The Past, Present, and Future of Immigration Policy

The question of what to do about immigration in America is not an easy one to answer. While most would agree that the safety of Americans come first, we encounter more disagreement when the topic of humanity vs. justice comes into question. Many are seeking a moderate solution that upholds the letter of the law, while avoiding isolating America from the rest of the world through aggressive anti-immigration policy. 

Several laws and proposals have passed through Congress as the immigration debate continues, but still a consensus has not been reached. Both parties are seeking a bipartisan approach that takes into account the safety and economic security of our country, while still maintaining some level of compassion and tolerance. 

The Status of American Immigration Policy

According to Pew Research: “For years, proposals have sought to shift the nation’s immigration system away from its current emphasis on family reunification and employment-based migration, and toward a points-based system that prioritizes the admission of immigrants with certain education and employment qualifications.”

The shift from family-focus to economy focus is a tough one to make. The majority of legal immigrants entered the country through a family-sponsorship. 

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In 2017, 66% of all legal immigrants were granted entry based on family connections. Twelve-percent were employment-based immigrants, 11% were refugees, and 5% benefitted from the diversity visa lottery. The Trump administration would reduce the number of family-sponsored immigrants to approximately 33% of all entrants. 

Most past attempts by the federal government to conduct a comprehensive immigration overhaul have failed, either at a Congressional level or at an implementation level. Does the solution lie in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act?

Let’s take a look at three of the most recent large-scale immigration reform bills: the 1986 Immigration and Reform and Control Act, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018, and the aforementioned Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. 

Prior to 1986, the last major immigration reform had taken place 11 years prior, with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which eliminated quotas based on national origin and implemented the familial relationship entry system that we see today. 

S. 1200: Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

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Signed into law on November 6, 1986 by Ronald Reagan, the Immigration Reform and Control Act sought to tighten control at the border, impose fines on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants, and allow unauthorized immigrants who had lived in the country since 1982 to seek legal status with amnesty. Additionally, it allowed agricultural workers who had worked for at least 90 days to apply for permanent legal residency. 

The bill was sponsored by Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-WY) during the 99th Congress. It passed through the Senate with 63% approval. The bill was also called the Simpson-Mazzoli Act and the Reagan Amnesty.

A summary of the bill follows:

  • Penalized employers for knowingly hiring or recruiting undocumented immigrants 

  • Required employers to know and attest to the immigration status of their employees

  • Allowed seasonal agricultural workers who had worked more than 90 days to claim legal status and continue their work in the United States

  • Legalized all immigrants who had arrived in America before January 1, 1982, so long as they pled guilty to the crime of illegal entry, paid a fine and back taxes, were able to prove that they were innocent of crimes, and that they passed a U.S. history, government, and English test. 

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This bill attempted to strike the balance between humane treatment of undocumented immigrants already contributing to the American economy and holding them accountable for breaking the law. While it seems like the ideal situation at face value, the numbers showed otherwise. 

While the bill set out to stop unauthorized immigration, the number has steadily climbed over the last three decades. In 1986, there were 5 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. Today, there are over 10.5 million

Why has growth continued? The Washington Post posits that a major contributor was that after amnesty had been claimed by those who could claim it or even knew about the law, everyone expected the other remaining immigrants to just leave. Obviously, that didn’t happen. 

Additionally, agriculture workers who once worked a “circuit” of farms in California, then went back to Mexico after the growing season, found it safer to remain in America. Crossing back and forth presented more opportunities to be caught, but remaining in Mexico simply wasn’t an option-- They would be leaving their jobs and homes behind. 

H.R. 6136 (115th): Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018

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Sponsored by Virginia Representative Bill Goodlatte, H.R. 6136 was a nearly 300 page long bill that sought to overhaul the current American immigration system in its entirety. It was introduced on June 19, 2018  into the 115th Congress, which ran from January 3, 2017 to January 3, 2019. 

This is the most detailed and extensive immigration reform proposal in recent years. 

A summary of the bill follows:

Division A - Border Enforcement

  • Title I: Border Security

    • Strengthen requirements for barriers along the southern border

    • Department of Homeland Security would be required to “improve physical barriers, tactical infrastructure, and technology to achieve situational awareness and operational control of the border.”

    • Deployment of “specific capabilities” to nearly two dozen sectors

    • Requirement for the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to “hire, train, and maintain by 2023 an active duty presence of no fewer than 26,370 full-time agents and 27,725 full-time officers, 1,657 agents for Air and Marine Operations, 300 new K-9 units, 100 horseback officers and 50 horses, an increase of 50 officers for search and rescue operations, an increase of 50 officers focused on tunnel detection and technology, 631 agricultural specialists, no fewer than 550 special agents within the Office of Professional Responsibility, and no fewer than 700 full-time equivalents in the Office of Intelligence.

  • Title II: Emergency Port of Entry Personnel and Infrastructure Funding

    • Construction of new ports of entry on the northern and southern border

    • One month pilot for license plate readers at the top three busiest entry points

    • Deployment of non-intrusive passenger vehicle inspection system

    • Implementation of a “biometric exit data system.”

  • Title III: Visa Security and Integrity

    • New fees assessed with visas to pay for visa security programs

    • Electronic passport biometric screening

    • Individuals from “countries determined high risk” would be subjected to social media reviews

  • Title IV: Transnational Criminal Organization Illicit Spotter Prevention and Elimination

    • Makes hindering and “spotting” of border and custom controls illegal

Division B - Immigration Reform

  • Title I: Lawful Status for Certain Children Arrivals

    •  Grants “contingent non-immigrant status to individuals in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals category.”

    • Applicants for the program must be under 31, enrolled in an education institute or have a diploma/GED, with no criminal convictions

    • Applicants must pay a $1000 fee in exchange for 6 years of “continent nonimmigrant” status, with additional 6-year terms available

  • Title II: Immigrant Visa Allocations and Priorities

    • Eliminates diversity lottery in exchange for 55,000 merit-based visas

    • Eliminates Married Children of U.S. Citizens and Siblings of Adult U.S. Citizens visas in exchanged for employment-based visas

    • Applicants would “garner prioritization” based on:

      • Education level

      • English language proficiency

      • Military service

      • Continuous employment

    • Green cards available at the rate of 78,400 per year

  • Title III: Unaccompanied Alien Children; Interior Immigration Enforcement

    • Equal treatment of all unaccompanied minors by “ensuring the safe and expeditious return to their home country of children from both contiguous and noncontiguous countries, unless the child has a legitimate asylum claim.”

      • These children must not be separated from their parents while in custody

    • Undocumented immigrants who are “dangerous criminals” must stay in detention until they are removed from the US

    • Prevents the entry of gang members and terrorists

  • Title IV: Asylum Reform

    • “Combats asylum fraud by increasing the credible fear standard to require a determination that is ‘more probable than not’ that the asylum seeker’s statements are true”

  • Title V: USCIS

    • U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services are exempt from the Paperwork Reduction Act for three years

The bill failed in the House on June 27, 2018 with a vote of 121-301 against. 

Why the Bill Failed: Views from the Senate and House

Goodlatte’s bill failed with nearly half of Republican voters and all Democrat voters in the House voting against it. Many found that the bill was blatantly partisan. 

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Representative Jeff Denham (R-CA) told ABC News, “What was obvious today is that Republicans cannot pass a 218 Republican bill, just as Democrats couldn't pass one in 2010… It's important to recognize that it's going to take a bipartisan bill that both addresses border security as well as a permanent fix for Dreamers.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL) agreed with his peer. He said, “What we witnessed today was a minority of Republicans joining every Democrat in the House to double down on a failed, broken, inefficient, unfair and at times cruel immigration system. They prefer the petty politics of immigration instead of the solutions for immigration.”

Others felt that the bill was unfair to DREAMers, many of whom have lived in the United States since their early childhood. A 2017 New York Times Article notes that the average DREAMer came to the country when they were 6 years old. 

In an article on Medium, Congressman Seth Moulton (D-MA) stated that he voted against the bill because it was a “so-called ‘compromise’ immigration bill that falls far short of addressing the major challenges facing our nation’s immigration system.”  He also stated, “Seeking asylum is a legal right recognized by the United States and democracies around the world. This legislation would diminish protections for those seeking asylum by raising the “credible fear” test, which is used by Immigration Judges to determine if an individual has a legitimate fear of persecution or death.”

Both Republicans and Democrats are seeking a less extreme option, one that modernizes and reworks the shaky foundation that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 built. 

Workforce Visa Act

The Workforce Visa Act is a new employer-chosen visa program that works to enrich the economy, welcome new immigrants, and allow visa holders to become a United States citizen.  

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It is built on seven planks:

  • 1-year guest worker visa, wherein foreign nationals with a valid offer of employment may pay a $2,500 fee to obtain a 1-year guest worker visa. The visa is renewable with another valid offer of employment and $2,500 fee. Employers must follow all relevant labor laws as per their jurisdiction including minimum wage. 

  • Employers can hire these workers if they pay them back the $2,500 over the 1 year as a part of their monthly wage. Thus, they are incentivized to look for Americans first because Americans are free and workforce visa holders are incentivized to stay with their original employer to get reimbursed.

  • The $2,500 goes into a trust fund for workforce development in the State where the visa holder is employed. The state in which the workforce visa holder is employed will have access to $2,500 of the Workforce Trust Fund. This will be used to fund apprenticeships, job training, job placement, and other workforce development skills.

  • Visa holders may adjust status to legal permanent residence after 10 consecutive years if they pay an additional $25,000 or work an additional 10 years. This is an incentive to comply with the law. Current visa paths towards legal permanent resident are confusing, hard to access, or do not exist. By clear path, it incentivizes foreign workers to comply with the law, work hard, and be rewarded instead of overstaying their visa. 

  • Visa holders are not eligible for any means tested public benefits of any kind and if they adjust status to legal permanent resident, they cannot claim benefits retroactively.

  • All employers who hire these visa-holding employees must be a part of E-Verify.

  • All visa holders will have the right to join a labor union if it exists at their place of work.

The Workforce Visa Act would solve several issues that we are facing with our current immigration policy. First, we would be able to prevent the impending social security crisis. 

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From Vox: “Undocumented immigrants and immigrants with legal status pay billions of dollars each year into the Social Security system through payroll taxes. Based on estimates in the trustees report, the more immigrants that come in, the longer the Social Security system will stay solvent. That’s because immigrants, on average, are a lot younger than the overall US population, so their retirement is far off. And undocumented immigrants pay for Social Security, but they’re not allowed to get benefits.”

Additionally, it would work to fund training for Americans and immigrants alike. With the Workforce Trust Fund, people across the United States would have better access to job training programs, job placements, and apprenticeships. Doing so would also boost the prevalence of skill-based trades, many of which are losing traction in a world that increasingly favors technology-based fields. 

It would also allow border enforcement to focus more on criminal aliens involved in violent crimes, trafficking, and the narcotics trade, allowing hard-working legal immigrants to continue working in the United States without the temptation to overstay their visa. 

While no immigration policy will ever solve every problem, there are solutions that promote our economy, protect families at the border, and place more emphasis on preventing the entrance of violent criminals. The security of Americans and the continued prosperity of our economic system stand to benefit from an act that stays away from reducing legitimate immigration, but instead puts the emphasis on making the process easier for those legally seeking the American dream.