The U.S. Immigration Debate
Backgrounder

The U.S. Immigration Debate

Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded Congress for years. With border crossings at a record high, how are policymakers responding?
A migrant boy peers through the border wall near San Diego ahead of the end of Title 42 restrictions.
A migrant boy peers through the border wall near San Diego ahead of the end of Title 42 restrictions. Mike Blake/Reuters
Summary
  • The United States is home to more foreign-born residents than any other country in the world. In 2021, immigrants composed almost 14 percent of the U.S. population.
  • 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 end of pandemic-related border restrictions and a historic surge in migration have complicated his plans.

What is the immigrant population in the United States?

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Immigrants composed 13.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2021, or about 45 million people out of a total of more than 332 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants per the 2022 Current Population Survey, and the Census Bureau has predicted that the total number of immigrants living in the United States will reach 65 million by 2050. Though the share of the population that is foreign born has steadily risen since 1970, when there were fewer than 10 million immigrants in the country, today’s figure is still slightly below the record high of 14.8 percent in 1890. 

As of 2021, Mexico was the most common country of origin for U.S. immigrants, with Mexicans constituting 24 percent of the total immigrant population. Other major countries of origin include India (6 percent), China (5 percent), and the Philippines (4 percent).

Undocumented immigration. The undocumented population was estimated to be about eleven million people in 2019; more recent data is not yet available due to difficulty collecting information amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This total represents a slight decrease from the population’s 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 fiscal year 2022 (FY2022), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended more than 2.3 million people trying to illegally cross the southern U.S. border, a record high.

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Until 2013, almost all of those trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border were Mexican citizens, and most were individuals seeking work. Between 2013 and 2021, most immigrants came from Asia, particularly China and India. Mexico has since regained its status as the top country of origin, and Central Americans have made up an increasingly larger share of migrants at the southern U.S. border. 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 increase in Central American migration has strained the U.S. immigration system. At the end of FY2022, there were 1.9 million cases pending in immigration courts, and by mid-2023, that number had grown to more than 2 million, the most on record.

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.

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Legal immigration. The United States granted more than 740,000 individuals legal permanent residency in FY2021, down from approximately 1 million two years prior. Over 60 percent of them were admitted on the basis of family reunification. Other categories included: employment-based preferences (26 percent), refugees (5 percent), diversity (2 percent), and asylees (3 percent). In late 2022, more than four million applicants were on the State Department’s waiting list [PDF] for family- and employer-related immigrant visas, nearly a third of whom were from Mexico.

Hundreds of thousands of foreign nationals work legally in the United States under various types of nonimmigrant visas. In FY2022, the United States granted just over 206,000 visas for high-skilled workers [PDF], known as H1B visas, and more than 298,000 visas for temporary workers in agriculture and other industries, or H2A visas. H1B visas are capped at 85,000 per fiscal year, with exceptions for certain fields.

Immigrants made up 18.1 percent of the U.S. civilian workforce [PDF] in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, up from 17.4 percent the previous year. Compared to those born in the United States, greater shares of immigrants worked in service fields (21.6 percent of all foreign-born people); production, transportation, and material moving (15.2 percent); and natural resources, construction, and maintenance (13.9 percent). Some researchers estimate that pandemic-related border closures led to a loss of about two million working-age immigrants in 2021.

How do Americans feel about immigration?

A 2022 Gallup poll found that 70 percent of Americans surveyed considered immigration to be good for the United States, a 5 percent decrease from the year prior. At the same time, however, the majority felt that illegal immigration was a “critical” threat to U.S. national security.

According to a separate poll conducted the same year by television network NewsNation and Decision Desk HQ, a website that reports election results, nearly 70 percent of voters surveyed supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.

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 and 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, or Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors—legislation first introduced in 2001 that would have benefited many of the same people. Since then, more than 830,000 people have participated in DACA, and it’s estimated that almost 1.2 million more were eligible as of 2022. Obama attempted to extend similar benefits to undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents through a program known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), but the Supreme Court effectively killed it 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—approximately 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 build 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 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.)

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 FY2021—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 and work 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, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which required asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases were processed in U.S. courts. At the same time, it sought “safe third country” agreements with several Latin American countries, which would have allowed U.S. authorities to send asylum seekers who traveled through those countries back there. Only an 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 an 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 did the COVID-19 pandemic alter immigration policy?

The Trump administration further restricted immigration amid the 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. He also invoked Title 42, a rarely used public health law, to deny asylum on pandemic-related grounds. 

The administration framed these changes as necessary to limit the risk of contagion 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.

What has been Biden’s approach?

Biden campaigned on overturning almost all of Trump’s immigration policies. In its first few months, his administration took dozens of actions, including increasing the number of visas issued to immigrants and ending the controversial Title 42 border restrictions, though it did initially maintain many pandemic-related restrictions. But many of his efforts have been challenged by a historic influx of migrants at 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 U.S.-Mexico border wall. His administration has also expanded TPS protections, canceled safe third country agreements, and raised the refugee cap to 125,000 for fiscal years 2022 and 2023. Additionally, it has launched efforts to accelerate the reunification of migrant families, including by reinstating the Central American Minors (CAM) program, which reunites children in the so-called Northern Triangle countries with their parents in the United States, and creating a family-reunification task force.

However, Biden has faced roadblocks. His multiple attempts to terminate the Remain in Mexico program were challenged by several states and later blocked by the Supreme Court; the administration continues to seek court approval to legally end the program. And amid ongoing legal challenges to DACA, the Department of Homeland Security continues to accept and process renewal requests

Still, the spike in migration threatens Biden’s immigration reform plans. After a pandemic-related drop, border apprehensions spiked to more than 2.3 million in FY2022, the highest level on record. The surge in migrants, paired with the end of Title 42, prompted the administration to implement new border restrictions in April 2023; since then, illegal crossings have slowed. At the same time, Biden has faced criticism over reports that he is considering reviving the practice of detaining migrant families. The administration has also sought to address the drivers of migration from Central America, pledging $4 billion to countries in the region, though analysts say the four-year initiative has made little progress [PDF]. Similarly, Biden has worked with regional leaders to increase aid to refugee populations, improve border management, and better coordinate emergency responses.

Meanwhile, Biden’s own comprehensive immigration bill remains stalled in Congress. Other efforts to change border and immigration policy face similar roadblocks, and some experts say reform efforts will be even more contentious ahead of the U.S. presidential election in 2024.

How are state and local authorities handling these issues?

States vary widely in how they treat unauthorized immigrants. Some, including California and Massachusetts, 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 are states such as Texas, where the legislature passed a law [PDF] mandating that local governments and law enforcement agencies cooperate with federal immigration officers.

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 Abbott, embraced Trump’s views and have continued to expand the border wall.

Recommended Resources

For Time magazine, John Austin of the Michigan Economic Center and former Michigan state legislator Steve Tobocman lay out seven ways to fix the U.S. immigration system.

On this episode of The President’s Inbox, CFR’s Edward Alden discusses U.S. immigration policy and the situation at the southern border.

The Migration Policy Institute’s Muzaffar Chishti and Kathleen Bush-Joseph look at Biden’s immigration record halfway through his term.

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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