PBS Kids GO! It's My Life
Immigration: Past and Present

When we look at the history of immigration between different lands, sometimes it looks like a trickle, and sometimes it looks like a flood. It could be about a single ship full of adventurous souls, reaching new opportunity on a new frontier. Or it could be about thousands or even millions of desperate people fleeing disaster in one country and heading for hope in another.

In the U.S., the late 1800's and early 1900's saw huge numbers of people arriving from other lands. Immigrants came from Russia, Poland, Italy, Ireland, China-almost any place where life was hard, food was scarce, or rulers oppressed their people. Millions of families came by boat to port cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, and then spread across the continent from there. Many of these people were processed at places such as Ellis Island in New York City, in sight of the Statue of Liberty with her message to "the huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Because America had plenty of food, space, and opportunities to go around, most new immigrants were let in without much trouble. Many people arrived without any paperwork at all to prove who they were or where they came from!

These days, things are a lot different. In the last century, and especially in the last few decades, the borders between most countries have closed and become tightly controlled. People still flow from country to country-but they do it under a strict set of rules, and must always carry legal documents like passports.

If people want to live and work in a new country, or settle there permanently, they have to go through a long and sometimes difficult process. They might need money or lawyers. They might live for years in a new country, but not have the full rights of a citizen. If they can't meet all the requirements to legally immigrate, they can be sent back to their original countries or choose to stay in their new home illegally as "undocumented" immigrants.

Some Interesting Facts:

  • Almost 70,000 people enter the U.S. every day. More than 60,000 are temporary visitors, like tourists or business travelers. Roughly 2,200 come to become permanent, documented residents. The rest enter without documentation, to live or work in the U.S. indefinitely.

  • Each year, over 7,000 immigrant children arrive in the United States "unaccompanied," without a parent or guardian.

  • Nearly 30 million people living in the U.S. were born in another country. That's about 10% of the population!

  • A hundred years ago, Ireland was a country that millions of people were moving away from, to escape poverty and famine. But in the last decade, Ireland has become a destination for millions of immigrants, mostly from Africa and Eastern Europe, who are seeking opportunity.

In the next section we look at The Family Factor in immigration.

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