Unless you're Native American, if you live in the U.S. then you have an immigrant story woven into the tapestry of your life. The nation has seen several waves of immigration over its more than 250 years of existence.
There were the early pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, those seeking economic opportunities during the colonial era and the great immigration era of 1880-1920, when more than 20 million people arrived, mainly from eastern, southern and central Europe. More recently, in the 2000s and beyond, immigrants are hailing mainly from Asia and Latin America.
So have Americans always opened their arms to anyone and everyone wishing to live there and take a stab at achieving the American Dream? Despite what's written on the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...") immigration to the U.S. has had a long and fraught history, with each new arriving group encountering hostility from the folks already there. Part of the problem may be the many misconceptions concerning immigrants and the immigration process. Here are 10 of the more prevalent misunderstandings.
Most Immigration is Illegal Immigration
Much of what you hear in the news today regarding immigrants centers around illegal immigration, but it's couched under the very broad term of "immigration." So you might be left thinking that most immigrants nowadays must have arrived in some illegal fashion. In reality, the vast majority of today's immigrants enter the U.S. legally.
In 2013, there were 41.3 million immigrants living in America, the highest number since recordkeeping began in 1850. Those 41.3 million people compose 13 percent of America's 316 million residents. Nearly 47 percent of those immigrants, or 19.4 million people, are already naturalized U.S. citizens, a process that takes five years.
That doesn't mean the remaining 53 percent are here illegally, though. Some are lawful permanent residents (people with green cards, awaiting the chance to become naturalized) or people holding legal, temporary visas, such as students and temporary workers. The number of people illegally in the U.S. was estimated to be 11.4 million in 2012 [sources: Zong and Batalova, Department of Homeland Security]. Do the math, and that means roughly three-quarters of the country's immigrants are here legally, and just one-quarter are unauthorized residents.
Most Undocumented Immigrants Snuck Across the Border
For years now, "illegal immigration" has been nearly synonymous with "Mexico." You don't see Canadians sneaking over the northern border into the U.S., say some folks, but boy, oh boy, are there loads of Mexicans storming the southern one.
It's true that Mexico is the country of origin for most of America's unauthorized immigrants; in 2014, 49 percent of all undocumented residents hailed from that country. But the number of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. illegally has declined from 6.9 million in 2007 to 5.6 million in 2014. And a first: In 2014, more non-Mexicans were nabbed at the southern border than Mexicans, according to the Pew Research Center [sources: Gonzalez-Barrera and Krogstad, Krogstad and Passel].
Which other countries are represented? After Mexico, the next top four countries of birth for unauthorized immigrants were Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and China. Overall, from 2008 to 2012, 3.3 million immigrants came into the U.S. illegally — 13 percent from Asia; 7 percent from South America; 4 percent from Europe, Canada (yes, Canada!) and Oceania; 3 percent from Africa; and 2 percent from the Caribbean [source: Zong and Batalova]. And many people who are here illegally overstayed tourist or student visas.
Most Immigrants Come for the Benefits
The U.S. has great benefits. There's Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), housing assistance, and welfare. One reason people are so anxious to get into the country is surely to tap into this rich banquet of free bennies. Or so common thinking goes.
But here's the thing — undocumented immigrants are barred by law from accessing any of these benefits. Furthermore, even legal immigrants can't collect these benefits for at least five years, until they become naturalized U.S. citizens. It's been the law since the 1996 Welfare Reform Act passed [source: Equal Rights Center].
That doesn't mean that immigrants living in the U.S. illegally receive no benefits whatsoever. All immigrants may receive emergency Medicaid, public health immunizations, K-12 public education and some forms of emergency disaster relief. And any children of illegal immigrants who are legal U.S. citizens because they were born here qualify for social benefits.
But interestingly, a 2001 RAND Corporation study showed undocumented immigrants and legal foreign-born residents used fewer medical benefits than native-born Americans. Native-born Americans (87 percent of the population) used 91.5 percent of America's $430 billion in national medical spending in 2000, while undocumented immigrants (3.2 percent of the population) accounted for just 1.5 percent [source: Goldman, Smith and Sood].
Terrorists Will Enter the U.S. Through Its Refugee Program
After the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which killed 130, many Americans are leery of not just immigrants, but those coming into the country as refugees. After all, two of the terrorists are believed to have entered France via Greece, and may have posed as Syrian refugees [source: BBC News]. It's a good reason to clamp down on immigration, right?
Taking a closer look at that tragedy, though, reveals that the three gunmen who stormed the Bataclan music venue were all French nationals. Several of the other attackers were tagged as French and Belgian citizens [source: BBC News]. Whether or not one of the other Paris terrorists posed as a refugee in order to enter the country, that tactic is not one likely to be used by terrorists hoping to infiltrate the U.S.
Before a refugee can enter the U.S., he or she has to go through a vetting process via the United Nations that takes a minimum of 18 to 24 months. The vetting process includes background checks, several interviews, retinal scans and fingerprinting. After that, the U.S. conducts additional screening measures. Why would a terrorist go through all of that when he could instead apply for a tourist visa, a much less intensive and time-consuming process? Further, if a terrorist hails from one of 38 countries such as France, Belgium, Greece and Chile, he can enter the U.S. without a visa. All that's needed is a plane ticket [sources: Diamond, U.S. Department of State].
Immigrants Commit More Crimes than U.S. Citizens
Listen to the news these days, and you'll quickly learn there are an awful lot of foreigners getting busted for burglary, rape, drunk driving and even murder. Clearly, the people immigrating into the country are bad seeds who like to break the law. So why do we keep letting "these kinds of people" in?
In reality, immigrants are far less likely than U.S. citizens to commit a crime. You can look at this in several ways. First, from 2003 to 2012, crime rates fell sharply across the board: violent crimes fell by 18.7 percent; murder and non-negligent manslaughter by 16.9 percent; and robbery by 20.7 percent, to name just a few [source: Federal Bureau of Investigation]. Yet from 2000-2010, nearly 14 million immigrants entered America — the most popular decade for immigration in American history [source: Camarota].
Further, an analysis of 2000 Census data showed native-born American men ages 18-39 are thrown in the slammer at five times the rate of immigrants: a 3.5 percent incarceration rate for natives versus a 0.7 percent for immigrants. In 2010, the rate was 3.3 percent for natives and 1.6 percent for immigrants [sources: Rumbaut and Ewing, American Immigration Council]
Ironically, when "immigrants" do commit crimes, it's more likely to be second- and third-generation descendants of immigrants who have perhaps picked up criminal habits from native-born Americans [source: Rumbaut and Ewing].
Until Now, the U.S. Has Always Been Very Welcoming to Immigrants
Many Americans believe the U.S. has always welcomed immigrants with open arms until the last decade or so. They'll point to the masses of immigrants flooding into the country at the turn of the 20th century, and assume that alone meant everyone was being happily greeted. Not so. It seems every new ethnic group entering the U.S. was greeted with some level of xenophobia and suspicion. But things were the worst in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In 1882, for example, all Chinese people were banned from entering via the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1907-08, under the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan, the Japanese agreed to deny passports to its laborers wishing to head to the U.S., where hostility against Japanese immigrants was growing. Congress also voted to restrict access to those who were mentally ill, criminals, contract workers, alcoholics and anarchists. The government also raised taxes on immigrants and instituted a literacy test in 1917 [source: U.S. History].
Then, in 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924 (aka the Johnson-Reed Act), capping immigration. Specifically, only 2 percent of the total number of people from each nationality — who were in the U.S. as of the 1890 census — could now enter. This act favored ethnic groups already in the country, and effectively excluded all Asians [sources: Foner and Garraty, U.S. Department of State].
The hostility wasn't just in the corridors of power either. In the 19th century, many native-born Americans were fearful that large numbers of Irish and Italian immigrants would bring crime and disease. Even back in 1751, Benjamin Franklin denounced the large numbers of Germans flooding in to Pennsylvania [source: Schrag].
It's Easy to Legally Immigrate to the U.S.
Many Americans are perplexed when they hear about immigrants coming to the country illegally. Why, they wonder, don't they simply apply for residency and get in the legitimate way — just like so many of their ancestors did 100 years ago? As we said earlier, the vast majority of immigrants do enter legally, but it's an arduous process today.
During the United States' first 100 years as a newly minted country, any able-bodied immigrant was allowed in. They just had to physically get here (though that was often problematic). Today, there are many rules about who can and cannot enter the country.
Most immigrants enter by obtaining a family-sponsored or employer-sponsored visa. These visas can be pricy ($200 to more than $700). The U.S. also limits the number of immigrants per category and by country of origin. On Nov. 1, 2014, there were 4.3 million people waiting for a family-sponsored visa, but just 226,000 family-sponsored visas were due to be handed out in 2015. (Visas for spouses and children under 21 aren't subject to limits.) Also, the number of immigrant visas handed out to citizens of any one country can't exceed 7 percent of the total number of visas each year. This means years-long waits for most foreigners. Some citizens of Mexico and the Philippines have been on the family-sponsored visa waiting list for more than 20 years [sources: Santana, U.S. Department of State].
If someone was trying to escape violence in his or her own country, or to reunite with family members, they may reluctantly opt for an illegal entry rather than waiting for years or decades.
Widespread Green Card Marriage Fraud is Occurring
One way an immigrant can quickly obtain a green card is to marry a U.S. citizen. So naturally a lot of green card marriage fraud occurs annually, say some people. You've likely heard of "mail-order brides." Well, now there are loads of websites that help people in other countries hook up with Americans willing to marry them for money just so the foreigners can enter the U.S. legally.
It's true such websites exist. And it's true that marriage fraud occurs. But not as much as you might think. Between 2007 and 2009, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services discovered about 600 fraudulent green card applications, but that was among 700,000 petitions for foreign spouses, which is only about .0009 percent [source: Dwyer].
Marriage fraud does occur partly because U.S. immigration laws make it relatively easy for the spouses and minor children of citizens to quickly enter the country, in order to reunite families. In 2013, 66 percent of the total number of new LPRs — lawful permanent residents, or green card recipients — were family-sponsored immigrants. Foreign spouses made up about 38 percent of all family-sponsored LPRs [source: Monger and Yankay].
Immigrants Refuse to Learn English
One complaint native-born Americans often make about today's immigrants is that they don't want to learn English. Instead, they want everyone to learn their language. Or have interpreters available everywhere they go. When people came into this country years ago, they were only too eager to learn the mother tongue of their adopted land.
There may be a wealth of foreign-language radio and TV stations, or innumerable interpretation services, but that doesn't mean immigrants are spurning English. Au contraire.
Today's immigrants do attempt to learn English, as do their children; the demand for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes is far higher than the available supply [source: Nevarez]. Only a mere 7 percent of second-generation Latinos continue to speak Spanish as their main language [source: Equal Rights Center]. With the prevalence of English across the globe today, there are actually more immigrants coming to the country already fluent in the language than in the past — 48 percent of recent legal immigrants are proficient in English before arriving in the U.S. [source: Guo].
Interestingly, many native-born Americans don't realize that their ancestors actually clung to their roots for a long time after emigrating there. In 1917, nearly 50 years after German immigration had peaked, there were still more than 700 German-language newspapers being printed in the U.S. [source: Teaching Tolerance].
Immigrants Take American Jobs
One of the more persistent misconceptions about immigration today is that immigrants are stealing jobs from Americans. Yet if you take a good look, you'll quickly see that immigrants are often working at jobs such as dishwasher, gardener, housekeeper, maid — low-paying grunt jobs, typically without benefits, that many American citizens spurn. Immigrants take these jobs because they really want to work.
A study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found 86 percent of first-generation male immigrants were employed, a higher rate than that of native-borns (83 percent). Even 84 percent of male immigrants without a high school education had jobs, compared with just 58 percent of native-born Americans [source: Guo].
In addition, innumerable studies soundly refute this notion of immigrants stealing jobs. A 2012 study by The Brookings Institution found immigrants actually better the earnings of native-born Americans because the two groups tend to be employed in complementary fields. For example, immigrant roofers and gardeners can help American builders and landscapers land more business and expand their companies [source: Greenstone and Looney]. And the U.S. Small Business Administration found immigrants are more entrepreneurial than natives. One in 10 immigrants is a business owner, and 620 of every 100,000 immigrants starts a business each month [source: Fairlie].
The U.S. census is a huge project bent on counting every U.S. resident. Find out about the changes for the 2020 census with HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 10 Misconceptions About U.S. Immigration
Immigration is a loaded topic in America today, and in many other countries around the world. I don't know exactly how my great-grandparents got to America in the late 1800s/early 1900s from Eastern Europe. Nor do I know if they were greeted with open arms, suspicion or hostility. I know several of them borrowed money from family and friends to pay for a ticket in steerage, which was the cheapest way to get to America from Europe (by boat). Steerage was a pretty grim place at that point in history. People were crammed together in tight spaces. Toilets were pots and pans. Cots were lined up one next to the other, and mattresses were filled with seaweed or straw. Meals were sparse. Illness was rampant. Once they got here, they went straight to work at some pretty menial jobs. But they loved it in America. And every successive generation prospered a little bit more. I'm so grateful my ancestors were able to relocate to a country that helped them better their lives and lay a foundation for increasing prosperity for their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren (me!). Today, I hope people around the globe are given the same opportunity.
More Great Links
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- BBC News. "Paris attacks: Bataclan third attacker identified." Dec. 9, 2015. (Dec. 9, 2015) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-35048701
- Camarota, Steve. "A Record-Setting Decade of Immigration: 2000-2010." Center for Immigration Studies. October 2011. (Dec. 10, 2015) http://cis.org/2000-2010-record-setting-decade-of-immigration
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- Krogstad, Jens Manuel and Jeffrey Passel. "5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S." Pew Research Center. Nov. 19, 2015. (Dec. 10, 2015) http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/11/19/5-facts-about-illegal-immigration-in-the-u-s/
- Monger, Randall and James Yankay. "U.S. Lawful Permanent Residents: 2013." U.S. Department of Homeland Security. May 2014. (Dec. 11, 2015) http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/ois_lpr_fr_2013.pdf
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