How immigration works

January 3rd, 2021

A brief history of immigration 

Immigration shapes a large part of the self-conception of the United States of America. We pride ourselves on being “a nation of immigrants,” which is true in some sense. But this phrase erases both the native populations who lived in this land before Europeans arrived and the forced migration of enslaved Africans who were brought here in chains. Despite its importance to our national identity, attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policy in the United States have vacillated wildly between welcome and restriction. 

The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first law passed by Congress regarding citizenship. It granted citizenship to any free white person “of good character” who had been living in the United States for two years or longer. Citizenship ensured constitutional protections like the right to vote, the ability to testify in court, and the right to own property. After the War of 1812 and the reestablishment of peace with Britain, the first major wave of immigration from Western Europe began and lasted until the Civil War. Between 1820 and 1860, Irish immigrants accounted for about a third of all immigration. More than five million Germans also arrived, settling primarily in the Midwest. This influx also spurred the formation of the first anti-immigration political party, the Know-Nothings. 

After the Civil War, the second immigration boom began during a rapid period of industrialization and urbanization. From 1880 to 1920, more than 20 million immigrants arrived, primarily from Southern, Eastern and Central Europe. The late 19th century also saw a surge in Chinese immigration on the West Coast, where new arrivals found work in gold mines, garment factories and building railroads. White workers, however, blamed Chinese immigrants for low wages, which led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first act to place broad restrictions on certain immigrant groups. 

Around World War I, xenophobia reached new heights, and many immigration restrictions were put into place. Literacy requirements and nationality quotas highly favored immigrants from Western and Northern Europe, while largely eliminating immigrants from Asia. In the wake of these limits, more immigrants began entering the country illegally by crossing the Mexican and Canadian borders which led to the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol. After World War II, immigration policy changed again to deal with labor shortages as well as European refugees seeking resettlement after the war. 

The current immigration process 

The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), passed in 1965 under President Lyndon B. Johnson, currently governs the immigration process and initially set up a seven-category preference system that did away with the previous nationality quotas and emphasized family reunification and skilled immigration. There are a number of different pathways for immigration depending on one’s circumstances and whether or not permanent citizenship will be sought. For the spouses, parents and children (under the age of 21) of U.S. citizens, there are unlimited visas available. Each fiscal year, the INA allows the United States to issue 675,000 permanent immigrant visas across all categories. Once someone obtains an immigrant visa and comes to the United States, that person becomes a lawful permanent resident, can work and live lawfully, and can eventually apply for citizenship. Additionally, the President sets an annual number of refugee admissions. 

Others looking to immigrate in a more temporary capacity can receive temporary visas, which admit tourists, students and temporary workers into the United States. For example, tech leaders have advocated for expanding H-1B visas, which let more high-skilled immigrants into the country to boost the economy. Despite the publicity around people crossing the southern border without documentation, most undocumented immigrants have simply overstayed these temporary visas. In addition to caps on certain kinds of immigrants, the INA also has a ceiling on how many immigrants can come to the U.S. from any one country. Currently, no single country can make up more than 7% of the total immigrants in a year. As opposed to other kinds of nationality exclusions, this limit ensures that no one immigrant population dominates immigration patterns. 

The immigration quotas specified in the INA went into effect in 1991 and since then, the wait time for green card applications for family-sponsored and employment-based categories has doubled to almost six years. In 2018, 28% of prospective immigrants waited 10 years or more, up from just 3% in 1991. To process the current backlog could take decades, making arguments about “just going home and waiting your turn” a less-than-feasible strategy for many in the U.S. on expired visas. These long waits separate American families and artificially suppress legal migration of workers who could benefit our economy right now.

21st century human migration 

People choose to migrate for any number of reasons, with economic and safety concerns often being the most prominent. But in the near future, we may be looking at record numbers of environmental migrants, both within the United States and globally. Changes to the local environment — like droughts, sea level rise and the disruption of seasonal weather patterns — are increasingly leading to migration. For example, at present, 1% of the world is in a barely livable hot zone. But by 2070, this could be as high as 19%, including land that billions of people currently call home. Additionally, while immigration is economically advantageous for the United States in the long run, it may be deleterious for developing countries who see their best, brightest and most highly educated move abroad in search of better opportunities. 

As of 2017, more than 40 million people living in the United States were foreign-born, 13.7% of the total population. While the raw total is a record high, the share of foreign-born immigrants in 1890 was slightly higher at 14.8%. Based on a 2017 study, almost a quarter (23%) of the foreign-born population in the United States, or 10.5 million people, are undocumented. 

As Christians, our theological commitments should guide our discussions of immigration and our hospitality and ministry to immigrants in our midst. In some places, our priorities might align with purely political discussions, like privileging family reunification. In others, it may differ, such as our emphasis on hospitality. Nonetheless, the worth, dignity and inherent rights and values of migrants must be at the forefront of any immigration discussion between Christians, whether immigrants are farm workers or doctors, refugees or economic migrants, documented or undocumented. 


A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country due to persecution, war or violence. Refugees are often in danger of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Presently, 68% of those displaced across international borders come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. 

Historically, the United States has resettled more refugees than any other country. But recently, we have not kept up with the pace of growth in the refugee population, a group that has grown by about 50% over the last five years. The number of refugees accepted every year to the United States is set by the President, in consultation with Congress. For 2021, the number is 15,000, the lowest it has been since the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, and down from 85,000 in 2016. 

Many Christians see a mandate within their faith for caring for and welcoming refugees because they are so vulnerable. Several Christian denominations have dedicated organizations that work with the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) to assist in identifying and resettling refugees, which is a lengthy process, taking approximately 18 to 24 months. Refugees undergo several rounds of screenings, background checks and interviews before admission. Once admitted, refugee resettlement agencies arrange housing and assist them with settling in to their new lives.

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