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Updated November 2014  

What are the most recent developments regarding immigration?

The Immigration issue has been thrust into the forefront in the 2016 Presidential campaign because of the candidacy of Donald Trump. Mr. Trump introduced his campaign by categorizing most undocumented immigrants as criminals and urging that a wall be created between Mexico and the United States.

On November 20, 2014, U.S. president Barack Obama announced a program of "deferred action" which would allow roughly 45% of illegal immigrants to legally stay and work in the United States. Undocumented parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents in the country for at least five years, are eligible for the new deferrals, as are immigrants who arrived as children before January, 2010. In taking administrative action President Obama indicated that he was taking these measures as a response to Congress having been unable in recent years to agree on a general legislative overhaul of U.S. immigration policy.

Immigration reform was announced as a priority of the second Obama Administration. At the time of the initiative, there were indications are that there was finally bipartisan support for reform. But the prospects have dimmed ostensibly because Republican politicians are concerned about nativist sentiments espoused by the so-called "Tea Party" faction of the party. But it is also beginning to look like powerful forces who are benefiting the exploitive aspects of illegal immigrant labor are quietly persuading politicians to oppose any type of reform. These forces neither want to stop the flow of this labor nor provide the workers with any legitimacy. The Administration is proposing a legalization process for undocumented immigrants involving an 8 year path to obtaining green cards after paying back taxes, learning English, and completing American civics classes. Legalized undocumented immigrants would have a longer timeline to achieve citizenship. The proposal is accompanied by a pledge for stronger border and workplace enforcement. In addition there would be improvements in the immigration court system. The most significant Republican counterproposal has been to link the legalization process with improvements in border security.

In July 2014, the immigration controversy became complicated by the arrival of massive numbers of children from Central America who have purposely surrendered to authorities after crossing. Unlike children from Mexico, unaccompanied minors from other countries are entitled to a hearing with an immigration court prior to deportation. The numbers of such children have begun to overwhelm the immigration system and their presence has complicated an already difficult situation. There are suspicions that Mexican organized criminal gangs have orchestrated this development for the purpose of facilitating the importation of adult immigrants and illegal drugs.

Public opinion has now significantly shifted in favor of the Administration's proposal to establish a legalization process and the majority are opposed to construction of a border wall.

How do people legally immigrate into the United States?

Nearly a million people legally immigrated into the U.S. in 2013 under qualifying categories:   The categories are:

  • Employment-based preference is a category that permits a limited number of individuals who possess job skills which are in demand by the economy. In 2002, this group was dominated by persons with computer and engineering skills.
  • Family preference is a category that permits individuals to sponsor a limited number of relatives (adult children of U.S. citizens, spouses and children of immigrants, and siblings of citizens).
  • Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens is a category that permits citizens to sponsor an unlimited number of minor children, spouses, and parents. This has been the largest category.
  • Diversity is a category authorized by recent legislation which authorizes a limited number of individuals to immigrate based on past under-representation in the immigrant population.
  • Refugees/Asylees are admitted on a limited basis based on political and humanitarian reasons. The maximum numbers vary year-to-year based on Presidential determinations.

What is the difference between legal immigrants and citizens?

Legal immigrants are basically entitled to the same rights as citizens although they cannot vote or hold political office. Over 40% of immigrants become citizens through a process called naturalization.    In order to become naturalized, immigrants must reside in the U.S. for five years. Most must demonstrate a proficiency in English and a knowledge of U.S. history and government. The primary motive for immigrants to become citizens is that they qualify to assist their relatives immigrate.

Why is the United States experiencing a new "wave" of new immigration?

The United States has recently experienced a rate of immigration that in numbers is close to the level of immigration that occurred at the turn of the last century.  (Click to see chart)    The combined legal and illegal immigration is well over one million per year. Foreign-born persons now constitute over 10% of the population for the first time since the 1930s and this percentage is projected to increase. .    In California and New York over 20% of the population is foreign born and the ratio is over 10% in many other states.  (Click to see map)  There have been several reasons for this continuing increase over the past three decades:

  • Refugee immigration peaked in the late '70s and '80s as the U.S. admitted a large number of Southeast Asian, Cuban and Russian immigrants. Many individuals in these categories have become citizens which has enabled them to sponsor admission for their parents without any numeric limitation.
  • Two amnesty programs provided legal status to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants and their families in the late '80s and early '90s. The immigrants legalized under these programs account for almost a quarter of all legal immigration from 1981 to 1995 and the total number of immigrants doubled.
  • A large number of illegal immigrants have entered the country over the last two decades. Despite a recent decline in new entrants, the increase in the total illegal immigrant population has been dramatic.   The immigrants have primarily come from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.   In 2012, it is estimated that undocumented immigrants constitute almost 20% of all foreign born residents.    The Department of Labor determined that in 2001 undocumented immigrants constituted over one half of all agricultural workers.

What countries do immigrants come from and what states do they go to?

Legal immigrants to the U.S. primarily come from Latin America and Asia.    The overwheliming majority of illegal immigrants come from Mexico and Central America.   Prior to 1970, most immigrants came from Europe.    In the early 20th century, Asians were specifically excluded by legislation. Moreover, a "quota" system, in effect during much of the 20th century limited immigration and gave preferential treatment to European immigrants.

Legal immigrants tend to choose the large population states as their state of preference.   California, New York, Texas and Florida contain the largest percentages of unauthorized immigrants  but, in contrast to 1990, this immigration has now spread throughout the country.

How is immigration affecting the country?

Immigration is the main reason for U.S. population growth. Based on the current rate of immigration, U.S. population will increase substantially increase by 2050 and 65% of this growth will be either the direct or indirect effect of immigration.   Immigration will significantly affect the ethnic make-up of the population.

Whether these trends are positives or negatives is the subject of a national debate. The debate centers around these themes:

Advantages of immigration:

  • Greater supply of unskilled workers   Studies have indicated that because most immigrants occupy low-paying, low-skill jobs, their presence is complementary. Because of their contributions, the overall economy is stronger and the wage level and standard of living of most native workers is higher than would exist if they were not present. In particular, the high concentration of undocumented workers in the agricultural industry keep food prices relatively low.
  • A younger workforce  The ratio of retired persons to workers will dramatically increase in coming decades which will require significant adjustments in the Social Security system. (See Social Security) Immigrants and their children tend to be younger than natives.    As a result, continued or greater immigration will slow the increase of this important ratio.
  • Skilled workers in needed sectorsImmigrants who arrive under the "employment preference" category often are employed in occupations which are important. For example, 20% of U.S. doctors are foreign born. But critics of immigration policy note that this is because the supply of native doctors is kept artificially low and that these doctors are probably even more essential to their native countries.

Disadvantages of immigration:

  • Greater poverty   Because immigrants occupy low income employment, their wages are low  and they are more affected by downturns in the economy. In comparison to natives, they tend not to have health insurance  and need to resort to public assistance more often.
  • More educational costs   Immigrant children and the children of immigrants account for a disproportionate amount of public education costs than do natives due to the greater birth rate for Hispanics  and need for more intensive instruction. Immigrants have significantly lower educational attainment than do natives.   But the children of Latino immigrants have educational levels which approach that of natives  and by the third generation virtually all are fluent in English and only a minority speak any Spanish.
  • Lower unskilled wage levels   Even studies that suggest that immigrants generate an overall increase in wage levels, acknowledge that they negatively impact wages in the low skill occupation sectors that they occupy.
  • Increased danger of terrorism  Some argue that the continued ability of illegal immigrants to enter the country increases the threat of domestic terrorism. In reality, the threat is minimal. The known dangers associated with terrorism all involve Islamic individuals. Islam is not prominent in Mexico or other Central American countries. There are undoubtedly cooperative intelligence arrangements between the U.S. and Mexico designed to monitor the small threat that Islamic individuals who live in or enter Mexico might present.

Has increased border surveillance been effective?

Because of the recent stabilization of the illegal immigrant population, it has almost certainly had some effect. There has been a significant increase in spending on border security in the past decade, . Border apprehensions have been significantly reduced and are far below the levels of the past three decades.   A major effect of the increased surveillance has been to shift the entry locations to areas where the terrain is difficult to effectively control and to substantially increase the amount charged by professional smugglers who assist the immigrants. As a result there is now a significant mortality rate  and the shift has also had the effect of keeping immigrants from returning to Mexico because of the difficulty in returning to the U.S. again.

Studies have suggested that the volume of illegal immigrants has been directly related to economic conditions in Mexico. Mexico has long had more people of working age than jobs and unemployment there is about 20%. As Mexico's economy continues to grow and its birth rate slows, it is likely that illegal immigration will decline significantly.

What efforts have been made to address the illegal immigrant situation?

The political situation has been complicated by popular nativist sentiment on one side, liberal and Hispanic agitation for legalization on the other, and strong business interests which seem satisfied with the status quo. The result has been little movement on the issue in one direction or the other.

In May 2006, the Senate passed reform measure which provided for stricter border control but also allowed for a legalization process for many illegal immigrants presently in the country.    This measure appeared to have the Bush Administration's support, but the House deliberately delayed any action. In March 2007, the Bush Administration announced a major change in policy; advocating a very costly visa and legalization process, some of which was added to the compromise legislation. Immigrants and their supporters opposed this change which appeared to be an effort to mollify nativist sentiments.

In June 2007, the Senate rejected bi-partisan compromise legislation     which had been introduced in attempt to resolve the immigration controversy. The measure proposed to allow illegal immigrants to obtain a renewable visa if they were present on January 1, 2007. Additional visas would have been awarded to temporary workers. A worker verification system and increased border security system had to be in place before the visa programs go into effect. A special, less burdensome path to legal status was provided for undocumented agricultural workers and high school graduates who came to the U.S. illegally with their parents. With the onset of the recession in 2008, momentum for immigration reform ended and has only been revived in 2012.

Without signficant federal action, the situation has been addressed at the state and local levels most notably in Arizona. Legislation in that state make it a state misdemeanor crime for an alien to be in Arizona without carrying registration documents required by federal law, steps up state and local law enforcement of Federal immigration laws, and cracks down on those sheltering, hiring and transporting illegal aliens. Critics of the legislation say it encourages racial profiling, while supporters say the law simply enforces existing federal law. There have been protests in opposition to the law in over 70 U.S. cities, including calls for a boycott of Arizona. Polling has found the law to have majority support in Arizona and nationwide. In other states there has been harassment at the local level where police checkpoints are used to identify illegal immigrants and forward the information to federal authorities.

How do immigration policies differ in other countries?

How do immigration policies differ in other countries?

Immigration and its associated issues have become a major topic throughout the world in the modern global economy. Because of economic growth and low birth rates in most developed countries, labor shortages have developed. To meet such needs, many developed countries have liberalized immigration policies and, as in the case of the United States, have tolerated a degree of unauthorized immigration. As a result there has been a significant pattern of emigration from underdeveloped countries to developed countries.

Europe has been particular affected by this development. Boats loaded with desperate Africans seeking a better life are undertaking the risky trip across the Mediterranean to an uncertain future. Refugees from conflict regions in the Middle East such as Syria have most recently generated controversy as countries such as Germany have undertaken policies to accept them as immigrants.

Unlike the United States, many developed countries allow for temporary immigration through guest worker programs.

What are current proposals to modify immigration policies?

There is some public sentiment for limiting future immigration by reducing the numerical limits for permitted entrants but this view does not presently have major support in the Congress or with the Administration. The key issues are being considered are:

  • Greater emphasis on employment-related immigration

    In the recent past the allotment of employment-related preference visas has not been filled because of numerical limits applicable to certain countries and because of other technical requirements. Legislation was recently passed to relax these provisions.

  • Amnesty and guest worker programs

    In January 2004, the Bush Administration proposed a solution to the undocumented problem in the form of a new guest worker program. In order to qualify under this plan, the workers must have a job offer and the employer must show no Americans wanted the job. Under the plan, undocumented workers who gained temporary-worker status would enjoy the rights and protections of legal workers. They could also apply for green cards, which convey permanent residency and, potentially, citizenship. The workers must return to their home countries at the end of the term. Dependents of the temporary workers would be allowed in the US if the workers could prove they could support their family. The workers would be allowed to move freely back and forth between the US and their home country. The proposal has rekindled the immigration debate by pitting employers and many Hispanics who support the proposal against some elements of organized labor and many conservative "America First" citizens who oppose it. The proposal does not have broad public support.

    The Bush proposal has not been acted upon by Congress. The Republican platform advocates the approval of this plan and rejects any consideration of amnesty. The Democratic platform indicates an opposition to the "second class" status proposed by the Bush plan but does not propose a legalized alternative. Instead it advocates improving the level of government services to undocumented workers and their families and focusing border control efforts on terrorist threats.

    In the meantime, the overall number of legal immigrants continues to grow substantially contributing to an ever growing portion of the U.S. resident population that is foreign born. There is little mainstream political opposition to the rate of legal immigration.

Where do Democrats and Republicans stand on immigration issues?

In general, Democrats vote to encourage immigration and Republicans are for greater enforcement at the border areas. But immigration is not a strictly partisan issue. Many business interests supported by Republicans rely on immigrant labor and and many labor interests supported by Democrats often take a protectionist position on immigration issues. Certain key votes during the last decade demonstrate this uneven pattern.

Immigration Links

Wikipedia-Illegal Immigration to the United States

Wikipedia-Immigration Reform


Office of Immigration Statistics

National Research Council Report

CRS Report - Immigration Issues in 112th Congress

Census Bureau Info

Immigration and Immigrants: Setting the Record Straight (Urban Institute)

Center for Immigration Studies

Numbers USA

American Patrol.com

FAIR - General issue page

Cato Study

International Centre for Migration Policy Development







Immigration Charts
(click to enlarge)

Public Opinion on Legalization Proposals

Immigrant deaths in Border Crossings

Types of Legal Immigration 2013

Citizenship Status of Foreign Born Population, 1960-2010

Legal Immigration 1820 to 2013

Percentage of Foreign Born U.S. Population

Percentage of Foreign Born Population By State in 2010

Increase in Illegal Immigrant Population (1990-2014)

Legal Status of Foreign Born U.S. Population in 2012

Legal Status of American Farmworkers, 2001-2002

Funding of U.S. Border Patrol

Origin of Legal Immigrants, 2013

Country of Origin of Undocumented U.S. Population in 2012

Destination States for Legal Immigrants, 2009

Distribution of Unauthorized Immigrants By State

Projected U.S. Population Based on Current Immigration Levels

Projected Racial/Ethnic Changes Based on Projected Population

Comparison of Household Incomes of Native and Foreign Born Americans, 2010

Comparison of Native and Foreign Born Americans Without Health Insurance,

Comparison of Immigrants and Natives in Public Assistance Use 2001-2009

Birth Rates Per 1000 Women in 2014 by Race/Ethnicity

Comparison of Education Levels of Foreign Born and Native Americans, 2013

Educational Attainment of Hispanics by Generation

Language Use by Hispanic Americans

Net Migration 2005-2010