U.S. Immigration Policy

Task Force Report
Analysis and policy prescriptions of major foreign policy issues facing the United States, developed through private deliberations among a diverse and distinguished group of experts.

"The continued failure to devise and implement a sound and sustainable immigration policy threatens to weaken America's economy, to jeopardize its diplomacy, and to imperil its national security," concludes a new Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Independent Task Force co-chaired by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former White House chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty.

"The stakes are too high to fail," says the report. "If the United States continues to mishandle its immigration policy, it will damage one of the vital underpinnings of American prosperity and security, and could condemn the country to a long, slow decline in its status in the world." For this reason, the report urges: "The United States needs a fundamental overhaul of its immigration laws."

Jeb Bush

President, Jeb Bush & Associates LLC

Thomas F. III McLarty

President, McLarty Associates

Edward Alden
Edward Alden

Bernard L. Schwartz Senior Fellow

U.S. Immigration Policy contends that America has reaped tremendous benefits from opening its doors to immigrants, as well as to students, skilled employees and others who may only live in the country for shorter periods of time. But it warns that "the continued inability of the United States to develop and enforce a workable system of immigration laws threatens to undermine these achievements."

More on:

Immigration and Migration

United States

Directed by CFR Senior Fellow Edward Alden, the CFR-sponsored Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy reflects the consensus of a bipartisan group of eminent leaders in the fields of immigration policy, homeland security, education, labor, business, academia and human rights. The group urges Congress and the Obama administration to move ahead with immigration reform legislation that achieves three critical goals:

  • Reforms the legal immigration system so that it operates more efficiently, responds more accurately to labor market needs, and enhances U.S. competitiveness;
  • Restores the integrity of immigration laws through an enforcement regime that strongly discourages employers and employees from operating outside that legal system, secures America's borders, and levies significant penalties against those who violate the rules;
  • Offers a fair, humane, and orderly way to allow many of the roughly twelve million migrants currently living illegally in the United States to earn the right to remain legally.

According to the report, the high level of illegal immigration in the country is increasingly damaging to U.S. national interests—"[it] diminishes respect for the law, creates potential security risks, weakens labor rights, strains U.S. relations with its Mexican neighbor, and unfairly burdens public education and social services in many states."

But it contends that "no enforcement effort will succeed properly unless the legal channels for coming to the United States can be made to work better." Therefore, "the U.S. government must invest in creating a working immigration system that alleviates long and counterproductive backlogs and delays, and ensures that whatever laws are enacted by Congress are enforced thoroughly and effectively."

The Task Force lays out a series of concrete, realistic recommendations for legislation and administrative reforms that would be part of an immigration policy that better serves America's national interests:

More on:

Immigration and Migration

United States

-Comprehensive immigration reform: A new effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill should be a first-tier priority for the Obama administration and Congress, and should be started without delay.

-Attracting skilled immigrants: The United States must tackle head-on the growing competition for skilled immigrants from other countries, and make the goal of attracting such immigrants a central component of its immigration policy. The report urges an end to the hard caps on employment-based immigrant visas and skilled work visas in favor of a more flexible system, the elimination of strict nationality quotas, and new opportunities for foreign students earning advanced degrees to remain in the United States after they graduate.

-National security: The Task Force calls for minimizing visa restrictions that impede scientific collaboration, noting that America's long-term security depends on maintaining its place as a world leader in science and technology. The administration should also permit a broader effort by the U.S. military to recruit recent immigrants who are not yet citizens or green card holders, so as to bolster U.S. military capabilities.

-Employer enforcement: The Task Force supports a mandatory system for verifying those who are authorized to work in the United States, including a workable and reliable biometric verification system with secure documents. Tougher penalties should be levied against those who refuse to comply. It calls employer enforcement "the single most effective and humane enforcement tool available to discourage illegal migration."

-Simplifying, streamlining, and investing in the immigration system: Congress and the Obama administration should establish a high-level independent commission to make recommendations for simplifying the administration and improving the transparency of U.S. immigration laws. The government must redouble its efforts to reduce backlogs and other unnecessary delays by investing in the personnel and technology necessary for handling visa and immigration applications efficiently.

-Improving America's image abroad: The administration and Congress should launch a comprehensive review of the current security-related restrictions on travel to the United States, with an eye toward lifting restrictions that do not significantly reduce the risk of terrorists or criminals entering the country.

-Border enforcement: The report favors the full implementation of the Secure Border Initiative to gain greater operational control of the country's borders. It also calls for the expansion of "smart border" initiatives that use information technologies and targeting tools to help distinguish individuals who may pose a security risk to the United States while facilitating easier entry by the vast majority of legitimate visitors and immigrants.

-State and local enforcement: State and local police forces can and should be used to augment federal immigration enforcement capabilities, as long as this does not interfere with their core mission of maintaining safety and security in the communities they serve.

-Earned legalization: The Task Force favors a policy of earned legalization, not amnesty, for many of the illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. The DREAM Act, reintroduced in the 111th Congress, provides the right model by requiring that young people without status who wish to remain in the United States must attend college or perform military service and demonstrate good moral character in order to earn their eligibility for permanent residence.

Upholding American values: The report identifies three areas that need immediate and serious review—incarceration policies, the severe penalties for minor immigration and criminal violations, and policies on refugees and asylees—and offers steps to address them, including:

  • Expand the use of alternatives to detention, such as ankle bracelets or monitoring parolees.
  • Allow greater discretion in implementing some of the penalties that were previously passed by Congress, such as the mandatory three, five, and ten year bars for many returning deportees.
  • Create an office within the Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for refugee protection, and give greater priority for refugee issues throughout the Department of Homeland Security and in the White House.

The consensus on the bipartisan Task Force around these issues demonstrates that progress on immigration can be achieved. The report concludes that "the United States has the understanding, the capabilities, and the incentives to move forward and create a more intelligent, better functioning immigration system that will serve the country's interests. It is time to get on with the job."

Educators: Access the Teaching Module for U.S. Immigration Policy.

Task Force Members

Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, where his research focuses on issues of U.S. economic competitiveness, including trade and immigration policy. Prior to joining CFR in 2007, he was the Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times. He also served as the FT's bureau chief in Canada from 1998 to 2000. Previously, he was a senior reporter at the Vancouver Sun specializing in labor and employment issues as well as the managing editor of Inside U.S. Trade. He has won several national and international awards for his reporting, and writes for a wide variety of publications, including the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Toronto Globe & Mail. His book, The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11, was named a "distinguished finalist" for the 2009 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for nonfiction. Alden holds a BA from the University of British Columbia and an MA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Mary Boies founded the law firm Boies & McInnis LLP, which specializes in antitrust, securities, and corporate litigation. She chairs the executive committee of the Board of Business Executives for National Security. She is a member of the Dean's Executive Council at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and on the Advisory Committee of MIT's Center for International Studies. She was appointed by the U.S. secretary of defense to the Air University Board of Visitors, whose purview includes the Air Force School for Advanced Air and Space Task Force Members 129 Studies, Air Command and Staff College, the College of Aerospace Doctrine, and the Air Force Institute of Technology. She serves on the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, established by President Eisenhower to conduct professional peer reviews of nominees to the federal judiciary, including to the U.S. Supreme Court. She is founder and CEO of Mary Boies Software Inc., publisher of educational software. Previously, she was vice president and member of the law department at CBS Inc., general counsel of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board, assistant director of the White House Domestic Policy Staff, and counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce.

Robert C. Bonner is a senior principal of the Sentinel HS Group and of counsel to Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. From 2003 through December 2005, Bonner served as the first commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency of the Department of Homeland Security responsible for managing, controlling, and securing U.S. borders while facilitating global trade and travel. Bonner was appointed by President George W. Bush to serve as commissioner of U.S. Customs Service in September 2001. Before that, his government service included serving as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1990 to 1993, as U.S. district judge for the Central District of California from 1989 to 1990, and as the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California from 1984 through 1989. Bonner is a fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Bonner is also co-chair of the Pacific Council on International Policy's task force on U.S.-Mexico border policy, the Board of Trustees of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and the Board of Directors of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, Region One.

Jeb Bush is the president of Jeb Bush and Associates, LLC, a consulting firm. He served as the forty-third governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007. Before his election as governor, Bush worked as a real estate executive and pursued other entrepreneurial ventures in Florida from 1981 to 1998, and served as secretary of commerce for the state of Florida from 1987 to 1988. Before 1981, Bush served in various positions at Texas Commerce Bank in Houston, Texas, and in Caracas, Venezuela. He formed and serves as chairman of the Foundation for Florida's Future, a not-for-profit public policy organization, and the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a not-for profit charitable organization. Bush earned a BA in Latin American affairs from the University of Texas at Austin.

Allan E. Goodman is the sixth president of the Institute of International Education, the leading not-for-profit organization in the field of international educational exchange and development training. Previously, he was executive dean of the School of Foreign Service and professor at Georgetown University. He also served as presidential briefing coordinator for the director of Central Intelligence in the Carter administration. He has a BS from Northwestern University, an MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School, and a PhD in government from Harvard. Goodman also holds honorary doctorates from Toyota and Chatham universities, Middlebury, Mount Ida, and Ramapo colleges, and the State University of New York for his work in educational exchange and rescuing scholars. He has also received awards from Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, and Tufts universities, and the French Legion d'honneur.

Gordon H. Hanson is a professor of economics in the graduate school of international relations and Pacific studies and the department of economics at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). He is also a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and coeditor of the Journal of Development Economics. Before joining UCSD, he served on the faculties of the University of Michigan and the University of Texas. He is the author of more than fifty academic research publications on the economic consequences of immigration, international trade and investment, and other aspects of globalization. He is author of Why Does Immigration Divide America? Public Finance and Political Opposition to Open Borders and Immigration Policy and the Welfare System.

Michael H. Jordan is the former chairman and CEO of Electronic Data Systems (EDS). Prior to joining EDS, he was the retired chairman and chief executive officer of CBS Corporation (formerly Westinghouse Electric Corporation); partner with Clayton, Dubilier, and Rice; chairman and CEO of PepsiCo International; and a consultant and principal with McKinsey & Company. Jordan is a trustee of the Brookings Institution; a former member and chairman of the President's Export Council, a former chairman of the National Foreign Trade Council; a former chairman of the U.S.-Japan Business Council; a director and former chairman of the United Negro College Fund; a former chairman of the National Policy Board of the Americans for the Arts; and a former member of the following organizations: the Business Council, board of trustees of the United States Council for International Business, the international advisory board of British American Business Inc., and the Business Roundtable. He serves on the boards of several small, privately held companies and is a member of the Yale School of Management board of advisers. Jordan served a four-year tour of duty with the U.S. Navy on the staff of Admiral Hyman Rickover. He received a BS in chemical engineering from Yale University and an MS in chemical engineering from Princeton University.

Donald Kerwin is vice president for programs at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), overseeing all of MPI's national and international programs. Before joining MPI, Kerwin worked for more than sixteen years at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC), serving as executive director for nearly fifteen years. CLINIC is a public interest legal corporation that supports a national network of 173 charitable legal programs for immigrants in more than 270 locations. On his arrival at CLINIC in 1992, Kerwin directed its political asylum project for Haitians. He became CLINIC's executive director in December 1993 and during his tenure, CLINIC coordinated the nation's largest political asylum, detainee services, immigration appeals, and naturalization programs. Kerwin is an adviser to the American Bar Association's Commission on Immigration, on the board of directors of Jesuit Refugee Services-USA, and an associate fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center. Mr. Kerwin is a 1984 graduate of Georgetown University and a 1989 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School.

Richard D. Land is president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith. He has served in this position since October 1988. Before that, Land served as Criswell College's vice president for academic affairs from 1980 to 1988 and had taught as a professor of theology and church history at that institution since 1975. While on leave of absence from Criswell College, Land served from January 1987 to May 1988 as administrative assistant to the Honorable William P. Clements Jr., governor of Texas, as his senior adviser on church-state issues and areas relating to traditional family values. In 2005, Time magazine named Dr. Land as one of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals." In October 2007, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky appointed Land to a two-year term on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent and bipartisan federal agency. This was Land's fourth appointment to USCIRF. In July 2005, then Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist had appointed Land, and President Bush selected Land for his first two terms (September 2001 to September 2004). He graduated with a BA (magna cum laude) from Princeton University and with a PhD from Oxford University in England. He also received an MT (Honors Program) degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he served as student body president and received the Broadman Seminarian Award as the outstanding graduating student.

Elisa Massimino is CEO and executive director of Human Rights First, one of the nation's leading human rights advocacy organizations. Established in 1978, Human Rights First works in the United States and abroad to promote respect for human rights and the rule of law. Massimino joined Human Rights First in 1991 and served as the organization's Washington director for more than a decade before being named chief executive in September 2008. Massimino has a distinguished record of human rights advocacy in Washington. As a national authority on human rights law and policy, she has testified before Congress dozens of times and writes frequently for mainstream publications and specialized journals. In May 2008, the influential Washington newspaper The Hill named her one of the top twenty public advocates in the country. Massimino is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, holds an MA in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, and earned a law degree from the University of Michigan. Massimino serves as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where she teaches human rights advocacy. She is a member of the bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thomas F. McLarty III has a distinguished record of business leadership and public service, including various roles advising U.S. presidents of both parties. He served as President Bill Clinton's first White House chief of staff, with more than five years in the president's cabinet and on the National Economic Council. He also organized the successful 1994Summit of the Americas in Miami, which ultimately led to his appointment as special envoy for the Americas in 1997. After leaving the White House, McLarty returned to the private sector, where he had previously spent a decade as CEO of Arkla, a Fortune 500 natural gas company. He is currently president of McLarty Associates, an international strategic advisory firm, and also serves as chairman of the McLarty Companies, a fourth-generation family automotive business. McLarty remains an active participant in and commentator on hemispheric affairs. In 2001, he co-chaired the U.S.-Mexico Binational Migration Panel with Ambassador Andres Rozental. He is on the board of the Council of the Americas and the Inter-American Dialogue, as well as a number of private sector and philanthropic organizations. In addition, he serves as a senior international fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. McLarty graduated summa cum laude from the University of Arkansas.

Eliseo Medina has served as international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1996, when he made history by becoming the first Mexican-American elected to a top post at the two million-member SEIU. Medina's career as a labor activist began in 1965 when, as a nineteen-year-old grape-picker, he participated in the historic United Farm Workers' strike in Delano, California. Over the next thirteen years, Medina worked alongside labor leader and civil rights activist César Chávez and honed his skills as a union organizer and political strategist; eventually rising through the ranks to serve as the United Farm Workers' national vice president. Medina's interests in strategic organizing brought him to SEIU in 1986, where he helped revive a local union in San Diego-building its membership from 1,700 to over 10,000 in five years. He was one of the main strategists in the Los Angeles strike by SEIU Local 1877's building service workers, who in April 2000 won the largest wage increase in the fifteenyear history of SEIU's Justice for Janitors campaign. Medina also has a deeply felt interest in SEIU's work on immigration policies. In Los Angeles, he has helped strengthen ties between the Roman Catholic Church and the labor movement to work on common concerns such as immigrant worker rights and access to health care.

Steve Padilla is a public policy and land use consultant currently serving as president and chief executive officer of the Aquarius Group Inc. He served as mayor of the city of Chula Vista, California, from 2002 to 2006 and as a member of the California Coastal Commission from 2005 to 2007. He also served two terms on Chula Vista's City Council from 1994 to 2002 before being elected mayor. Padilla served in numerous San Diego County local and regional offices and held statewide and national affiliations during his term as mayor, including the board of the San Diego Association of Governments, the League of California Cities, and the United States Conference of Mayors. Before his elected career, Padilla was a detective with the Coronado Police Department and a high school teacher. He remains active in local, state, and national public affairs, and currently writes a monthly public affairs column for La Prensa San Diego. He earned a BPA from National University.

Robert D. Putnam is the Peter and Isabel Malkin professor of public policy at Harvard University, where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses. He is also visiting professor and director of the Manchester Graduate Summer Programme in Social Change, University of Manchester (UK). Putnam is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the British Academy, and past president of the American Political Science Association. In 2006, Putnam received the Skytte Prize, one of the world's highest accolades for a political scientist. He has served as dean of the Harvard Kennedy School. He has written a dozen books, translated into seventeen languages, including two, Making Democracy Work and Bowling Alone, which rank high among the most cited publications in the social sciences worldwide in the last several decades. He founded the Saguaro Seminar, bringing together leading thinkers and practitioners to develop actionable ideas for civic renewal. Before coming to Harvard in 1979, he taught at the University of Michigan and served on the staff of the National Security Council. Putnam graduated from Swarthmore College in 1963, won a Fulbright Fellowship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, and went on to earn master's and doctorate degrees from Yale University, the latter in 1970.

Andrew D. Selee is director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute, which promotes dialogue and policy research on U.S.-Mexico relations. He served previously as senior program associate of the Latin American program and as professional staff in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for five years in Mexico. He is editor or coeditor of several publications on U.S.-Mexico relations, Mexican politics, immigration, and decentralization. Selee is an adjunct professor of government at Johns Hopkins University and has been a visiting scholar at El Colegio de México. He is a board member of the U.S.-Mexico Fulbright Commission (Comexus) and a contributing editor to the Handbook of Latin American Studies. A long-time volunteer of the YMCA, Selee served for five years on the National Board of the YMCA of the USA and chaired its International Committee.

Margaret D. Stock is an attorney admitted in Alaska and a lieutenant colonel, Military Police Corps, U.S. Army Reserve. From 1993 to 2001, she practiced law in Alaska, where she was an associate at a general trial practice firm and then the managing partner at a firm that emphasized immigration and citizenship law. From June 2001 to June 2006, she was a Title 10 civilian professor in the department of law at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, after which she accepted an assignment as a drilling individual mobilization augmentee (DIMA) (associate professor) in West Point's Department of Social Sciences. In 2005, the American Immigration Lawyers Association awarded her its prestigious Advocacy Award for her work informing Congress and the public about the connection between immigration and national security. She is also a 2006 graduate of the Army War College, which awarded her a master of strategic studies degree. Stock was instrumental in the creation of AILA's Military Assistance Program, and is a member of the editorial board of Bender's Immigration Bulletin. She earned an AB in government at Harvard-Radcliffe in 1985, a JD at Harvard Law School in 1992, and an MPA at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2001.

Frances Fragos Townsend is currently a corporate partner at Baker Botts, LLP. Previously she served as assistant to President George W. Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism and chaired the Homeland Security Council from May 2004 until January 2008, and as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from May 2003 to May 2004. Before serving the president, Townsend was the first assistant commandant for intelligence for the U. S. Coast Guard. She began her prosecutorial career in 1985 as an assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, New York, and then joined the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. In 1991, she worked in the Office of the Attorney General to assist in establishing the newly created Office of International Programs, and in 1993 joined the Criminal Division as chief of staff to the assistant attorney general. Townsend was director of the Office of International Affairs in the Criminal Division from November 1995 to November 1997, after which she was appointed acting deputy assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division. In March 1998, Townsend was appointed counsel for intelligence policy, in which capacity she headed the Department of Justice's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review. She has a BA in political science and a BS in psychology from American University, and a JD from the University of San Diego School of Law. In 1986, she attended the Institute on International and Comparative Law in London.

Kathleen Campbell Walker is the immediate past national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, and is board certified in immigration and nationality law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She currently heads the immigration and international trade group of Brown McCarroll, LLP, headquartered in Austin. Walker's immigration law practice primarily focuses on business and family-based immigration, consular processing, employer sanctions, citizenship and naturalization, security checks, and admission issues. She has frequently provided testimony before Congress as well as the Texas House and Senate, and has practiced on the border in El Paso for over twenty-three years. She served as the chairperson of the Exam Committee on Immigration and Nationality Law for several years for the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and was named in 2008 as one of the thirty women recognized in the "Extraordinary Women in Texas Law" publication of the Texas Lawyer. Walker earned a BA from Texas Tech University and a JD from the University of Texas School of Law.

Raul H. Yzaguirre is currently presidential professor of practice in community development and civil rights at Arizona State University, where he is helping to establish a center focused on community development, education for practitioners, and academic scholarship. He served as president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza, the largest national Hispanic constituency-based organization in the United States and the leading Hispanic think tank in Washington, DC, from 1974 to 2004. He was the first Hispanic to serve on the executive committee of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, was chairperson of President Clinton's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, and was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force Medical Corps, Yzaguirre founded the National Organization for Mexican American Services. After this, he worked as a senior program officer at the migrant division of the U.S. Office of Economic Opportunity before founding Interstate Research Associates, the first Latino research association, which he built into a multimillion-dollar nonprofit consulting firm. Yzaguirre received his BS from George Washington University.

Top Stories on CFR


The new defense treaty demonstrates a growing closeness between the two pariah states that is likely to make the rest of the world uneasy.


Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: The United States may come to rue its failure to get its fiscal house in order.