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End of the 20th Century, A Changing Population

Los Angeles riot, Immigrant Responsibility Act, California voters, owned grocery stores, national origins

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the United States underwent social changes as well as economic ones. By the century's end, Americans were vastly more diverse. The new diversity reflected rising immigration rates, a legacy of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The act had abolished quotas based on national origins that favored northern and western Europeans and imposed the first limits on immigrants from the western hemisphere. According to the law, 170,000 migrants could enter annually from the eastern hemisphere and 120,000 from the western hemisphere. The act exempted spouses, children, and parents of U.S. citizens from these numerical limits.

The new policy had unexpected results. Legal immigration exceeded congressional limits, due mainly to the family exemptions. Immigrants from Asia and Latin America quickly surpassed in number those who came from Europe. In addition, illegal immigration soared. By 1998, according to census data, immigrants accounted for 9.8 percent of the United States population, compared with 4.8 percent in 1970.

In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which outlawed the hiring of illegal aliens, imposed penalties on employers who did so, toughened control of immigration on the Mexican border, and offered amnesty to aliens who could prove that they were in the country continuously since January 1, 1982. About 3 million undocumented newcomers gained amnesty under the law. In 1990 Congress passed the most liberal immigration statute of the post-World War II era. This law allowed 700,000 immigrants to enter the United States each year and provided asylum for political refugees.

The new immigration of the late 20th century differed from that of a century earlier. By the 1980s only 10 percent of immigrants were Europeans. Over 40 percent were Asian—from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. Most of the rest came from Mexico, other parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and South America. Hispanic immigrants were the fastest-growing group. From 1970 to 1990 the number of Hispanics in the United States grew from 9 million to 22.4 million. Economic problems in Mexico spurred still more immigration, legal and illegal. According to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 5 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States in 1996. The largest number of illegal aliens in the 1990s came from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Haiti. Many others came from Canada, Poland, China, and Ireland. In 1996 Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which made it easier for the government to deport aliens attempting to enter the United States without proper documents.

Over 70 percent of immigrants who came to the country in the 1990s settled in six states: California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. By 1996 half the nation’s foreign-born inhabitants lived in California, where protests arose against heavy immigration, legal and illegal. In 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187, which revoked the rights of illegal immigrants to state education, welfare, and health services. Challenged in court, the main provisions of the law never took effect. Conflict over increased immigration also led to incidents of racial bias, such as black boycotts of Korean-owned grocery stores in New York in the 1980s and confrontations between Asian Americans and African Americans in a Los Angeles riot in 1992.

Critics of immigration policy contended that lawmakers who passed immigration laws since the 1960s had underestimated their effect. These critics believed that the new immigration created more problems than benefits. They saw high immigration rates as threatening America’s common culture, increasing competition for jobs, lowering wages, profiting only employers, injuring labor, and especially harming those at the bottom of the job market. Defenders of liberal immigration policies argued that the United States had a long tradition as a nation of immigrants. They stated that immigration boosted the economy, that the taxes paid by immigrants exceeded the costs they incurred, and that newcomers took jobs no one else wanted and contributed their skills and education to the U.S. economy. Proposals to restrict immigration made no progress, but the increasing diversity of American society led to new issues.

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