U.S. Immigration: Then and Now

The United States has had a rich history of accepting immigrants from a wide array of backgrounds and for a variety of reasons ranging from humanitarian and religious to political and economic. Commonly regarded as a “melting pot,” the U.S. has been a nation of immigrants since its founding; pilgrims fled the tyrannies of the old world in search of what we now call the “American Dream”.  Today, the U.S. finds itself at a pivotal crossroads in its immigration policy. Demographic shifts resulting from immigration during the past half-century (as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) are proving to be an irreversible trend, rather than a statistical anomaly. Can national immigration policies be structured in an adequate way to ensure social cohesion, economic prosperity and national security, without compromising civil rights or undermining national identity?

 The statistics on immigration help provide a more concrete description of the issue. Today, the United States is home to 40 million immigrants, which constitute 13% of the total population. While this is a large figure nominally, it is proportionally less than the previous peak of 15% during the industrial boom of 1890-1920, when Europeans were entering the country in large numbers, many of them through the iconic Ellis Island. However, the biggest issue in today’s immigration policy is the presence of roughly 11 million undocumented persons who face discrimination and abuse economically, socially and politically due to lack of legal status. The debate around this issue, specifically whether a pathway (semantics may differ) to citizenship will exist to legalize undocumented aliens, will be the deciding factor in any meaningful immigration reform.  

The last major attempt at reform came in 1986, under the Reagan administration through the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which aimed to curtail illegal immigration by imposing stricter employer accountability standards for hiring undocumented workers. At the time, there were about 3 million unauthorized individuals in the U.S. who received amnesty through a legalization process. Despite best intentions, IRCA was poorly enforced and underfunded, resulting in the creation of a large document fraud industry both in the U.S. and Mexico and ultimately attributed to the increase of undocumented immigrants currently residing in the U.S. IRCA was seen as “amnesty” which provided a solution to undocumented problem, but did not clearly define or enforce the regulations to minimize further flows of unauthorized individuals.

From this perspective, we can better understand the recently proposed immigration reform bill S.744. (Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act), which aims to improve where previous reform attempts have failed.  As the title suggests, the main concern revolves around national security, economic growth and improved methods of immigration compliance both at the borders and in workplaces. Such a bill provides a necessary compromise between hard-line nationalists who see border security as the primary method of regulating immigration flows and free-market liberals who encourage open labor markets to fill both high-skilled and low-skilled labor needs. In the next few months, the country will find out if compromises and proper appropriations can be made to create an enforceable bill that promotes a secure, economically viable and sustainable immigration policy.

If this issue is important to you, I urge you to contact your local representative.


 ImageNiko Druzhinin is a legal assistant at Lipman & Wolf, LLP and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Global Policy Studies at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs in the University of Texas at Austin. Niko received his Bachelor’s degree from UC Santa Barbara in Global and International Studies with an emphasis in the Latin America region. Niko is fluent in Spanish and Russian. If you have questions or comments about the article, please contact us.


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