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Immigrants on ship
Society and Community:
American Immigration History
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Americans are less negative about immigration than they have been in several years — at least according to a poll conducted in 2004 by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The study found that 41 percent of the public now says that legal immigration to the United States should be decreased — much lower than the 59 percent that CBS News and the NEW YORK TIMES found when they asked the same question in December 2001.

But Americans are not wholeheartedly embracing immigration. Today, 37 percent say legal immigration should be kept at its present level and 41 percent say it should be decreased. Only 18 percent say that legal immigration should be increased. Immigrants themselves are much more likely than non-immigrants to say that immigration quotas should be decreased. Other topline findings are as follows:

Overall, the public is divided on whether the large influx of recent immigrants has been good or bad for the country, with 30 percent saying good, 39 percent saying bad, and 28 percent saying it hasn't made much difference. Although 42 percent of non-immigrants say recent immigrants work harder than most other Americans, more than a third (35 percent) say they love America less.
The study authors suggest that non-immigrants views of whether new immigrants are legal or illegal substantially effects their overall opinion of the benefit or harm they do to the economy. A majority of the public, 54 percent, believes that most recent immigrants are in the country illegally and nearly three-fifths of non-immigrants say illegal immigrants have hurt the national economy. (Read the results of the study.)

Of course the 21st century is not the first to grapple with the issue of regulating immigration. In the late 19th and early 20th century public opinion began to swell against the influx of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. In order to restrict immigrants to the perceived "better" immigrant groups, Congress passed first the Quota Act of 1921 then the even more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act). The 1924 law imposed a total quota on immigration of 165,000—less than 20 percent of the pre-World War I average. It also based ceilings on the number of immigrants from any particular nation on the percentage of each nationality recorded in the 1890 census- before the large waves began to arrive from Southern and Eastern Europe. The result was obvious — between 1900 and 1910 an average of 200,000 Italians had entered the United States every year. After the 1924 Act, the annual quota for Italians was set at less than 4,000.

Find out more about America's immigration history from the sites listed below.

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Immigration in America

Population of the U.S. in 1855:  23,191,876
% of population foreign-born:  9.7%
Population of the U.S. in 2000:  273,643,274
% of population foreign-born:  8.9%
Population of New York City in 1855:  650,000
% of New York City population foreign-born  over 50%
Population of New York City, 2000:  7,825,848
% of New York City residents foreign-born:  36.9%
Sources: THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, (New York Historical Society, 1995); U.S. Department of the Census, "Current Population Survey Report, 2000;" "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990"

Immigration History Resources:

American Family Immigration History Center
Explore your family history by searching through passenger records, creating a family scrapbook, or reading about the immigrant experience - and think about what makes an American.

Census Bureau
Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-born Population of the United States: 1850-1990

The Immigration and Naturalization Services
Access statistics related to immigration in America.

The PBS program IN THE MIX offers a timeline of the major events in the history of U.S. immigration - elsewhere on the site, an exploration of the present-day immigrant experience through the eyes of five teenagers.

The PBS news program has created a special feature for students on changing immigration policy. View the feature, and link to related resources for teachers and students.

American History Project
An extensive multimedia presentation about the changing face of American immigration from the Library of Congress.

The companion web site to the PBS family history and genealogy television series offers many tips for those tracing their family's path.

The City - La Ciudad ON PBS
THE CITY (LA CIUDAD) tells stories of Latin American immigrants in the United States. The site offers profiles of those featured in the film and an extensive library of research resources, in both Spanish and English.

Beyond the Border on PBS
BEYOND THE BORDER - Más Allá de la Frontera traces the painful transition made by four sons in a Mexican family as they leave behind their parents and sisters and struggle to overcome cultural, class and language barriers in Kentucky.

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