Has Immigration to the U.S. changed over time?
The misconceptions about Latin American asylum seekers versus international refugees
WASHINGTON - Over the past few years, the United States has noticed many changes in immigration from countries worldwide. Data shows that these changes can be a result of many factors, but the perceptions in the United States of certain immigrant stereotypes have a single narrative: a Spanish-speaking individual or family, illegally crossing the border, and embedding themselves into the American workforce. But in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, a strict and, at times aggressive, immigration policy emerged. However, the numbers show that Latin America/Caribbean immigration to the U.S. has steadily declined whereas African immigration has almost doubled since 2010.
The U.S. was founded as a country of immigrants but the first big wave of immigration in U.S. history can be seen in early 1900. However, the reaction to this was heavy restrictions on immigration in the 1920s. It wasn’t until loosened rules in the 1960s permitted the current wave made up mostly of Latin Americans and Asians. Today, claims in mass media and statements from Donald Trump focus on the U.S. being overwhelmed by immigrants from Mexico and the rest of Latin America, encouraging the government to build a wall across the southern border.
“Immigrants are always different. As a country of immigrants, other than the Native Americans, there have always been immigrants going in waves based on what's going in their home countries,” Susanna Campbell, a former member on the Council on Foreign Relations and UNICEF Burundi, said. “So the wave to immigrants in this country has been different every decade or so. In fact, that’s how you could trace the evolution of the policy shifts in the U.S. with the question of who was immigrating at that point in time and what time of policies were in consideration to them.”
But the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey’s numbers show that immigration from Latin America is slowing, as recent arrivals are coming from countries in Asia and are more prone than native-born Americans to obtain a college education. “21st-century immigrants” are locating in parts of the country where immigrant concentration has been low, and in many states that supported Trump in the 2016 election.
“Academically I see them as a demographic group that needs a lot of assistance where they are true asylum seekers they deserve due process,” said Bill Belding, a professional lecturer and expert on warfare and counterinsurgency operations. “But I just go back or forth on that issue. I’m from California so immigrants there is a significant part of the economy. So I think if they are able to contribute to the economy and pay their taxes, I think they should be able to be here.”
Tazreena Sajjad, a professorial lecturer in the School of International Service (SIS) at American University in Washington D.C. specializes in transitional justice with refugees and forced displacement. She said that the conversation of refugees fleeing and coming to the United States is part of a much broader conversation.
Sajjad notes that the differences between labeling refugees, immigrants, and asylum seekers are very important in this broader discussion. But the biggest distinction, according to Sajjad, is the discrepancies in the United States’ resettlement program for refugees entering the country. This process includes analysis from The Departments of Homeland Security and State and Health and Human Services through the U.S. Resettlement Program that was put in place with the creation and passing of the United States Refugee Act of 1980.
“The community that enters the United States fleeing conflict, violence, climate change, so on and so forth, they are what would be asylum seekers and largely they come from Central America because the United States does not have a resettlement program for Central America,” Sajjad said. “So people actually have to enter the United States and ask the United States government to review their individual cases, to determine whether they can be classified as a refugee or not.”
Though the nation’s foreign-born share continues to rise, recent immigration looks different now than that which characterized much of the late 20th century. This important change is with immigrants’ country of origin. According to the William H. Frey’s analysis of 2017 American Community Survey, Asia now exceeds Latin America as the major origin region for foreign-born residents that have arrived since 2010. In the same token, most people do not know that about one-quarter of the population age 25 and older are either foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“States with high immigration populations also get high asylum seekers,” said Anne Schaufele, a practitioner-in-residence with the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
Schaufele, reaffirming Sajjad’s points, said that the differences between asylum seekers and immigrants are the asylum seekers are primarily coming from the Mexico-US border to California, Texas, or Arizona. To focus on the differences is to understand that many refugees come from the Middle East or Africa whereas most asylum seekers come from Central America.
The anecdote of the Spanish-speaking immigrant fleeing their country for prosperity in the United States is not an unfamiliar story. But Campbell said the insinuation that now there are more perceived illegal immigrants than prior revolves around the narrative that immigration boils down to being illegal or legal.
“With consecutive waves of immigrants, there’s a narrative around why they are coming and what makes them different so today it’s illegal/legal but whether that’s fundamentally different that historically depends on who you ask,” Campbell said.
Meanwhile, African immigration has been roughly doubling every decade since 1970, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. According to the 2018 report to Congress, there are currently over 5.6 million refugees across the African continent, constituting over 30 percent of the global refugee population. Refugee numbers in Africa increased by 1.5 million since 2015 due to new or intensified conflicts across the continent. Ongoing conflicts in three countries – Burundi, Nigeria, and South Sudan – are primarily responsible for the growth in refugee numbers in 2016 and 2017.
“There are many refugees coming from the Middle East and African countries that are riddled with conflict and violence,” said Ana Corina Alonso-Yoder, a practitioner-in-residence with the Immigrant Justice Clinic. “Countries like Syria and Yemen, which go through process slightly different than asylum seekers since the second group are people generally most represented by the Central American Region.”
With the southern borders embedding many of the Central American asylum seekers into their economies, Alonso-Yoder said that it’s difficult for average Americans to get past the cliches of immigrants.
As the immigrant population in the U.S. continues to evolve, American policies respond to these changing tides while the misconceptions surrounding immigration continue to grow. As this administration continues the tirade against the stereotypical 21st-century immigrant, data shows it’s not as clearcut as it may seem.
More work by Zach Vallese can be found here.