Power & Policy in America's History on Immigration

A de facto motto of the United States has been the adage, "E Pluribus Unum" — "Out of Many, One." This central definition of the American project explains what makes the United States unique to the rest of the world and it holds as a core assumption that we can truly become better through diversity.

The history of the United States living up to this aspiration or realizing this dream, however, has been mixed. 

Immigrant 101 is a lecture given by our Director of Advocacy, Collin, about the fraught history of immigration in the United States. The lecture will cover the politics, economics, sociology, and history of immigration policy in the United States, and it will also include perspectives on differences between immigrants with and without documentation.

Overall, our hope is to separate myth from reality on a topic that has divided the american public for generations.

Who do we mean when we say "Immigrant" today?

The term is used often in lay discourse, but we can occasionally overlook the details about whom we are specifically discussing. Is it someone else? Does this term include me as well? To begin, perhaps it would be helpful to look at how the Department of Homeland Security, the central bureaucratic agency overseeing this operation in the United States, defines the term.

According to the Department of Homeland Security:

Permanent Resident Alien - An alien admitted to the United States as a lawful permanent resident. Permanent residents are also commonly referred to as immigrants; however, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) broadly defines an immigrant as any alien in the United States, except one legally admitted under specific nonimmigrant categories (INA section 101(a)(15)). An illegal alien who entered the United States without inspection, for example, would be strictly defined as an immigrant under the INA but is not a permanent resident alien. Lawful permanent residents are legally accorded the privilege of residing permanently in the United States. They may be issued immigrant visas by the Department of State overseas or adjusted to permanent resident status by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.
— Department of Homeland Security

As we can see, the term "immigrant" is not the legal term operationalized in these discussions. Instead, there are a whole variety of terms employed to describe people's various, unique circumstances. It is important to remember that these terms are distinct from "refugees" and asylum seekers. For a fuller discussion on these differences, see our "Refugee 101" page here.

But knowing this definition doesn't help us know who immigrants are. To be familiar with the people we are describing, let's begin by building a profile and a life story.

Ten Largest Immigrant Groups, United States (2016) by Percent

Source: Migration Policy Institute

What this distribution shows us is that immigrants come from all over the world: from Central and South America, from Asia, from Africa, from Europe, and even from other countries in North America too!

In fact, immigrants have been coming to the United States since long before the United States or any of the colonies existed — this territory did not always "belong" to this country or government. Instead, our American history needs to be contextualized within the broader meta-narrative of expansion, conquest, and the exchange of land, through violence or negotiation. Our presentation will cover the fraught history of american expansion and how differing people groups over time have been impacted by political decisions about the flow of people across our changing borders.

Some of the way we will talk about this history is through looking at immigration flows through time as well as specific policies.

Legal Immigration to United States by Year

Source: Migration Policy Institute

Key policy on immigration

  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act — Notable for being the first law written to prohibit a specific ethnic group's entry to the country. In our presentation, we will talk about the U.S. economy and employment opportunities, specifically in California, around the time of the act.
  • Immigration Act of 1917 — Also known as the "Literacy Act" because of its literacy tests. This legislation was notable because, at the time, it was the most sweeping immigration legislation in our history to that point. We will discuss the politics and cultural fears of the time as well as what major events had been happening in Europe during this point.
  • Emergency Quota Act of 1921 — Notable for its use of quotas in an attempt to be "unbiased" when choosing quantities of people from various countries. We will discuss how "color blind" policies today can sometimes reflect the same misgivings as this policy from 1921.
  • Immigration Act of 1924 — Notable for officially putting an end to open U.S. borders.
  • The Depression and WWII impacted immigration to the United States in various ways, which we will discuss in addition to the Braceros Program, Japanese Internment, and other issues too.
  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 — Notable for ending the quota-based system of immigration that had looked at national origin.
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 — Notable for creating the I-9 verification, its focus on immigrants without documentation, and the subtext of the War on Drugs. This policy and the ones that have come since will be discussed through the lens of American foreign policy, economic policy, and through a critical lens on American unipolarity after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The main function of our presentation comes toward the end when we discuss several of the myths surrounding immigration and then discuss their realities. What you can expect from that section of the presentation is sampled below:


  • Research indicates that this myth is not true. Not only has research shown a correlation with American innovation, job creation, and economic growth with levels of immigration, but it has also shown the disproportionate way in which legal residents benefit economically from the labor and revenues of immigrants without documentation. In fact, some economists have even gone as far to say that social safety nets relied upon by documented citizens are buoyed greatly by people paying into the system without ever getting to reclaim those benefits.
  • The simplification of all immigrants based upon the actions of a few is an exercise in ignorance. Data reveal that immigrant communities have an incarceration rate of one fifth that of native-born communities. Further, this simplification ignores the rigorous vetting undergone by every immigrant to the United States – a process not required of citizens at home. Still further, this myth overlooks a clear reality that is apparent to anyone familiar with the research: immigrants are much more likely to be victims of the crimes than the perpetrators. 
    This is not to imply that no immigrants commit crimes; of course immigrants communities commit crimes just like any other groups of humans. The research indicates, however, that they are not the societal pariah they are made out to be. 


  • Immigrants are hurting the American economy through taking jobs away from Americans, through collecting on unearned benefits, and through lowering wages.







  • Immigrants are dangerous. "They are bringing drugs, crime; they're rapists."