All of my ancestors immigrated after the U.S. put into effect its first controls on immigration. Most of them came over long after that point. (So while there may be some arguments to be made over whether Native Americans are themselves "native" or whether the colonists were actually "illegal immigrants", they are outside the scope of this particular essay.)
These people faced two major obstacles: A homeland that wanted to curb a tsunami of emigration, and a United States that increasingly hostile to said wave of foreigners, most of whom didn't speak English. (In fact, 125-150 years ago, the term "foreigner" was often not applied to immigrants from the British Isles!)
In 1900, there were 10,460,000 foreign-born people living in the U.S. The four largest contributors to that total were (rounded down to the nearest thousand, and taken from The U.S. Census Bureau):
On top of that, there were 10,659,000 citizens with one or both parents of foreign origin. The largest contibutors to that total were:
Canada (English): 261,000
Canada (French): 266,000
That makes a total of 21,119,000 residents of non-U.S. birth or non-U.S. parentage. Looking at just the Germans (which category includes most of my ancestors--the remainder being German-speaking Swiss), that makes a total of 6,243,000 people born in Germany or whose parents (one or both) were born in Germany.
The entire population of the U.S. in 1900 was 76,303,000. Those 21 million "foreigners" represented 27% of the entire country's population--more than 1 out of every 4! (Even looking at just the foreign-born, that's still 13% of the total population. Looking at just the Germans, that's 8.1% of the population) Now that's a country with some serious "immigration" issues, and a real beef about diluting the "national identity," immigrants coming in and taking "all" the jobs, etc.
Looking at the 2000 census (from the U.S. Census Bureau's Census2000 site), the total population of the U.S. was 281,421,000. Of those, 20,640,000 (or 7.3%) self-identified as "Mexican"; plus another 15 million non-Mexican Hispanics/Latinos resulted in 35,305,000 people of Hispanic or Latino origin (12.5% of the population).
The nature of the data on which those numbers are based doesn't count everyone who might self-identify as being of "Irish" or "German" descent the way Hispanics were counted in the 2000 census--namely "Origin can be viewed as the heritage, nationality group, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person's parents or ancestors before their arrival in the United States." So the percentages cannot be directly compared unless you assume that the numbers for the 1900 census are skewed low, or that the numbers for the 2000 census are skewed high.
(For a more equivalent comparison, according to Wikipedia (quoting Census Bureau figures), there were around 47 million German-Americans in the U.S. in 2000, the largest self-reported ethnic group in the country; that's around 16% of the total population.)
Looking up some recent statistics on legal and illegal immigrants, around 2005, the foreign-born population of the U.S. was 33.1 million, or around 11.5% of the total population. (The Census Bureau estimates that 8 to 9 million of that total are illegal immigrants; others estimate much higher numbers.)
Whether or not you count illegal immigrants, there are many more people entering the country now, but they are a smaller percentage of the total population than they were then.
In the late nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries, English wasn't anywhere near the lingua franca it is today. Particularly in the Midwest, there were many areas where German-speakers (and/or Swedish, Norwegian, Polish, etc.) equalled or outnumbered English-speakers. Anti-immigrant sentiment was rampant, which was as much of a cause for families to change their names to something less "German sounding" as was the cultural illiteracy of clerks at Ellis Island and other immigration hubs. (It was around this time when one branch of my ancestors changed their surname to "Claus", in part as a reaction to such sentiment. Growing up, I never believed in "Santa Claus," but I most certainly did in "Grandpa Claus"!) Up until the World Wars (though it was already lessening somewhat by 1900, as the German immigration wave crested and the Italian, Hungarian, and Polish waves began to rise), most major cities and many smaller towns had German-language newspapers, church services (and records), fraternal organizations, civic choirs, and so forth. In fact, there was some question early on in World War I as to whether the U.S. should be allied with England or Germany (support was , and even after the U.S. entered the war, there was still some concern about the possible loyalty of German-Americans who were asked to fight against the forces of their homeland.
One of my great-grandfathers was a resident alien for most his life. He received permission to emigrate from Germany and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1890s, but didn't apply for citizenship. He married a native-born citizen in 1910; under the immigration laws at that time, she lost her citizenship the day she got married. He made his living as a tenant farmer, renting farmland and paying the "rent" with a percentage of the crop. He didn't apply for citizenship until he'd been a resident of this country for 40 years or more, and wanted to buy a farm of his own--as a (legal) resident alien, he wasn't allowed to do so.
That is the context I keep in mind as I look at news coverage of "immigration rights" and related issues regarding legal immigrants & resident aliens. In short, they have it good--they've already been admitted into the country, and there is a well-established system in place for them to move to full citizenship should they so choose. Yes, there's red tape involved, but yet somehow hundreds of thousands of people manage to legally enter the country each year, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants become citizens every year.
As for "criminalizing" illegal immigrants, let me point out the obvious flaw: Committing an illegal act makes one a criminal. Illegal immigrants have already knowingly broken the law by illegally entering the country, and thus the U.S. is well within its rights to punish them for the offense, and they know it.
Given the existing strains on the health care, criminal justice, and other such systems of the U.S., it is in the country's best interest to strictly limit the number of immigrants allowed in and put a preference on professionals and skilled laborers, and also to strictly police the borders. This is especially true in the post-9/11 world. After all, if hundreds of thousands people per year manage to enter this country illegally, how safe must the borders be at keeping out people who want to do this country harm? At keeping out something like a truckload of suitcase-sized atomic bombs rather than a truckload of illegal immigrants? Should we really believe that the only people illegally crossing the border are those who already have jobs waiting for them on the other side? Those who just want to work legally but don't apply early enough for immigration? And what's going to happen if/when a broad range of narcotics are legalized in Mexico? (Which from what I've heard, is being done on the logic that it's easier to catch and put away drug dealers if it's legal to sell drugs... Oh sure, and it's been easy so far to track down where the fentanyl that's being sold as heroin and is killing people is coming from.)
All of this is not anything new, as you can easily see from reading up on the history of immigration to the U.S., all the way back to the Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798, and before them, the Naturalization Act of 1790. What is new is a proposal in the House of Representatives to raise this crime from a misdemeanor to a felony; the same would go for anyone who assists people to illegally enter the U.S. and help them remain in the country. I have some problems with the wording of the latter section--it's a good categorization for document forgers, those who illegally ferry people across the border, and employers who take them on knowing they are here illegaly, not a good categorization for charity organizations handing out welfare--but the former is a question of degree, not nature. (Though, given the additional near-permanent sanctions felons receive in the U.S., that's arguably a bit too strong of a punishment for existing illegal immigrants themselves.) However, in every interview I've seen recently with illegal immigrants or their supporters (including some Representatives and Senators), all they say is that they don't want illegal immigrants to be treated as "criminals" and punished for their crimes. Way to talk about the actual issues there. There's no room for debate about the basic criminality of the act--it's against the law, they've broken the law, they can be punished up to the amount currently prescribed by law and any general amnesty would weaken the force of law in this country--but nevertheless, that false concept that illegal immigration is somehow not currently a criminal act seems to be the primary reason for hundreds of thousands of people to head out marching tomorrow.
That said, the existing laws should be enforced, including those that crack down on employers who knowingly (or with a knowing wink) hire illegal aliens, and the border should be toughened. The solution to people dying in the desert while trying to enter the country illegally isn't necessarily to say "ha, ha, you pulled a good one on me," pave a highway lined with neon welcome signs, and consider all immigration to be legal immigration, but rather to work to improve conditions where they're coming from and reduce incentives to enter the country illegally. We shouldn't be setting up MORE incentives to enter the country illegally! The solution to working for less than minimum wage is to remove an incentive for more people to cross illegally in the first place, and force these employers to either "hire American," as it were, or set up orchards, farms, packing plants, etc. in Latin America and hire local labor for whatever minimum the local countries allow. (What happened to that "giant sucking sound" of millions of jobs being transferred south to Mexico by NAFTA? Shouldn't that have created plenty of jobs these people could fill closer to home rather than risking their lives crossing the border?)
Also, no matter what is or is not done, there is still the issue of what to do with--even by a conservative estimate--millions of illegal immigrants currently in the country. In a more perfect world, what I think I'd rather see is for them to have to apply for papers from their home country's consulate, officially establishing their identity and explictly allowing them to "emigrate," then apply for an immigration visa and symbolicly go to a border crossing to pick it up, at which point they become legal residents and can go through the normal channels to become citizens. However, there should also be some punishment involved--otherwise, it would be a system of rewarding criminals for committing their crimes. One possible such would be to double the time required to become a citizen and strictly limit (but also enumerate) the rights of such special resident aliens; another would be to pay a fine that is large enough to be scary, but small enough to be raiseable within a few years and not be totally prohibitive. Another would be a requirement to plead guilty in a court and receive a criminal conviction, but not necessarily one so strong that it will prevent these people from holding many/most jobs, as a felony conviction would. At the same time, the borders should be strengthened to prevent further such incursions, and any "catch and release" policy should require that the "release" part be done via deporting rather than a slap on the wrist and a welcome wagon from a local employer. Also, there should be a program encouraging manual labor employers to take on legal-citizen teenagers of age 15 and higher (and probably also the unemployed who've currently dropped out of the job search game, but still want work); sort of a "national service" for teens without necessarily always being military service or "Peace Corps"-like service, and also a way for high school dropouts--who by nature will usually be considered unskilled manual laborers--to find work. I can't tell you the number of times I've read and heard people mention the valuable life lessons they learned on their first job(s)--whether it was various biographies I've read, my grandparents describing growing up on the respective family farms, or friends and acquaintances talking about their first jobs (especially those who didn't start out in fast food or retail, but also those who did).
Feudalism: Serf & Turf