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Immigration Policy – Winning Essay


            With globalization and difficult living conditions around the globe, immigration has become a significantly important and heavily debated political issue in most developed countries, including the United States (U.S.). An estimated 11.5 million unauthorized illegal immigrants live in the U.S. (Department Homeland Security (DHS) 2011; Center for American Progress  (CAP) 2012). Each year illegal immigrants enter into the U.S. in various ways in the hopes of finding a better job, earning a livable salary, and building a better life for themselves and their family. Since 2001, and the events that took place on September 11th, policies have targeted this population in order to keep immigration numbers at the lowest rates possible. This is because U.S. immigration policy reflects multiple and a wide varied of goals, interests, and objectives. Daniel Tichenor, agrees with this statement and says that immigration over time “can be explained as much by changes in how public policy is formulated and implemented—and more by how politics is organized in the U.S.—as by economic, social, and cultural forces” (Tichenor 2002, 5-6).  Immigration policy is multidimensional and hence a new national, comprehensive immigration reform effort will have to balance several important factors in order to ensure a fair and balance system for immigrants; the cost of doing nothing is a cost too high for Americans to bear.

            I will proceed as follows: in the first part of my paper I will offer a brief background on U.S. immigration policies and laws. This will include who is directly and indirectly involved and impacted by the process of immigration policymaking. In order to understand today’s policies we must understand where policies started off and why they are important. Afterwards, I will disclose a possible bias that I may have and my personal interest in immigration. Next, I will explain possible solutions that have been offered by various arguments, choosing a specific policy recommendation, comprehensive immigration reform that I will be suggesting forward. Afterwards, I will discuss the pros and cons of the suggested policy recommendation. Finally, I will arrive at a conclusion that ties the policy suggestion to how politically realistic and feasible my solution is.


Historical Development

Historically, the U.S. has been viewed as a nation of immigrants, implying that it is open to immigrants from all over the world (Cochran 2012, 406). Yet, many say this when “U.S. claims that the country opens its doors to the world and represents the best and most generous aspects of humankind” is a myth (Cochran 2012, 413). This is because the specifics of immigration policy and how they developed “support anti-alien sentiment arising from people’s anxieties and self-interest” (Cochran 2012, 413). Also, it is a mistake to think of anyone arriving from a different country as an “immigrant.” There are different types of immigrants and the policies that are implemented are specifically drafted for one out of the three groups: 1) legal immigration; 2) illegal immigration; and 3) refugee policy. Each component has its own set of challenges and has generated its own attention and legislation over the years. Today’s Americans are concerned with illegal immigration by far more than the other two types of immigration: legal and refugee immigration.


        Americans overwhelmingly agree that the nation’s immigration policy is in great need of change. The current U.S. immigration system is too complex and inflexible—different rules depending on relief, lengthy application processes, and arbitrary quotas. According to recent data by Pew Research (2013), 75% of Americans agree and say that immigration needs major changes; with 35% of Americans saying it needs to be “completely rebuilt.” Furthermore, this is among the highest of the seven policy areas that were tested in the study. About, 73% of Americans say that there should be a way for illegal immigrants that already live in the U.S. to stay here, if they can meet certain requirements (Pew Research 2013). Yet, only 44% of those same individuals are in favor of allowing those here illegally to apply for U.S. citizenship.

Although, many agree that something needs to be done, it seems like the public is still divided on what exactly needs to be done due to arguments that opponents propose which will be outlined later on. While there are partisan differences in views on specific policies and laws towards immigration, Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on something very important; 79% of Republicans say that immigration policy should be completely rebuilt or undergo major changes and 72% of Democrats agree (Pew Research 2013).  The issue seems to be: how can we come together in a bi-partisan effort to make a change happen in this very fragmented and broken immigration system?

Who is Involved?

             Everyone is involved in the immigration battle in one way or another: immigrants, children of immigrants, politicians, special interest groups, lobby groups, people on the enforcement side, political parties, policymakers, and advocacy groups. Immigrants of various countries are seen as winners or losers depending on when the policy was set and by whom as we will see with the brief overview of the history. As with all public policies, immigration policy serves diverse populations and objectives. Some immigrants are able to apply for various kinds of relief: refugee status, asylum, temporary person status (TPS), sponsorship, or various visas. While, others do not qualify for relief and are considered an “illegal alien” as soon as they step foot into the United States.

The more strongly a group’s interests are affected by immigration, the greater incentive they have to organize against competing interests. Many groups that are impacted, particularly Latinos, Asians, and New American voters provoke immigration reform discussions (Immigration Policy Reform). The political momentum on the issue has increased each year since 2007 (Immigration Policy Reform). Also, as the costs or benefits of immigration become concentrated to particular groups, these groups will attempt to exert more of their power over those that are making policy. There are also political advocacy groups in the U.S. that protect the rights of immigrants all around the United States. Many studies show that interest groups play a key role in shaping U.S. immigration policy; suggesting that unions have been actively involved in the fight to limit inflows of foreign workers (Hanson 2009).

Immigration Policy Development

Early immigrants came from countries like England, France, Germany, and other European countries in the hopes for economic opportunity and political freedom from their home countries (Immigration Policy Center 2012). Throughout the years, immigration policy development and law changes show that every shift in immigration policy followed a major recession, depression, economic surplus, or social unrest in the United States. History also shows that immigrants were used as a political mobilization tool for political parties and interest groups. They would identify major problems in the government and use immigrants as scapegoats.  It is important to understand past policies and laws that were enacted, in order to understand this complex and heated discussion of immigration.

During this time, the 18th and early 19th centuries, immigration was free and open to all (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) 2013). Immigration held a “laissez-faire approach” until the mid 19th century (USCIS; Cochran 2012, 406). Policy up to this point in history was rarely questioned, until states began to pass immigration laws following the civil war (USCIS 2013; Cochran 2012). The civil war created a temporary diversion from the immigration issue, but came back to the forefront after the war and sentiments against immigrants grew again (Cochran 2012).  In 1875, this forced the Supreme Court to declare that regulation of immigration was a federal responsibility, not a state issue (USCIS 2013; Cochran 2012).

As the number of immigrants rose in the 1880s and economic conditions worsened, Congress was forced to enact certain restrictive legislation in order to control the number of immigrants flowing into the U.S. (USCIS 2013). According to Cochran (2011), “from the 1780s until 1819…250,000 immigrants arrived in the U.S. Beginning in 1820, the pace of immigration quickened, with over 140,000 arriving during the 1820s and an annual average of almost 164,000 from the 1830s until 1860. A total of 5.1 million arrive during the 1860s and 1870s.” This quickly created the conditions for opposition to arise from Americans (Cochran 2012).

Opposition began to rise against immigrants for a number for a number of reasons. Cochran states that such reasons included “social problems, such as unemployment, economic sluggishness, and a shortage of housing, fueled anti-immigrant sentiment” (Cochran 2012, 408). The influx of immigrants meant that they looked for work and worked for lower wages, creating a demand for cheap labour, dramatically deflating wages for all (Cochran 2012, 408). Most immigrants that came to the U.S. did not speak any English and settled into neighborhoods where many people of their nationality already settled, forming separate communities. Lastly, immigrants were predominantly Catholic and Jewish coming from Eastern Europe. This is why opposition began to rise and quotas were imposed on how many immigrants would be allowed into the U.S. (Cochran 2012).

In order to control who was entering the U.S., Congress, in 1882, began to prohibit certain types of “undesirable” individuals from immigrating into the U.S.; this included convicts, prostitutes, mentally ill, and polygamists (Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); (Cochran 2012). Congress passed a law setting a quote on how many Chinese could immigrate to the U.S. (INS, USCIS 2013; Cochran 2012). Congress also passed an Act that imposed a head tax on every immigrant coming into the U.S.; it was 50 cents to come to the United States. This money was deposited into a fund called the “immigration fund”, which was then used by Treasury Secretary to defray expenses incurred in regulating immigration (Migration Policy Institute (MPI) 2013). Also, it deterred the poor immigrants from immigrating to the United States. Furthermore, all of the policies and laws that were enacted during this time were intended to restrict immigration and provide a means of deporting illegal immigrants.

Congress passed the 1921 “Emergency Quota Act” which was Congress’ first real attempt to regulate immigration by setting admission quotes based on nationalities. The law established a quota limiting immigrants of any given nationality to 3% of those of the same nationality living in the U.S. as of the 1910 census (MPI 2013; INS; USCIS 2013; Cochran 2012). Then in 1924, the “National Origins Quota Act” established that quotas would be calculated based on 2% of each nationality’s proportion of the foreign born US population in 1890 (MPI 2013). This act increasingly is criticized as discriminating “against…Europeans, who arrived in the United States in greater numbers during the last decade of the 19th century” (MPI 2013). Cochran (2012) says on page 409 that unintended consequences of these new polices emerged as “illegal immigration through Mexico and Canada by those from countries with very low quotes, because they had no other way of entering the country.” Also, the increase in illegal immigration prompted the creation of Border Patrol. (Cochran 2012). Both of these acts had the original intention of family reunification.

In 1952 the “Immigration and Nationality Act” consolidated several immigration laws into one statute, preserving the quota system. This act also gave preference to skilled labor and relatives of citizens and “resident aliens” (MPI 2013). The 1965, “Immigration and Nationality Act” abolished the quota system and replaces it with a system where immigrants are admitted in order of preference to their relationship to a U.S. citizen (MPI 2013). The “Refugee Act of 1980” established a new statutory system for admitting refugees that are oversees and asylum seekers that are at U.S. borders or in the country into the United States (MPI 2013). In 1986, the “Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)” allowed for the amnesty program to give status to about 2.7 million people who were living in the U.S. illegally (MPI 2013). The “1990 Immigration Act” serves as the foundation for our current policy today (Cochran 2012; MPI 2013). It limited all immigration to 675,000 people per year. Since the beginning of immigration, we can see that the U.S. has had an extensive immigration policy development history. It is pertinent to understand what historically are the motivations and interests behind certain laws that were enacted, which govern today’s immigration law.

Immigration Policy Summation

            America’s immigration system attempts to fulfill many different goals, but lacks an overarching theme. Yet, bipartisan efforts to achieve a comprehensive immigration reform package still continue (Immigration Reform Policy).  In sum, the underlying principles driving today’s broad framework of immigration policy are the following: 1) a legal immigration system policy that strives to serve the national interest in helping families reunify and employers to obtain skills unavailable in the U.S.; 2) a refugee system that reflects our humanitarian beliefs; 3) an enforcement system that seeks to deter unlawful immigration through employer sanctions and tighter border control (U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform 1994). Although, national policies and laws have been implemented over the years, illegal immigration has increased. Also, states have begun to be adversely affected by illegal immigration and incur substantial financial burdens because of it.

Personal Connection

            As one can tell from the data and history outlined, immigration policy can be a very emotional issue to many people. This issue is not easily determined by ideology; instead it is determined and shaped by family ties and experiences. Before, suggesting a policy recommendation I think it is important to know that I may have an underlying bias, since I come from a family of immigrants like the ones I write about. My grandfather came to the United States in 1980 on a tourist visa that expired, but he received relief through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Through this process, my grandfather was able to later become a citizen of the United States.  After several years, my grandmother illegally entered the United States to join my grandfather. She left Poland to Czechoslovakia, then arrived in Cuba for a week, and then finally landed in Mexico. She crossed the United States/ Mexico border, which had resulted in her being held and restrained in an immigration detention center in Texas. When my grandfather became a U.S. citizen, he sponsored all of his children to come to the United States, leaving the farmland and his hard work behind. My mother was 8 months pregnant when she arrived in the United States with my father and that is the reason I am a U.S. citizen today.

Today’s Immigrants

In 2010, there were 39.9 million foreign-born people in the United States (CAP 2012). The foreign born share of the overall U.S. population is 12.9% today, which is lower then the highest percentage ever recorded (CAP 2012). Most immigrants, legal or illegal, have made a home for themselves; 11.5 million undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S., an increase of about 1/3 since 2000. More importantly, 86% of undocumented immigrants have been living in the U.S. for seven years of longer (CAP 2012). 16.6 million people are in families with at least one undocumented worker and 45% of illegal households are composed of couples with children (CAP 2012). Although, there are many “unfriendly immigration laws”, this is not causing immigrants to self-deport (CAP 2012). Instead, immigrants are increasingly settling throughout the 50 states, dispersing throughout the U.S. (CAP 2012). Also, CAP shows that increased enforcement is not encouraging immigrants to return to their home country (CAP 2012).

Policy Recommendation

There are many approaches that we can take to illegal immigration as a nation. We can adopt a restricting approach, enforcement approach, an accommodation approach, a combination of both, amnesty or a comprehensive reform. Yet, history has shown the importance of a strategic and unified U.S. immigration policy that is comprehensive and takes into account all concerns. Cochran states, “most pieces of immigration policy reflect attempts to deal with a particular concern rather than a comprehensive approach, this resulting in complex patchwork of items” (Cochran 2012, 412).  Human Rights Watch (HRW) also concludes that the current U.S. immigration system is “unsustainable, practically, economically, and morally” and urges the U.S. to reform its unfair immigration system to “uphold the basic rights of non-citizens and provide a path to legal status for the country’s unauthorized immigrants” (HRW 2013).

My policy recommendation is to follow through with a comprehensive immigration reform that addresses the vulnerabilities that 11.5 million immigrants face in this country. According to the Immigration Policy (2013) center a comprehensive immigration reform “is a systematic overhaul of the country’s immigration laws that focuses on building checks and balances into our immigration framework.” The U.S. should also adopt the Human Rights Watch framework of what such a system would be guided by:

  1. The U.S. immigration system should respect and protect families;
  2. The U.S. immigration system should be committed to protecting immigrants from workplace violations and crimes;
  3. Immigration reform should include an effective legalization process that respects families, protects victims from abuses and crimes, and acknowledge the contributions of long-term residents; and
  4. The U.S. immigration system should focus enforcement efforts on genuine threats and ensure due process rights are protected for all people. (HRW Report 2008).

This reform should be reinforced with “lessons learned from IRCA… the necessity for adhering to them as debate on immigration reform continues” (Roney 2013). Lessons from the past for designing a new legalization program can be categorized into six basic principles: “keep it simple, be inclusive, make it affordable, make it safe, promote administrative efficiency, and make all parts of the system work together” (Roney 2013).

As of today, there is a proposed reform bill, H.R. 15: The Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, which takes a comprehensive approach towards addressing border security, legalization of the undocumented, and enforcement of immigration laws (Immigration Policy Center 2013). Comprehensive immigration reform legalizes currently unauthorized immigrants and creates flexible legal limits on future immigration. Despite evidence, current U.S. policy has been implementing an “enforcement-based” approach, securing our border measures without creating a pathway to legalization causing this immigration crisis to begin with.

Pros/Cons of the Recommendation

A comprehensive immigration reform is more effective, productive, and cost-efficient than other approaches that have been proposed or implemented up to date. Since the last overhaul of the U.S. immigration system in 1986, the federal government has spent an estimated $186.8 billion on immigration enforcement and this did not stop immigrants from coming to the United States (Immigration Policy Center 2013).  The 1986 reform failed to create “legal channels of immigration that could keep up with the growth of U.S. labor demand” (Immigration Policy Center 2013).  As a result, the number of immigrants has tripled (Immigration Policy Center 2013).  The enforcement approach has ultimately wasted taxpayer dollars, while some argue, creating a humanitarian catastrophe. According to the U.S. Border Patrol, 5,570 immigrants have died while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border from 1998 to 2012 (Immigration Policy Center 2013).  Also since 1993, when the current strategy of border enforcement was first introduced, the annual budget of the U.S. Border Patrol has “increased ten-fold, from $363 million to more than $3.5 billion”, but it has been proven to not be effective at deterring illegal immigration (Immigration Policy Center 2013).

Moreover, there have been a number of studies utilizing a variety of methodological approaches to arrive at conclusions that comprehensive immigration reform has positive net impacts (Ojeda and Robinson 2013). Furthermore, Raul Ojeda used the historical example of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act to estimate a “15.1% wage increase and associated productivity growth from 1988 to 1991, calculating partial and general equilibrium effects which were then projected for a similar three-year timeframe today” (Ojeda and Robinson 2013). Robert Lynch and Patrick Oakford, other researchers mentioned in the brief, results projected that in a scenario of legalization and citizenship; the U.S. GDP “would grow by 1.4 trillion in 10 years, while a scenario of legalization only produces a more modest $832 billion cumulative gain” (Ojeda and Robinson 2013). While, the high costs of an enforcement only approach would “decrease U.S. GDP by $2.6 trillion over 10 years” (Ojeda and Robinson 2013).

The implications of a comprehensive immigration policy would greatly impact all people living in the United States. Ojeda and Robinson indicate that implications of an immigration comprehensive reform would

  1. Accelerate the economic benefits;
  2. Relatively higher flows of immigration would contribute to even larger net economic benefits;
  3. With legalization and larger future flows, unauthorized border crossings would decline, enforcement spending would be decreased, and thus the massive rising costs per apprehension would be reduced; and
  4. Improving the productive use of immigrant savings and remittances in receiving countries would generate significant export demand for the U.S. and reduce the supply of migrant labor into the United States (Ojeda and Robinson 2013)

The alternative to comprehensive immigration reform, deportation and enforcement, is expensive and damaging to the U.S. economy (Immigration Policy Center 2011). According to the Center for American Progress, a policy designed to deport 10 million illegal immigrants would cost at least $206 billion over five years (CAP 2012). According to the Immigration Policy Center, “the Perryman Group estimated that the long-term negative effect of eliminating the unauthorized workforce would include roughly $245 billion in lost GDP and 2.8 million lost jobs” (Immigration Policy Center 2011). Some opponents say that the comprehensive immigration reform is not fair to legal immigrants that came here legally. Yet, this argument is baseless and it diverts from the main issue; it is pertinent that the 11.5 million illegal immigrants have a way to become legal in the 21st century in the United States. The current approach to immigration policy is economically “self-destructive” (Immigration Policy Center). In order to have a strong economy and progressive outlook on the future, we must put all people on an equal and legal footing.


Although the immigration process seems frustrating, bureaucratic, and time-consuming—I now see why certain laws and policies were implemented and put into place. I do not necessarily agree with all of the policies, but the overall immigration system in the U.S. needs to be equipped to handle all of the incoming immigrants from all around the world. As a society, most view immigrants as ‘legal’ or ‘illegal’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘hard-working’ or ‘lazy’, and ‘black’ or ‘white’, but that is a big mistake that so many millions of Americans make. Our current framework and the way it is set up have contributed to the broken immigration system we have and know very well today. Everyone needs to look beyond the textbook legal definitions of specific categories that immigrants fall into and think about the implications of the specific reliefs and laws on the family and on the individual being charged. While, categories are good, because it gives lawmakers a set of guidelines that must be adhered to; they also could be dangerous and allow the must vulnerable immigrant to slip through the system. My family and I might not be here today if Reagan did not see the importance of eliminating the boundaries of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and reforming the immigration system to offer “amnesty” to those living in the U.S. under the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA).


American Political Science Association (APSA) citation. The guide used can be found here:

Center for American Progress. 2012. “The Facts on Immigration Today.” (Accessed on October 20, 2013).

Cochran, Clarke E. 2012. American Public Policy: An Introduction. 10th Edition. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning Publishing

Ewing, Walter. 2012. “A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy.” Immigration Policy Center. (Accessed on October 20, 2013).

Hanson, Gordon H. 2009. “The Governance of Migration Policy.” Journal of Human Development and Capabilities. 11 (2): 185-207.

Hoefer, Micharel, and Nancy Rytina, Bryan Baker. 2011. “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States.” DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. (Accessed on November 5, 2013).

Human Rights Watch. 2013. “US: Immigration Reform Should Uphold Rights.” (Accessed on November 4, 2013).

Human Rights Watch. 2008. “Within Reach: A Roadmap for US Immigration Reform that Respects the Rights of All People.” (Accessed on October 20, 2013).

Immigration and Naturalization Service. 1995. “Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the Untied States.” Combined by Robert B. Matchette et al. National Archives and Records Administration. (Accessed on October 16, 2013).

Immigration Policy Center. 2011. “Immigration Reform and Job Growth.” (Accessed on October 2, 2013).

Immigration Policy Center. 2013. “A Guide to H.R. 13: The border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act.” (Accessed on October 17, 2013).

Immigration Policy Center. 2013. “The Cost of Doing Nothing: Dollars, Lives, and Opportunities Lost in the Wait for Immigration Reform.” (Accessed on October 17, 2013).

Migration Policy Institute. 2013. “Major US Immigration Laws, 1790- Present.” (Accessed on October 17, 2013).

Ojeda, Raul, and Sherman Robinson. 2013. “Additing It Up: Accurately Gauging the Economic Impact of Immigration Reform.” Immigration Policy Center. (Accessed on October 30, 2013).

Pew Research Center. 2013. “Most Say Immigration Policy Needs Big Changes But Little Agreement on Specific Approaches.” (Accessed on November 1, 2013).

Roney, Lisa. 2013. “Crafting A Successful Legalization Program: Lessons from the Past.” Immigration Policy Center. (Accessed on October 14, 2013).

Tichenor, Daniel J. 2002. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control In America. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 2013. “Early American Immigration Policies.” U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (Accessed on November 1, 2013).

U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform. 1994. “Executive Summary.” (Accessed on November 1, 2013).


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