The United States of America is a nation built by and on the backs of immigrants. In spite of this, the United States has always grappled with how to address immigration issues.
In 2021, immigration is once again near the top of the agenda for the country. That doesn’t mean, however, there will be any meaningful federal legislation passed to deal with it.
This is the case because addressing immigration is a complex matter, requiring unbiased analysis and bipartisan compromises to achieve a constructive resolution. Neither of these requisites is very present in the U.S. or the halls of Congress today.
The majority of the headlines on immigration since the 1st of the year have reinforced the divided view on immigration, rather than moving us toward a shared problem-solving perspective. For example,
- In mid-July, a federal judge in Texas ruled that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) implemented under President Obama was illegal and issued an injunction against its future use to protect children arriving here illegally with their parents. This decision delighted many on the right and brought into question the implications it might have on a path to citizenship for the approximately 800,000 “dreamers” who are covered by DACA.
- The surge in migrants from Mexico and Central America at the U.S. southern border, in the early months of the Biden administration, created concerns among the public. An AP/NORC poll in late March showed more than 40% disapproving of Biden’s handling of immigration, with Republicans overwhelmingly in disapproval (89%), Democrats largely approving (74%), and Independents strongly disapproving (67%).
- In April, Tucker Carlson of Fox News created a firestorm by partially espousing the “great replacement” conspiracy theory put forward by white supremacists, stating that “the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate” with “new people, more obedient voters from the third world.” His comments enthralled those on the extreme right, offended Democrats, and caused the Anti-Defamation League to call for Carlson to be fired.
Welcome to the divided states of America, where when it comes to immigration there are walls being built but few bridges. The pushback against those who are different is not a recent phenomenon.
As Darrell West notes in his seminal book Brain Gain, near the end of the 19th and in the early 20th century the worries were primarily about those of European stock: individuals from countries like Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Italy, and Poland. By the later 20th century, they were about immigrants from places like Asia, Africa, China, Central America, and Mexico.
Former President Donald Trump intensified the opposition to immigrants from Mexico among his supporters. During his presidential campaign at his rallies, he would promise, to loud cheers, that he would build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
He would then ask the crowds of thousands, “Who will pay for it?” They would dutifully and joyfully yell back his other promise, “Mexico will.”
After being elected President, Trump partially delivered on his promise to build a wall. Sections of an existing wall were reconstructed and some new miles were added during his presidential tenure.
Trump did not deliver on the payment promise, however. Mexico did not pay for the wall. The billions of dollars for that came from the federal government coffers diverted from other projects approved by Congress.
Notably, all of Trump’s rhetoric and “his” wall itself did nothing to reduce illegal immigrants. In fact, illegal immigration was not decreased during Trump’s time in the Oval Office. What decreased dramatically was legal immigration.
This was the stunning revelation of Alex Nowrasteh in his article for the conservative Cato Institute, in which he reported that “By November 2020, Trump administration reduced the number of green cards issued to people abroad by at least 418,453…” In contrast, Nowrasteh observes, “In 2020, the removal of illegal immigrants from the United States was the lowest as an absolute number and as a share of the illegal immigrant population since ICE was created in 2003.”
Those were the facts, and not fake news, regarding the impact of Trump’s intervention in the immigration arena. A sound immigration policy and plan for the U.S. going forward should be based upon an extensive review of the facts.
Much of the media coverage in the first half of this year presents a dark picture of the immigrant situation. A more detailed and historic review of “alternative facts” presents the picture in a much brighter light.
The first and most essential fact that must be recognized is that America is an immigrant nation. President John F. Kennedy celebrated that fact in his book, A Nation of Immigrants, first published in 1958 when he was a Senator.
In that book, Kennedy noted that immigrants infused our nation with a commitment to far horizons and new frontiers, and thereby kept the pioneer spirit of American life and the spirit of equality and of hope alive and well.
Darrell West highlights the significant and substantial contributions that talented and skilled immigrants have made in building the nation’s intellectual, human, and financial capital in Brain Gain. West emphasizes it is critical to develop an immigration system that continues to permit and promote the entry of legal immigrants with specialized knowledge. Vivek Wadhwa makes similar arguments, and provides recommendations for a systemic immigration approach, in his book, Immigrant Exodus.
There have been two unsuccessful attempts in the first two decades of this 21st century to create such a systemic approach. In spite of these failures, immigrants continue to come to and become citizens of this country, making our nation and democracy stronger.
Every Fourth of July since 2006, The Carnegie Corporation of New York has been identifying immigrants who have made exemplary contributions to American life. On this Fourth of July, Carnegie announced its Class of 2021, which included 34 naturalized citizens from 30 countries around the globe. These citizens included “medical providers and researchers, advocates for the disadvantaged, and changemakers in politics, voting rights, climate change and teaching.”
It is worth mentioning that Andrew Carnegie himself was a Scottish immigrant who “rose from poverty to becoming a leading industrialist.” In addition to the Corporation, Carnegie founded more than 20 philanthropic organizations.
Immigrants make a difference for the U.S. They start and build businesses. They work at the top of organizational pyramids and on factory floors, in restaurants and hotels, and in the fields. They come from everywhere and settle throughout the United States — primarily in coastal and metropolitan areas.
The Pew Research Center conducts regular research and is an authoritative source on immigration and immigrants. In August 2020, Abby Budiman of the Center published some key findings about U.S. immigration. They include:
- U.S. foreign born population reached a record 44.8 million in 2018
- About 77% of all immigrants are here legally
- In 2017, 45% of immigrants were naturalized citizens
- Mexico is the top origin country for immigrants (25% of all immigrants)
- Next in terms of origin are: China (6%), India (6%) and Philippines (4%)
- Asians are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055
- By 2065, it is estimated that Asians will make up 38% of all immigrants, Hispanic (31%), White (20%); and Black (9%)
The Pew Center projected that the immigrant population would grow from 33.5 million in 2015 to 38.5 million, driven by immigrants from other countries in order to compensate for the aging and retirement of Baby Boomers and the decline of Americans in the workforce. In April, the Census Bureau reinforced the accuracy of Pew’s projection when it released its numbers, showing growth “stagnation” and the second smallest growth decade in America’s history.
In his piece responding to the census findings, New York Times columnist and immigrant Farhad Manjoo comments on the need for additional new immigrant workers. He states that a report from the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group, estimates that “increasing legal immigration by more than a third each year would keep Americans ratio of working young people to retired old people stable over the next four decades.”
A recent working paper by a group of experts primarily from UCLA provides a rationale for providing a path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. currently. The paper projects that over the next ten years, this would generate $1.5 trillion more in GDP, $367 billion in tax revenues, and create 371,000 more jobs.
The bottom line is that if the right system is in place, immigration can be properly controlled and contribute to the growth of America’s bottom line. If there is a patchwork or no real system, it will more likely result in large costs and generate few benefits for America or its emerging immigrant population writ large.
What is required at this point in time is the development of a comprehensive and strategic immigration system that is focused on the future and on unleashing the economic potential that immigrants can bring to creating that future. There are all kinds of reference points and information that can be drawn on to construct such a system.
The starting point should be the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, the immigration bill that President Joe Biden sent to the U.S. Congress for consideration on his first day in office. The proposed Citizenship Act:
- Provides pathways to citizenship and strengthens labor protections for immigrants
- Prioritizes smart border control, and
- Addresses the root causes of migration.
The Citizenship Act, in conjunction with the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act (Border Security Act or Act) of 2013, would provide the foundational framework for a comprehensive and strategic immigration system.
The Border Security Act was passed in a bipartisan fashion by the U.S. Senate by a vote of 68–32 in June 2013. The Act was based on the parameters of a proposal put together by the ‘Gang of Eight,’ a group of four Republicans and four Democrats.
That proposal spelled out four basic pillars: (1) “tough but fair path to citizenship contingent upon securing our borders;” (2) reforming immigration with a greater eye toward our economic needs; (3) workplace verification; and (4) setting up a system for admitting future workers. It also provided a speedier path to citizenship for citizens brought here illegally.
The Act faded into the sunset as the Republican House leadership would have nothing to do with it because it was too comprehensive, instead contemplating a series of individual bills. Eventually, no real immigration legislation was passed in 2013 or after that. This brings us to today.
Is there a chance to pass a comprehensive immigration reform package this year? Elaine Kamarck, Founding Director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, notes in a blog, published on June 22, 2021, that it will be tough.
In her piece, Kamarck examines the failed attempt at immigration reform in 2013 we cite here and an earlier attempt in 2007. She concludes:
Immigration reform may be as difficult in the third decade of the 21st century as it was in the first and second. This is in part because of a fundamental paradox. On the one hand, the United States is a country of immigrants; on the other hand, it is a country that has always worried about being overrun by immigrants. And this makes reform especially difficult.
What makes it even more difficult is the contentious caldron that has become our country and Congress since Donald Trump began his campaign for presidency in 2015, a campaign that continues in 2021.
The difficulty in trying to construct a bipartisan Senate bill on the infrastructure where Republicans and Democrats shared common ground on roads, bridges, tunnels, ports, etc. demonstrates the extent of this legislative conflict. The Senate voted to consider that $1 trillion bipartisan bill on July 28. It still remains to be seen whether that bill will actually pass the Senate and the House and become law.
There is a glimmer of hope for bipartisanship in Congress. It is unlikely that glimmer will shine on and be sufficient to enable the structuring and passage of a comprehensive and strategic immigration bill in Congress this year or any time soon.
We would love to be proven wrong. If we are, the country and its current and future citizens will get a significant return on its investment. If we are not, the country and its citizens will pay a heavy price for remaining in immigration limbo.