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Immigrants' Rights

Background And Overview

From the founding of the United States to the late 1990s, some 55 million immigrants have come to the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Furthermore, not including Native Americans, everyone in the United States is an immigrant or the descendant of immigrants. The Statue of Liberty bears the inscribed invitation "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" as a testament to the country's commitment to immigration and the role it has played and continues to play in the development of the country. Despite its foundation on immigration, calls for tougher immigration laws and restrictions on immigrants' rights have rung out periodically throughout the country's history, especially in times of economic and social turmoil. For example, mobs used Irish Catholic immigrants as scapegoats during the depression of the 1840s and persecuted them, burning a convent in Boston and starting a riot in Philadelphia. In addition, many immigrants were deported in the 1920s during the communist scare for simply being suspected of holding views akin to communism without any hearing. Also, Japanese immigrants had their homes and property confiscated and were held in camps until the end of World War II.

Each year, the country admits approximately 800,000 legal immigrants wishing to settle in the United States as permanent residents. This number includes 400,000 who join close family members who are already legal immigrants in the United States, 140,000 people who will fill jobs for which the U.S. Bureau of Labor finds a shortage of U.S. workers, and 110,000 refugees who have demonstrated persecution in their homelands. The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated the number of undocumented immigrants that enter the country each year is about 275,000 or less than 1 percent of the population.

Immigrants generally are entitled to many of the rights native-born citizens enjoy. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights provide alien immigrants with the same rights as U.S. citizens, although they cannot vote or hold federal elective offices unless they become citizens. Through the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, immigrants are protected from many state laws and regulations that violate their rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Depending on their status, immigrants may or may not have to pay taxes: resident immigrants must pay taxes, while nonresident immigrants often qualify for tax exemptions.

Although it is a crime to enter the country unlawfully and punishable by deportation, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions that once in the country immigrants have the right to a hearing that satisfies the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. As early as 1903 in Yamataya v. Fisher, the Court has upheld this right of immigrants, whether legal or illegal. Because of cases such as Yamataya v. Fisher, immigrants generally are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge and review by a federal judge, representation by a lawyer, reasonable notice of charges, reasonable time to examine evidence, interpretation for non-English speakers, and straightforward and convincing proof that the government has valid reasons for deportation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationGreat American Court CasesImmigrants' Rights - Background And Overview, Key Legislation, Landmark Cases, Current Issues In Immigrants' Rights, Further Readings