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United States

The United States receives more immigrants than any country – indeed almost more than all other countries put together. Despite efforts at restriction, the numbers have been rising steadily, primarily because of the demand for labour.

Arrivals in 2005 1,222,400
Foreign-born total 38 million (12.9% of population)
Sources of legal arrivals India, 7.5%; China, 6.2%; Philippines 5.4%; Cuba 3.2%

Immigration to the United States has been rising steadily and has now reached levels similar to those of the early 1900s. In 1914 arrivals of 1.2 million were 1.5% of the population, whereas in 2005 they were around 0.3%. Note that this is just arrivals. In fact, around one-third of permanent settlers return home.

Immigration to the US, 1820-2005, thousands US immigration history

However the sources of immigration shifted over this period. Prior to the 1960s around two-thirds of visas went to people from the UK, Ireland and Germany. Following changes in legislation from 1965, however, the balance swung towards Asia, Mexico and Central America. Huge demand for unskilled labour has also drawn in around 12 million unauthorized workers, chiefly from Mexico.

Legal permanent immigrants to the US, come in through three main channels. In 2006, most, around 59%, came in under family reunification schemes, another 13% had employment visas, 17% are asylum seekers or refugees, and various other categories made up the rest.

In addition there are many kinds of non-immigrant visas for people who will only be in the country temporarily. Usually involving around 30 million people, these include tourists and students and as well as people in various skills categories such as the H-1B visas for skilled workers such as computer programmers

The foreign born tend to be concentrated in a few states. In 2004, 29% were in California, 11% in New York, 9% in Texas, and 9% in Florida. In recent years, however, the flows have become more dispersed. Around one-quarter of the foreign born are Mexican.

The US used to known as a 'melting pot' since it was assumed that immigrants would assimilate into US society. This may have been possible when immigrants came largely from Europe but as the arrivals became more diverse the appropriate analogy has become more a multicultural 'salad bowl' in which the ingredients make up one dish but retain their separate identities.

US Government policy has generally been somewhat contradictory – since there is a clash between political and economic objectives. The political priority has often been to placate voters who want to 'pull up the drawbridge'. Many people argue that past immigration was a good thing but that current immigration is not and would like to freeze the current ethnic pattern. These 'nativist' attitudes have a long history: at times people have attempted to exclude the Chinese, for example, and Irish – as well as 'foreign radicals' suspected communists during the height of the Cold War.

These and other restrictions were swept away, however, by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which removed criteria of national origin or ancestry. Instead preference would be given to family members and certain categories of worker. This led to rise in levels of immigration by family members from Asia.

On the whole employers have been been enthusiastic about immigration since it gives than a ready and flexible workforce – and they usually protest vigorously if there are clampdowns to check on the legal status of their employees.

As a result, official policy is inconsistent – fierce border patrols but less systematic monitoring once people have entered. In September 2006, for example, Congress approved legislation calling for the construction of 700 miles of new fencing along the US-Mexico border along with 'SBInet', a system of cameras, radar and unmanned aerial vehicles. Yet, most unauthorised immigrants work undetected and some have been in the country for decades.

President Bush attempted to resolve these contradictions with an Immigration Reform Bill that would have included an amnesty for unauthorized foreigners and a new points system for selecting future immigrants, along with a 'guest worker' programme for agriculture. But this was blocked in the Senate in June 2007 – largely by representatives of his own Republican party.

USA map