U.S. law defines an alien as any foreign-born person living in the United States who is neither a citizen nor a national. Since the concept of a "national," or one who owes allegiance to the U.S. government, is rather ambiguous, in practice aliens may be broadly construed as any noncitizen. Although many special categories exist under U.S. regulations, aliens can be classified in three broad classes: (I) permanent legal aliens, who are sometimes known as immigrants, (2) temporary legal aliens, also known as nonimmigrants, and (3) illegal aliens, also known as undocumented immigrants. Estimates for the mid1990s by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) reckoned the U.S. legal alien population at approximately 10.5 million and the illegal alien population at 5 million. At these levels the total alien population represented around 6 percent of the entire U.S. population.

Employment of aliens in the United States is highly regulated, and in some cases, illegal. In order to be eligible for employment, aliens must obtain visas or work permits from the State Department if they're abroad, or from the INS if they're already in the United States. Immigration and the employment of aliens are regulated by the INS, an agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, and the Department of Labor. Despite heightened penalties for employers of illegal immigrants and stepped-up border enforcement in the 1990s, unauthorized foreign laborers continue to function as a significant component of some local economies and industry sectors.


The controversy surrounding the employment of aliens is corollary to the historical unease with which domestically born U.S. residents have approached their foreign-born neighbors. While national folklore and, occasionally, political rhetoric celebrate the country's heritage as a nation of immigrants, it is a heritage tarnished by at least a century and a half of discrimination toward various immigrant groups. The greatest vehemence has usually been reserved for the ethnic or national groups at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, who have been historically blamed for contributing to unemployment among "native" workers and eroding the wages and benefits of those workers by laboring for lower pay.

Nonetheless, employment opportunities have lured immigrants to the United States since its colonial origins. The first significant wave of immigrants following the colonial settlement began in the 1830s and 1840s, when large numbers of Irish immigrants entered the United States as famines and other problems ravaged their homeland. During this period and continuing for decades, many Irish immigrants, particularly those who sought urban labor positions, faced social and employer discrimination. A wealth of negative and inaccurate stereotypes were applied to Irish immigrants as justification for their mistreatment. By the late 19th century and the early 20th century, the swelling immigrant ranks were increasingly dominated by nationals of eastern and southern Europe, but analogous stereotypes and discrimination greeted many.

The first major attempt to restrict immigration into the United States came with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Prefiguring the restrictive legislation that would continue to surface a century later, this law claimed that the immigration of Chinese laborers "endangers the good order of certain localities," and thus outlawed all new immigrant laborers from China. Chinese laborers were reputed to work for lower wages than their U.S.-born counterparts, presenting a perceived threat to native-born workers.

The anti-immigrant sentiment escalated in the 1920s with the passage of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which established nationality quotas designed to severely curtail the influx of people from eastern and southern Europe in favor of western Europeans. More drastically, the Immigration Act of 1924 slashed total immigration in half and effectively slowed to a trickle the immigration of individuals from outside western Europe. By this time legislation—supported by court rulings—had already ceased all immigration from Asia. However, immigration from within the Western Hemisphere, notably Mexico, was allowed to continue largely unaffected by the quotas.

Despite minor reforms in the 1940s and 1950s, the system developed in the 1920s remained mostly intact until the mid-1960s, when quotas by nationality were abolished under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This legislation provided entry into the United States on a relatively equal basis by nationality and reaffirmed the high priority for immigrants with valuable work skills, a preference that would continue through the 1990s.


Predictably, immigration liberalization in the 1960s soon led to calls for curtailing what was considered the immigration of undesirable persons. The new policy also contributed to the rise of foreign-bride-selling scandals and other reported abuses. While the racist and ethnic motivations typical of earlier in the century had not been fully erased, opponents of liberal immigration policy increasingly focused on the economic and societal impact of low-skilled workers who entered the country. Moreover, renewed attention was paid to the entry of illegal immigrants, who had long served as migrant agricultural workers and in numerous other occupations.

The landmark Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 set in motion the contemporary U.S. policy on illegal aliens. It granted amnesty to illegal aliens who had been living in the United States since January 1, 1982, and stipulated penalties for employers of illegal aliens. Assuming that most illegal immigrants entered the country for employment, this law attempted to stem the demand for illegal workers by targeting employers. While its success was debatable—evidence suggests that the first ten years of this policy had minimal effect on the rate of illegal immigration—this approach remained a cornerstone of U.S. illegal alien policy through the late 1990s.

Immigration legislation in the 1990s mostly echoed the tone of the 1986 statute. The Immigration Act of 1990 stepped up penalties for employment of illegal workers and increased the number of visas offered to highly skilled workers. It was followed by the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which intensified border patrols and prevented illegal immigrants from participating in certain government benefits programs such as social security and education.


Employers are required to verify their workers' employment eligibility within three days of hire and must keep evidence of eligibility in their permanent records. This is documented through completion of the INS Form I-9: Employment Eligibility Verification, which was simplified in 1998 as a result of IIRIRA. The new form was intended to increase employer compliance and reduce the potential for workers to present fraudulent evidence of eligibility. Form 1-9 involves a short questionnaire for the employee and a list of valid documents, such as a Social Security card, that the employee can show to prove eligibility. Some documents were removed from the list in the 1998 revision.

Employers who are caught hiring illegal aliens may face civil or criminal charges, and repeated offenses can also result in massive fines. A record fine was levied in 1997 when a Texas restaurant chain was forced to pay $1.75 million for routinely employing illegal workers.


While labor unions and some political groups tend to favor strict enforcement of immigration laws, many businesses not only benefit from a large pool of illegal workers, but are actually dependent on them. Proponents of tight restrictions believe that illegal aliens take jobs that would otherwise go to lawful U.S. residents, and because of the underground nature of their employment, illegal aliens may be subject to low pay, poor working conditions, and other abuses. Meanwhile, advocates of relaxed immigration policies argue that often illegal workers fill low-skill jobs that most U.S. citizens wouldn't want and offer a positive net contribution to the economy. Some supporters of loose restrictions also claim that even if working conditions for aliens are bad by U.S. standards, they may still be an improvement over what those workers would face if they remained in their home countries.


Aboud, John M., and Richard B. Freeman, eds. Immigration, Trade, and the Labor Market. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Beck, Roy Howard. The Case Against Immigration. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest. 2nd ed. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

Lowell, B. Lindsay. Foreign Temporary Workers in America: Policies That Benefit the U.S. Economy. Westport, CT: Quorum Books, 1998.

Weiner, Myron, and Tadashi Hanami, eds. Temporary Workers or Future Citizens? New York: New York University Press, 1998.

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