Public opinion polls find widespread dissatisfaction with the “broken” U.S. immigration system, which admits an average of 1 million immigrants a year and several hundred thousand unauthorized foreigners. Congress has debated comprehensive immigration reform for a decade but has been unable to enact the three-pronged package endorsed by President Barack Obama: tougher enforcement against unauthorized migration, legalization for most unauthorized foreigners, and new and expanded guest worker programs.
I. The Context for Immigration Reform
II. Immigration Reform: 1986-2008
III. Immigration Reform: 2010
The Context for Immigration Reform
The United States had 38 million foreign-born residents in 2008, making up 12.5 percent of the 304 million U.S. residents (Pew Research Center 2010). Between 2000 and 2008, the number of foreign-born U.S. residents rose by 7 million, from 31 million to 38 million, while the number of U.S.-born residents rose by 16 million, from 250 million to 266 million. Immigration directly contributed one-third to U.S. population growth and, with the U.S.-born children and grandchildren of immigrants, over half of U.S. population growth.
The United States has the most foreign-born residents of any country, three times more than number-two Russia, and more unauthorized residents than any other country. About 10 percent of the residents of industrial countries were born outside the country. The United States, with 13 percent foreign-born residents, has a higher share of immigrants among residents than most European countries but a lower share of foreign-born residents than Australia and Canada.
Immigration affects the size, distribution, and composition of the U.S. population. As U.S. fertility fell from a peak of 3.7 children per woman in the late 1950s to the replacement level of 2.1 today, the contribution of immigration to U.S. population growth increased. Between 1990 and 2010, the number of foreign-born U.S. residents almost doubled from 20 million to 40 million, while the U.S. population rose from almost 250 million to 310 million.
Mexico is the leading country of origin of foreign-born U.S. residents—30 percent, or 11.5 million, were born in Mexico, followed by 9 million born in Asia and 6 million born in Central America and the Caribbean. After Mexico, the leading countries of origins were the Philippines, 1.7 million; India, 1.6 million; China, 1.3 million; Vietnam, 1.2 million; El Salvador, 1.1 million; and Korea and Cuba, a million each. These eight countries, each accounting for over a million foreign-born U.S. residents, were 53 percent of the total.
In recent decades, immigrants have been mostly Asian and Hispanic; their arrival changed the composition of the U.S. population. In 1970, about 83 percent of U.S. residents were non-Hispanic whites and 6 percent were Hispanic or Asian. Today, two thirds of U.S. residents are non-Hispanic white and 20 percent are Hispanic or Asian. If current trends continue, by 2050, the non-Hispanic white share of U.S. residents will decline to 52 percent, while the share of Hispanics and Asians will rise to a third.
The effects of immigration on the U.S. economy and society are hotly debated. Economic theory predicts that adding foreign workers to the labor force should increase economic output and lower wages, or lower the rate of increase in wages. This theory was supported by a National Research Council (NRC) study that estimated immigration raised U.S. gross domestic product (GDP, the value of all goods and services produced), one-tenth of 1 percent in 1996, increasing the then $8 trillion GDP by up to $8 billion (Smith and Edmonston 1997). Average U.S. wages, according to the NRC, were depressed 3 percent because of immigration.
However, comparisons of cities with more and fewer immigrants have not yielded evidence of wage depression linked to immigration. In 1980, over 125,000 Cubans left for the United States via the port of Mariel. Many settled in Miami, increasing Miami’s labor force by 8 percent, but the unemployment rate of African Americans in Miami in 1981 was lower than in cities such as Atlanta that did not receive Cuban immigrants. One reason may be that U.S.-born workers who competed with Marielitos moved away from Miami or did not move to Miami.
Immigrants do more than work—they also pay taxes and consume tax-supported services. Almost half of the 12 million U.S. workers without a high school diploma are immigrants, and most have low earnings. Most taxes paid by low earners flow to the federal government as Social Security and Medicare taxes, but the tax-supported services most used by immigrants are education and other services provided by state and local governments. For this reason, some state and local governments call immigration an unfunded federal mandate and have sued the federal government for the cost of providing services to immigrants.
Many immigrants become naturalized U.S. citizens and vote; some hold political office, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The U.S. government encourages legal immigrants who are at least 18, have been in the United States at least five years, and who pass a test of English and civics, to become naturalized citizens. There are often celebratory naturalization ceremonies on July 4 and other national holidays.
Naturalization rates vary by country of origin. Immigrants from countries to which they do not expect to return are far more likely to naturalize than immigrants from countries to which they expect to return. Thus, naturalization rates are far higher for Cubans and Vietnamese than for Canadians and Mexicans.
More Mexicans and Latin Americans are naturalizing, in part because their governments have changed their policies from discouraging to encouraging their citizens abroad to become dual nationals. However, rising numbers of naturalized immigrants have not yet translated into decisive political clout. There are more Latinos than African Americans in the United States, but, during the 2008 elections, African Americans cast almost twice as many votes as Latinos, reflecting the fact that many Latinos are not U.S. citizens and others did not register and vote. Latinos are sometimes called the sleeping giant in the U.S. electorate that could tilt the political balance toward Democrats as their share of the vote increases—two-thirds of the Latinos who voted in 2008 elections supported President Obama.
Immigration Reform: 1986-2008
The United States has had three major immigration policies throughout its history: no limits for the first 100 years, qualitative restrictions such as “no Chinese” between the 1880s and 1920s, and both qualitative and quantitative restrictions since the 1920s. During the half-century of low immigration, between the 1920s and the 1970s, U.S. immigration law changed only about once a generation.
Beginning in the 1980s, Congress changed immigration laws more frequently. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 embodied a compromise to reduce illegal migration. For the first time, the federal government received authority to fine U.S. employers who knowingly hired unauthorized workers while legalizing most of the estimated 3 to 5 million unauthorized foreigners in the United States. IRCA’s sanctions failed to reduce illegal migration, largely because unauthorized workers used false documents to get jobs, and legalization was tarnished by widespread fraud that allowed over a million rural Mexican men to become U.S. immigrants because they asserted they had done qualifying U.S. farm work.
The September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were committed by foreigners who had entered the U.S. legally; the attacks highlighted the failure of the U.S. government to track the activities of foreigners in the United States. In response to the attacks, the U.S. government established a tracking system for foreign students, gained the power to detain foreigners deemed to be threats to U.S. national security, and consolidated most immigration-related agencies in the new Department of Homeland Security.
Legal and illegal immigration continued after the September 11 attacks; U.S. leaders emphasized the distinction between desired immigrants and undesired terrorists. As the number of unauthorized foreigners rose from 8 million in 2000 to 12 million in 2007, Congress debated measures to deal with illegal migration, in part because employers complained of labor shortages as the unemployment rate dipped below 5 percent.
The congressional debate mirrored divisions among Americans. The House in 2005 approved an enforcement-only bill that would have added more fences and agents on the Mexico–U.S. border and made “illegal presence” in the United States a felony, which would likely complicate legalization. One result was demonstrations in cities throughout the nation that culminated in a “day without immigrants” on May 1, 2006.
The Senate took a different approach, approving the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA) in 2006 on a 62–36 vote in May 2006 to beef up border and interior enforcement and to provide an “earned path” to legalization—unauthorized foreigners would have to pay fees and pass an English test to become legal immigrants. CIRA 2006 would have created new guest worker programs to satisfy employers complaining of labor shortages.
There was strong resistance to an amnesty for unauthorized foreigners, prompting the Senate to consider a tougher bill in 2007. However, despite strong support from President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of senators, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 (S1348) stalled when proponents were unable to obtain the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.
CIRA 2007 ’s so-called grand bargain provided a path to legal status for the unauthorized in the United States, favored by most Democrats, and shifted future legal immigration toward foreigners with skills under a point system, favored by most Republicans (“Senate: Immigration Reform Stalls” 2007).
CIRA 2007 differed from CIRA 2006 in several important ways. First, CIRA 2007 included triggers, meaning that more border patrol agents would have to be hired, more border fencing built, and the mandatory new employee verification system working before legalization and new guest worker programs could begin. Second, CIRA 2007 required “touchbacks” for legalizing foreigners, meaning that unauthorized foreigners would have had to leave the United States, apply for immigrant visas abroad, and return to the United States legally. Third, CIRA 2007 would have changed the legal immigration system by admitting a third of U.S. immigrants on the basis of points earned for U.S. employment experience, English, education and other factors expected to increase the likelihood that a foreigner would be economically successful in the United States (“Senate: Immigration Reform Stalls” 2007).
CIRA 2007 failed because advocates toward the extremes of the no borders–no immigrants spectrum were more comfortable with the status quo than with a complex compromise whose impacts were unclear. The two key obstacles to CIRA 2007 were opposition to amnesty and fears that admitting guest workers would depress the wages of U.S. workers. Some analysts noted that the status quo persists, because it provides workers for many low-wage industries with relatively little risk of enforcement for employers or workers.
Both major presidential candidates in 2008 supported the comprehensive immigration reforms considered by the Senate in 2006 and 2007, but there was a difference in emphasis. John McCain called for border security before legalization, while Barack Obama stressed the need to enforce labor and immigration laws in the workplace to discourage employers from hiring unauthorized workers (“Senate: Immigration Reform Stalls” 2007).
The first priority of the Obama administration in 2009 was stimulating the economy, culminating in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano became Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary, and promised a different approach to enforcing U.S. immigration laws, including ending raids of factories and other workplaces to apprehend unauthorized foreigners. DHS also ended efforts begun by the Bush administration to have the Social Security Administration (SSA) include immigration-enforcement notices in the no-match letters the SSA sends to U.S. employers with 10 or more employees who pay Social Security taxes when employer-supplied information does not match SSA records.
Instead of surrounding factories and checking the IDs of workers, DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency that enforces immigration laws inside the United States began to audit the I-9 forms completed by newly hired workers and their employers. ICE said that I-9 audits “illustrate ICE’s increased focus on holding employers accountable for their hiring practices and efforts to ensure a legal workforce.” ICE agents scrutinize the forms and inform employers of which workers appear to be unauthorized. Employers in turn inform these employees, asking them to clear up discrepancies in their records or face termination—most employees quit.
One of the employers whose I-9 forms were audited, American Apparel in Los Angeles, announced in 2009 that 1,800 workers, a quarter of its employees, would be fired because they could not prove they were legally authorized to work in the United States. American Apparel makes T-shirts and miniskirts in a pink seven-story sewing plant in the center of Los Angeles, and CEO Dov Charney has campaigned to “legalize L.A.” by urging Congress to approve a comprehensive immigration reform.
Immigration Reform: 2010
Arizona in April 2010 enacted a law making it a state crime for unauthorized foreigners to be present, prompting Senate Democrats to announce a framework for a comprehensive immigration reform bill before demonstrations in support of legalization around the nation on May 1, 2010. The Democrats’ framework was more enforcement oriented than the bill approved by the Senate in 2006, but Republicans predicted it would be difficult to enact immigration reform in 2010. President Obama seemed to agree when he said: “I want to begin work this year” on immigration reform.
Arizona, where almost half of the million foreign-born residents are believed to be unauthorized, enacted the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) on April 23, 2010. Federal law requires foreigners to carry proof of their legal status, and SB 1070 requires foreigners to show IDs to state and local police officers who encounter them for other reasons but suspect they may be illegally in the United States—violators can be fined $2,500 or jailed up to six months. Arizona became the main point of passage to the United States for unauthorized migrants from Mexico about a decade ago, when unauthorized entry attempts shifted from California and Texas to the Arizona desert.
The Arizona law was criticized by President Obama, who said: “If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.” However, State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), author of SB 1070, expects the law to result in “attrition through enforcement”—that is, to reduce the number of unauthorized foreigners in Arizona. He said, “When you make life difficult [for the unauthorized], most will leave on their own.” U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the Republican candidate for president in 2008, said: “I think [SB 1070] is a good tool” for Arizona because the federal government has not reduced illegal migration.
Critics, who predicted widespread racial profiling and mistaken arrests if the law goes into effect as scheduled on July 29, 2010, sued to block the implementation of SB 1070. The legal issue is likely to turn on whether Arizona police are engaged in lawful “concurrent enforcement” of immigration laws with federal authorities or in unlawful racial profiling. Since the 1940s, federal law has required immigrants to carry papers showing they are legally in the United States. A 2002 Department of Justice (DOJ) memo reversed a 1996 DOJ memo to conclude that state police officers have “inherent power” to arrest unauthorized foreigners for violating federal law.
The National Council of La Raza led a campaign of unions and church groups that urged governments, tourists, and businesses to boycott Arizona and urged major league baseball to move the 2011 All-Star Game scheduled for Phoenix if SB 1070 is not repealed. About 30 percent of major league baseball players are Hispanic, and half of the 30 major league teams train in Arizona.
Most Americans support the Arizona law. A Pew Research Center poll in May 2010 found 59 percent support for the Arizona law; only 25 percent of respondents supported President Obama’s handling of immigration. Over 70 percent of Pew’s respondents supported requiring people to present documents showing they are legally in the United States to police if asked, and two-thirds supported allowing police to detain anyone encountered who cannot produce such documents.
The Pew and similar polls suggest wide gaps between elites who favor more immigration and legalization and masses who oppose amnesty and immigration. Former president Bill Clinton on April 28, 2010, said: “I don’t think there’s any alternative but for us to increase immigration” to help the economy grow and to fix the long-term finances of Medicare and Social Security.
Senate Democrats released a 26-page outline of a comprehensive immigration reform bill on April 29, 2010, the Real Enforcement with Practical Answers for Immigration Reform (REPAIR). The Democrats’ REPAIR proposal emphasized enforcement to discourage illegal migration in an effort to win Republican support, but the framework will not be put into legislative language until there are Republican supporters.
Under REPAIR, border enforcement benchmarks would have to be met before legalization can begin; a commission would be created to evaluate border security and make recommendations to Congress within 12 months. REAPIR calls for more border patrol agents and an entry-exit system to ensure that foreign visitors depart as required.
REPAIR would require all U.S. employers to check new hires within six years via an improved E-Verify system, the Biometric Enrollment, Locally-Stored Information, and Electronic Verification of Employment (BELIEVE). BELIEVE, to be funded by fees, would be phased in beginning with industries employing large numbers of unauthorized foreigners and require U.S. employers to use scanners to check the validity of new Social Security cards with biometric markers such as fingerprints presented by workers. Civil money penalties for knowingly hiring unauthorized workers would triple.
REPAIR offers a relatively simple path to legal status for an estimated 11 million illegal migrants. Unauthorized foreigners in the United States by the date of enactment would register and pay fees to obtain a new lawful prospective immigrant status that would allow them to live and work legally in the country. After eight years, they could become immigrants by passing English and civics tests and paying more fees. The proposal promises to clear the backlog in family-based immigration within eight years, in part by lifting caps on immediate relatives of legal immigrants (immediate relatives of U.S. citizens can immigrate without delay, but there are queues for immediate relatives of immigrants).
REPAIR would change the immigrant selection system. Foreigners who earn masters and PhD degrees from U.S. universities in science and engineering and have U.S. job offers could obtain immigrant visas immediately. New antifraud provisions would apply to employers seeking H-1B and L-1 visas for foreign workers with at least bachelor’s degrees, including a requirement that all employers (not just H-1B dependent employers as currently) try to recruit U.S. workers before hiring H-1Bs and not lay off U.S. workers to make room for H-1B foreigners.
For low-skilled workers, REPAIR includes the Agricultural Jobs, Opportunity, Benefits and Security Act (AgJOBS) bill, which would legalize up to 1.35 million unauthorized farm workers (plus their family members) and make employer- friendly changes in the H-2A program. The H-2B program, which admits up to 66,000 foreigners a year to fill seasonal nonfarm jobs, would add protections for U.S. workers while exempting returning H-2B workers from the 66,000 cap if the U.S. unemployment rate is below 8 percent.
A new three-year H-2C provisional visa would admit guest workers to fill year-round jobs; H-2C visa holders could change employers after one year of U.S. work. H-2C visas could be renewed once, allowing six years of U.S. work, and H-2C visa holders could become immigrants by satisfying integration requirements. The number of H-2C visas is to be adjusted according to unemployment and other indicators, but employers could obtain an H-2C visa for a foreign worker even if the cap has been reached if they agreed to pay higher-than-usual wages and additional fees.
A new Commission on Employment-Based Immigration (CEBI) would study “America’s employment-based immigration system to recommend policies that promote economic growth and competitiveness while minimizing job displacement, wage depression and unauthorized employment.” The CEBI would issue an annual report with recommendations and could declare immigration emergencies when it concludes there are too many or too few foreign workers.
President Obama called the Senate Democrats’ REPAIR proposal “an important step” to fix “our broken immigration system.” Failure to enact immigration reform, Obama said, would “leave the door open to a patchwork of actions at the state and local level that are inconsistent and, as we have seen recently, often misguided.”
The United States is a nation of immigrants that first welcomed virtually all newcomers, later excluded certain types of immigrants, and, since the 1920s, has limited the number of immigrants with annual quotas. Immigration averaged over 1 million per year in the first decade of the 21st century, plus an additional 500,000 unauthorized foreigners a year settled in the country.
Americans are ambivalent about immigration. On the one hand, most are proud that the United States welcomes foreigners seeking opportunity, including the ancestors of most Americans. On the other hand, Americans fear the economic, social, and cultural consequences of immigration. Congressional debates reflect these differences among Americans.
- Archibold, Randal C., “U.S.’s Toughest Immigration Law Is Signed in Arizona.” New York Times (April 23, 2010).
- Borjas, George, Heaven’s Door: Immigration Policy and the American Economy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
- Castles, Stephen, and Mark Miller, The Age of Migration. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
- Cornelius, Wayne A., Takeyuki Tsuda, Philip L. Martin, and James F. Hollifield, eds., Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.
- Hsu, Spencer, “Senate Democrats’ Plan Highlights Nation’s Shift to the Right on Immigration.” Washington Post (May 2, 2010).
- International Organization for Migration, World Migration Report. 2010. http://www.iom.int/cms/en/sites/iom/home/what-we-do/migration-policy-and-research/migration-research-1/world-migration-report/world-migration-report-2010.html.
- Martin, Philip L., and Elizabeth Midgley, Immigration: Shaping and Reshaping America. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, 2006.
- Martin, Philip, Manolo Abella, and Christiane Kuptsch, Managing Labor Migration in the Twenty- First Century. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.
- Migration Dialogue, http://migration.ucdavis.edu/
- Pew Research Center, “Public Supports Arizona Immigration Law.” May 12, 2010. http://www.people-press.org/2010/05/12/broad-approval-for-new-arizona-immigration-law/
- “Senate: Immigration Reform Stalls,” Migration News 14, no. 3 ( July 2007). http://migration.ucdavis.edu/mn/more.php?id=3294_0_2_0
- Smith, James P., and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 1997.
- United Nations Development Program, Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development. Human Development Report 2009. http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2009/chapters/