Written by Patricia Tunstall
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Immigration to America--one of the most persistent dreams of migrants, refugees, and the poor has been to find safe haven in the land of prosperity over the seas. Greeted by the majestic Statue of Liberty with the torch of freedom held forever high, these immigrants have been driven by hope of a better life for themselves and their children. Setting out alone, or with an entire family, these early immigrants made their own way, sweated at low-paying labor, and bore the brunt of discrimination.

The very first non-Native Americans to arrive in any numbers were the English, the Swedes, and the Dutch, who colonized areas on the East Coast. Most of the settlers through the 19th century were from Northern Europe, with Germans and Irish predominating. With the upheavals of the 20th century came refugees and asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, Germany, Russia, Southeast Asia, and China. Immigration--both legal and illegal--from Mexico increased dramatically.

A Land of Immigrants

Many countries of other continents are ancient, with identifiable cultures that extend thousands of years into the past. The United States is just over 200 years old, and is made up of all those daring, courageous people who left their culture and extended family behind to become a part of a strange, new land. Today, the United States is home to the cultures of the world, from the Hmong to the Croatians to the Armenians.

The United States Census of 2000 revealed that minorities grew at 12 times the rate of whites. The Census Bureau projects that by the year 2050, racial and ethnic minorities will outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Such an influx of culturally-diverse groups will continue to transform politics, religion, education, and mores in the United States in the decades to come.

Changes to Immigration Agencies

With the heightened security of the last couple of years has come a reorganization of the duties and responsibilities of several federal agencies that administer immigration laws. The old, familiar Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is no more, but its functions have been absorbed into the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

This bureau is part of the newly-created Department of Homeland Security (DHS), established in 2003. Since March of that year, the functions of the INS have been administered by the USCIS. New requirements and restrictions mean that immigrants who want to visit temporarily or reside permanently in this country will need advice and help to do so.

Help with Immigration to America

In foreign countries, citizens of those countries should seek help from their own government to deal with the paperwork and regulations regarding emigration. In the United States, the regional offices and service centers of the USCIS offer assistance in the form of brochures, books, and information via the phone and the Internet. Forms can be downloaded, so the process of obtaining a visa or Green Card can be started without having to travel to a USCIS office.

There are many organizations in the United States whose sole purpose is to help potential immigrants, and there are attorneys who specialize in this field who are available when legal assistance is necessary. For both, look on the Internet for websites under "immigration" or related subjects. Self-help books are available from libraries and bookstores. Perhaps most helpful of all, family members and friends who have obtained visas or successfully gone through naturalization can offer shortcuts, tips, and knowledgeable advice about how to get through the process to fulfill the dream of becoming an American citizen.

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