How Immigrants Affect Our City, State and County
The cliché that every American is an immigrant exists for a reason: the vast majority of Americans are of foreign descent, with many able to trace their lineage to individuals a few generations removed who immigrated to the United States from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century. Contentious from the moment of its inception as a federal responsibility, America’s immigration policy through the decades has been and remains the product of a complex interplay of political, cultural and economic motivations.
The establishment of the Immigration Service in 1891 proved a seminal moment in the history of American immigration, providing the first federal mechanism for monitoring and controlling the arrival of immigrants on U.S. soil. Despite a dip in immigration levels during World War I, the levels of immigration remained high into the 1920s – until the passage of the Quota Laws, created and revised between 1921-4, which instituted caps on the numbers of immigrants coming from individual countries.
The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 did away with the national-origins quota system in favor of a categorical preference system in which individuals with labor skills were preferred over those without specific skill sets, though regional quotas still existed for immigrants arriving from certain areas. In the 1970s, immigration caps were revised in favor of one total limit on the number of immigrants accepted into the United States. The ceiling on the number of immigrants accepted has risen from under 300,000 individuals a year three decades ago to the current “flexible” cap, instituted in 1990, of 675,000 immigrants.
Today, there are four major groups of individuals granted visas for permanent or semi-permanent entry into the United States. The first category is immediate relatives of US citizens, who are also connected to the second category, family-sponsored preference admission. The third category of admission, employment-based preference admission, is a continuation of earlier policies of preference towards skilled workers. A final category entails asylum seekers, refugees, and diversity candidates, individuals from countries with historically low rates of admission to the United States.
Unauthorized immigration to the United States remains the most contentious aspect of immigration policy. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act attempted to enhance enforcement and provide new pathways to amnesty through the creation of two programs – the Seasonal Agricultural Worker program, which allowed workers who resided in the United States for 90 or more days to apply for permanent resident status, and the Legally Authorized Worker program, which allows unauthorized immigrants living in the United States since 1982 to legalize their status.
Recent legislation has increased border enforcement and reduced the government benefits available to immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security took over most of the responsibilities of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in 2002, dividing the responsibilities of the INS amongst three bureaus at the Department: the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Congressional Budget Office Reports on the Status of Immigrants in the United States
The Congressional Budget Office has, over the last ten years, released two major reports on the status of immigrants within the United States, one in 2006 and the other in 2011. These reports paint a compelling picture of the challenging financial and social circumstances that immigrants face today, while also describing a profoundly heterogeneous immigrant population: immigrants to the United States display every conceivable background and arrive with different levels of education and varying abilities.
Current immigration levels are as high as they were in the 1920s, but the demographics of the immigrants coming to the United States has changed radically since then. In the 1920s, 90% of immigrants hailed from Europe or Canada. In 2009, only 15% of the immigrant population came from those areas. More than 30% came from Asia, and another 22% were born in Mexico or Central America, with the remaining immigrant populations coming from Oceania, Africa, and South America and the Caribbean. The foreign-born population is now 12.5% of the entire United States population, approximately 38.5 million people.
The statistics in the report indicate certain patterns amongst these immigrant populations. More than half of the unauthorized immigrants in the United States reside in only four states (California, Texas, Nevada and Arizona), while immigrant populations in general tend to be clustered in more populous states. In most states, the foreign-born population (i.e. legal immigrant) percentage changed from either slight negative growth to an increase of over 6% across the different states in the union.
Age varies across various immigrant populations. While most immigrants (over 70%) were of working age—defined as 25- 64—Mexicans and Central Americans were generally younger, with over half of the immigrant population from that region in the age range of 25-44. By comparison, European and Canadian immigrant populations were only 29% of the same age group, and Asian immigrants of that age group made up 41% of the total number of Asian immigrants. The gap in the statistics is compelling: while three-quarters of the foreign-born population is of working age, the same is true for less than half of the native-born population.
Statistics about the unauthorized foreign-born population in the US (i.e. unauthorized immigrants) are less reliable, but nonetheless indicate certain population trends. The number of unauthorized immigrants in the United States is estimated to be 10.8 million, though this number may be as high as 11.1 million. The average annual growth in this population from 2000 to 2009 has been about 3%. Unauthorized immigrants make up approximately 4% of the total population of the United States.
National Issues Affecting Immigrants
Immigrant populations face substantial disparities in income and education levels when compared to native populations. While the median family income for native-born families was $55,000 in 2009, the median family income for both naturalized and non-citizen foreign-born families was $45,000, with the median family income for non-naturalized families dropping to $36,000 per year.
Substantial differences in median family income also exist amongst immigrants from different regions. European and Canadian-born citizens had a median family income of $58,000 per year, compared to $65,000 for Asian families and $33,000 for Mexican and Central American families.
Immigrant families are also far more likely than native families to live in poverty. Currently, the poverty line in the United States is set at $22,000 per year for a family of four. 14% of native-born American families live below the poverty line, compared to 19% of foreign-born families. But this 19% statistic doesn’t tell the whole story – the percentage living below the poverty line of non-citizen families is 25% when compared to the 11% of naturalized families who live below the poverty line.
Education, too, is a divisive characteristic within immigrant populations from different regions. 29% of foreign-born individuals had not completed the equivalent of a high school education, compared to only 8% of the native population. Only 32% of the native born population and 29% of the foreign population had completed a bachelor’s degree. Again, there are substantial distinctions between different immigrant communities: just 7% immigrants from Mexico and Central America had completed or exceeded the level of a bachelor’s degree, while more than 55% of Asian immigrants possessed a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Immigration in New Haven and Connecticut
Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, large populations of European immigrants settled across Connecticut, becoming essential to the large industrial plants constructed across the state. But it should come as no surprise that Connecticut’s immigrant population has mirrored the changing demographics of the American immigrant population.
Connecticut currently has the 12th highest percentage of foreign-born individuals in the United States, with the immigrant population making up approximately 12.3% of the total state population. Major immigrant populations tend to come from Asia (India and China), Europe (Italy, Poland, and the United Kingdom), Canada, and Latin America and the Caribbean (Jamaica, Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico). Most of these populations have increased dramatically in the past decade – some as much as 70-90%.
Nearly half (43%) of Connecticut’s immigrants live in the eight largest localities of Connecticut, namely: Bridgeport, Danbury, Hartford, New Britain, New Haven, Norwalk, Stamford and Waterbury, with foreign-born individuals comprising from 10 to 34% of the population of these cities.
In New Haven, current immigration policy focuses on grappling with questions of unauthorized immigration. The County of New Haven, according to the 2010 Census, is home to approximately 860,000 individuals, 129,000 of whom live in the city proper. The percentage of foreign-born individuals in the county is approximately 11%, while the foreign-born population of New Haven city is over 16%.
Over 30% of households speak a language at home that is not English. But complications have ensued concerning the gray area surrounding unauthorized immigrants, because limited documentation means limited access to public benefits and structures.
New Haven’s response to this issue has been to create a pilot ID card system that allows New Haven residents to apply for an identification card regardless of their immigration status. Cards can be used to get driver’s licenses, open bank accounts, pay parking meters, and take out library books. The program continues to this day, four years later, even as critics continue to voice disagreements about its existence.
The Elm City is the first urban area in America to institute a program like this, though plans are underway to introduce similar cards in New York City. While the local support for this initiative has been overwhelmingly positive, outside groups have protested the legitimizing effect of this program on undocumented immigrants. As for the immigrants themselves, 11,000 New Haven residents currently hold this card.
In May 2011, President Barack Obama announced a new immigration policy plan. While the implementation of this plan has been stalled in large part by continued economic upheaval and divided government, the plan lays the groundwork for a new vision for immigration in America. Unlike his predecessor, President Obama did not solely emphasize securing our borders, but also remarked on the need to re-shape the American dialogue on immigration to consider the great economic benefits which immigrants bring to this nation.
New Haven and Connecticut at large are useful illustrations of the larger problems facing immigrants in America, but they exist in context. While we focus on immigration in one area, we must also remember to consider the broader currents which continue to draw immigrants – both legal and illegal – to the United States. We must avoid the tendency to lump all immigrants into a single category or to stereotype certain types of immigrants; instead, we must step back from emotional rhetoric on both sides of the issue, and craft a comprehensive policy which accounts for the realities of our history as an immigrant nation and places the economic and social interests of the nation first.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College.