from Renewing America

The U.S. Immigration Debate

A U.S. Border Patrol agent keeps watch along the fence next to the U.S.-Mexican border in Calexico, California. Mike Blake/Reuters

Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded Congress for years, moving controversial policy decisions into the executive and judicial branches of government.

Last updated March 13, 2018

A U.S. Border Patrol agent keeps watch along the fence next to the U.S.-Mexican border in Calexico, California. Mike Blake/Reuters
Backgrounder
Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Introduction

Immigration has been a touchstone of the U.S. political debate for decades, as policymakers must weigh competing economic, security, and humanitarian concerns. Congress has been unable to reach an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform for years, effectively moving some major policy decisions into the executive and judicial branches of government, and fueling debate in the halls of state and municipal governments.

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Shortly after taking office, President Donald J. Trump signed executive orders on border security, interior enforcement, and refugees. In mid-2017, Trump rescinded two programs created by President Obama to shield undocumented children and their parents from deportation. Some American cities, states, and individuals have challenged the president’s actions in court.

What is the immigrant population in the United States?

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Immigrants comprise about 14 percent of the U.S. population: more than forty-three million out of a total of about 323 million people, according to Census Bureau data. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants. The figure represents a steady rise from 1970, when there were fewer than ten million immigrants in the United States. But there are proportionally fewer immigrants today than in 1890, when foreign-born residents comprised 15 percent of the population.

Illegal immigration. The undocumented population is about eleven million and has leveled off since the 2008 economic crisis, which led some to return to their home countries and discouraged others from coming to the United States. In 2017, Customs and Border Protection reported a 26 percent drop in the number of people apprehended or stopped at the southern border from the year before, which some attribute to the Trump administration’s policies. At the same time, arrests of suspected undocumented immigrants jumped by 40 percent.

27%
Percentage of U.S. inhabitants who are immigrants or their children
Source:
U.S. Census Bureau.

More than half of the undocumented have lived in the country for more than a decade; nearly one third are the parents of U.S.-born children, according to the Pew Research Center. Central American asylum seekers, many of whom are minors who have fled violence in their home countries, make up a growing share of those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. These immigrants have different legal rights from Mexican nationals in the United States: under a 2008 anti–human trafficking law, minors from noncontiguous countries have a right to a deportation hearing before being returned to their home countries.

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Though many of the policies that aim to reduce unlawful immigration focus on enforced border security, individuals who arrive to the United States legally and overstay their visas comprise a significant portion of the undocumented population. According to the Center for Migration Studies, individuals who overstayed their visas have outnumbered those who arrived by crossing the border illegally by six hundred thousand since 2007.

Legal immigration. The United States granted nearly 1.2 million individuals [PDF] legal permanent residency in 2016, more than two-thirds of whom were admitted based on family reunification. Other categories included: employment-based preferences (12 percent), refugees (10 percent), diversity (4 percent), and asylees (3 percent). In late 2017 there were more than four million applicants on the State Department’s waiting list for immigrant visas [PDF].

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Hundreds of thousands of individuals work legally in the United States under various types of nonimmigrant visas. In 2017, the United States granted close to 180,000 visas [PDF] for high-skilled workers, known as H1B visas, and nearly 250,000 visas for temporary workers in agriculture and other industries. H1B visas are capped at 85,000 per year, with exceptions for certain fields.

Immigrants made up roughly 17 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2014, according to Pew Research Center; of those, around two-thirds were in the country legally. Collectively, immigrants made up 45 percent of domestic employees; they also comprised large portions of the workforce in U.S. manufacturing (36 percent), agriculture (33), and accommodation (32). Another Pew study found that without immigrants, the U.S. workforce is expected to decline from 173.2 million in 2015 to 165.6 million in 2035; the workforce is expected to grow to 183.2 million if immigration levels remain steady, according to the report.

How do Americans feel about immigration?

A 2017 Gallup poll found that 71 percent of Americans considered immigration a “good thing” for the United States. A year earlier, as many as 84 percent supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if they meet certain requirements. A separate Gallup poll found that among Republicans, support for a path to citizenship (76 percent) was higher than support for a proposed border wall (62 percent).

What legislation has Congress considered in recent years?

Congress has debated numerous pieces of immigration reform over the last two decades, some considered “comprehensive,” others piecemeal. Comprehensive immigration reform refers to omnibus legislation that attempts to address the following issues: demand for high-skilled and low-skilled labor, the legal status of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country, border security, and interior enforcement.

The last time legislators came close to significant immigration reform was in 2013, when the Democrat-led Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and tough border security provisions. The bill did not receive a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

What actions have presidents taken in recent years?

Barack Obama. President Obama took several actions to provide temporary legal relief to many undocumented immigrants. In 2012, his administration began a program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that offers renewable, two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to undocumented immigrants who had arrived to the United States as children and had no criminal records. Obama characterized the move as a “stopgap measure” and urged Congress to pass the Dream Act, legislation first introduced in 2001 that would have benefited many of the same people. As of March 2017, nearly eight hundred thousand people [PDF] had taken advantage of DACA.

In 2014, Obama attempted to extend similar benefits to as many as five million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. However, more than two dozen U.S. states sued the administration, alleging that the program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), violated federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution. A Texas federal judge blocked the program in 2015, and the Supreme Court effectively killed it in 2016.

Donald J. Trump. Trump has signed several executive orders affecting immigration policy. The first, which focused on border security, instructed federal agencies to construct a physical wall “to obtain complete operational control” of the U.S. border with Mexico. Additionally, it expanded the application of “expedited removal” to anyone who cannot prove they have been in the United States for two years, allowing them to be removed without a court hearing. The second, which focused on interior enforcement, broadened definitions of those unauthorized immigrants prioritized for removal and ordered increases in enforcement personnel and removal facilities. It also moved to restrict federal funds from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, which in some cases limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials. The third, which focused on terrorism prevention, banned nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for at least ninety days; blocked nationals from Syria indefinitely; and suspended the U.S. refugee program for 120 days.

The actions, particularly the ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, drew widespread protests and legal challenges from individuals, cities, and states. In February 2017, a federal judge in Washington State imposed a nationwide restraining order on the so-called travel ban. The Trump administration revised the order to remove some of its most criticized provisions, but a federal judge in Hawaii subsequently imposed a temporary restraining order on it. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed a third iteration of the travel ban to go into effect [PDF].

Trump more than halved the annual cap of refugees admitted to the United States to fifty thousand, and his orders could make it more difficult for individuals to seek asylum; more than 180,000 applied for asylum in 2016 [PDF]. In 2017, the administration ended temporary protected status (TPS) for thousands of Nicaraguans and Haitians who were allowed into the United States after environmental disasters in their home countries in 1999 and 2010, respectively. Beneficiaries of TPS are permitted to live and work in the United States for up to eighteen months, a period that can be extended at the president’s discretion. In 2018, Trump ended the same relief program for nearly two hundred thousand Salvadorans who came after a 2001 earthquake.

Trump promised during his campaign to revoke both the DAPA and DACA programs, calling them “illegal executive amnesties.” In June 2017, he rescinded President Obama’s memo creating DAPA, which had never been implemented due to sustained legal challenges. In September, Trump announced his plans to phase out DACA, but said current beneficiaries would be allowed to renew their status up to March 2018. In January 2018, as lawmakers negotiated a potential deal with Trump to extend legal protections for those covered by DACA, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled that the program must remain open as long as legal challenges to its termination continue.

How are state and local authorities handling these issues?

States vary widely in how they treat unauthorized immigrants (or anyone suspected of being unauthorized). Some states, such as California, allow undocumented immigrants to apply for drivers’ licenses, receive in-state tuition at universities, and obtain other benefits. At the other end of the spectrum, states such as Arizona have passed laws permitting police to question people about their immigration status.

The federal government is generally responsible for enforcing immigration laws, but it may delegate some immigration-control duties to state and local law enforcement. However, the degree to which local officials are obliged to cooperate with federal authorities is a subject of intense debate. Proponents of tougher immigration enforcement have labeled state and local jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal authorities as “sanctuary cities.” There is no official definition or count of sanctuary cities, but the Immigrant Legal Resource Center identifies more than six hundred counties with such policies.

The Obama administration’s enforcement practices drew criticism from the left and the right. Some immigrant advocacy groups criticized his administration for overseeing the removal of more than three million people during his eight-year tenure, a figure that outpaced the administrations of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Many Republicans said the administration was soft on enforcement in narrowing its removal efforts to undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

President Trump decried sanctuary cities throughout his campaign and issued an executive order to block federal funding to such municipalities and to reinstate a controversial program, known as Secure Communities, in which state and local police provide fingerprints of suspects to federal immigration authorities, and hand over individuals presumed to be in the country illegally. He also ordered the expansion of enforcement partnerships among federal, state, and local agencies. Several cities are challenging Trump’s order in court.

In March 2018, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against California alleging that several of the state’s laws obstruct federal immigration enforcement.

What are the prospects for immigration reform?

Experts say the prospect for comprehensive immigration reform is dim given President Trump’s positions and general political divisions in Washington. “There is no appetite in the Republican party to try to go down the comprehensive [immigration policy reform] road again,” says CFR’s Edward Alden. Some lawmakers may attempt to take a piecemeal approach, starting with enforcement measures, but bipartisan support for “cherry picking” policies is unlikely, he says.

However, one area of immigration policy that could see congressional action is the H1B program. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed interest in reforming the program, which critics say has been abused by companies to outsource skilled labor and cut costs. The Trump administration issued an executive order in April 2017 directing federal agencies to suggest changes to the H1B program to ensure that visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid applicants.

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Resources Up

CFR's Edward Alden examines the effectiveness of border enforcement in this 2017 report for the Center for Migration Studies.

This Brookings Institution paper tracks the rise and fall of low-skilled immigration to the United States.

This report from the Congressional Research Service provides dozens of charts showing trends in U.S. immigration [PDF].

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