This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
According to Gallup, immigration has ranked near the bottom of Americans’ concerns for many years. No more.
In 1994, the number of Americans who said immigration was “America’s biggest problem” reached a highpoint of 2 percent. In 1996, the highpoint was 6 percent. In 1997, it was 4 percent. In 1998, it was 2 percent. In 1999 it was 1 percent. In 2000 it was 2 percent, and in 2001 it was 3 percent.
Fast forward to now, the summer of 2014 and Gallup reports, “With thousands of undocumented immigrant minors crossing the nation’s southern border in recent months, the percentage of Americans citing immigration as the top problem has surged to 17 percent this month, up from 5 percent in June, and the highest seen since 2006.”
What changed? In a word: visibility.
Illegal migration has, for many years, been the silent enemy of America’s civic culture. In part its damage and its increasingly large numbers have been both masked and mitigated.
I use the term “masked” because in many ways illegal immigration has been hidden in plain sight.
How is that possible?
One answer lies in the overall number of permanent and temporary legal immigrants to the United States, numbers of which most Americans have no idea. Another part of the answer lies in the fact that the silent invasion has been facilitated and encouraged by a range of community, civic, political, and business leaders whose self-interest has become indistinguishable from their views of what is right or best for the country. Third, illegal migrants do not stand out in many observable ways from the large number of legal permanent and temporary immigrants admitted into the country every year. Indeed, there is a very large overlap between the countries of origin of the substantial legal permanent and temporary immigrants admitted each year and that of the estimate 11.7 million illegal migrants.
Let us begin first with some modern historical figures of legal immigration, that is, people who are legally admitted on a permanent basis (LPRs).
In the 1970s, average yearly legal immigration was around 424,000 per year. In the 1980s that average number increased to about 634,000. By the 1990s that average number was about 976,000. And by the decade of 2000, it was averaging 1,029,000 a year. That million-plus pace that has continued: In 2011, the number of legal immigrants admitted was 1,062,040 and in 2012 that number was 1,031, 631.
These numbers however, do not include the yearly influx of temporary workers whose visas are good for several years and a number of whom are able to adjust their status to LPRs (legal permanent residents). The Brookings Institution has put out a fact sheet on temporary workers that contains this observation: (emphasis mine)
Current United States immigration policy allows for the issuance of visas for a variety of temporary workers: athletes and entertainers, religious workers, intra-company transferees, treaty traders, foreign media workers, those in specialty occupations, and agricultural and seasonal workers. Among the plethora of temporary worker visa types, this analysis will focus on the major category for temporary workers, the H visa. Its three subtypes — H-1B, H-2A, and H-2B, explained below — are receiving the most focus in the current reform debate and together accounted for 54 percent of all visas issued for temporary workers in 2012.
Or to put it another way, the Brookings fact sheet does not cover or report 46 percent of the workers who are admitted every year on a temporary basis. It focuses on the categories that are “receiving the most focus in the current reform debate” and puts that number at 600,000.
In fact, the number of temporary workers is substantially higher, and these higher numbers suggest one reason why steadily increasing number of illegal aliens was hard to discern.
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