By Allison Fedirka

Immigration and its place in American society has become a centerpiece in the debates leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. In particular, Republican nominee hopeful Donald Trump has stirred up polarized views regarding the presence of Mexican immigrants in the United States. While Mexico has been singled out, the real issue at hand is how different parts of American society react to immigration. The debate over immigration has reared its head many times throughout the course of U.S. history, though the immigrant group in question changes with the times. But this country, which was built by immigrants and prides itself on being a ‘melting pot’ of people from different backgrounds, periodically finds its population divided over how to address the arrival and incorporation of immigrants.

Popular Views on Immigration

Recent studies reveal that a portion of U.S. society increasingly mistrusts immigrants. In the last year, multiple polls have shown a rising concern over immigration among Americans. A 2014 Harris Poll showed that 19 percent of the population considered immigration one of the top two issues for the government to address. A 2015 poll by Pew Research Center revealed that 38 percent of Americans saw immigration as a burden to the country, while a June 2014 Gallup poll showed 34 percent of the population favored a decrease in immigration. Most recently, an NPD Group survey conducted in late 2015 shows that 61 percent of Americans agree with the statement “continued immigration into the country jeopardizes the United States.” This data complements Pew findings from earlier in 2015 that show large sections of the U.S. population believe immigrants are negatively affecting the economy, crime and social values. While these surveys all asked slightly different questions, the collective results illustrate that a notable amount of Americans are wary of immigrants in the country.

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Such mistrust of and opposition to immigration is nothing new in U.S. history. Groups and political movements promoting some element of nativism – a political or social preference for the established inhabitants of a country over immigrants – have existed almost as long as the country itself. As early as the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act, the U.S. government passed legislation to prevent or slow immigrants (at this time the French) from earning citizenship. From the 1830s to 1850s the Know Nothing movement strongly opposed Irish Catholic immigrants on the grounds that their values and religious practices were not in line with the United States’ protestant Anglo-Saxon society.

In 1882, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to prevent the immigration of Chinese laborers, and this law remained on the books until 1943. From the 1880s to the 1920s, the tide turned against immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, many of whom were Jewish. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894, looked down on these immigrants and popularized concerns that their arrival would bring poverty and organized crime. Throughout U.S. history, there have been certain sectors of American society that believed the best way to maintain national values and security was to exclude newcomers.

Shifts in Immigration Flows

It’s a bit paradoxical that anti-immigration beliefs hold a fairly constant presence in American society, given that the country was built by and thrived from the incorporation of immigrants into its population. Immigrants played critical roles in securing lands during the western expansion and providing labor during the Industrial Revolution. The earliest available data shows that from 1850 to 1930, about 10 percent to 15 percent of the country’s total population was foreign born. In the 1920s, the U.S. established quotas for immigrants, favoring Western Europeans and decreasing the level of immigrants as part of the total U.S. population. From 1940 to 1990, immigrants made up only 5 percent to 9 percent of the country’s total population.

In 1965, the U.S. government made major revisions to its immigration policy, eliminating the national origins system and prioritizing entry for those with relatives already in the United States. Though demographic trends take some time to become evident, this revision has facilitated an increase in the number of foreign-born individuals in the U.S. back to its prior levels. In 2015, 13.9 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born.

In the Unites States, immigration comes in waves. During each wave, a portion of U.S. society will single out a group whose immigration they oppose. For example, the Pew Research Center identifies three major waves of U.S. immigration: the Northern European Wave (1840-1889), the Southern/Eastern European Wave (1880-1919) and the Modern Era (1965-2015). Legislation, economic conditions, war/conflict and political fluctuations all influence which groups are more likely to enter the U.S. and when.

The same group of people does not consistently pour in to the United States. Rather, the dominating origin point of immigrants entering the U.S. will shift over time. The Irish were followed by the Germans who were followed by the Eastern Europeans, and so on. Similarly, the immigrant group drawing public ire will rotate as new waves of immigrants enter. But as time goes on, cultures once decried by parts of the American public are embraced alongside the non-controversial cultures. The nationwide commemoration of St. Patrick’s Day is an excellent example.

Impact of Mexican Migration

In this Modern Era of immigration, Mexicans have been the single largest national group to immigrate to the United States. They account for 28 percent of the total immigration during this period, while Latin America as a whole accounts for 51 percent. Latin American immigrants are also currently the second most negatively viewed immigrant group in the United States. Similar to Irish Catholics and Eastern European Jews before them, Mexicans have become the scorned immigrant group of this most recent wave.

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Part of this negative perception of Mexican immigrants stems from a warped understanding of what an immigrant is. At the base of the Statue of Liberty, an icon for U.S. immigration, there lies a plaque which displays Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem “New Colossus.” The most recognized portion of this poem is:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me…

The original spirit of these lines was meant to embrace all newcomers to the country regardless of their current station in life. In general, immigrants are people who leave their country of origin in search of the opportunity to build a better life somewhere else. They do not arrive with this new life intact. If they had such a life already, there would be little incentive to leave their home countries in the first place.

The negative image of Mexico in the United States and the shared history between the two nations have led to the targeting of Mexican immigrants. The majority of U.S. media on Mexico focuses on corruption, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. There is also a unique geopolitical component to the presence of Mexican immigrants in the United States. Mexico is one of two countries with which the U.S. shares a land border. The U.S.-Mexico border spans nearly 2,000 miles and is rather easily traversed.

Furthermore, the southwest region of the United States belonged to Mexico prior to 1848. This land changed hands only after a war between the two countries. Given this history and the land border, U.S. defense strategists maintain a heightened awareness for any potential threats or destabilization in these areas, including security issues related to immigration. Between being the largest immigrant group, coming from a country with a negative public image and sharing a porous border with the United States, Mexican immigrants have become an easy target.

However, the most recent data suggest that this wave of Mexican-dominated immigration to the United States is ebbing. In the last decade, there has been a negative flow of Mexican immigrants in the United States – in other words, more Mexicans are leaving the U.S. than entering. The Mexican population in the U.S. peaked at 12.7 million in 2007 and is now closer to 11.5 million. Net Mexican immigration was -20,000 between 2005 and 2010 and -140,000 between 2009 and 2014. During the latter period, 1 million Mexicans, include parents with U.S.-born children, left the United States for Mexico. The vast majority did so voluntarily.

Simultaneously, only 870,000 Mexicans entered the United States. This is one-third the amount of Mexicans who entered the U.S. from 1995 to 2000. Economic factors play largely into this change in flow. The U.S. economic crisis in 2008 certainly deterred the arrival of those seeking economic opportunities. More important, Mexico’s economy is on the rise. As previously discussed, the country finds itself in a relatively stable geopolitical region with a growing, diverse and overall healthy economy.

Conclusion

If the past is any indicator of what’s to come, one wave of immigrants will slow down, another will appear to take its place and the immigrants from the previous waves will be incorporated in to society over time. Pew projections anticipate that by 2065, Asian immigrants will replace Hispanics as the predominate immigrant group in the Unites States. By this time Asians are predicted to account for 38 percent of the U.S. immigrant population while Hispanics will account for 31 percent. Given Mexico’s unique geopolitical relationship with the United States, the integration of this immigrant group into U.S. society will in some ways be more critical than in past waves. The integration of Mexicans into mainstream U.S. society is already underway and will only continue.

Allison Fedirka
Allison Fedirka is a senior analyst for Geopolitical Futures. In addition to writing analyses, she helps train new analysts, oversees the intellectual quality of analyst work and helps guide the forecasting process. Prior to joining Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Fedirka worked for Stratfor as a Latin America specialist and subsequently as the Latin America regional director. She lived in South America – primarily Argentina and Brazil – for more than seven years and, in addition to English, fluently speaks Spanish and Portuguese. Ms. Fedirka has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and international studies from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in international relations and affairs from the University of Belgrano, Argentina. Her thesis was on Brazil and Angola and south-south cooperation.