Editor’s note: The Denver Urban Spectrum has planned a story
on the topic of immigration for several months. However, the issues and facts
surrounding immigration proved too complex to be addressed in one article. As a
result, our staff decided to present the issues in three articles. Part I takes
a look at just who immigrants are in the United States. Part II will examine
the problems associated with immigration, both real and perceived. Part III
will approach the various solutions being proposed as we head towards the
November elections. Due to the often, strong public reactions about
immigration, some sources were uncomfortable with being identified in the
media, so some names have been changed to protect their identities.
The Immigration Story Of Anna’s Family
Anna, a professional ballerina in Russia, gained legal immigrant
status in the United States almost immediately upon application because of her stature
as an artist. Upon acceptance into America, she left her culture, language and
parents behind. Four years later (instead of the usual five), she was granted
Legal Permanent Resident (LPR or green card) status and was then allowed to
sponsor her mother, Mari, as an emigrant to the U.S. Because her mother’s
husband, Dimi, was Anna’s stepfather and not her biological parent, she was not
allowed to sponsor him, so he could not join his family at that point.
Another five years passed before Anna was allowed to apply
for citizenship; she passed the test and is a naturalized citizen. Anna’s
mother received her green card and was then allowed to sponsor Dimi’s
emigration. Another five years passed before Mari could speak just enough
English to get by and apply for citizenship; she passed her test. Dimi received
his green card. Five more years and he was allowed to apply for citizenship,
which he passed. It took nine years of separation and 19 years before the whole
family became U.S. citizens, even with an expedited process due to Anna being a
talented, professional ballerina.
Juan’s Immigration Story
In 1968, there was no other man in Juan’s household and no
jobs in his area of the world. Breaking out of poverty, he snuck across the Mexico-U.S.
border at the age of 16. Being so young, he was cheated time and again, working
long hours at hard labor and not getting paid by employers. Without
documentation, he had no recourse but to look elsewhere for a job.
He and Peggy have lived together for eight years; they’re not
married because Juan has no documentation for the marriage license application.
He learned English by necessity but while his “street smarts” grew, his formal
education didn’t. School applications require documentation.
He and Peggy both work for wealthy families in landscaping
and gardening. Juan doesn’t apply for jobs with a company because he has no
education and no documentation. Peggy drives wherever they need to go because
Juan can’t get a driver’s license. They file and pay federal income taxes under
Peggy’s social security number at the highest level tax rate because Peggy is single.
Juan went back to Mexico several times since his first Rio Grande crossing 24
years ago, taking presents (mostly small appliances taken for granted by most
Americans) purchased here for his mother and sisters. His last visit was a few
years prior to 9/11 and he hasn’t attempted a return since.
Neither family wanted their names to appear in print. Anna’s
family chose to remain anonymous, because newspapers are controlled by the
government in Russia and they don’t trust anything governmental, which has
carried over to a distrust of American newspapers. Juan and Peggy chose not to be named for fear of deportation.
Neither family is truly free or comfortable with their presence in the U.S.
Coming To America
Outside of Native Americans, the population of the United
States of America is made up of immigrants and their descendents. Whether brought
voluntarily or forcefully, all American residents face issues brought about by
the continued influx of people, legally and illegally.
Immigration numbers have hit highs and lows since the
beginning of U.S. history, dependent on international events, manmade or
natural such as wars, agriculture, religion, politics, etc. Overpopulation brought
immigrants from Great Britain; the great potato famine and crop failures
brought the Irish; a failed revolution brought Germans. The Homestead Act,
offering 160 acres to immigrants seeking naturalization, brought people from every
corner of the world where the law was recognized. Railroad construction brought
the Chinese; agriculture brought the Japanese; Armenians came to escape Moslem
persecution; and the Mexican Revolution brought more.
One of the first laws to quantify immigration was established
in 1921. Later, the 1924 National Origins Act created a discriminatory quota
system and established a Border Patrol. The Immigration and Nationality Act of
1952 established limits on immigration, but strongly favored entries from
The Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 enacted
a powerful set of laws that still shape the U.S. today. Sweeping changes to
immigration policy came with the 1965 Amendments, abolishing the national
origins quota system, replacing it with a seven-category “preference” system to
control the allocation of immigrant visas. Numeric quotas increased from
154,000 to 290,000; 120,000 of those were reserved for immigrants from the
Western Hemisphere. The 290,000-person limit did not include immediate family
members of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children, or parents), who were exempt
from numerical limitations. Little has changed in the 40-plus years since.
The Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C. is a nonpartisan
research organization that studies and provides information to the general
public on immigration issues, attitudes and trends in the U.S. In a study of
the national population in 2005, the center determined 26.3 percent of people
living in the U.S. were foreign-born. The bulk (62.8 percent) was between the
ages of 18 to 64, considered the primary age group in the workforce.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated immigrants in Colorado at
about 8.6 percent of the total population in 2000. According to The Bell Policy
Center, a think tank in Denver, the Colorado population in 2004 was made up of 434,938
foreign-born people, making up approximately 10 percent of the state. Foreign-born
includes both documented and undocumented immigrants.
According to the Department of Homeland Security Office of
Immigration Statistics in their annual report, 1,266,264 immigrants were granted
Legal Permanent Residence throughout the U.S. in 2006, down from the previous
decade. These include immigrant orphans adopted by U.S. citizen parents,
refugees, asylum seekers, and other foreigners living in the U.S. with
nonimmigrant status, such as students or workers brought sponsored by employers
on a temporary status and their families.
How Did The Immigrant Cross The Border?
Most Americans, recognizing their own families’ migration to
the United States, one, two or more generations ago, proclaim they have no issues
with those immigrants following the process, attempting to find a better life
for themselves and their families. However, many Americans harbor growing
resentment with the rise of undocumented immigrants.
Calculating the number of immigrants here illegally has been
complicated. According to the most current Pew estimates, approximately 11.5
million to 12 million people reside in the United States without proper
authorization, and the other agencies generally accept this as a realistic
figure. Of these undocumented immigrants, 78 percent migrated from Mexico or
other Latin American countries.
In general, Americans perceive the undocumented immigrant as
primarily male, Latino, and looking for work in the day labor market. In
actuality, men make up 49 percent of the undocumented population. Women account
for 35 percent and children for 16 percent. Most of the population is not single as generally surmised;
over half live with spouses, with or without children, and the spouses and/or
children may be legal citizens (as in the case with Juan and Peggy).
Children compound the issues even more. According to Pew, an
estimated 3.1 million children are born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrant
parents (one or both) and by law, by birthright, the children are U.S.
An estimated 66 percent of the unauthorized immigrant
population has been here 10 years or less, 40 percent of those having been here
five years or less. Approximately 4.9 percent work in the civilian labor force.
The vast majority of the jobs held by unauthorized immigrants are in
agriculture, construction, food processing, textile mills, the leisure and
hospitality industries, landscaping, and janitorial services. Day laborers are
only a minute portion of the immigrants, and are usually those most recently
arrived in the U.S. They are skilled and unskilled workers, holding
approximately 1 out of every 20 jobs.
Using past trends from 1960 forward, Pew estimates foreign-born
residents in the year 2050 may represent anywhere from 2.11 percent to 4.28
percent of the total population. All agencies admit, however, that because
immigration is so vastly affected by outside influences, projections are
difficult to calculate with any accuracy.
By comparison to some other countries, the general U.S. population
is educated and well fed. Our citizens can exercise their right to elect their
own government officials, and since gaining independence, we’ve never had to
fight a war on home soil outside of the Civil War. As long as the U.S. is seen as
a wealthy, democratic and safe beacon to the rest of the world, people will
continue to cross the borders looking for a better life – documented or
2008 World Fact Book, Central Intelligence Agency,
Department of Homeland Security.
U.S. Population Projections: 2005-2050; Pew Hispanic Center,
Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C.
Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2006. Washington, D.C.:
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, 2007.
Immigration effect on Colorado and the nation: A review of
research, The Bell Policy Center, 2004.
Laura Anderson is a freelance writer with 20 years
experience and is a regular contributor to The Denver Urban Spectrum.