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As long as there is a virtually unlimited supply of potential immigrants, the nation must make choices on how many to admit and who they should be. Throughout U.S. history, legislation and regulation have dealt with five generic issues: how many immigrants to admit; within that number, who should be let in and who should be excluded; how to deal with refugees; how to handle illegal immigrants; and whether immigrants and citizens should be treated the same.
The modern era of immigration policy dates from the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. This act removed the quotas for immigrants based on national origins and replaced them with a preference system based primarily on family unification and, to a lesser extent, on occupational skills. One consequence of the 1965 legislation has been a decline in the labor market skills of new immigrants relative to those of native-born workers. This decline has accompanied a decrease in immigration from more prosperous Western Europe and a rise in immigration from Asian and Latin and South American countries. Recent legislation, notably the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, restricted access to public assistance programs for noncitizen legal immigrants, and set a lifetime limit on public assistance for all residents.
In 1994, there were nearly 800,000 legal immigrants. This number is considerably smaller than the number in the peak year of the early twentieth century wave of immigration—1.3 million immigrants in 1913. Moreover, since the resident population has more than tripled during the course of the twentieth century, the number of immigrants in the earlier decades represented a much higher proportion: 13 immigrants per 1,000 resident population in 1913, compared with 3 immigrants per 1,000 residents in 1994. However, immigration now plays a greater role in population growth than it did eight decades ago: it accounts for 37 percent of total growth, partly because of the decline in the fertility rates of residents.
Besides legal immigrants admitted for permanent residence, there were in 1994 some 22 million visits by aliens admitted for short stays—students, tourists, short-term employees of international companies. Most stay no more than a few weeks, but others live in the United States for several years; some overstay their allotted time and swell the number of illegal immigrants.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States each year, 40 percent of whom first enter legally as nonimmigrants. Mounting concerns about illegal immigration led to the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. First, by requiring employers to check prospective employee's legal U.S. immigrant status and by setting financial and legal penalties for employers who knowingly hire an illegal immigrant, it sought to reduce the attraction of jobs in this country for illegal immigrants. Second, it provided for legalizing the status of those illegal immigrants who could prove their long-term residence—estimated to be nearly 3 million.
In census and survey data, it is not always clear whether foreign-born per-