Immigration & U.S. Policy Research Paper Starter

Immigration & U.S. Policy

(Research Starters)

This article presents an overview of the issue of immigration. The United States is in a largely unique position in the global marketplace for the purposes of its immigration policies: Its expansive economic and geographic boundaries allow for and even encourage a very high rate of immigration. Unskilled immigrant workers, particularly guest workers, have long been considered an essentially temporary labor pool. The long-term presence of this apparently temporary labor pool, however, has resulted in a visa-distribution program that strongly favors family preference rather than skill preference. Although considerable effort has been made to achieve comprehensive immigration reform in recent decades, perhaps the most notable identifiable trend is that little has changed since around 1965.

Keywords Amnesty; Department of Homeland Security (DHS); Family Preference; Guest Worker; Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA); Legal Permanent Resident (LPR); Marginal Production; Population Density; Sanctuary Policy; Simon Principle; Skill Preference; Social Capital; Unauthorized Immigrant; Visa (H-1/H-2)

Social Issues



The overall rate of legal and illegal immigration in the 2000s was almost as high as it was between 1905 and 1915, the peak decade of immigration in American history. 13.9 million immigrants arrived in the 2000s, bringing the national total to forty million; the number of illegal immigrants in the country continued to grow during the decade (Camarota, 2011). The proportion of immigrants in relation to natives (or American-born citizens), however, was significantly lower in the 2000s because the overall population more than doubled in the twentieth century. Until 1965, most immigrants had been from the United Kingdom or northern Europe. At that time, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 opened the application process to those from Asia, Africa, South America, and elsewhere and also placed a new emphasis on family reunification in the United States. This legislation had the somewhat unintended effect of increasing the number of unskilled immigrants entering the country (Donovan, 2005, pp. 35-36; Press, 2006).

The record levels of immigration during the 1990s and 2000s were partially the result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which legalized (or "amnestied") 2.7 million undocumented immigrants; however, that legislation also attempted to tighten law-enforcement measures for following waves of undocumented workers. The distinction between an undocumented (or illegal) immigrant and a guest worker can be a little blurry. About half of the illegal immigrants in the United States in the 1980s were those who had exceeded the time period a temporary work visa had granted them (Simon, 1995). Recent but incomplete attempts to reform immigration laws have included a similar amnesty measure for undocumented immigrants already established in the country, attempts to tighten the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as severe criminal sanctions for undocumented immigrants in the future.

During the early 1990s over 120,000 refugees fleeing oppressive conditions in their home nations were admitted into the United States annually; that number diminished significantly in the 2000s, with an annual average just over 50,000 (2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2011). These new residents are granted rights of access to public assistance (or welfare) programs for which most immigrants do not qualify, particularly after the extensive welfare reforms that were enacted in 1996 (Jefferys & Monger, 2008). Applicants from countries that have been considered national political enemies have usually only qualified for admission as refugees. The number of refugees the United States admits, however, is extremely high by international standards (Donovan, 2005).

The population of the United States is expanding more quickly than that of most other Western nations, which are attempting to stabilize their population and predicting population declines over the next several decades. Canada has the highest rate of immigrant absorption in the world in terms of the proportion of immigrants to natives, but the sheer number of immigrants that enter the United States (about a million annually) is much higher.

After World War II, European countries encouraged immigration due to a lack of unskilled labor. When the oil crisis arrived in the 1970s, those immigrants were essentially expected to return to their home nations or simply leave. The immigrants themselves had a very different idea: many of them encouraged family members, particularly female relatives, to join them in the host country. In short, "immigration tends to breed more immigration" rather than the temporary work force the policy makers had planned on (Massey, 1990, p.70-71). Mexican immigration to the United States is largely analogous to this scenario.

Competition for Jobs

The one broadly detrimental element of a high immigration rate that many commentators tend to agree upon is that the relative success of immigrants in the blue-collar job market is achieved partially at the expense of native workers, either in terms of a depression in wages for all workers in comparable jobs or in terms of competition for the same job openings. This situation has also been described as "marginal production": the wages an immigrant receives reflect only an additional contribution to the economy rather than to the overall economic condition of natives (Krugman, 2006). However, the old cliché that immigrants often take (and excel at) the jobs that natives are unwilling to take (or keep) contains a good deal of truth.

According to 2010 census data, the average household income was 50,541 for natives and 46,224 for immigrants (Grieco, E.M., Acosta, Y.D., de la Cruz, G.P., Gambino, C., Gryn, T. …Walters, N.P., 2012). One study concluded that it usually takes 15-17 years for the income of immigrants to match socially corresponding native levels (DeVortez, 2004).

Economic Factors

Entry-Level Entrepreneurial Activity

Immigrants are frequently credited with possessing both more tolerance for difficult industrial jobs and a greater entrepreneurial quality in entry-level businesses than natives. According to the Urban Institute, a liberal think-tank, almost half of entry-level workers in the nation are immigrants, and immigrants are viewed as valuable workers by industrial employers in the sense that they usually hold jobs that require fairly lengthy training longer than natives ("Issues in focus," 2008).

Undocumented immigrants comprise about 5 percent of the workforce, but they hold about a quarter of the jobs in dangerous and physically demanding fields such as construction, cleaning, and meat-packing operations (Preston, 2011). Following the detention of undocumented meat-packing workers in Iowa, many of the native employees that were subsequently hired soon quit those positions due to the physical strain and repetitiousness of assembly-line style work (Preston, 2007). Immigrants also often create new jobs in urban areas more than natives and generally help to maintain urban areas that would otherwise deteriorate socially and economically (Rohter, 1993). It is less clear, however, that the second and third-generation children of immigrant families possess these or parallel beneficial qualities.


Most economists in recent decades have argued that both legal and illegal immigrants are more beneficial to the economy than they are a burden to society in terms of the taxes they pay, the public assistance benefits they receive, and other factors such as criminal activity — or the lack thereof (Simon, 2005). Undocumented immigrants may pay more than $10 billion annually in Social Security payroll taxes, in addition to the usual federal taxes (Lantigua, 2013). Those workers seldom reap the benefits that those taxes are designed to provide as much as natives. They also tend to be eager to file tax returns in the hope that doing so will enhance their chances of securing status as legal permanent residents (LPR) (Preston, 2007).

Some dangerous landscaping and construction jobs issue payment to undocumented immigrants off-the-books and no payroll taxes are deducted, which increases their income but also renders dangerous work even more financially risky (Preston, 2007). Massey (1998) concludes that wages for illegal immigrants are 28 percent lower than those of legal workers and are especially low for agricultural and subcontractor workers; as such, illegal immigrants essentially occupy a "black market" of sold labor. And yet, the employment rate for undocumented male immigrants is about 90 percent, which is higher than the national average of male employment. Illegal female immigrants are only employed at a rate of about 66 percent, which is lower than the national average for female workers ("Issues in focus," 2008).

Department of Homeland Security Involvement

Shortly after the terrorist attacks of 2001, the newly-established Department of Homeland Security (DHS) replaced Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) and assimilated more than twenty other government agencies. Immigration issues had traditionally been controlled by the Treasury Department because they were primarily considered an economic issue. More recently, responsibility for immigration-related issues had been transferred to the departments of Commerce and Labor, Justice, and finally to the DHS. Many civilians were appalled that the individuals who perpetrated the terrorist attacks in September 2001 found it relatively easy to move in and out of the country, and security measures have been bolstered substantially.

The relatively lenient stance of the administration of George W. Bush on guest workers resulted in a new level of Hispanic voter support for Republicans in some southwestern states during the Bush years. Numerous temporary green cards were distributed circa 2004 in order to stabilize the labor-based workforce. The strong family ties that Mexican immigrants frequently exhibit, furthermore, are compatible with the Bush administration's efforts to promote two-parent families (or "traditional values") (Donovan, 2005; Press, 2006). Meanwhile, President Barack Obama has designated immigration reform as one of the primary goals he would like to accomplish during his second term.

The Simon Principle

Julian L. Simon was known for his general optimism and for debunking pessimistic predictions about immigration, population growth, and the exhaustion of non-renewable natural resources. Most of the predictions Simon made in the 1970s about non-immigration related issues have proven to be accurate. The so-called "Simon Principle" essentially asserts that the high rate of immigration should be maintained as long as it provides at least a marginally beneficial impact on the economy. Simon, however, made a stronger specific case for the benefits of immigration: the average immigrant family contributed $2500 to public funds that were used by (or available to) native families according to 1975 statistics. Later data, however, are largely inconclusive on this issue.

Skill Preference


George Borjas is the best-known proponent of the dissenting emphasis on skill preference over family preference. He also argues against the conventional logic that immigrants are less of a burden than a boon to host-nations. Borjas argues that only a handful of...

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