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Immigration is a defining characteristic of the United States and also consistently a subject of national debate. Roughly 6.4million Americans are descendants of Native Americans, Native Alaskans, or Native Hawaiians who came to what is now the U.S. thousands of years ago. The rest of the over 320million U.S. citizens are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in the last few hundred years. In spite of this, fights over immigration were ongoing throughout U.S. history and continue today.
Before becoming a country and during the early part of its history immigration to the U.S. was largely unregulated. At least half a million early immigrants were African people brought against their will as slaves. Others from around the world came for economic opportunity or religious freedom and were able to settle without legal obstacles. In the 1800s the number of immigrants increased and after the Civil War ended in 1865 some states passed laws to limit immigration. In 1875 the Supreme Court ruled that immigration should be federally regulated. In the1880s Congress passed laws taxing immigrants and excluding certain people based on race or other reasons, and federal agencies were created to enforce immigration laws. Immigration Stations like Ellis Island opened and in 1906 Congress enacted the Basic Naturalization Act to standardize the process of becoming a citizen. During the 1900s immigration quotas for each country were introduced, temporary worker programs were created, special immigration policies with certain countries were created, and legal racial barriers to immigration were removed. Throughout U.S. history many people who were already here opposed newer arrivals. Sometimes these feelings were justified, like Native Americans not wanting European settlers, but often they were less rational and led to discrimination and various types of political, cultural, or other conflicts.
Currently the U.S. is engaged in several immigration debates. As of 2012 there were estimated to be over 11million illegal immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have been here for years. Some, especially Republicans, believe that as lawbreakers these people should be arrested and deported. Others argue they are part of the country, contribute labor and taxes, and that there should be a path to citizenship created for certain illegal immigrants. Democrats, including President Obama, tend to favor this view. Because many who enter the country illegally come over land from or through Mexico there are advocates for strengthening border security and possibly even building a wall, as Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump has promised to do. Those opposed to this have pointed out the expense to taxpayers and the ecological damage of building a wall through a wilderness area that’s home to migratory animals. Recently another issue that’s arisen concerns refugees from the Middle East fleeing civil war and ISIS. Some in the U.S. believe Muslim refugees should be barred because they claim terrorists will pretend to be refugees and enter and attack the U.S., Trump and some other Republicans support this view. Democrats and others point out that turning people away based on religion contradicts the founding principals of the U.S. and that a refugee Visa is one of the most difficult to obtain.
What everyone seems to agree on is that the U.S. needs to reforms immigration policy. Republicans want to ensure we’re not letting in too many or the “wrong” people, whereas Democrats want to make sure we’re not excluding too many or making it too hard for the right people to become citizens. Depending on how the 2016 elections go, one side or the other could win enough power to change policies, but it probably won’t end the debate; arguing about immigration is as American as apple pie, which was a recipe brought to the U.S. by immigrants.