from The Water's Edge

The President's Inbox: What Would a Smart Immigration Policy Look Like?

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer stands by migrants at a processing facility in Donna, Texas.
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer stands by migrants at a processing facility in Donna, Texas. Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters

Each week between now and the Iowa caucuses, I’m talking with two experts with differing views on how the United States should handle a foreign policy challenge it faces. These special episodes are part of CFR’s Election 2020 activities, which are made possible in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

December 10, 2019

A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer stands by migrants at a processing facility in Donna, Texas.
A U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer stands by migrants at a processing facility in Donna, Texas. Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The latest episode of The President’s Inbox is live. This week, I discussed U.S. immigration policy with Edward Alden, Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at CFR, and James Carafano, vice president and E.W. Richardson fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

Here are three takeaways from our conversation:

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Immigration and Migration

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1. There are two big immigration debates, not one. Talk about immigration policy usually focuses on illegal immigration. But a debate is also brewing over legal immigration. That debate turns on two questions: What should be the overall level of legal immigration? And, what criteria should be used to determine who can come live in the United States legally? On the latter score, there is a push to move away from the current system, which stresses family ties, toward a merit-based immigration system like those found in much of the rest of the world that would weigh education and skills more heavily.

2. Democrats and Republicans agree far more than they disagree on immigration policy. Ted and Jim estimate that Democrats and Republicans could work out mutually acceptable compromises on perhaps 80 percent of the outstanding issues in the immigration debate. That’s because there’s agreement on many of the general failings in the U.S. immigration system and on the range of workable solutions.

3. Where the two sides disagree, they disagree intensely. The big issue, of course, is what to do about the roughly 11 million people living in the United States illegally. Democrats favor some version of amnesty, which Republicans adamantly oppose. Republicans favor encouraging or forcing undocumented people to leave the United States, which Democrats adamantly oppose. This disagreement has so far stopped attempts at comprehensive immigration reform in their tracks.

Ted and Jim have both written extensively about immigration policy. Ted wrote The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration, and Security Since 9/11. He was also the project director for the CFR Independent Task Force report, U.S. Immigration Policy, which surveyed the problems with U.S. immigration and proposed an array of potential solutions. In “Smart Borders,” Ted discussed the dilemma the United States faces in trying to secure its borders while also being open to both goods and people. In that vein, he has written that many U.S.-based “companies are worried that the U.S. could lose its standing as the destination of choice for smart immigrants” and that restricting immigration isn’t likely to solve the problem of wage stagnation in the United States.

Jim opposes Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that President Barack Obama created by executive order that allows some immigrants who arrived illegally in the country as children to temporarily avoid deportation. Jim believes that “you don’t fix a problem by starting with rewarding those who helped create the problem.” He has also written that building a wall on the southern border is necessary but not sufficient for border security. He wants to see greater investments in border agencies and the Coast Guard, as well as increased efforts to get regional neighbors “to combat transnational criminal networks and gangs, discourage illegal immigration, improve border security and safety, and strengthen Latin American economies and civil societies.” Jim has also argued “that our patriotic-assimilation system is broken to the point that it is now a national-security threat” because schools can intensify ethnic identities at the expense of self-identification as “American.”

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The absolute number of immigrants in the United States has surged since 1970, as the blue line in this graph from the Migration Policy Institute shows:

The total number of immigrants has soared, but the percentage of immigrants in the total population is rising more slowly.

The number of immigrants as a share of the total U.S. population has also soared over the past half century, though at a much slower rate, as the orange line shows. That percentage now stands at 13.7 percent, which is slightly below the historical peak of 14.8 percent in 1890.

In terms of where immigrants come from, Mexico leads the pack, as this chart from the Pew Research Center shows:

Mexico is the top birthplace for immigrants, followed by China and India.

Pew calculates that 77 percent of immigrants are in the country legally. The number of undocumented immigrants peaked at 12.2 million in 2007. As of 2017, that number looked to be 10.5 million people.

My colleagues on the CFR.org news team have published a range of materials on the immigration debate. U.S. Postwar Immigration Policy, 1952-2019 offers an interactive timeline outlining the evolution of immigration policy after World War II. The U.S. Immigration Debate reviews the main issues and disputes in U.S. immigration policy. U.S. Temporary Foreign Worker Programs examines the numerous policies the U.S. government has instituted over the years to allow foreign citizens to work in the United States. Who Secures the Border? looks at which U.S. government agencies are charged with patrolling the borders as well as why the U.S. asylum process is under stress. How Does the U.S. Refugee System Work? explores U.S. policy on admitting refugees. Central America’s Northern Triangle discusses why the United States is seeing a surge of migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. My colleague Paul Angelo joined me on The President’s Inbox back in July to discuss what the options are for dealing with the migrant crisis on the southern border of the United States.

Margaret Gach helped with the preparation of this post.

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