#TheWardPost 2021 Challenges Anti-Immigration Global immigration Refugee problem

Immigration and the USA

Immigration and the USA

Franklin W. Knight, PhD

Dr. Franklin W. Knight

(10 May 2021) –The problem of immigration does not really warrant the inordinate attention that it currently receives in the USA. This assertion does not deny that immigration is a genuinely important and complicated problem, not just in the USA but also worldwide. In 2019 there were more than 272 million migrants worldwide, a figure exceeding the population of  Indonesia, the fourth largest country in the world.

The United States of America is not a major participant in the process of international migration today. As the largest economy in the world, the third largest country in terms of population, and the fourth largest in terms of land mass, it is expected to play a major role in all global matters.

US must talk less and do more about international migration drivers

Yet, for a major developed country, the role of the USA in international migration is woefully underwhelming not only independently but also comparatively. So, it needs to talk less about migration and do more to solve it.

International migration may be divided into two aspects.

One aspect might be described as organic, composed of individuals responding to normal push-pull factors. Those individuals make independent decisions to travel for a variety of interrelated reasons: improving their economic situation, seeking professional training, joining families abroad, or merely feeling an urge to merge – permanent settlers who began their experience as temporary sojourners. Such independent travelers exercise some option in leaving their homelands, even if they travel collectively.

The other aspect of migration consists of refugees who are forced involuntarily to relocate. In 2020 nearly 80 million immigrants found themselves forced to abandon their homelands as a result of civil wars such as in Syria  and South Sudan, general economic collapse such as in Venezuela or chaotic domestic political and economic situations such as in Afghanistan, Haiti and Bolivia.

In the case of the United States, most refugees originate in the politically unstable Central American states of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.


Global refugee problem deserves special attention 

While an integral part of the general global immigration problem, refugees deserve to be treated separately. Refugees are displaced people overwhelmed by circumstances beyond their control and with extremely limited options. They require and deserve immediate international humanitarian assistance for the same reasons that in the days of sailing ships, there existed an international understanding that no ship in distress, regardless of its origin, could be denied entry to any port.

In 2020 Canada accepted 31,000 refugees. The United States permitted entry to 27,500 the same year, and Australia took in 18,200. By contrast, Turkey took in almost 4 million; Pakistan took in 1.4 million; and Uganda more than 1.0 million. Germany  took in almost 1.0 million. Given its physical size and economic potential, the United States has not been especially receptive to refugees. It does not rank among the top ten nations hosting refugees.

US immigration record v. global migrant movement

General immigration, however, is another matter. Here the USA performs much better.

The USA has about 51 million migrants among its population, making it the country with the largest proportion of migrants among its population.  About one in every seven resident individuals was born outside the USA. This is not surprising, but not impressive on a global scale. Both Saudi Arabia and Germany host about 13 million immigrants. Almost 4 million Syrians arrived in Turkey in 2019 – a far larger scale of immigration than the USA experienced.

Since 1492 the Americas in general became a prime location for immigrants. Latin America and the Caribbean, with just four percent of the world’s population hosted two percent of international migrants in 2019. Nevertheless, movement across national boundaries within Latin America is easier and far more humane than movement into the United States.

Most migration takes place within geographical regions like Africa, Asia or Latin America rather than long distant intercontinental travel. So, most Latin American migrants do not leave Latin America. Most Africans move about within Africa; and most Asia emigrants never arrive in Europe or the United States of America.  Nevertheless, almost one-half of international migrants originated in Asia, especially from India and China. India alone supplied 17.5 million people to the international migration stream in 2019.

So, given other currently serious problems in the USA like social and economic inequality, institutional racism, political divisiveness, lack of police professionalism, and pandemic health threats facing the country, immigration does not really deserve the public discussion that it presently attracts.

After all, immigration is nothing new. And as we said before, the Americas are quintessentially immigrant nations.

 Migration phenomenon fundamental to human experience

Assuming that mankind originated somewhere in East Africa, migration constitutes a fundamental dimension of the human experience. So, with very few exceptions, every  society is either exporting or importing a part of its population all the time.

Sometimes some societies are sending out more people than are coming in. At other times, the reverse is the norm. That is how societies remain vital and dynamic.

Before the Middle Ages (ca. 400 AD to ca. 1400 AD) when the population of the world was relatively small, the tendency was for small groups to relocate to nearby open spaces. In Central Europe this movement resulted in the founding of a number of towns and cities Bergen in Norway, Carcassonne in France, Rothenberg in Germany, or Delft in the Netherlands. Later, some establishments were designated as “new” or “free” as in Newburg or Neuchatel, or Freiburg.

After the fifteenth century, improved nautical technology and rapidly changing domestic sociopolitical conditions in Europe stimulated an unprecedented process of almost unrestricted global travel and population movement. One did not need a passport to travel – although immigration to the Spanish Americas was in theory controlled by the Spanish monarchs.

American immigrant experience – the whiter, the better was unsustainable

By the end of the nineteenth century, for a variety of reasons, individual European and American states began to control the sort of people who were allowed to settle permanently in their countries. In the United States of America and throughout Latin America the desire was for European immigrants – the whiter, the better. Europe, however, proved a limited source. Asians and Africans were reluctantly accepted, and often coerced only to do the harder menial, and often manual labor at depressed wage rates, when they were paid at all.

Around the middle of the twentieth century things began to change.

The USA began to diversify its immigrant origin policy in the 1960s. Australia dropped its whites only policy in the 1980s, but still restricts its immigrants to about 160,000 per year. According to a recent report in the Economist, Canada expects to admit 1.2 million immigrants between 2021 and 2023, or a total amounting to about 3.0 percent of the entire national population.

Several Latin American states offer even more attractive models for handling immigrants. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Peru have minimal requirements for most new immigrants. New entrants register on entry and are allowed to stay up to six months while they look for jobs. After six months if they fail to find a job then they are offered a one-way ticket, usually by bus, to another country of their choice. Once registered, however, immigrants can work with legally protected minimum wages,  attend schools, or seek medical attention on the same terms as citizens. In Peru, after a year of residence immigrants receive permanent legal status. With such an attitude to immigration, it is not surprising that Latin American states accommodated more than five million Venezuelans (about 15.0 percent of the national population) who left their country between 2016 and 2020.

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The main observation about present immigration is that the USA is not doing a good job at it. The USA does not offer a desirable model for handling immigrants. Elsewhere in the Americas several countries, with far less fanfare, are  taking a better, more humanitarian approach. They are not building walls, physical or metaphorical. They are quietly treating immigrants with dignity, and accelerating the legal process through which they must pass to join communities in the host country.

© 2021 The Ward Post/Franklin W. Knight


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About the author

Franklin Knight, PhD

Franklin W. Knight is currently Leonard and Helen R Stulman Professor Emeritus and Academy Professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore where he taught for 43 years. Born in Jamaica, he attended Calabar High School, the University of the West Indies, Mona (BA Hons., 1964), and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (MA (1965), PhD. (1969). He has published widely on the social, cultural, economic and political dimensions of Latin America and the Caribbean as well as slave systems in a global perspective. His publications include 13 books, 108 professional articles, and 184 refereed reviews in professional journals.

In addition, he has made more than 304 presentations at national and international professional meetings. At Johns Hopkins he directed the Program in Latin American Studies (1998-2010) and the Center for Africana Studies (2011-2014). He served as president of the Latin American Studies Association between 1998 and 2000 and as president of the Historical Society, [USA] between 2006 and 2008. Between 2000 and 2014 he wrote a bi-weekly column for the Jamaica Observer. He has been honored by the Academy of Letters of Bahia, Brazil (2001); the Dominican Academy of History in the Dominican Republic (2006); the University of the West Indies (2007); The National Research Council of the National Academies (2008); the Asociación de Historiadores de América Latina y del Caribe (ADHILAC) (2011); the Cuban Academy of History (2012); the Asociación de la Historia Económica del Caribe (AHEC), as well as the Institute of Jamaica (2013), the Fundación Fernando Ortiz (2016), and the State of Maryland (2019).


  • Excellent article.. just think what the
    US could be if we adopted the Peruvian model even with the limited number of migrants we allow

  • This is very informative and helps us to distinguish between refugees and migrants and to understand that the migratory trends are largely intra regional . The current streams of international migration fanned by the Asian drift is a novel interpretation provided by Prof Knight but may yet have consequences for policies and programmes and multilateralism in the decades to come . How the US will handle this dynamic may yet be a formidable challenge for the global migration drivers

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