The Necessity of Immigration in American Society


Immigration[1], throughout history, has been a fundamental and often controversial facet of American life. John F. Kennedy in 1962 remarked, “Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life.” However, inevitably, the ethnocentric mentality shared by many Americans, as well as the concept of domestic job security, has often pitted heads with the idea of immigration necessity. However adamant the conception that immigration is dissolving the American way of life and destroying economic security, that notion can be refuted by pointing to the economic as well as cultural contributions made by immigrants, towards shaping, rather than preserving, American society. Legal immigration has played a fundamental and necessary part in shaping the United States both culturally and economically, as well as allowing for the continued existence of American dominance in world affairs.


The controversy behind immigration often results from a clash between priorities and values; issues of nationalism and cultural respect. Ethnocentric inclinations have often created the desire for a certain degree of ethnic homogeneity; however, beyond racism, concerns about economic stability or feelings of economic superiority have led many native-borns to feel either afraid of or aloof from the immigrant population. It is much believed that as a nation, the United States was founded on the ambitions and curiosity of immigration. However, it is also relatively universal the contemporary and historical detest for immigrants from native born residents. In fact, a recent study by Rita J. Simon shows that public opinion toward immigration has been hostile since the eighteen hundreds; however, strangely, this negative feeling towards immigrants seems to immediately, and almost definitely, dissolve as people become personally or professionally interconnected with the immigrant population (Rita J. Simon 1985).


Throughout the history of the United States there have been two main sources of antipathy between native born residents and immigrants, 1) fear (be it physical or economic), and 2) ethnocentrism and racism. From the beginning of United States history, immigration regulations have been an important and prominent discussion in the world of politics. The Founding Fathers’ desire for sovereignty for the Colonies, many would argue, was a result of strict immigration policy enforced by Britain. In fact, restrictive immigration policy is one of the charges against King George III in the Declaration of Independence. George Washington in his Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1795, asked all Americans, “humbly and fervently to beseech the kind Author of these blessings…render this country more and more safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries”. Unfortunately, this seemingly open door to immigration, as set out by George Washington, did not last long as national policy or as public mentality, in fact, its legacy was virtually non-existent (John F. Kennedy 1964).

Almost from the beginning, the government and the people began fearing and placing restriction on immigration to the United States. For example, in 1798, the Alien Acts allowed the expulsion of foreigners, if they were “dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States”. In addition, the Alien Acts increased the required time for naturalization from five years to fourteen years. The Alien Acts created a strong feeling of distrust and fear, and in 1801, the act was allowed to expire and the naturalization period returned to five years. Though the Act was ‘repealed’, the xenophobia (hatred of foreigners) within the United States continued. In the 1850’s nativism and fear of immigration escalated with the establishment of the jingoistic society, The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner. According to Kennedy, this neo-patriotic group vowed to vote only for native-born Americans and tried to expand the naturalization period to 21 years. This secretive group, also called the “Know-Nothings” because of their unwillingness to disclose their political agenda, rose to power in a time in which slaves were gaining freedom from their masters. However, internal disagreements split the party and their political strength disappeared, almost as quickly as it had come. Though the party disappeared from the world of politics, their influence lived far longer. As the “Know-Nothings” dispersed, soon came the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and the fear of minorities lived on. Though the power of the Klu Klux Klan, and other nativists in the west coasts, began to peak during the early 1900’s, the American policy regarding immigration remained exceedingly open and welcoming much like it is today (John F. Kennedy 1964).

Modern Times

The current state of America’s immigration policy is particularly liberal, granting many immigrants U.S. citizenship with a naturalization period of only two years (U.S. Citizenship and Services 2004), however, living in post-September 11th America, the fear of immigration and the debate about its necessity has resurfaced. After the attacks on the World Trade Center, waves of violent racism, spurred on by fear, appeared throughout the country. According to a CNN News Bulletin on September 19th 2001, “Anger against the people who perpetrated the attacks on the United States [on September 11, 2001] is now spilling out in some places, and much of the anger is directed at Arab-Americans, Muslims and South Asians, some of whom look like those believed to have carried out the attacks.” Once again, fear and ignorance dominated America’s response to immigration after September 11th, once again, the necessity of immigration became a national priority, and once again, many arguments are being made to attempt to curtail legal immigration.

Economic Benefits of Immigration

First, and probably most controversial, is the dispute over the economic necessity of legal immigration as a whole. Common misconceptions seem to point to immigration as a fundamental hindrance to the success of the working class as well as the United States economy. The idea that legal immigration is detrimental the US economy is fuelled through two main arguments: First, it is a commonly believed that continued immigration will eventually take jobs away from the working classes native born citizens and in turn hurt the domestic job market, and second, is the claim that legal immigrants contribute to the society at a lesser level and in turn absorb state benefits such as welfare at a higher level.

The Job Market and Immigration

Product Demand. Though some claim that immigrants take jobs away from the economy, in reality they are no threat to the American job market whatsoever. In fact, according to an extensive 1989 study determining the relationship between immigration and unemployment, the U.S. Department of Labor determined that, “neither U.S. workers nor most minority workers appear adversely affected by immigration.” Not only do immigrants pose little threat to American jobs, in fact, most studies revealed that immigration actually creates jobs for the U.S. job market. Common knowledge would suggest, because workers migrate into the States, they will take deserving jobs away from Americans through competition. However, economic investigation has determined that immigrants actually manage to create jobs in two fundamental ways. First, as population increases due to immigration, resource usage will parallel this increase. In turn, demand for certain products will rise creating new jobs to accommodate the increase in demand. This is a fundamental concept of population expansion capitalism; higher population means higher demand, which results in higher job necessity.

Entrepreneurship. In addition to expanding product demand, immigrants historically have contributed to the economy by starting their own businesses. In doing so immigrants help to supply more jobs through the establishment of private business. Statistically, immigrants are highly entrepreneurial, opening business at a higher rate then their native-born counterparts, in doing so immigrants help to supply jobs (Fix, Passel 1994).

An important argument for those who do not support high immigration rates into the United States is that poorly educated immigrants are a threat to native-born working class citizen. The fact is, “Although there seems to exist rather straightforward reasons to think that immigration might, at least under some conditions, undermine the labor-market positions of natives, particularly those natives who are most vulnerable to economic shocks and dislocations, such as racial or ethnic minorities and workers with low levels of education, research results have not consistently shown the existence of such effects” (Bean, Van Hook, Fossett 1999). Studies have proven that African Americans (and other minorities) as well as unskilled[2] workers have not suffered disproportionably in comparison to others as a result of immigration.

Education Movement. Though relatively unaffected by immigration, the number of unskilled workers within the United States will continue to decrease. All evidence seems to point to a fundamental movement of American workers away from the lower skill level jobs and towards more skill specific jobs as national education levels continue to increases. Immigrants will fill this void through willingness to accept low-level jobs. An increase in ‘lower education jobs’ coupled with an increase in national education, will further accentuate the necessity of immigration in years to come. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau of Statistics in 2000, 22 million new jobs will be created by 2010, with 70 percent of those requiring only on-the-job-training. In addition, it is predicted that the total number of jobs from 2000 to 2010 requiring only short-term training will increase from 53.2 million to 60.9 million. As education levels and workforce age continue to rise, however, the willingness for American workers to accept these low-education, short-term training jobs continues to fall. In fact, the projected age of the average American worker in 2010 is 40.6 while native-born males in the United States continue to receive a high school diploma at a higher rate than ever before. In fact, the percentage of native-males without a high school diploma has sunk from more than 50% in the 1960 to less than 10% today (U.S. Bureau of Statistics 2000). Therefore, it is very necessary for immigrants to fill this widening gap in the labor force, or else, potentially, the national economy will collapse under the expansion of the middle class.

Case Example. As previously mentioned, a very important way in which immigrants have traditionally supplied jobs for the workforce is through natural entrepreneurial inclinations. Historically, immigrants have had higher rates of self-employment than their native-born counterparts, which have not only created jobs, but also help the community around them. A particularly good example of this labor division phenomenon between immigrants and natives, and how the immigrant population can better a community through self-sufficiency, is the development of a Korean colony in Los Angeles during the mid-1970’s. As the population of Koreans within Los Angeles began to increase, the street formally known as Olympic Boulevard became known as Koreatown. By 1980, as Koreatown was flourishing, the entrepreneurship statistics of the Korean population were quite remarkable. In fact, by 1981, though the Korean population accounted for less than .8% of the Los Angeles population, they accounted for almost five percent of all the retail firms within the city. According to the 1980 U.S. Census, 22.5% of Koreans within the city of Los Angeles were self employed more than three times as high a rate as non-Koreans within the city (Light, Ivan 1988).

Another remarkable attribute of the Korean population within Los Angeles during the 1980’s was the tendency for Korean business owners to hire other Korean workers. Though seemingly irrelevant, by employing within the Korean community, Koreatown maintained tremendous self-sufficiency, with exceptionally low un-employment rates. In fact, 62% of Koreans were either self-employed or employees of Korean-owned firms (Sherman 1979), which in itself helped to generated internal wealth.

Not only did the Korean populations generate significant amounts of capital, they also greatly improved their community within Los Angeles as a whole. The Koreans, much like other entrepreneurial immigrants, improved the community in three distinct ways. First, the low unemployment rates and high levels of self-sufficiency within the Korean community allowed for the development of a more tightly knit, self-reliant neighborhood system. Close mental ties between neighbors, based on similarity of experiences and lifestyle, helped to create a strong neighborhood system in which the area was able to flourish. Within this strong neighborhood, wealth increased, aesthetics within the area were restored, and property value increased significantly.

Second, and equally important, is the way in which immigrants can better the community through continued efforts to decrease the crime rate. As the suburbs could not support the small business established with the Korean communities, many Koreans were forced to, “face a crime problem that other populations had fled” (Endicott 1981). Increased wealth and strong neighborhood systems also decreased incentive for crime within a given area. Because small Koreatown merchants required safe parking and safe streets for the prosperity of their business, decreasing crime was a top priority.

Thirdly, the Koreans, as with many immigrants, valued public education and in turn greatly improved it. Because many Korean families moved to the United States because of greater educational opportunity, they excelled. For example, in 1978, Koreans amounted to 26 percent of the 675 honor students at five central Los Angeles secondary schools, though they still represented less then 1 percent of the population. Through this dedication, the Koreans have progressively reformed Los Angeles education, including the introduction of a bilingual program within all Los Angeles public schools (Sherman 1979).

Social Benefits

As groups of people migrate to the United States, such as the Koreans in Los Angeles or the Cubans in Miami, these groups tend to maintain a sense of unity through the establishment of ethnic ghettos, and in turn develop a great deal of self sufficiency. However, often the question is asked, what about the immigrants who do not live within the realm of self-sufficiency, don’t they absorb government resources, such as welfare and medicaid, at a higher rate? A serious concern for many is the cost of immigrants to society. Though it may be the inclination to blur the line between legal and illegal immigrants, the facts remain that collectively legal immigrants earn $290 billion in salary each year, pay $90 billion in taxes, and receive a relatively meager $5 billion in welfare ( 2003). According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics only 12.8 percent of immigrants receive welfare, while 13.9 percent of the general population receives the same benefits. Though contributions made by immigrants towards the betterment of the society vary significantly due to age[3], most researchers have come to the conclusion that the ratio of economic contributions versus economic benefits received by immigrants is virtually identical to the ratio between economic contributions and benefits received by native born citizens (U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics 2000).

Immigrant Contributions to the United States

The success of a state often hinges on its connection with the world around it. Great empires such as the Roman Empire, the Guapta Empire of India, and the Han Dynasty of China have thrived due to geographical location and ability to exchange thoughts and products within the global marketplace. The Roman Empire’s strategic location on the Mediterranean Sea established a web of trade in which ideas, as well as products, cycled from empire to empire. The spread of culture ushered in through trade is referred to as cultural diffusion and historically has been essential to the development of an empire.

The historian Oscar Handlin said, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” As a nation, our heritage can very literally be traced to the ambitions of immigrant forefathers. Each wave of immigration to the United States has left a distinct mark of the face of American culture and the prosperity of society. As immigration inevitability continues, American life will continue to confirm the ideals such as liberty and economic opportunity held so dear. However, if attempts are made to curtail legal immigration, American society will not only begin to deny concepts of liberty and capitalism, but also restrict the network in which cultures can exchange ideas and contribute to the good of the state.

Specific immigrant contributions

Immigrants have contributed to society in immense and profound ways; a restriction on immigration will undoubtedly restrict cultural diffusion. From the very beginning, immigrants have played a key role in the development of American culture. In fact, two of the most important Founding Fathers of the constitution—Alexander Hamilton (Secretary of Treasury under Washington) and Albert Gallatin (Secretary of Treasury under Jefferson)—were immigrants who helped formulate the original economic policy of the developing nation. As America has continued to age, every aspect of the United State’s wealth has increased from the contributions made by immigrants. In 1953, President Eisenhower’s Commission of Immigration and Naturalization talked about the spectacular contributions, made by immigrants, in the industrial and scientific occupational field. He cited tangible contributions made by such important figures as: Andrew Carnegie (Scottish), in the steel industry; Du Pont (French), in the munitions and chemical industry; and John Jacob Astor (German), in the fur trade industry. He also talked about the contribution of such scientists as Albert Einstein (German), in the field of physics; Igor Sikorsky (Russian), made some of the most important contributions to the development of the airplane; and Alexander Graham Bell (Scottish), who was the inventor of the telephone.

In addition to the world of science and industry, the influence immigrants have exerted on 18th and 19th century American society is immense. Within the past 200 years 20 percent of businessmen, 20 percent of scholars and scientists, and 23 percent of painters have been immigrants. In addition, 24 percent of engineers, 28 percent of the architects, 29 percent of the clergymen have been of foreign decent. Even more impressive, of the 18th and 19th century workforce, 46 percent of the musicians and 61 percent of the actors were foreign born (Allen Johnson, O. Johnson, Dumas Malone 1977)

General immigrant contributions

Perhaps the most important and pervasive contributions made by immigrants, can be found not in the contribution made by those who are famous, but rather the role immigrants as a whole have had in shaping American culture; the influence of diversity in its entirety. Through simple observation, the impact immigrants have had on American language and food is very important. American vernacular is in constant fluctuation, paralleling the size and make up of the immigrants who enter the United States. The very fact that American language has diverged from the once prominent ‘traditional English’ is glaring evidence that immigrants have influenced America’s contemporary culture. Immigrants, in all respects, have played an important and necessary role in the development of the American society. The United States is a country of immigrants, a country whose cultural and political development has, in many ways, been shaped by the brilliance and diligence of the immigrant.

Historical and Contemporary Context

Post-September 11th America

However undeniable the benefits to the economy and the cultural contributions made by the immigrant, living in post-September 11th America, the idea of United States imperialism and immigration policy has come into question. Igor Ivanov, prime minister of Russia, talks about the fine balance between continued globalization[4] and the compromise of national security. In his essay, International Security in the Era of Globalization, written in 2003, he writes, “Globalization contributes to accelerate the development of productive forces, scientific and technological progress and ever more intensive communication among states and the same time the process of globalization, which mainly develops spontaneously, worth a collective directing influence or the world community, aggravate a number of old problems of international security and engender new risks and challenges.” With this statement, Ivanov cites the antagonistic relationship between open borders and preservation of national security. However, as tempting as isolationism may be, self sufficiency is not only impractical in the modern world, but also a significant hindrance to the expansion of culture.

Historical Comparison

Isolationism leads to definite collapse of political supremacy. Ancient china, for example, enjoyed high levels of political and economic superiority and self-sufficiency in the 12th and 13th centuries. However, after the death of Kubilai Khan[5] in 1294 Mongol influence in China drastically decreased. In last ditch efforts to preserve Mongol power, the Mongol leadership instilled drastic segregation measures between the Mongols and the native-Chinese. Chinese art was outlawed, the Chinese language was banned from the Mongol education system, and the Chinese population as a whole was on the brink of extermination. Chinese hatred grew, and as the Mongol dynasty was overturned, the strong animosity between the Mongols and the Chinese continued into the Ming dynasty. Under the Ming dynasty, China closed its borders to foreign citizens and trade in fear of Mongol rule. Chinese cargo ships once surrounded China’s coast, however, this trade, which including a regular run of grain and other commodities from the south, along the coast, to the north, was altogether stopped in fear of foreign infiltration and control (Chronicles of the Chinese Emperors, Ann Paludan, Thames, Hudson 1998).

As ancient China continued to close its doors to immigrants, national funding for public projects began to diverge away from internal development and refocus towards international exploration for the good of learning rather than the good of the economy. Ancient China flaunted its wealth and political dominance. According to Time Magazine in 2001, Zheng He, a Chinese explorer, explored the world with over 27,000 men in the early 1405. His travels were not for economic needs; rather, they were for diplomacy, exploration, and sinocentric[6] values. However, as China continued to remain isolated, Europe increased in wealth and technology, while China preserved much of its archaic traditions and culture. Today, China’s status as a 3rd world country can be attributed to many factors, one of the most important, of course, being isolationism and arrogance, both of which lead to a rejection of foreign culture. The poor state of China today can be seen as a constant reminder of the importance of immigration and the spread of foreign culture.

American cultural disregard through unilateralism

Great nations depend on a functioning network of free trade in order to facilitate cultural diffusion and a continued recycling of ideas and achievements. However, fear of immigrants has resurfaced as national security once again becomes a principle concern of the American people in post-September 11th America. CIA director, George Tenet in 2002, defiantly remarked, “globalization has been a profoundly disruptive force for governments to manage.” This comment in many ways parallels the ethnocentric mentality held by the ancient Chinese of the Ming dynasty. America’s ethnocentricity can be best observed in March of 2003 in the Unites States unilateral decision to invade Iraq and their blatant disregard for the United Nations. Michael Ratner, President of the Washington-based Center for Constitutional Rights, remarked that the United States has, “seriously undermined the authority and credibility of the United Nations.” Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, highly regarded in the world of politics as one of the greatest peacemakers of our time, condemned Washington’s ‘arrogant conduct’ during the invasion of Iraq. Moving from multiculturalism to unilateralism may lead to the decline of world power currently held by the United States. When the U.S. disregarded the United Nations during the 2002 invasion of Iraq, the nation set a clear and undeniable message: the US maintains absolute superiority in world affairs. Deploying economic, political, and military power globally, however, limits the force of international law, shrinks the capacity of international organization, and reduces the possibility of multilateral action. All this will further perpetuate the decline of American society if the U.S. begins to embraces the ideas of isolationism, while rejecting the importance of immigration and cultural influence in the survival of America.


In his book, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville talked about American acceptance of immigration as “the spirit of equality”. Equality, in its most literal interpretations, has never, and will never take place in the world of politics. Equality in the United States has never meant ‘we are all equal’, equality has never meant identical lives based around identical economic and political power. Equality has never implied that we are all the same, because varying skills and intelligence levels would certainly say otherwise. No, equality in the context of the United States history does not mean ‘equal outcome,’ rather it means ‘equal opportunity’. Though societal institutions and economic standing significantly hinder this idea of equal opportunity, as a nation, the United States must continue to have faith in negative freedom[7], continue to have faith in the idea that virtue, diligence, intelligence, and ambition will bring prosperity, continue to have faith in individual liberty, and continue to have faith in the world around us. In all respects, American constitutional idealism provides the backbone for the central idea of immigration necessity. The values held so dear within the American governmental and societal framework, are the same values that embrace immigration rather than reject it. Not only economically beneficial, but necessary for the continued existence of United States power in the world politics, immigration plays a fundamentally important role in the preservation of American society.

[1] For the remainder of the essay, the term immigrant is defined as: “A person who leaves one country to settle permanently in another”

[2] Lacking specialization in a certain field acquired through education

[3] Age determines how long an individual can work; therefore age determines how much the individual can add to the economy

[4] Hereafter, globalization within this paper refers to the active process of political or economic expansion.

[5] Mongol leader of the Yuan Empire

[6] Belief of one China that they are the center of the earth

[7] Negative freedom refers to equality in opportunity not necessarily equality in results.



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