U. S. Immigration Policy

By Martin, Susan | National Forum, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

U. S. Immigration Policy


Martin, Susan, National Forum


Immigration is a complex, emotionally charged, and potentially divisive issue on the public policy agenda of the United States. An element of ambivalence has always touched public attitudes about immigration-pride in being a nation of immigrants often conflicts with fear and concern about today's immigration.

Those of us who have worked on immigration policy for many years have seldom seen so much interest in immigration issues. Opinion polls show that the American public rates immigration as a public policy priority, and numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced within the past year to remedy perceived deficiencies in current policy.

There are no quick fixes with immigration policy, nor will it disappear as a national priority soon. The Commission on Immigration Reform, created by the Immigration Act of 1990, was designed to review and evaluate current and future immigration policies. The commission will issue its first report to Congress in September 1994. and is mandated to report again in 1997.

Immediate Agenda

The commission has both an immediate and a longer-term responsibility. An immediate concern is to restore credibility to U.S. immigration policy. Three major pieces of legislation were passed during the 1980s that affect the entry of people through both legal and illegal channels. The decade began with passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 that put U.S. refugee admissions policy in conformity with international standards. Mid-decade, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) attempted to halt the flow of illegal immigrants by enhancing border enforcement and imposing sanctions on employers who hired illegal aliens, while also granting legal status to the millions of illegal aliens already in the country.

The decade ended with debate on what became the Immigration Act of 1990, which significantly revised U.S. policy on legal immigration. The 1990 law increased levels of immigration, particularly employment-based immigration of highly skilled professionals and executives. Opening the front door of immigration was predicated, in part, on closing the back door, which was thought to have been accomplished under IRCA.

In 1994, however, the back door is still all too open. Current government estimates show about 3.5 million illegal immigrants in the country, and the illegal population is growing by 200,000 to 300,000 every year. IRCA made clear that our nation has a sovereign right to protect its borders from those attempting to circumvent our immigration laws. However, if the country is to curb illegal entries more effectively, it must develop ways of improving border enforcement.

The commission is exploring a range of policy options and programs that will focus on reducing illegal migration by better protecting and managing Pt U.S. borders and more effectively eliminating the magnets, such as employment, that encourage illegal immigration. Recognizing that such steps will not stop all unauthorized movements, the commission also is assessing options to improve our ability to remove those with no right to remain. In addition, the commission is examining preventive measures, such as economic development and support for democratization, that could be taken to help people remain within their own countries. While these measures may take some years to produce results, they may well be the most humane, and ultimately effective, ways to curb illegal migration.

Long-Term Agenda

Immigration policies for the 1990s and beyond must be carefully crafted to anticipate the challenges of the next century. These challenges will be influence( substantially by factors such as the restructuring of our own economy, new trade relationships such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and changing geopolitical relations. Equally important, immigration policy must carefully take into account social concerns, including demographic trends, the effect of added population on the country's environment, and the effect of immigration on community relations.

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