In this essay we provide an overview of immigration from Latin America since , focusing on changes in both the size and composition of the major flows as well as the entry pathways to lawful permanent residence in the United States, with due attention to policy shifts. We argue that current migration streams have deep historical roots and that are related both to changes in U.
The concluding section reflects on the implications of Latin American immigration for the future of the nation, highlighting the growing importance of the children of immigrants for the future labor needs of an aging nation and worrisome signs about the thwarted integration prospects of recent and future immigrants in localities where anti-immigrant hostility is on the rise.
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Nearly a century before the English founded Jamestown , Spanish settlements peppered the Americas. The longstanding power struggle between Spain and England, which carried over to the Americas, is also relevant for understanding Latin American immigration to the United States. Although most Spanish colonies had achieved independence by the middle of the 19 th century, the newly independent republics were weak politically and militarily, and vulnerable to external aggression.
Given its proximity, Mexico proved an easy target for the expansionist aspirations of United States. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the U. The significance of the annexation for contemporary immigration from Mexico cannot be overstated. Not only were social ties impervious to the newly drawn political boundary, but economic ties also were deepened as Mexican workers were recruited to satisfy chronic and temporary labor shortages during the 19 th and 20 th century—an asymmetrical exchange that was facilitated by the maintenance of a porous border.
The Bracero Program, a guest worker program in force between and , is a poignant example of U. Both the U. Mexico and Cuba have been top sending countries for most of the 20th century and into the 21st Century, with the Philippines ranked second since The underpinnings of contemporary migration from Latin America also are rooted in policy changes designed to regulate permanent and temporary admissions, beginning with the Immigration Act of Although widely criticized for establishing a racist quota system designed to restrict migration from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Act is also relevant for contemporary Latin American immigration because it explicitly exempted from the quotas the independent countries Central and South America, including Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.
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Both countries currently are major sources of undocumented migration; however, the circumstances fostering each of these undocumented streams differ. Table 1 summarizes key legislation that influences Latin American immigration today, beginning with the most recent comprehensive immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality Act of INA.
Although INA retained the quota system limiting immigration from Eastern Europe and that virtually precluded that from Asia and Africa, the legislation established the first preference system specifying skill criteria and imposed a worldwide ceiling. Two aspects of the new visa preference system are key for understanding contemporary Latin American immigration, namely, the priority accorded to family unification relative to labor qualifications and the exemption of spouses, children and parents of U.
This included Mexican Americans whose ancestors became citizens by treaty and the relatives of braceros who had settled throughout the Southwest during the heyday of the guest worker program, but over time came to include the relatives of newcomers who sponsored their relatives after naturalization. The simultaneous termination of the Bracero program coupled with the extension of uniform country quotas for the Western hemisphere after in was particularly consequential for Mexico, with the predictable consequence that unauthorized migration climbed.
DHS website. When an exodus from Cuba began in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, the United States had not established a comprehensive refugee policy. Although not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention or Protocol and despite a highly unbalanced economic and political relationship with the United States, Cuba has influenced the development and execution of U. Cubans seeking asylum in the United States are the main Latin American beneficiaries of the Refugee Act, and they have enjoyed preferential admissions and generous resettlement assistance both before and since the Act.
By agreement, Cubans apprehended at sea i.
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Coast Guard and landed on U. IRCA granted legal status to approximately 2.
Over 85 percent of the legalized population originated in Latin America, with about 70 percent from Mexico alone. The Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act IIRIRA , which intensified fortification of the border, expanded criteria for deportation, and made a half-hearted effort to strengthen interior enforcement through the employment verification pilot programs.
Finally, as part of its humanitarian goals, Congress also enacted legislation offering Temporary Protected Status TPS for Central Americans displaced by civil wars or natural disasters. TPS status is time limited; does not offer a pathway to permanent resident status; and requires acts of Congress for extensions.
Among those displaced by civil conflict, some claim political asylum while others lapse into unauthorized status along with thousands denied asylum. Collectively, the legislation summarized in Table 1 represents the major pathways to attain LPR status, namely family unification, employer sponsorship, and humanitarian protections. Family reunification gives preference to prospective migrants from countries with longer immigration traditions, like Mexico, because they are more likely to have citizen relatives in the United States who can serve as sponsors, but over time this pathway has become more prominent as earlier arrivals naturalize in order to sponsor their relatives.
With the exception of Argentinians during the s and Colombians during the early s, relatively few Latin American immigrants receive LPR status through employment preferences. Rather, the majority of Latin Americans recruited for employment enter as temporary workers or through clandestine channels. Neither unauthorized entry or temporary protected status provides a direct pathway to LPR status, but both statuses can evolve into indirect pathways via comprehensive e.
In what follows we use the three pathways to illustrate how each differs for specific countries, and to identify the economic and political forces undergirding changes over time. Figure 1 uses data from the decennial census to portray changes in the U. Latin American-born population from to by region of origin.
The graphic representation reveals the regional origin diversification that accompanied the fold increase in the Latin American-born population since Despite the continuing Mexican dominance among Latin American-born U. The Caribbean share of Latin American immigrants peaked at 31 percent in but fell to 20 percent in and has remained at 10 percent since Over the last 50 years the Central American share of all Latin American immigrants rose from about six percent in to about percent since , when about 12 percent of Latin American immigrants originated from South America. Table 2 reports the major source countries that drove the changes reported in Figure 1.
Only countries comprising at least two percent of the decade total Latin American-born population are separately reported, which qualifies a maximum of six countries after but only three in Not surprisingly, Mexicans remain the dominant group throughout the period, but owing to large swings in immigrant flows from the Caribbean and Central America, the Mexican share fluctuated from a high of 73 percent in to a low of 48 percent in Cubans were the second largest group among the Latin American-born population through , but their share varied from a high of 27 percent in to less than 6 percent in , when Salvadorans edged our Cubans for second place.
The decade-specific profile of main source countries also reveals the ascendance of Colombians and Dominicans during the s and s, with Central Americans following during the s. Political repression and economic crises rekindled Argentinian emigration during the late s, and early s and again at the beginning of the 21 st century, but Spain, Italy and Israel are the preferred destinations. Today, unlike Colombia, Argentina is not currently a major contributor to U. The stock measures reported in Table 2 and Figure 1 portray the cumulative impact of immigration, but reflect immigration trends imperfectly because they conflate three components of change: new additions; temporary residents, including the beneficiaries of protection from deportation; and unauthorized residents.
Thus, the foreign-born population based on census data overstates the immigrant population, which consists of persons granted legal permanent residence LPR in any given period, including refugees and asylees. Therefore, to explain the ebb and flow of Latin American immigration over the last half century, we organize the remaining discussion around the three sources of immigrants: LPRs; refugees and asylees; and unauthorized migrants granted legal status.
Table 3 reports the number of new LPRs from Latin America over the last five decades, with detail for the major sending countries from the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and South America. Since the s, Latin Americans comprised about one-third of new LPRs, with the period share fluctuating between 31 percent during the s to 41 percent during the s. For each period there is high correspondence between the dominant foreign-stock population countries Table 2 and the number of new legal permanent residents admitted from those countries Table 3 ; therefore, we use these nations to organize our discussion of specific streams.
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Decades , and from , , and Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Mexicans comprise the largest share of legal immigrants from Latin America, typically 40 to 45 percent per cohort except for the s and s, when the IRCA legalization was underway. The vast majority of Mexicans granted LPR status—88 percent in fiscal year for example—are sponsored by U.
Moreover, Mexican immigration would have been higher in each decade if the family-sponsored preferences were not numerically capped. Along with Filipinos, Chinese and Indians, Mexicans are greatly oversubscribed in the family sponsored preference categories and thus thousands of Mexican family members wait for years for their visa priority date.
For example, in unmarried Mexican adult children sponsored by U. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are the major immigrant sending nations from South America. Although their initial levels of immigration differ, all three countries witnessed gradual increases during the s, but thereafter their immigration flows diverged. Colombia was the largest single source of immigrants from South America throughout the period. Stimulated by prolonged political instability, armed conflict and drug violence amid sporadic economic downturns, Colombian emigration gained momentum over the latter half of the 20 th century.
The early waves largely involved upper class professionals with the resources to flee, but as the internal armed conflict escalated, members of the working classes joined the exodus. Ecuadorian immigration trebled since , rising from 37, during the s to over , during the most recent decade.
Following the collapse of the banking system in the late s, emigration rose from approximately 30 thousand annually between and to over thousand annually thereafter. Except for the modest dip between the s and s, immigration from the rest of Latin America mirrors the Peruvian trend—doubling between the s and s and then continuing on an upward spiral that exceeded , since Table 3. Civil wars and political instability triggered the formidable influx of Salvadorians, Hondurans and Guatemalans to the United States.
Emigration from El Salvador, the smallest but most densely populated of the Central American republics, is particularly noteworthy because of the sheer numbers that received LPR status—over , during the s and an additional half million over the next two decades.
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That thousands of Salvadorians arrived seeking asylum largely explains why their LPR numbers exceed the annual caps for several decades. Hundreds of thousands lapsed into undocumented status when they were denied asylees status, but a large majority of Salvadorian asylees successfully adjusted to LPR status under NACARA. Like El Salvador, Guatemala witnessed prolonged civil conflict, which escalated after and initiated a mass exodus of asylum seekers during the s and s. Those who arrived before qualified for status adjustment under IRCA but later arrivals did not.
Although political instability is credited for the surge in Guatemalan immigration, Alvarado and Massey claim that neither violence nor economic factors predicted the likelihood of outmigration; rather, they portray Guatemalan emigration as a household decision to diversify income streams by sending young, skilled members to join U. By contrast to Guatemala and El Salvador, the rise in Honduran immigration has been more gradual, except for the s, when it nearly trebled compared to the prior decade.
Unlike Nicaraguans, Salvadorians and Guatemalans, Hondurans could not claim asylees status. Rather, skyrocketing poverty and unemployment during the s and s is responsible for the surge in emigration. These high expectations for the children of immigrants have a strong impact on academic and worldly success. Holding constant their socioeconomic status, the second generation obtains higher grades in school and above-average results on standardized tests, is less likely to drop out of high school, and is more likely to go to college than the children of native-born Americans.
Immigrants and their children are over-represented in a broad range of rare achievements, including as Nobel Prize winners, leading scientists, and top performing and creative artists. They have broadened our cultural outlook and have sometimes even defined American culture through literature, music, and art. Immigrants are, by definition, bicultural, and sometimes multicultural. They can navigate multiple languages and understand how people from different backgrounds think and respond.
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The classic marginal man was supposed to be subject to psychological distress, never knowing if he really fit in or belonged to any society or culture. The flip side of marginality, however, is creativity. Persons with multicultural backgrounds have multiple frames of reference; they can see more choices, possibilities, interpretations, and nuance than persons who are familiar with only one culture. When combined with great talent and determination, a multicultural perspective may allow for cultural innovation.
Compared with other societies, the United States is generally regarded as unusually competitive, placing a high premium on progress and innovation.
This dynamic characteristic may well arise from the presence of immigrants and their linked evolution with American institutions and identity. Not all institutions have been open to outsiders.
Immigration and Language Diversity in the United States
In particular, high-status organizations often give preference to persons with the right connections and social pedigree. But institutions that opened their doors to talented outsiders—namely, immigrants and their children—eventually gained a competitive advantage. Over time, greater openness and meritocratic processes have helped shape the evolution of American institutions in the arts, sports, science, and some sectors of business.
Because immigrants have to work to learn the system, they are intensely curious about American culture. For the most talented, this tendency leads to a rich and expansive creativity that has left its imprint on American music, theater, dance, film, and many other realms of artistic endeavor. Finally, American institutions—schools, universities, businesses, sports teams, and even symphony orchestras—are meritocratic and seek talent wherever they can find it.
The United States is a competitive society that values progress and success. This dynamic characteristic has been created partly through the presence of immigrants, who push the country toward valuing skills and ability over social pedigree. This analysis typically ignores the significant contributions of immigrants to the creation of American culture through the performing arts, sciences, and other cultural pursuits. Immigrants and their children are not born with more creative talents than native-born citizens, but their selectivity and marginality may have pushed and pulled those with ability into high-risk career paths that reward creative work.