Immigration always has been controversial in the United States. More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin worried that too many German immigrants would swamp America's predominantly British culture. In the mid-1800s, Irish immigrants were scorned as lazy drunks, not to mention Roman Catholics. At the turn of the century a wave of "new immigrants" — Poles, Italians, Russian Jews — were believed to be too different ever to assimilate into American life. Today the same fears are raised about immigrants from Latin America and Asia, but current critics of immigration are as wrong as their counterparts were in previous eras.
Immigration to North America began with Spanish settlers in the 16th century and French and English settlers in the 17th century. In the century before the American Revolution, there was a major wave of free and indentured labor from England and other parts of Europe as well as large scale importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean.
Although some level of immigration has been continuous throughout American history, there have been two epochal periods: the 1880 to 1924 Age of Mass Migration, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the Post 1965 Wave of Immigration, primarily from Latin America and Asia (Min 2002, Portes and Rumbaut 1996). Each of these eras added more than 25 million immigrants, and the current wave is far from finished. During some of the peak years of immigration in the early 1900s, about one million immigrants arrived annually, which was more than one percent of the total U.S. population at the time. In the early 21st century, there have been a few years with more than one million legal immigrants, but with a total U.S. population of almost 300 million, the relative impact is much less than it was in the early years of the 20th century.
Immigration gives the United States an economic edge in the world economy. Immigrants bring innovative ideas and...