Immigration policy in the U.S has evolved over the years, yet it has failed to address pertinent issues with regard to immigration, especially illegal immigration, which has continued to rise; a new policy approach would be necessary if the problems bedeviling immigration are to be addressed.
America’s immigration policy has over the decades been a major public policy issue, especially during the peaks of election cycles. The immigration policy has by no means been harmonized in the country’s history. As a testament to this, the purview of immigration policy has more often than not been left to the sitting president to address rather than having a comprehensive package of laws to address the same (Bankstone & Daniel, 2006). The Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) is the regime of laws that governs the current U.S policy on immigration. The law provides limits on the number of permanent immigrants allowed into the country annually. However, even this law is not comprehensive enough. Furthermore, while it provides for the legal mechanisms in regard to immigration, it is largely ineffective when it comes to the issue of illegal immigration, which has in the recent past become the most pressing concern when it comes to immigration policy. Americans are also concerned about the distortion effects immigration has on not only the labor market but also security. Immigration affects both the politics of federal and state governments, which is an illustration of just how the issue is polarizing.
In order to have a deeper understanding of immigration in the U.S, it is important to have a look at the historical and legal evolution of the same. America’s first federal law on immigration was passed on 1875. The law sought to prohibit the entry of criminals and prostitutes into the country, yet it did not provide for a clear delineation of the mandate between the federal and state governments (Foner & Fredrickson, 2005). As a result, the U.S Supreme Court (in a bid to address the oversight) ruled that immigration fell solely under the scope of the federal government. The period experienced an exponential rise in the number of immigrants owing to booming economic fortunes. As a result, Congress set up the Immigration Services, a federal agency mandated to process immigrants moving into the U.S.
In the years after WWI, an ever increasing number of immigrants forced the Congress to establish the first quantitative immigration policy. The law passed in 1921 put in place national quotas on the number of immigrants to be allowed into the country based on past national census figures. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 scrapped the quantitative quotas based on nationality (Foner & Fredrickson, 2005). Focus shifted to giving priority for relatives of U.S citizens and allowing only immigrants with relevant skills as required by the U.S economy. In place of the quotas came caps for immigration from some countries, especially those from the eastern hemisphere. The caps were not as severe for countries in the western hemisphere, which included South America. It is this policy established by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that continues to be in place until today though with some few amendments.
The most radical reform of immigration policy came in 2002 when the Homeland Security Act was passed in response to the 9/11 attacks. The act created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) (Bankstone & Daniel, 2006). In effect, it transferred the responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) to the DHS. As a result, enforcement and immigration services which had hitherto been lumped together were separated. Immigration and naturalization service are now placed under the responsibility of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Enforcement functions became the responsibility of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in collaboration with the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
It is important to have a look at the categories of immigration in the U.S. Family based immigration recognizes reunification of the family as an important principle in the country’s immigration policy. The initiative allows U.S citizens and some Lawful Permanent Residents (LPR) to bring in some members of their families into the country. Under this program the spouse, parents and children under the age of twenty one are allowed into the country. Employment-based immigration allows some immigrants with special skills to move into the country on either temporary or permanent visas. Refugees and asylum seekers may also be allowed into the U.S in the event that they face persecution in their home countries. In determining the number of refugees and asylum seekers to be allowed into the country, the president consults with the Congress. The diversity visa program allows immigrants from countries that have historically recorded low rates of immigration into the country. Such countries are defined as those that have had less than 50, 000 immigrants moving into the U.S over an aggregate period of five years. The program came to light after the passage of the 1990 Immigration Act.
However, despite the various categories for legal entry into the U.S, the immigration bodies retain the right to remove one from the country on the grounds of health, risk of being a terrorist, criminal history or as has increasingly become the case in the recent past, being found to be an illegal immigrant. Illegal immigrants consist of those that enter the country without proper documentation or possess forged documents. They may also be people that entered the U.S on temporary visas, but end up overstaying beyond the stipulated period.
As of 2004, there were an estimated ten million illegal immigrants in the country. At 2015, the number of illegal immigrants was estimated to be eleven and a half million. The illegal immigration issue has been a concern given for all Americans that illegal aliens are spread throughout the country. However, at no state have the effects of illegal immigration been as adverse as in the border states of Arizona, California, Texas and New Mexico. Texas, for example, has the largest stretch of the border with Mexico. It is this southern border that has acted as the largest entry point for illegal immigrants into the U.S. As an illustration of how porous the southern border is, in 2015, Texas and California entry points saw a 269% and 216% increase in the number of illegal immigrants handled respectively. To worsen the situation, a majority of the illegal immigrants that pass through the borders are Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC). It is therefore no surprise that the debate on immigration policy has been more heated on the Border States than in any other states.
An illustration of the gravity of illegal immigration in the states is the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act of 2010 popularly christened the Arizona SB 1070. The radical law in Arizona mandated all aliens to carry their identification documents at all times. It also made it legal for law enforcement officers to arbitrarily stop and search an individual if they have a reasonable cause for suspicion that the individual is an illegal immigrant. The Act also made it unlawful for anyone (whether a citizen or individuals of varying immigration status) to house, provide basic needs or transport illegal immigrants. The law also mandated state agencies and officials to fully implement federal laws on immigration. While the law received massive criticism from many that termed it as unconstitutional, it is easy to understand the motivations for passing the law in the state (Foner & Fredrickson, 2005). At 2010, the state of Arizona estimated that at least 460, 000 illegal immigrants had passed through its border with Mexico and settled in the state.
The concerns of such state governments and residents alike have often bordered on the economic cost of the illegal immigrants, crime and the prevalence of drugs. This is especially the case given that a majority of the illegal immigrants originates from Central and South America where the drug trade has taken center stage. It is therefore important to have a look at the economic cost of illegal immigration to the American taxpayer. The National Research Council estimates that illegal immigration costs the U.S taxpayer about 350 billion dollars annually in local, state and federal levels. Most of these costs are absorbed by the local and state governments. The situation is made worse considering that a majority of the state budgets is in deficits, especially following the 2008/2009 financial crisis. To put this into perspective, the state of California faced a budget deficit of over $14 billion dollars in the 2010/2011 fiscal year; however, it spent almost double that amount on illegal immigrants. New York (another state that has been hugely affected by the illegal immigrants’ crisis) had a deficit of $6.8 billion in the 2010/2011 fiscal year, yet it spent almost $10 billion on illegal immigration associated costs (Rector & Richwine, 2006). It is therefore important that the issue of illegal immigration is addressed quickly if the financial situation of a majority of the states including the federal government is to be solved.
In general, immigrants tend to be poorer than non-immigrants. As a result, they tend to be net tax consumers as opposed to net tax contributors. Many argue that such comparisons are insignificant because illegal immigrants do not receive any state or federal benefits directly. It is partly true given that illegal immigrants do not have access to means tested welfare, such as social security and Medicare. However, in essence, they do receive some benefits. This is especially the case in the public education system. The public education system is heavily subsidized by the taxpayers and as a result, the enrollment of illegal immigrant children represents a massive overflow of public benefits to them. It is important to understand that even the children of illegal immigrants are legally mandated to obtain an education (Cooper, 2008).
Some figures estimate that over 300, 000 pregnant women cross the border annually to deliver them in U.S hospitals, who are often referred to as anchor babies. The cost of such births in public hospitals is estimated to be $6, 000 in the event that there is no complication during birth or afterwards (Rector & Richwine, 2006). The long-term costs could be quite astronomical. Illegal immigrants also rarely pay their fair share of taxes if at all they pay, especially income tax. At the federal level, only about a third of the costs incurred on catering for illegal immigrants are recouped by taxing the same demography. The figures are even worse for the states; they recoup only about 5% of the costs they incur through taxes. It is also the case that even among those that pay taxes, they end up being refunded upon filing their tax returns. A majority of the illegal aliens claim tax credits from the U.S Treasury.
The cost of illegal immigration rises exponentially when the cost of providing pure public goods is taken into consideration (Rector & Richwine, 2016). A pure public good is one in which consumption by one individual does not reduce the amount available for consumption by another individual. A good example of a public good is a public road. While illegal immigrants enjoy the use of such goods, they do not pay for them. It puts those that pay their fair share of taxes at a disadvantage as they have to subsidize the same for the illegal immigrants.
In general, the high propensity for illegal immigrant households to be net tax consumers as opposed to net tax contributors is attributed to two factors: one is that they tend to have lower education levels that deny them opportunities to earn high incomes. Secondly, by virtue of being illegal, they cannot expose themselves to high wage jobs that traditionally tend to attract more scrutiny from the government.
Some of the illegal immigrants have also been blamed for the increase in incidents of crime. It has been attributed to the export of the criminal culture from their countries of origin. This is especially the case immigrants originating from Central and South America where drug trafficking is prevalent, which consequently leads to an increase in crime and violence (Cooper, 2008). Another reason advanced for the high crime rates among undocumented aliens is that as a result of the fewer opportunities available for them to earn high wages, they tend to live in poor inner neighborhoods where crime rates are historically higher. It further pushes them to commit crime to sustain themselves. Consequently, the costs associated with law enforcement in such areas are quite high.
In the face of all these issues, there have been calls for a major overhaul of the country’s immigration policy. Several proposals have been advanced to that effect. One of the proposed policy changes involves granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants. A similar measure had been adopted in 1986. Proponents of this policy argue that an amnesty would be akin to legalizing such immigrants. As a result, they would be more open and participate more in the economy, which would ultimately positive effects on tax collections. However, opponents of the same argue that the net tax revenue would only rise marginally. This is because the ensuing benefits to be conferred to them as a result of legalization would not make any relative change in terms of the costs incurred by state and federal governments.
This is because an amnesty would make over the eleven million illegal immigrants become legible for social programs similar to those available to low-income citizens and legal immigrants. They would also be eligible to receive social security retirement benefits. The totality of these benefits, many contend, would wipe out any gains made from tax revenue increases. The root would also not address the cause of the problem since just as was the case with the 1986 amnesty, legalizing the illegal aliens did not stop the flow of future illegal immigrants into the country (Foner & Fredrickson, 2005).
Another policy proposal involves reforming birthright citizenship, which has been termed as one of the major contributing factors to the increase in immigration. Birthright citizenship is the case in which a child born in the U.S is granted automatic citizenship. While the children born in the U.S are legal, their parents remain illegal. The phenomenon is courtesy of the 14th Amendment to the U.S Constitution in conjunction with the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Proponents of this policy change argue that its application in its current form was not the intention of the original framers of the constitution. However, opponents of a change in the law argue that the passage of the Birthright Citizenship Act meant to remedy the situation would be akin to rewriting the constitution without following the due process of the law.
A broad based application of the E-verify program has also been proposed as a creative policy change that may reverse the trend of illegal immigration. E-verify is an online based system that is a partnership between the U.S Citizen and Immigration Services and the Social Security Administration. The system enables employers to verify the immigration status of their potential employee. While the system has been effective, it is voluntary in many states. A policy change based on the program would therefore call for a law that would make it mandatory for an employer to check the immigration status of their employees. However, employers would still have an incentive to hire an illegal immigrant due to the low labor costs associated with them in terms of wages and benefits to be conferred. However, strict implementation of such a policy would be beneficial in curbing the vice as it would reduce the incentive illegal immigrants have to look for work in the U.S.
Ultimately, no single policy would serve as the panacea to curtail illegal immigration and immigration in general. For the country to be able to deal with immigration effectively, it is important to adopt a policy that addresses both the enforcement, especially in the country’s points of entry as well as limiting the number of immigrants coming into the country. The policy change should therefore incorporate a mix that includes strengthening the interior border enforcement as well eliminating immigration rewards. Such a two-pronged approach in a new immigration policy would be the only sure way to deal with immigration.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996 and subsequent amendments empower the DHS to enter into partnerships with state agencies and local law enforcement agencies in order to police immigration. However, such partnerships have been limited. The situation is made worse by the fact that there are only approximately 5, 000 active duty federal agents to enforce immigration laws, yet there is capacity for more if state and local government resources are mobilized (Rector & Richwine, 2016). The new policy should, therefore, lay emphasis on the formation of these partnerships by passing a federal law to effect the same. The partnerships should also be adequately funded by the federal government. The initiative should go hand in hand with improving border patrols. Such efforts should not only be limited to the number of personnel but also effective use of technologies such as sensors and cameras.
Immigration policy in the U.S has evolved over the years, yet it has failed to address pertinent issues with regard to immigration, especially illegal immigration, which has continued to rise, a new policy approach would be necessary if the problems bedeviling immigration are to be addressed. Yet, there is no piecemeal approach to policy that can tackle the issue. It would be important that the nation’s politicians put aside their political rhetoric and focus on the issue at hand. Ultimately, any policy on immigration would have to tackle the problem from both ends; preventing the entry of illegal immigrants and reducing the incentive for immigrants to come into the U.S.
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