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US, China: A Look at Immigration and Migration


An immigrant family views the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island in New York.

An immigrant family views the Statue of Liberty from Ellis Island in New York.

In September 2014, the Pew Research Center published information about international migrants. The United Nations defines an international migrant as a person who has been living for a year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born.

The Pew Research Center found that over 45 million international migrants lived in the United States in 2013. Yet Pew found only “850,000 people living in China were born in other countries.”

Let us put that another way. Last year, about one in every seven US residents came from another country.

But you would have had to meet about 1,600 people in China before you met a foreigner who was a permanent legal resident.

The comparison between the two countries is interesting because the United States and China have the biggest economies in the world. But China has over one billion more people.

David FitzGerald is with the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California in San Diego. He explained that both the US and China are unusual when it comes to immigration.

“So what makes the US unusual is this sustained volume of immigrants. The US has been a major country of immigration since its founding.”

In other words, many immigrants have come to the US for many years. In the beginning, Mr. FitzGerald says, the main reason was space.

“The US had a very small population on a very big continent and was very keen to attract foreigners to populate that continent.”

Over time, immigrants became part of the country’s story. Even today, most Americans proudly say the US is a “country of immigrants.”

Immigrants’ introduction to the United States is also informal, or unstructured, compared to many other democracies. The country has no Ministry of Immigration. New immigrants learn about American life from their local schools, government — or often family members who were immigrants themselves.

“Maybe somebody came 75 years ago, and they then sponsored family members, who then sponsored family members, who then sponsored family members…”

By comparison, Mr. FitzGerald said, moving permanently to China is more structured. And the country does not have a history of immigration. Instead, it has a history of emigration: of citizens leaving the country to live somewhere else.

Yanzhong Huang is with the Council on Foreign Relations, a public policy group in the United States. He said policy makers in China are beginning to talk more about easing controls on legal international migrants. But, he says, China is strategic -- seeking to fill needs with the people it attracts.

“They have no problems. Actually, they’re encouraging especially those people who can like bring the technology back to China and those who can invest in China.”

Foreigners working as English teachers at a training session in Beijing.

Foreigners working as English teachers at a training session in Beijing.

China’s large population means that it does not need to employ many foreign workers with basic skills. Instead, China’s international migrants are often well-educated professionals.

Yet the low percentage of international migrants in China does not mean people are not moving.

“There are actually more internal migrants within China, moving from the countryside to the cities, than there are total international migrants in the world.”

Mr. FitzGerald called the movement of people within China “the largest migratory movement in world history.”

Mr. Huang noted that in recent years, China has been making it easier for people to move within the country.

“This is not, no longer a problem. Even though they have that household registration system still in place, but this not a major impediment.”

Like most international migrants, immigrants within China are seeking better jobs and richer opportunities.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

*Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

permanentadj. lasting or continuing for a very long time
sustainedadj. continuing for a period of time without getting weaker
keen adj. strong or intense
impedimentn. something that makes it difficult to do or complete something

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