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Immigration Overview - 2002-04-11

English Feature #7-33480 Broadcast March 6, 2000

From its very beginnings the United States has been a nation of immigrants. Today about 10 percent of the U.S. population are people born in other countries. Who are these new Americans? Where do they come from and how are they absorbed into the life of this country? We begin our series of programs under the rubric New American Voices with some basic facts on the current state of legal immigration to the U.S.

Immigrants continue to come to America in vast numbers. Each year almost a million people enter the U.S. legally with the intention of living here permanently. Where do they come from? According to Dr. Carl Haub, senior demographer with the non-profit Population Reference Bureau in Washington, the origin of immigrants to the U.S. has changed dramatically over the last 30 or 40 years.

"In the past, of course, our primary source of immigration was from Europe. Then during the 1930s that declined to virtually zero, and didn't really pick up again after World War Two. Then in 1965 we made some sweeping changes to our immigration laws, and essentially opened doors to people from all areas of the world, not just Europe. And so today almost all of our immigration, about 90 percent, comes from Latin America and from Asia, with the balance from Africa and Europe."

It may not be surprising that the largest number of immigrants come from the neighboring country to the south with which the United States shares a long common border.

"Of the 800,000 people who do come into the U.S. legally each year the largest single group is from Mexico, about 130,000 legal immigrants. And then that's followed by China, India, Philippines, and in 1998 the Dominican Republic. The next five countries in order are Vietnam, Cuba, Jamaica, El Salvador and Korea."

The educational and social status of the new immigrants tends to vary greatly, of course, and covers the gamut from migrant farmers to Nobel Prize laureates. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Haub, there are some defining characteristics.

"Generally speaking our law, like so many other countries, tends to favor people with useable skills, people that we perceive to need in certain occupations. And in truth long-distance immigrants from developing countries are nearly always highly educated. You simply are not going to find very many rice farmers from Bangladesh get up one morning and say, 'I'm going to move to the U.S.' It just doesn't really happen. So initially an immigrant to the U.S. tends to be rather well educated."

Immigrants of Hispanic origin, who constitute the fastest-growing segment of the American population, have a somewhat different profile, says Dr. Haub.

"Generally, immigrants from Latin America will tend a bit more to be in the laboring class. Because Mexico is so close, and because we have a definite need for agricultural workers, they tend to cluster more in those groups. Not all, certainly, but they do differ somewhat from Asian immigrants."

How difficult is it for such a large number of immigrants with such diverse backgrounds to be absorbed by American society? Dr. Haub admits that there are some problems.

"I think some of the problems posed by it are when people come to the U.S. perhaps with false expectations. And they find in fact that it's much more difficult to get ahead in the U.S. That it costs much more to live here than perhaps they had thought about. There are some local tensions that occur."

Frank Sherry, the Executive Director of the National Immigration Forum, an organization that fosters and supports immigration, offers a broader perspective.

"The big problem in most of the critiques of immigration is they take what's called a static view. They take a snapshot. They say, 'look at these new arrivals. They don't speak the language, they're struggling, they don't make a lot of money, why are we letting them in?' And in fact if you take a dynamic view, and you say 'look what happens over the course of fifteen to twenty-five years, you see people's income going up, their mobility, their opportunities, their ability to be successful in this society. It's just a tremendous sort of continual story of people coming here and after a tough first few years making it, and not only living a good life, generally - obviously not everyone makes it, but most do - but also making a tremendous contribution to the success of this country."

Not everyone agrees that immigration has a net positive impact on this country. In next week's program we will bring you two sides of the ongoing immigration debate.