Re-imagine & Re-engage: Immigration


Migrants from Venezuela walk to the US-Mexico border where hundreds of others are stranded by the Biden administration’s expansion of a law that allows it to turn asylum seekers away © Jose Torres/Reuters

Let’s take a close look at current demographics — not hearsay, not "I think therefore I know," but the facts.

The population of the United States, as documented by the U.S. Census Bureau, is now 334 million people. According to the Pew Research Center, about 44 million were foreign-born as of 2020. Seventy-seven percent of them are here legally.

Let me repeat, 77% are here legally — naturalized citizens, lawful permanent, and temporary residents. Unauthorized immigrants make up the remaining 23% and account for only 3% of the total U.S. population.

Immigration began in the early 1500s with the Pequot people standing on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, watching the first white settlers arrive in their country. Until that time, according to Charles Mann, author of "1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus," there were more than 90 million Indigenous people living on 400 million acres. It was a thriving community of people across the Americas, North and South. Their advanced level of farming, hunting and gathering had sustained them over thousands of years.

It was not until 1787 that the term "immigrant" was used to differentiate between the colonists, who saw themselves as the established society, and foreigners who arrived after the country’s laws, customs, language and government were formed.

Since then, immigrants have arrived from many countries. Between 1892 and 1924, more than 37 million passed through Ellis Island. They came for a variety of reasons — political and economic stability, religious freedom and family reunification.

The Center for Immigration Studies reports that immigration reform — who’s welcome and who’s not — has been at the forefront of legislation since the impetus of this country. Starting in 1875, a series of restrictions on immigration were enacted. According to the National Archives, these included “bans on criminals, people with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes.”

Other restrictions targeted Asian immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1883 was in direct response to the belief that Chinese immigrants were “taking away all the jobs.” History shows us that when there is a downturn in the economy, immigrants are always to blame.

In the 1920s, public sentiment and politicians were beginning to voice concerns over the increased number of immigrants entering the United States. The 1924 National Origins Act limited the number of immigrants each year to 2 percent of current ethnic populations. Thus, the largest number of the immigrant spots were allocated to those coming from Northern and Western Europe, and the least from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Act prohibited those entering from Asia.

It took 40 years to abolish the national-origins quota system. In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act replaced it with a system whereby immigrants are admitted based on their relationship to a U.S. citizen, a lawful permanent resident, family member or U.S. employer. The doors were open, but limited. The cap was set at 120,000 slots. A 1990 Immigration Act increased that number to 700,000.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act, introduced by Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA) in 1965, was a bold move and caused tension across the country. Nevertheless, Congress passed it and Republican President Ronald Reagan signed it in November 1986. It included two facets: Amnesty for those currently working in the country illegally and enforcement for employers prohibiting them from hiring undocumented persons. An estimated 3 million individuals — mostly of Hispanic descent — gained legal status, thus securing economic and social opportunities as legal residents of the United States. Amnesty legislation was renewed in 1994, 1997 and 2000.

In August 2012, President Barack Obama signed an executive order entitled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It provides protection from deportation, including work permits and identity documents, for more than 700,000 undocumented persons who arrived in the U.S. as children. A bipartisan group of eight senators drafted a piece of legislation which would have provided a path to citizenship. While it passed in the Senate (68-32), it was not considered by the House and thus died in the 113th Congress.

The Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), an Executive Order announced by President Obama in November 2014, granted work permits and exemption to deportation for those undocumented with children who'd been born in the U.S. and were thereby American citizens. Multiple states filed lawsuits. In February 2015, a temporary injunction blocked DAPA from going into effect.

In February 2021, Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA) introduced the U.S. Citizenship Act (HR 1177). It establishes a path to citizenship for undocumented individuals — those seeking a better life, like many of our families did over the past 400 years.

Think about your history, your story. When did your ancestors first come to America? Or were they already here? Why did they come? Share your story. Listen to the stories of others. Where do you find common ground?

Unless Indigenous, we’re all immigrants, or descendants thereof, and always will be!


Beth Lincoln. Submitted photo


by Beth Lincoln

Napa Valley Register
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