U.S. Census Bureau demographer Fred Hollmann. He says, “International migration has been increasing steadily for the last 40-50 years. Still, relative to the size of the population, it is not even close to where it was in the first two decades of the 20th century. I like to say that, because people very often think of this [in terms of a] flood of immigrants coming into the United States. In a sense, this is nothing we have not seen before.”
The U.S. foreign-born population stands at about 35-million, or roughly 12-percent of the total population. That is up sharply from four-point-seven percent recorded in 1970, but a smaller proportion than the 13-percent recorded in 1860 or the 15-percent recorded in 1910, when immigration from Italy peaked.
What will the United States look like in another 50 years? U.S. Census Bureau demographer Fred Hollmann says a historic shift lies ahead.
“The non-Hispanic white population is not going to continue to be a majority population, as it is now. The last couple of sets of projections we have done have shown this group dropping below 50-percent sometime in the 2050s. The Hispanic population, we suspect, will become an increasingly large portion [of U.S. population], but at the same time the Hispanic population will be increasingly a native population - a smaller proportion of it will be recent immigrants, or even immigrants at all. The Asian population will continue to grow quite rapidly. It is still a relatively small proportion of the population, and yet, we see trends that are showing increases in migration from these areas,” says Mr. Hollmann.
Historian Alan Kraut says, whatever the future composition of American society, the United States will continue to benefit from immigration.
Mr. Kraut says, “Newcomers have contributed to the heterogeneity [variety] of American culture and the richness, the texture of American life. Whether we are talking about a young George Gershwin [songwriter] coming out of the teeming lower Eastside [of Manhattan, New York] or modern day Latino musicians or young Asian playwrights, there is no question about it. Our culture has always fed upon newcomers, who have brought with them cultural traditions and added their traditions to ours.”
Immigration is never easy for those who arrive and can be chaotic for society as a whole. Yet few would disagree that immigration promotes diversity and dynamism that, on the whole, has served the United States well.