from Renewing America

The U.S. Immigration Debate

A U.S. Border Patrol agent keeps watch along the fence next to the U.S.-Mexican border in Calexico, California. Mike Blake/Reuters

Comprehensive immigration reform has eluded Congress for years, moving controversial policy decisions into the executive and judicial branches of government, explains this Backgrounder.

Last updated September 06, 2017

A U.S. Border Patrol agent keeps watch along the fence next to the U.S.-Mexican border in Calexico, California. Mike Blake/Reuters
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Immigration and Migration

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Immigration has been a touchstone of the U.S. political debate for decades, as policymakers must weigh competing 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. Meanwhile, the fates of an estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants in the country, as well as rules for legal immigration, lie in the balance.

The immigration debate moved to the fore once again with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump, who made the issue a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. Shortly after taking office, President Trump signed executive orders on border security, interior enforcement, and refugees. Some U.S. cities, states, and individuals have challenged the orders in court, and the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on one of them. In mid-2017, President Trump rescinded two programs created by President Obama to shield undocumented children and their parents from deportation.

What is the immigrant population in the United States?

Immigrants comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population: some forty-three million out of a total of about 321 million people, according to Census Bureau data from 2015. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants. The figure represents a steady rise from 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 15 percent of the population.

Illegal immigration. The undocumented population is about eleven million and has leveled off since the 2008 economic crisis, which led some to return to their home countries and discouraged others from coming to the United States. In February 2017, Customs and Border Protection reported a 36 percent drop in crossings from the year before, which some attribute to the Trump administration’s policies.

More than half of the undocumented have lived in the country for more than a decade; nearly one third are the parents of U.S.-born children, according to the Pew Research Center. Central American asylum seekers, many of whom are minors who have fled violence in their home countries, make up a growing share of those who cross the U.S.-Mexico border. These immigrants have different legal rights from Mexican nationals in the United States: under a 2008 anti–human trafficking law, minors from noncontiguous countries have a right to a deportation hearing before being returned to their home countries.

Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants.

Though many of the policies that aim to reduce unlawful immigration focus on enforced border security, individuals who arrive to the United States legally and overstay their visas comprise a significant portion of the undocumented population. According to the Center for Migration Studies, individuals who overstayed their visas have outnumbered those who arrived by crossing the border illegally by six hundred thousand since 2007.

Legal immigration. The United States granted more than one million individuals legal permanent residency in 2015, nearly two-thirds of whom were admitted based on family reunification. Other categories included: employment-based preferences (14 percent), refugees (11 percent), diversity (5 percent), and asylees (3 percent). In 2016 there were more than four million applicants on the State Department’s waiting list for immigrant visas [PDF].

Hundreds of thousands of individuals work legally in the United States under various types of nonimmigrant visas. In 2016, the United States granted [PDF] more than 180,000 visas for high-skilled workers, known as H1B visas, and more than 200,000 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 roughly 17 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2014, according to Pew Research Center; of those, around two-thirds were in the country legally. Collectively, immigrants made up 45 percent of domestic employees; they also comprised large portions of the workforce in U.S. manufacturing (36 percent), agriculture (33), and accommodation (32). Another Pew study found that without immigrants, the U.S. workforce is expected to decline from 173.2 million in 2015 to 165.6 million in 2035; the workforce is expected to grow to 183.2 million if immigration levels remain steady, according to the report.

How do Americans feel about immigration?

2016 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans considered immigration a “good thing” for the United States, and as many as 84 percent supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants if they meet certain requirements. A separate Gallup poll found that among Republicans, support for a path to citizenship (76 percent) was higher than support for a proposed border wall (62 percent). 

What legislation has Congress considered in recent years?

Congress has debated numerous pieces of immigration reform over the last two decades, some considered “comprehensive,” others piecemeal. Comprehensive immigration reform refers to omnibus legislation that attempts to address the following range of issues: demand for high-skilled and low-skilled labor; the legal status of the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the country; border security; and interior enforcement.

The last time legislators came close to significant immigration reform was in 2013, when the Democrat-led Senate passed a comprehensive reform bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well as tough border security provisions. The bill did not receive a vote in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

What actions have presidents taken in recent years?

Barack Obama. President Obama took several actions to provide temporary legal relief to many undocumented immigrants. In 2012, his administration began a program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), that offers renewable, two-year deportation deferrals and work permits to undocumented immigrants who had arrived to 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. As of March 2017, nearly eight hundred thousand people [PDF] had taken advantage of DACA.

In 2014, Obama attempted to extend similar benefits to as many as five million undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents. However, more than two dozen U.S. states sued the administration, alleging that the program, known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), violated federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution. A Texas federal judge blocked the program in 2015, and the Supreme Court effectively killed it in 2016.

Donald J. Trump. Trump has signed several executive orders attempting to follow through on some of his campaign pledges. The first, which focused on border security, instructed federal agencies to construct a physical wall “to obtain complete operational control” of the U.S. border with Mexico. The second, which focused on interior enforcement, broadened definitions of those unauthorized immigrants prioritized for removal, ordered increases in enforcement personnel and removal facilities, and moved to restrict federal funds from so-called sanctuary jurisdictions, which in some cases limit their cooperation with federal immigration officials. This rule also expands the application of “expedited removal” to anyone who cannot prove they have been in the United States for two years, allowing them to be removed without a court hearing. The third, which focused on terrorism prevention, banned nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for at least ninety days; blocked nationals from Syria indefinitely; and suspended the U.S. refugee program for 120 days.

The actions, particularly the ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, drew widespread protests and legal challenges from individuals, cities, and states. In February 2017, a federal judge in Washington State imposed a nationwide restraining order on the so-called travel ban. After an appeals court affirmed the ruling, the Trump administration issued a revised order that removed some of the most highly criticized provisions of the original, aiming to withstand future legal challenges. But a federal judge in Hawaii imposed a temporary restraining order on the revised ban in March, and by June, two appellate courts had ruled against Trump’s order.

Later that month, the Supreme Court permitted the order [PDF] to go into effect, but ruled that the ban could not be imposed on any person having a “bona fide relationship with a person or entity” in the United States. The administration subsequently defined permissible familial relationships as parents, spouses, minor and adult children, and siblings, including half, step, and in-law relationships; it excluded siblings-in-law and grandparents. The court agreed to hear the case against the travel ban in full in the coming term.

President Trump also lowered the annual cap of refugees admitted to the United States from 110,000 to 50,000, and his orders may make it more difficult for individuals to seek asylum. According to government figures, more than eighty-three thousand people [PDF], many of whom were unaccompanied minors from Central America, filed for asylum in 2015.

Trump promised during his campaign to revoke both the DAPA and DACA programs, calling them “illegal executive amnesties.” In June, he rescinded President Obama’s memo creating DAPA, which had never been implemented due to sustained legal challenges. In September, Trump announced his plans to phase out DACA. Its beneficiaries will be allowed to live and work in the United States until their permits expire, and they can request to renew their status up to March 2018. Officials say that gives Congress a six-month window to pass legislation replacing the program. In the meantime, the administration said it will no longer accept new applications.

How are state and local authorities handling these issues?

States vary widely in how they treat unauthorized immigrants (or anyone suspected of being unauthorized). Some states, like 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, other states, like Arizona, have passed laws permitting police to question people about their immigration status.

The federal government is generally responsible for enforcing immigration laws, but it may delegate some immigration-control 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. Proponents of tougher immigration enforcement have labeled state and local jurisdictions that limit their cooperation with federal authorities as “sanctuary cities.” There is no official definition or count of sanctuary cities, but the Immigrant Legal Resource Center identifies more than six hundred counties with such policies.

The Obama administration’s enforcement practices drew criticism from the left and the right. Some immigrant advocacy groups criticized his administration for overseeing the removal of more than three million people during his eight-year tenure, a figure that outpaced the administrations of former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Many Republicans said the administration was soft on enforcement in narrowing its removal efforts to undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes.

President Trump decried sanctuary cities throughout his campaign and has issued executive orders to block federal funding to such municipalities and to reinstate a controversial program, known as Secure Communities, in which state and local police provide fingerprints of suspects to federal immigration authorities, and hand over individuals presumed to be in the country illegally. He also ordered the expansion of enforcement partnerships between federal, state, and local agencies. Several cities have filed lawsuits challenging Trump’s attempt to block federal funding to sanctuary jurisdictions.

What are the prospects for immigration reform?

Experts say the prospect for comprehensive immigration reform is dim given President Trump’s positions and general political divisions in Washington. “There is no appetite in the Republican party to try to go down the comprehensive [immigration policy reform] road again,” says CFR’s Edward Alden. Some lawmakers may attempt to take a piecemeal approach, starting with enforcement measures, but bipartisan support for “cherry picking” policies is unlikely, he says.

However, one area of immigration policy that could see congressional action is the H1B program. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have expressed interest in reforming the program, which critics say has been abused by companies to outsource skilled labor and cut costs. The Trump administration issued an executive order in April 2017 directing federal agencies to suggest changes to the H1B program to ensure that visas are awarded to the most-skilled or highest-paid applicants.


Resources Up

CFR's Edward Alden examines the effectiveness of border enforcement in this 2017 report for the Center for Migration Studies.

This Brookings Institution paper tracks the rise and fall of low-skilled immigration to the United States.

This report from the Congressional Research Service provides dozens of charts showing trends in U.S. immigration [PDF].

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