What is Legal Immigration?

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  • Written By: Dale Marshall
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 14 March 2020
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Immigration is the movement of people from one nation to another, often for the purpose of permanent relocation. Legal immigration means that in that process, immigrants have observed the laws and regulations of the nation to which they've moved. Many countries desire to control immigration for the purpose of ensuring that their resources, especially jobs, aren’t stretched too thin. Other factors influence immigration laws as well, such as cultural and religious considerations. Some nations also impose strict controls on emigration, which is the movement of people out of the country.

In the United States, Congress is responsible for immigration and naturalization, and they first established naturalization rules defining how immigrants could become citizens in the late 18th century. At that time, there were no laws restricting immigration, so all immigration was legal — a pragmatic policy for a rapidly-expanding nation with a booming labor market.


Restriction of immigration began in 1875, with the exclusion of convicts and prostitutes; in 1862, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, which effectively banned ethnic Chinese regardless of their actual country of origin. Additional restrictions were imposed in 1901 and 1917, excluding anarchists and the illiterate, respectively. Still, though, except for ethnic Chinese, legal immigration was almost a given for those entering the country. Legislation passed in 1921 and 1924 first imposed quotas on the nationality of immigrants, quotas drawn from the existing mix of immigrants already in the United States. These quotas were adjusted from time to time, and other issues became incorporated. For example, relatives of US citizens are given priority, as are immigrants with skills needed in the US labor market.

There are many reasons for leaving one’s country and immigrating to the United States. Of all the immigrants granted legal permanent resident (LPR) status, about two thirds entered the country for the purpose of family reunification. Humanitarian reasons and needed employment skills account for the other third. Thus, a close family member of a US citizen has a better chance of legal immigration than a person looking for employment with no relatives in the US. Many of those, though, consider the employment conditions they face at home to be so onerous that they’re willing to face the consequences of breaking American law by entering the country illegally and seeking work.

Immigration has become a controversial topic in the United States. Proponents of liberalizing the laws and reducing or eliminating the barriers to legal immigration cite a number of reasons for their position, including severe economic hardship in many countries. Opponents cite the drain on resources and downward pressure on wages an increase in legal immigrants would bring. Concern over national security issues, especially since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, also colors the argument, because some of those who’ve entered the country in the intervening years are said to have been terrorists.

Other nations are also struggling with various issues relative to immigration. Family reunification is a policy objective of most immigration laws, for example, but some European nations, especially Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany, have adopted more restrictive family reunification policies, especially in regard to people applying for citizenship on the grounds of marriage to a native-born citizen. In Denmark, for example, both people entering into the marriage must be 24 or older. Germany and the Netherlands both require financial stability for each partner, and Germany expects the non-German spouse to read and write German. Immigration among members of the European Union is relatively free, however, making enforcement of these regulations difficult. Among other nations, Israel has perhaps one of the most interesting provisions. Its "Law of Return" provides that Jews and their progeny are entitled by right to immigrate to Israel.



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