The U.S. Immigration Debate
Backgrounder

The U.S. Immigration Debate

Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded Congress for years, moving controversial policy decisions into the executive and judicial branches of government.
Migrants wait in line to seek asylum after illegally entering the United States in Hidalgo, Texas.
Migrants wait in line to seek asylum after illegally entering the United States in Hidalgo, Texas. Loren Elliott/Reuters
Summary
  • Immigrants have long made up a significant portion of the U.S. population. In 2020, they composed almost 14 percent.
  • Congress has failed to agree on how to address immigration challenges, leaving many policy questions up to the courts and executive branch.
  • President Joe Biden has reversed many of former President Donald Trump’s restrictive policies, even as he has struggled with a historic influx of migrants.

Introduction

Immigration has been a touchstone of the U.S. political debate for decades, as policymakers have weighed 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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President Donald Trump put the issues back at the center of public debate with his unprecedented efforts to curb immigration and reshape asylum policy. President Joe Biden pledged to reverse Trump’s actions and reform the system, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and an influx of migrants have complicated his plans.

What is the immigrant population in the United States?

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Immigrants compose almost 14 percent of the U.S. population, or about 45 million people out of a total of nearly 332 million in 2020, according to the Census Bureau. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 26 percent of U.S. inhabitants, and some researchers have predicted that this number will reach 36 percent by 2065.

The share of the population that is foreign-born has steadily risen since 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 nearly 15 percent of the population. 

As of 2019, Mexico was the most common country of origin for U.S. immigrants, with Mexicans constituting 24 percent of the immigrant population. Other major countries of origin include India (6 percent), China (5 percent), and the Philippines (4.5 percent).

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Undocumented immigration. The undocumented population is estimated to be about 11.4 million people, a slight decrease from its peak before the 2008 economic crisis [PDF], which led some migrants to return to their home countries and discouraged others from coming to the United States. In May 2022, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 239,416 people trying to cross the southern border, the highest monthly figure in two decades.

Roughly two-thirds of undocumented immigrants have lived in the United States for more than a decade, and many are the parents of U.S.-born children. Until 2013, almost all of those trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border were Mexican citizens and most were individuals seeking work; since then, Central Americans have made up an increasingly large share, reaching 81 percent [PDF] in 2019. Generally, they are coming not for work but to make asylum claims, and many of them are unaccompanied children. Some of these immigrants have different legal rights from Mexican nationals in the United States: under a 2008 anti–human trafficking law, unaccompanied minors from noncontiguous countries have a right to a hearing before being deported to their home countries. The spike in Central American migration has strained the U.S. immigration system, with more than 1.8 million cases pending in immigration courts as of June 2022.

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Though many of the policies that aim to reduce unlawful immigration focus on enforcement at the border, individuals who arrive in the United States legally and overstay their visas comprise a significant portion of the undocumented population. A Center for Migration Studies report found that, between 2010 and 2018, individuals who overstayed their visas far outnumbered those who arrived by crossing the border illegally.

Legal immigration. The United States granted more than seven hundred thousand individuals legal permanent residency in fiscal year 2020, down from approximately one million the previous year. Almost two-thirds of them were admitted on the basis of family reunification. Other categories included: employment-based preferences (21 percent), refugees (6 percent), diversity (4 percent), and asylees (3 percent). In late 2021, more than four million applicants were on the State Department’s waiting list [PDF] for family- and employer-related immigrant visas.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals work legally in the United States under various types of nonimmigrant visas. In fiscal year 2021, the United States granted just over 61,500 visas for high-skilled workers, known as H1B visas, and more than 257,000 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 approximately 17 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce [PDF] in 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compared to those born in the United States, greater shares of immigrants worked in service fields (21.2 percent of all foreign-born people); production, transportation, and material moving (15.3 percent); and natural resources, construction, and maintenance (14.2 percent). A 2017 Pew Research Center study projected that, without immigrants, the U.S. workforce would decline by almost ten million people by 2035.

How do Americans feel about immigration?

A 2021 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans surveyed considered immigration to be good for the United States. At the same time, however, the majority felt that illegal immigration was a significant threat to U.S. national security.

According to a separate poll conducted by Vox and Data for Progress the same year, 69 percent of voters surveyed—including a majority of Republicans—supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if they meet certain requirements. A greater share (72 percent) supported citizenship for immigrants brought to the United States when they were minors, who are often referred to as Dreamers.

How has Congress tried to address the issue?

The last push for a major immigration overhaul came in 2013, following a decade in which Congress debated numerous immigration reforms, some considered comprehensive, others piecemeal. (Comprehensive immigration reform refers to omnibus legislation that attempts to address the following issues: demand for high- and low-skilled labor, the legal status of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country, border security, and interior enforcement.) The last comprehensive legislation to make it through Congress was under President Ronald Reagan in 1986; it granted legal amnesty to some three million undocumented residents. In 2007, President George W. Bush worked with congressional Democrats to reach a compromise on a new comprehensive bill, but it ultimately failed to win enough support in the Senate.

President Barack Obama pressed hard for a comprehensive bill that would pair a path to legalization for undocumented residents with stronger border security provisions. The Democrat-led Senate passed this legislation in 2013, but the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

What was the Obama administration’s approach?

With legislation thwarted, Obama took several executive actions to provide temporary legal protections for undocumented immigrants. In 2012, his administration began a program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which offered renewable, two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to undocumented immigrants who had arrived in 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. Since then, more than eight hundred thousand people have participated in DACA, and it’s estimated that almost 1.2 million more were eligible as of 2021. Obama attempted to extend similar benefits to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in a program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), but the Supreme Court effectively killed the program in 2016.

In 2014, Obama also grappled with a surge of more than sixty thousand unaccompanied minors at the southern border, mostly from Central America. He directed $750 million in aid to the region to improve conditions there. Meanwhile, his administration faced criticism for its enforcement policies, including detaining children in poor conditions and overseeing the deportation of more people—more than three million—than either the Bill Clinton or George W. Bush administrations had.

What was the Trump administration’s approach?

Immigration was a signature issue for Trump and a perpetual source of controversy during his term. Blaming previous administrations for failing to secure the southern border, he advocated for sharply reducing both legal and illegal immigration. He took several steps, many through executive action, to reshape asylum, deportation, and border policy. 

Border security and enforcement. Trump vowed to expand the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which he claimed would stop drugs and gangs from entering the country. He was unsuccessful in securing funding from Congress, leading to a federal government shutdown in 2019 and a subsequent declaration of a national emergency, which allowed him to divert funds to the wall. Approximately 450 miles of border wall were built before the Biden administration halted construction in January 2022. 

Other enforcement measures under Trump included increasing in border personnel; sending thousands of active-duty troops to the border; threatening Mexico with tariffs if it did not increase its own border enforcement; and attempting to cut federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities, or jurisdictions that refuse to enforce federal immigration directives.

Trump also ratcheted up previous administrations’ deterrence efforts. He implemented a zero-tolerance policy, under which authorities arrested and prosecuted everyone caught crossing the southern border without authorization. This caused thousands of family separations, since by law children must be held apart from parents facing criminal prosecution. (Presidents Bush and Obama likewise faced criticism for child detention, but they did not make separations a matter of policy.)

Trump sought to sharply reduce the number of refugees and other immigrants granted legal entry.

DACA. Trump sought to end DACA, calling it unconstitutional. The move spurred multiple legal challenges and, in June 2020, the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s plan. A December 2020 federal court ruling forced the Trump administration to resume accepting new applicants.

Travel bans and refugee cap. Trump aimed to sharply reduce the number of refugees and other immigrants granted legal entry into the United States. In 2017, he instituted a ban on immigration and travel from several Muslim-majority countries, including Iran, Somalia, and Yemen. The original order was rejected by the courts, but the Supreme Court upheld a more limited version. Trump also lowered the cap on the number of refugees the United States accepts each year to less than fifteen thousand for fiscal year 2021—the lowest figure in the history of the U.S. refugee program. Additionally, he ended temporary protected status (TPS)—a program that allows migrants from certain crisis-stricken nations to live in the United States for a limited period—for several countries.

Asylum policy. Trump implemented new restrictions on asylum seekers. In 2018, the administration began “metering” asylum applications, or only accepting a limited number [PDF] each day. The next year, it launched the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as the Remain in Mexico program, which required asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while their cases were pending in U.S. immigration courts. At the same time, it sought “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, and others, which would have allowed U.S. authorities to send asylum seekers who traveled through those countries back there. Only the agreement with Guatemala was implemented before that country terminated it in 2021. 

Comprehensive reform effort. Like his immediate predecessors, Trump proposed broad immigration reform. His would have created a merit-based system to replace the current one, which prioritizes family reunification. It also included expansion of the border wall and an employment verification system known as E-Verify, but it did not address the status of current undocumented residents. However, the proposal faced strong opposition in Congress and made little headway. 

How has the pandemic altered immigration policy?

The Trump administration further restricted immigration amid the COVID-19 pandemic by: curbing travel to the United States, effectively halting asylum procedures, turning away most migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, and suspending the processing of many foreign worker visas and green cards. 

The administration framed these changes as necessary to limit the virus’s spread and protect American jobs, but critics accused Trump of using the public health crisis to further his anti-immigration agenda. Some argued that the detention and deportation of migrants during the pandemic fueled the virus’s spread

Despite his stated goal of reversing Trump’s border policies, Biden initially maintained many pandemic-related restrictions, including limits on nonessential entry into the country. In addition, he has continued Title 42, a public health order that allows for immediate expulsion of apprehended migrants, though he exempted unaccompanied children and some adults. However, Biden has also implemented several changes, including increasing the number of visas issued to immigrants.

What is the Biden administration’s approach?

Biden campaigned on overturning almost all of Trump’s immigration policies. In its first few months, his administration took dozens of actions, but his efforts collided with a dramatic rise in migration to the southern U.S. border.

Biden’s steps to undo Trump-era policies have included reducing immigration enforcement inside the United States, ending the travel bans, lifting the suspension of green card processing, and halting construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. His administration has also expanded TPS protections, canceled safe third country agreements, and raised the refugee cap for fiscal year 2022 to 125,000 after initially maintaining the limit imposed under Trump. It has additionally launched efforts to accelerate the reunification of migrant families, including by reinstating the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which reunites children in the Northern Triangle with their parents in the United States.

However, Biden has faced roadblocks. His discontinuation of Remain in Mexico was challenged by several states and then blocked by the Supreme Court. (In June 2022, the court ruled that the Biden administration could end the program, sending the case back to a Texas federal court.) A federal judge halted DACA, putting that program’s future in doubt. Meanwhile, a historic influx of migrants at the southern border threatens to destabilize Biden’s efforts further: after a pandemic-related drop, border apprehensions spiked to nearly 240,000 in May 2022, the highest level in more than twenty years. Thousands of migrant children are detained in bare-bones border patrol facilities. The administration has sought to address the underlying causes of the crisis, promising $4 billion in new aid to Central American countries, but at the same time has issued stern warnings to would-be migrants to not make the journey. 

During the 2022 Summit of the Americas, twenty-three heads of state from Western Hemisphere countries agreed to a migration pact that aims to increase aid to refugee populations, improve border management, and better coordinate emergency responses. Biden and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also proposed a joint infrastructure plan aimed at securing the southern U.S. border, emphasizing an expansion of temporary work visas and increasing investment in border surveillance.

Meanwhile, Biden has sent Congress his own comprehensive immigration bill, which would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, expand visa and green card availability, broaden asylum eligibility, and boost border security spending. However, the bill still remains under deliberation, and analysts say it will be nearly impossible for the bill to win enough Republican support to pass.

How are state and local authorities handling these issues?

States vary widely in how they treat unauthorized immigrants. 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 they suspect of being unauthorized about their immigration status.

The federal government is generally responsible for enforcing immigration laws, but it delegates some immigration-related 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. As of 2019, almost one-quarter of U.S. counties limit their cooperation with ICE, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.

The degree to which local officials are obliged to cooperate with federal authorities is a subject of intense debate.

President Trump decried these sanctuary jurisdictions and reinstated a controversial Obama-era program known as Secure Communities, in which the FBI shares fingerprints of suspects collected by state and local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities. Under the program, state and local agencies also hand over individuals presumed to be in the country illegally. Biden terminated the program shortly after taking office. 

A range of court rulings during the Trump era increased pressure on states. In 2018, the Justice Department launched a lawsuit against California over sanctuary jurisdictions, which was ultimately dismissed by the Supreme Court. It filed similar suits against New Jersey and Washington and a federal court ruled in 2020 that the Trump administration could withhold federal funding from sanctuary jurisdictions, including New York City. Under Biden, the Justice Department has reversed this stance, leading the Supreme Court to dismiss several pending cases.

Trump’s border security policies prompted differing local reactions. After Trump called on states to deploy National Guard contingents to the southern border, several governors refused. Others, including Texas’s Greg Abbot, embraced Trump’s views and have vowed to continue work to expand the border wall, which the Department of Homeland Security has continued to build in parts of California and Texas.

Recommended Resources

The BBC lays out how Biden’s border policies differ from Trump’s. 

Julia Gelatt and Muzaffar Chishti examine the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on U.S. immigration in this 2022 report for Migration Policy Institute.

The Congressional Research Service provides an overview [PDF] of U.S. immigration laws.

This CFR Backgrounder explains who is responsible for securing the U.S. border.

This timeline traces changes to U.S. postwar immigration policy.

For Foreign Affairs, Stanford University’s Ana Raquel Minian details the history of U.S. immigration enforcement, with a focus on U.S. policy under Presidents Trump and Biden.

Emily Lieberman, Nathalie Bussemaker, Samuel Parmer, and Danielle Renwick contributed to this Backgrounder. Will Merrow created the graphics.

For media inquiries on this topic, please reach out to [email protected].
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