What Makes Good Immigration Policy and Why Does it Matter?

Immigration Policy Brief #134 | By: Arvind Salem | June 6, 2023
Photo taken from: psu.edu

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Policy Summary:

With the expiration of Title 42, a pandemic era immigration policy that allowed the United States to turn away immigrants seeking asylum due to public health concerns, the United States looks to start a new chapter of immigration policy, as with the end of the COVID-19 emergency, public health concerns can give way to economic, social, and foreign factors, necessitating a new chapter of immigration policy. As the country starts this new chapter, it’s worth it to look back at modern immigration policy, especially after World War II, to determine the components of a successful immigration policy and how such policy can positively contribute to the United States.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States implemented extremely restrictive immigration policies, the most famous of which were the various national origins quotas: restrictions on the number of immigrants that could come in from certain countries. These quotas were designed to essentially ensure that the US continued to have the same racial dynamics, by allowing the United States to grant visas to 2 percent of the population of each nationality in the United States as calculated based on the 1890 census, and completely barring immigration from Asia.

The next major era in U.S. immigration policy was in the midst of the Cold War, when the United States consolidated all of its immigration and naturalization policies into a single federal policy, known as the McCarran-Walter Act.  McCarran-Walter continued the national origins quota system favoring white Europeans, however it ended the ban on Asian immigration. It also established a worldwide immigration limit of 2,000 immigrants, which has been adjusted over time but is still in place today. Currently, the limit is 675,000, not including U.S. citizens’ spouses, parents, and children under the age of 21 and refugees. Ideological tests for loyalty were also common and refugees were evaluated based on foreign policy priorities, such as whether they were fleeing from a communist country.

In the midst of the Civil Rights movement, there were calls for more equitable immigration policies, including the elimination of the national origins quota, leading to the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act). Instead of national origin, the new law prioritized family reunification with a seven-category preference system and increased the limit on immigration, leading to more Latin American, especially Mexican, and Asian immigration. The Hart-Cellar Act also created a permanent admissions class for refugees, who had previously been admitted under the attorney general’s parole power ( the attorney general still continued to use this power to admit refugees beyond the limit). The Refugee System would be further developed by the Refugee Act of 1980, which established the modern U.S. refugee system, which allows the President to set admissions targets, created the asylum system, and outlined a path to citizenship for both refugees and asylees.

Near the end of the Cold War, and in line with its hardline “tough on crime” and “war on drugs” policies, the United States enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 to end illegal immigration through three ways: penalizing employers that hired illegal immigrants, increasing border security, and offering certain illegal immigrants legal status if they satisfied certain conditions. The emphasis on security from this era continued and was heightened after 9/11, especially after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which was charged with protecting the border supported by an increase in funding towards border security efforts. The exceptions to these trends are the Immigration Act of 1990, which attempted to make entry easier for high-skill workers, and most notably executive actions taken by President Obama such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), allowing certain people who came to the United States as children to request deferred action, an instance of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action for a certain period of time but does not confer legal status, and requests work authorization.

Policy Analysis:

It is clear that immigration policy generally mirrors the general sentiments of the country at any given time. In the beginning of the 20th century, the desire to maintain American homogeneity manifested in the 1924 Immigration Act’s provisions of quotas and Asian exclusion. The pressing national security concerns generated by the Cold War prompted many immigration decisions based on how it would impact the War and to ensure that the American ideals were not weakened during this critical period. Immigrants were judged based on their ideological conformity to America and evaluated primarily based on their impact on national security. Moreover, it is clear today that the practice of discrimination based on national origin for the purposes of maintaining a perceived ideal of American society is extremely flawed, as American society has always been composed of immigrants and limiting immigration severely hinders the cultural and economic development of the United States.

With the advent of the Civil Rights movement, attitudes towards immigration clearly began to change as a focus on ensuring an equal opportunity to all was brought to the forefront of American life. This period saw the end of quotas and began the proliferation of Asian and Mexican immigrants that are still continuing today. This development has had heavy ramifications for U.S. culture, especially the increased presence of Mexican immigrants. However, the increase in immigration spurred fears of crime, which combined with the general hardline policies at the time such as the “War on Crime” and the grim predictions of a crime wave, swung public sentiment towards more restrictive immigration: a feeling only heightened by the terrorist attacks on 9/11. 

Immigration has shown a tremendous ability to enrich the cultural and economic state of the United States. As the United States currently battles inflation and supply chain disruptions immigrant workers are an essential component of the labor force and essential to the overall productivity of the United States, as well as driving innovation. Immigrants are also more likely to work than their native peers and are crucial to important sectors of the economy such as Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and healthcare. Currently, the United States has a shortage of immigrant workers, which has worsened labor and supply shortages, especially in industries such as hospitality. Furthermore, immigrants help stabilize the population as the United States’s population growth is slowing, helping the United States remain economically competitive. Clearly, immigrants have extraordinary potential to enrich the United States, however there are also downsides to immigration: immigrants could bring crime with them, draw from public services and welfare programs without contributing, and lower wages and job opportunities for U.S. citizens.

Due to the many effects of immigration policy, any proposed reform has a myriad of stakeholders, which also means that it is very difficult to pass comprehensive immigration reform, as such reform often requires broad consensus. However, most reform proposals have centered around three key components: legalize illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, increase enforcement of the immigration laws, and allow more legal permanent immigration and temporary migration through more guest worker visas for lower‐​skilled workers. Legalized current illegal immigrants would allow them to start their life anew and clear the black market and eliminate any backlogs in the system. Heightened enforcement would reduce illegal immigration and incentivize immigrants to immigrate legally. Expanding visas would allow more would-be illegal immigrants to become legal immigrants and provide more workers for the U.S. economy.

Engagement Resources:

FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, is a nonpartisan, public-interest organization that seeks to evaluate policies and develop solutions to reduce the impact of excessive immigration on all facets of the nation including security, the economy, and healthcare. Readers who want to help further immigration reforms through a nonpartisan organization may be interested in contributing to this organization.

The American Immigration Council works to ensure due process for all immigrants by increasing access to legal counsel for immigrants and using the legal system to ensure fair treatment for immigrants. The American Immigration Council also aims to educate the public and use communications strategies to spread awareness about the importance of immigrants to the United States. Readers who want to help more immigrants receive access to legal counsel may be interested in contributing to this organization.

The ACLU, the Americans Civil Liberties Union, is an organization that works to protect the freedoms of Americans across a wide range of issues, including voting rights, free speech, and racial justice. One of the issues they address is immigration, helping ensure that immigrants receive the legal protections that they are entitled to. Readers who want to help ensure that immigrants receive fundamental constitutional protections that they are entitled to may be interested in contributing to this organization.

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