Essay On Immigration Policy

United States Immigration Policy Essay

Immigration policy is a controversial but rarely debated issue in U.S. politics. Politicians usually do not take strong stances on immigration, and rarely does a candidate make immigration policy a key piece of his platform. However, the issue is very divisive and decisions concerning immigration will have a large impact on this country's future. Immigration discussions often evoke strong feelings due to the racial and ethnic issues involved. Often, those seeking to immigrate to the U.S. are part of racial or ethnic groups that are minorities in this country. Therefore, anti-immigration views are often associated with racism and nativism. It can be dangerous, therefore, for a politician or other leader to speak out too strongly against immigration. Even if his opposition is based on population concerns, and not race or ethnicity, he can fall under heavy criticism by minority groups. This effect is partly due to the fact that past attempts to limit immigration were based on racism and nativism. Past opponents of immigration, particularly in the late 1800's to early 1900's, often argued that immigrants were inferior. Anti-immigration stances often evoke thoughts of past nativist movements, such as the Know-Nothing Party. In this paper, I will take a look at various attitudes towards immigration, beginning with Singer. Then, I will give my thoughts on the matter and the policy I feel the U.S. government should adopt.

Singer believes that all developed nations have a moral duty to accept more refugees. He bases this view on his utilitarian theory. Since refugees have a great interest in immigrating to a developed country, sometimes a life or death interest, Singer believes immigration should be allowed until the harm to the host country is equal to the benefit to the immigrants. The United Nations defines a refugee as a “person who is outside the country of his nationality because of a well founded fear of persecution by reason of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion, and is unwilling or unable to avail himself of the protection of his own government.” (Singer, p. 250) Singer rejects this definition and believes that those who immigrate for economic reasons should be considered refugees as well. Therefore, Singer believes developed countries have a duty to accept any immigrant who leaves his country due to poor conditions: economic, political, or otherwise. He also argues that refugees make the best immigrants. This is because refugees cannot return home and must fully commit themselves to their new country. In conclusion, Singer believes developed nations like the U.S. have a moral duty to take in many more refugees than they currently do. He writes that “there is no objective evidence to show that doubling their refugee intake would cause them any harm whatsoever.” (Singer, p. 262)

Garrett Hardin takes the opposite view. In his essay Living on a Lifeboat, he uses the metaphor of a lifeboat to describe rich and poor nations....

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Reimers, David M. 1998. Unwelcome Strangers: American Identity and the Turn Against Immigration. New York. Columbia University Press.

Gimpel, James G. and James R. Edwards, Jr. 1999. The Congressional Politics of Immigration Reform. Needham Heights, MA. Allyn & Bacon.

It is hard to write contemporary history. Events are still fresh in the minds of the policy makers, lobbyists and researchers who participated, so it is very hard for an outsider, even one steeped in the subject, to organize and detect patterns in what may have seemed to be a disorderly stream of events. These two books can be read profitably by those who want to understand some of the forces shaping US immigration policies at the end of the 20th century. The Reimers book is a broad-brush look at restrictionist groups that want to reduce immigration, while Gimpel and Edwards test a thesis--that immigration is becoming increasing a partisan issue that divides Republicans and Democrats--with an analysis of congressional voting patterns since 1965.

David Reimers, author of Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (1992) and All the Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (1996), has produced a useful seven-chapter book that reviews four major types of restrictionist groups: those concerned about the population/environment; rule-of-law opponents of illegal immigration; economic arguments that immigration hurts similar US workers; and those who worry that today's immigrants will not easily be integrated. Reimers concludes that immigration will continue to be debated, as restrictionists and admissionists selectively cite data and studies to support their positions, so that the US is destined to "produce ad hoc [immigration] policies, just as it has in the past."(p154).

Chapter one is a summary of the history of US immigration policy, emphasizing that the colonies and then the states advertised for and subsidized the "right kind of" immigrants, especially white Protestants: indeed, some colonies levied taxes on ships bringing Catholic immigrants (p 6). Anti-Catholic restrictionism of the 1840s and 1850s is traced to "increased immigration and rapid social and economic change." (p10). In 1875, the US Supreme Court held that only the federal government could regulate immigration, and there followed a series of qualitative exclusions--there were no numerical limits on immigration, but an ever-lengthening list of Chinese, communists, prostitutes and others were barred.

Chapter two asks why there was a restrictionist upsurge in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, and cites three factors: large numbers (900,000 legal and 300,000 illegal), change in origins, from Europe to Latin America and Asia, and the concentration of immigrants in a handful of states and cities, especially southern California. Chapter three turns to the environmental critics of large-scale immigration, pointing out that most of those associated with the founding of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, FAIR, came out of the environmental and population control movements. Many opposed immigration because they feared that immigration would undo their successful efforts to get Americans to limit fertility. Reimers notes an irony: the 1996 law aimed at reducing illegal immigration includes a provision exempting the INS from obeying environmental laws when it builds new fences and barriers in border areas (p. 62).

Chapter four covers abuses of the system. Its first major conclusion is that the 1965 amendments substituting family and economic preferences for the national origins system opened the front door of legal immigration to Asians, and forced Mexicans and other Latin Americans into the US through the back door (p. 69). This is not quite right. There were no per-country limits on Mexico or other Western Hemisphere countries until 1978, and apprehensions did not rise sharply in the 1960s despite a booming economy. Indeed, it is not a coincidence that the late 1960s were the high-water mark of the United Farm Workers in California; the UFW won a 40 percent one-year wage increase in 1966 precisely because there were no Braceros and few unauthorized migrants available, and was able to get grape growers to agree to contracts for the same reason.

Reimers paints with broad strokes, which means that important details are sometimes brushed aside. For example, Reimers says that "many restrictionists accepted 1986 IRCA's amnesty." But many more did not, and they on several occasions they came within 10 votes in the 435-seat house of eliminating legalization from the bill that became IRCA (p70). Reimers is at his best describing the evolution of US refugee and asylum policy, noting how interest groups successfully exerted pressure to, for example, give all Cubans, Jews from the ex-USSR and Chinese in the US during Tianenmen, refugee and later immigrant status. He also notes that critics of Temporary Protected Status for Central Americans proved to be correct when they predicted that "there is nothing more permanent then TPS foreigners."

Chapter five covers economic arguments to restrict immigration, and it is the weakest in the book. The labor market and public finance impacts of immigration are highlighted as the major points of contention, but the basic theory is not set out, viz, immigration that expands the labor supply would be expected to reduce wages, at least temporarily, and the public finance balance of immigrants depends largely on their incomes, since income is the best single predictor of taxes paid and public benefits received. The research issue is why it was so hard to find in empirical studies the expected adverse effects of immigrants in the 1980s, and why it became easier to find such effects in the 1990s. The answer probably lies in a combination of higher numbers, newer data and realization that immigrant effects can quickly be dispersed through internal migration, as some immigrants and US residents move away from concentrations of newcomers. The economics chapter turns the debate over Proposition 187 in California int o the prelude for 1996 federal legislation, and ends with a discussion of Citizenship USA, the flawed Clinton administration effort to reduce the time between application and naturalization to six months or less.

Chapter six covers integration, noting that FAIR and other restrictionist groups want a time out or period of low immigration to promote the integration of newcomers. The chapter then turns to "English only," noting that most laws making English the official language of a state have been only symbolic, and concludes with a discussion of bilingual education. Chapter seven discusses the push for federal legislation in 1996, noting that the impetus came from: (1) the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994; (2) approval of Proposition 187 in California in 1994; and (3) the recommendations of the US Commission on Immigration Reform in 1994-97. Reimers covers one major battle--whether to deal with legal and illegal immigration together or separately (only illegal immigration was dealt with), but does not deal with the other major issue, whether to permit states to bar illegal immigrant children from public schools (eventually dropped from the bills).

Reimers concludes that pro-immigration or admissionist forces have the advantage in US debates over immigration policy because, in many cases, they have something to lose, including slower family unification, fewer foreign workers, or more government regulation. By contrast, "the anti-immigrant movement did not contain many groups and individuals who were directly affected by immigration." (p145). The environmental, economic, and integration arguments restrictionists advanced proved to be too complex to achieve widespread support in the face of "the emotional appeal of America's tradition of welcoming millions upon millions of newcomers, many of whom were poor or seeking religious or political freedom." (p145).

Gimpel and Edwards have a narrower focus and a more sharply defined thesis: they examine every recorded vote on immigration between 1965 and 1996, and they conclude after seven chapters that immigration policy making has evolved from consensus to controversy, as evidenced by more recorded votes and by close votes, often after emotional debates. The result, they conclude, is a growing partisanship over immigration that in turn mirrors the fundamental distinction between Democrats and Republicans since the 1930s: how much assistance should the government provide to poor people.

Gimpel and Edwards make the Refugee Act of 1980 the turning point in congressional politics toward immigration. They argue that the arrival in the US of hundreds of thousands of refugees in the late 1970s, at a time when the US economy was in recession, and refugees were made eligible for welfare benefits, made many Republicans begin to see immigration as adding to the welfare population, prompting restriction.

The Republican party wants to minimize the role of government, but it is also pro-business, and Gimpel and Edwards argue that the Spring 1996 Congressional debate over whether to separate an omnibus bill aimed at changing the legal immigration system and reducing illegal immigration illustrated the tension within the Republican party over immigration. Seemingly strange bedfellows within the Republican camp, from business groups to the Christian Coalition, opposed dealing with both issues in one bill; this was also the position of the Clinton Administration and most Democratic migrant advocates. In March 1996, these forces blocked changes to the legal immigration system. As one result, the provisions aimed at reducing illegal immigration were probably tougher than they otherwise would have been.

Gimpel and Edwards conclude that, with Democrats being mostly admissionist, and Republicans willing to keep immigration doors open so long as the economy is booming and there is little threat that those admitted will need welfare assistance, congressional politics favor continued large-scale immigration of 800,000-900,000 a year. The September 1998 288-133 House vote to increase the number of H-1B visas is an example of the new immigration realities: high-tech businesses wanted the annual quota of 65,000 visas increased when the economy was booming, there was little fear that the professional workers would need welfare, and traditional labor union opposition to temporary foreign workers was muted by a new $500 fee imposed for each hire and labor "safeguards."

Chapter two reviews polls on American attitudes, emphasizing that most Americans have favored reducing immigration as long as public opinion has been surveyed. Indeed, the most cited reference on polls and immigration over time concluded that "it is something of a miracle that so many immigrants gained entry to the US between 1880 and 1990." (quoted on p41). However, the authors argue that since most people do vote for candidates based primarily on their stands on immigration, so that narrowly focused interest groups can play a significant role in shaping immigration policy. Farmers and high-tech businesses are identified as effective advocates for more foreign workers, while unions are divided about how much legal immigration there should be, and how much additional effort should be made to reduce illegal immigration.

Other interest groups that influence the congressional politics of immigration include lawyers, ethnic and migrants rights groups, and religious groups that generally favoring more immigration, and population and environmental groups that oppose more immigration. The list ends with two think tanks: Cato and the Center for Immigration Studies, curiously ignoring the Urban Institute in Washington, and the many university-based researchers and centers that have played far larger roles in shaping the conventional wisdom on immigration.

Chapter four tells the story of congressional debate over immigration between 1965 and 1982, concluding that: (1) immigration became increasingly controversial, as recorded votes replaced voice or consensus votes; and (2) that the clearest pattern in the shifting positions of ethnic groups, farmers, and minorities is that Republicans wanted to avoid big government (refugee resettlement assistance) and government mandates (employer sanctions), while Democrats favored generous government assistance to all poor residents, including immigrants and refugees.

Chapter five turns to the 1982-94 period, the era of both IRCA and IMMACT. Both laws substantially increased immigration--IRCA with an amnesty, and IMMACT by raising the world wide immigration ceiling, and permitting the ceiling to be readily exceeded. As the story of IRCA's passage is recounted, it is noteworthy how many times the generous aspects of IRCA, such as amnesty for illegal aliens in the US, were almost defeated (legalization remained in IRCA in the House by 216-211 and 199-192 votes), and how hard it was to win approval of an effective employer sanctions system (the House approved a call-in employer verification system on a 242-155 vote (p162), but it was later dropped because of the opposition of the Hispanic caucus and the representatives who had taken the lead on immigration reform, who objected to its cost). Overall, we are reminded that it proved far easier for the Senate than the House to approve IRCA's Grand Bargain of sanctions and amnesty.

The second half of chapter five recounts the politics of IMMACT, noting that Republicans were eager to emphasize the selection of immigrants on the basis of their skills and potential economic contributions, while Democrats, especially Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), wanted to increase immigration from Europe, especially Ireland. The House and Senate approved bills to increase legal immigration, and the compromise was to establish a ceiling of 675,000 immigrants a year, beginning in 1995, including 140,000 visas a year for immigrants (and their family members) selected for economic/employment reasons. This ceiling can be and has been exceeded each year since 1995.

Chapter six turns to the IIRIRA, focusing on the coming together of business groups with migrant advocates to prevent reform of legal immigration. During the spring and summer of 1996, as Congress prepared to approve three major pieces of legislation affecting immigrants, the debate in Congress centered on the Gallegly amendment, which would have permitted states to deny free K-12 schooling to illegal alien children, and the Leahy amendment eliminating "expedited removal" from the Senate bill--expedited removal permits the INS to refuse entry to foreigners who arrive with no or false documents and request asylum in the US. The Gallegly amendment was removed from what became IIRIRA before enactment, but expedited removal was included.

In 1997-98, some of the restrictions introduced in the 1996 anti-terrorism, welfare, and immigration reform laws were relaxed, including restoration of welfare benefits to some legal immigrants, and immigrant status or easier rules for some Central Americans and Cubans and Haitians to appeal to stay in the US. Late in 1998, Hurricane Mitch caused severe damage in Honduras and Nicaragua, leading to TPS for nationals of these countries in the US-- perhaps the start of conversion of temporary migrants into permanent residents.

There is likely to be little significant new immigration legislation in 1999-00. The Clinton administration will likely push to restore more of the welfare benefits taken from legal immigrants in 1996, and farmers will make a renewed push for an easy access temporary worker program. However, the major congressional priorities seem to be checking on how well the INS is fulfilling its missions, and examining the economic progress of immigrants. This last issue reflects another fundamental partisan difference. Is it better to permit easy entry, and let the market determine wages and incomes, or is it the responsibility of government to ensure minimum wages and above-poverty incomes, so that immigration does not work against achieving these goals?

If immigration has shifted from consensus to controversy, with increasing partisanship, what are the likely impacts? Are there other policy issues that might provide a guide to predicting the course of immigration policy? The minimum wage might serve as an example. The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act put a floor under wages in an effort to "create a level playing field" at the bottom of the labor market and raise the incomes of the working poor. The minimum wage is generally favored by Democrats and opposed by Republicans, and each points to legions of studies showing that wage and income protection can be bought with little loss of jobs or competitiveness, or , on the other side, that the minimum wage is a job and business killer.

As a result, each party tries to maximize its version of minimum wage policy when it has the political power to do so, with Democrats pushing for high minimum wages, few exceptions, and vigorous enforcement, while Republicans tend to advocate the opposite positions. As a result, minimum wage policy oscillates, as a pendulum. Immigration policy may do likewise in the 21st century.

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