Immigration issues have come under increasing scrutiny in the United States. At its core, immigration problems are a struggle between ideals: Although America has traditionally been known as a "melting pot" of different races, cultures and creeds, national security issues and a recent focus on terrorism in particular have thrust illegal immigrants into the public policy spotlight. Immigration concerns might have waned somewhat in 2008 to 2009 as the electorate weighs serious economic problems instead. Still, immigration and the economy are indelibly linked.
America has long been known as a nation of immigrants. As a relatively young country, the United States has a history of steady immigration from all over the world. An influx of former European residents helped define and enrich America in the early to mid-20th century. This wave of newcomers was spurred by the United States' promise of individual liberty and hope for economic prosperity; Irish immigrants fled potato famines, and Italians and Jews from all over Europe fled from the fascism of World War II, in a mass movement to America. In more recent years, immigration numbers have been driven in particular by Mexicans looking to escape their home country's abject poverty and crime.
One of the main problems with immigration concerns illegals. According to the Office of Homeland Security, illegal aliens have required increasing efforts by law enforcement officials in the last 10 to 12 years. In 1996, about 69,000 illegals were removed from the United States; by 2008, the annual figure had increased to more than 358,000.
Public policy makers cite two main legal problems with immigration. First, general law enforcement is hindered when lawbreakers have no documentation or identification. Second, national security is threatened by a large population of illegal aliens whose identities and motivations for being in the United States are unknown or unclear.
Immigration also causes economic problems. Proponents of stricter immigration laws often cite foreigners taking scarce American jobs, although many economists note that immigrants such as migrant farm workers are often doing jobs that Americans are unwilling to do. Another fiscal problem is the use of public resources, such as health benefits or food stamps, by illegals who do not pay taxes. This is seen as a drain on government services.
Yet stricter immigration laws might cause problems of their own. High-tech corporations in particular argue that blanket immigration reform restricts the number of highly skilled workers, especially in information technology fields. These companies say that immigration reform policy must take into account that the American workforce must be augmented by highly educated immigrants.
Immigration reform is complicated by differing public reactions. A 2006 study from the Pew Research Center typifies the polarizing affect of immigration on the public, which is not just limited to attitudes toward foreigners. The Pew poll found public opinion split on support for potential reforms, such as penalizing employers for hiring illegals and increasing border presence.
In addition, the view of America as "melting pot" seems to favor immigrants from Europe to the detriment of immigrants from other parts of the world. Public opinion is therefore seemingly subject to a sort of cultural amnesia, which complicates policy making and political platforms on immigration.
Specific immigration policies carry their own set of difficulties. For instance, increasing border patrols and building large fences is expensive and does not guarantee success in stopping the sizable flow of illegals from Mexico in particular. Fining employers for hiring illegals is regressive; that is, large corporations in particular might prefer to pay fines in exchange for access to cheap labor.
Legal immigration policies are not immune to problems, either. The Pew study found that almost half of respondents to a nationwide survey on immigration said that they often encounter people who speak little or no English--language and cultural barriers that have nothing to do with the legality of an immigrant's status.