Immigration to the United States of America: Current Challenges and Debates
Please note: an asterisk (*) refers to an entry in the accompanying glossary.
1. A historic wave of immigration since 1965
The current immigration system of the United States is mostly based on a law passed in 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act, otherwise known as the Hart-Celler Act – one of a series of measures contributing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s project of a “Great Society”. Under the previous system, immigration had been regulated by quotas based on nationality, the aim being to favor white immigrants from European countries. With the 1965 law, however, immigration was no longer based on national origin, but rather on family relationships and job skills (Newsweek 12-26-2015, Pew 09-28-2015a, Pew 09-30-2015).
Although the Immigration and Nationality Act never intentionally set out to change the makeup of the immigrant population, the fact is that it wrought drastic changes in immigration patterns, both in terms of raw numbers and countries of origin (The Atlantic 10-02-2015).
Over the last few decades, the United States has seen a massive increase in immigration. Census Bureau figures show that between 1980 and 2010, the proportion of the population born abroad doubled (Census 2011).
The current wave of immigration peaked in 2005; the slight decrease after that date has perhaps been due to the consequences of the financial crisis of the late 2000s. Projections nevertheless show that the percentage of people living in the United States, but not born there, could reach 17.7% by 2065, breaking the record set by the historic immigration wave of the turn of the twentieth century, when, in 1890, 14.8% of the population was foreign-born. As a result, the United States now has the world’s largest immigrant population, and holds about one fifth of the globe’s immigrants (Pew 09-28-2015c).
Despite this notable increase in overall migration, it should nonetheless be noted that immigrants are distributed very unevenly across the United States. The percentage of the population that is foreign-born varies from 1.2% in West Virginia (the lowest) to 27.2% in California (the highest).
Just eight states account for over half of the entire foreign-born population of the United States, while South central and Midwestern states tend to have the lowest proportions of immigrants (Census 2011, Census 2012, Pew 09-28-2015b).
Furthermore, changes in immigration policy had the (unintentional) effect of decreasing immigration from Europe, while increasing immigration from Asia and Latin America.
Mexicans alone made up 28% of all entries into the United States between 1965 and 2015. It should be noted, however, that among immigrants, recently Asians have tended to outnumber those from Latin America (Pew 09-28-2015c).
Another characteristic of the current wave of immigration is the high number of illegal entries, especially in recent years. In 1990, 3.5 million unauthorized migrants were living in the United States. By 2007, that number had more than tripled to reach a peak of 12.2 million. In 2014, an estimated 11.1 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States, out of a total population of roughly 318 million. In 2014, unauthorized migrants thus represented approximately 3.5 percent of the total American population, but about one quarter of the total foreign-born population. In that same year, the vast majority of illegals (52%) were Mexicans; a total of 5.8 million illegal immigrants from Mexico were living in the United States (Pew 11-03-2016). These facts also account for the high number of *mixed-status families. It is difficult to find hard numbers, since both the estimates of illegal entries and the definition of “family” may vary. But to give a specific example: in 2014, 3.2 million children who were US citizens themselves had at least one parent who was an illegal immigrant (Pew 11-17-2016).
As a general rule, immigrants are relatively young, with the median age at 40 to 44. Most of them have been settled in the United States for a long time – in 2014, 71.9% had lived in America for over 10 years. There is a significant number of second-generation immigrants (defined as the US-born children of immigrants), as they make up 11.9% of the total American population. An increasing number of immigrants tend to be educated, with 16.6% having earned Bachelor’s degrees. Their language skills, however, are not always good. 50.4% of immigrants are proficient in English; 16% of immigrants speak only English at home, while 44% speak Spanish (Pew 04-19-2016).
2. Attitudes towards immigration
When investigating American attitudes towards immigration, a mixed picture emerges. 50% of Americans say that immigrants make the situation worse when it comes to the economy and to crime. But many Americans also believe that the presence of immigrants in their country is an improvement for science and technology, as well as culture and art. This picture is more nuanced, however, when one looks at the origin of immigrants. Few Americans believe that Asian or European immigrants have a negative impact on American society (11% and 9% respectively). In contrast, arrivals from Latin America have a mostly negative image: 37% of Americans say their impact on society has been negative, significantly more than the 26% who say their impact has been positive. Only immigrants from the Middle East have a worse reputation: 39% of Americans view their impact as negative (Pew 09-28-2015d).
Two more recent factors shaped the debate, although they are not directly connected to immigration: the creation of *NAFTA in 1994, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.
The *North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) created a trade bloc encompassing Mexico, the United States and Canada. An enduring criticism against the agreement is that it allegedly destroyed American manufacturing jobs, which were outsourced to *maquiladoras in Mexico (Le Monde 01-24-2017, Washington Post 02-21-2017). It may thus have contributed to the negative image of Latin-American immigrants in the United States. Although initially signed by President George H. W. Bush (1989-1993), ratification happened under President Bill Clinton (1993-2001). As a result, many Americans associate *NAFTA with the Clinton presidency, which may have put Hillary Clinton at a disadvantage during the 2016 presidential campaign, especially in the context of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations (CNN 09-27-2016). While candidate Trump had promised to scrap *NAFTA, President Trump seems willing to renegotiate the agreement (New York Times 04-27-2017).
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 created a connection between the questions of immigration and security which was perhaps not as prominent before. It is not a coincidence that the *Department of Homeland Security (DHS), created in 2002 in the wake of the attacks, has been entrusted with both policy areas. It overseas the agencies in charge of immigration, most notably *Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which deals with *deportations. The subsequent war on terror accounts for the negative image of Middle Eastern immigrants in the United States (Pew 09-28-2015d).
3. Demographic and political change
The changes in immigration patterns over the last decade have transformed the demographic makeup of the United States, especially when it comes to race.
Projections show that by 2065, no single ethnicity will make up the overall majority of the population (Pew 09-28-2015c, 10-05-2015). This increased diversity has also led some to question the traditional view of the United States as a *melting pot: has it perhaps become more of a *salad bowl (Newsweek 12-26-2015)?
This also has political implications. To give only one example, the states with the highest proportion of foreign-born individuals are also among the most populous states overall, meaning they carry more weight in the presidential electoral college. The existence of *mixed-status families also means that illegal immigrants can have a voice in politics: although they are not able to vote themselves, a relative might be a citizen. These factors help explain why immigration has become such a prominent political topic in recent years. It is also a polarizing one. If one asks only Republicans, 53% will say that immigrants make American society worse in the long run; only 31% say that they make society better. This is almost reversed when asking Democrats: 24% view the impact of immigrants as negative; 55% view it positively (Pew 09-28-2015d).
Voting patterns are also clearly influenced by race. In broad terms, whites tend to vote Republican – in 2016, 58% of them voted for Donald Trump. As a general rule, minorities tend to vote Democratic. In the last presidential election, 88% of blacks, 65% of Hispanics and 65% of Asians voted for Hillary Clinton (New York Times 11-08-2016).
If current demographic trends continue, the Republican party may thus find it increasingly difficult to win elections (National Review 10-31-2016). That is why, during the 2016 primaries, there were calls for the party to change some of its policy proposals in the hope of appealing to minority voters. Hence also the momentum that initially surrounded the campaigns of Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two Republican presidential hopefuls with a Hispanic background. Moreover, many (though by no means all) Hispanics share conservative values, partly based on religion, which means that they could constitute a potential base for the Republican party in the future (NPR 12-22-2016, Pew 04-04-2012). However, what Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 means for the ability of the party to appeal to America’s increasingly diverse population is as yet unclear.
Conversely, the Democratic party has often been accused of playing *identity politics, allegedly targeting their proposals only at certain minorities based on e.g. sexual orientation or race (New York Times 11-18-2016). The party’s failure to win the white vote may certainly help explain its defeat in the 2016 election. Meanwhile, it could be argued that the Democratic party has simply taken the Hispanic vote for granted – something it hopes to change with the election of Tom Perez as chair of the DNC (Democratic National Committee) on February 25, 2017. He is the first Latino to be elected to the post (NBC 12-19-2016).
4. The recent debate
The various factors mentioned above explain why the current immigration system is often viewed as “broken”. It is a well-known fact that a significant number of illegal immigrants live in the United States, yet they have access to some public services (leading some to portray them as a burden on these services). For instance, the Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe (1982) means that illegal immigrant children cannot be denied access to primary and secondary education. But what is their future given that access to legal status is denied to them? Moreover, both legal and illegal immigrants represent a huge proportion of the population, and they play a significant role in the economy, politics and culture of the country, a fact which the event *Day Without Immigrants seeks to underscore (CNN 02-17-2017). Yet 49% of all Americans say that immigration should be decreased; 82% believe the current immigration system should be rebuilt completely or needs major changes (Pew 09-28-2015d). The only consensus, however, seems to be on the necessity of change – opinion varies widely on what exactly “immigration reform” should mean.
These disagreements lead to a situation where, although it is the federal government that is responsible for immigration policy, enforcement actually differs widely from state to state and from city to city.
California, a state whose population is 27.2% foreign-born, has very generous policies towards undocumented immigrants. The California Dream Act of 2011 gives illegal students the right to apply for state financial aid to fund their college education. In 2015, a state law known as AB-60 granted undocumented immigrants the right to apply for a driver’s license in California. In contrast, neighboring Arizona, whose population is 13.4% foreign-born, has some of the strictest policies against immigration. Its *SB-1070 law requires state police to check someone’s status if they have reason to believe that person may be an illegal immigrant. Critics argued that this would lead to *racial profiling, but the Supreme Court upheld that part of the law in its 2012 decision Arizona v. United States (New York Times 04-23-2010, 06-25-2012).
At the city level, since 1996 the *287(g) program has enabled *ICE to delegate some of its authority to local law enforcement. Selected and trained local policemen may thus detain illegal immigrants they encounter in the context of their day-to-day policing duties. The city of Las Vegas, Nevada, for instance, participates in this program (ICE 2017). But in some cases this system causes controversy. A new sheriff was recently elected in Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, Texas, in part because he promised to end cooperation with *ICE (Houston Chronicle 02-21-2017).
On the other end of the spectrum, we find *sanctuary cities. There is no single definition of this term, but it often implies that local law enforcement does not cooperate with *ICE, for instance refusing to honor *ICE requests to detain individuals. Often, this may also mean that they do not seek to find out whether or not a person is an undocumented immigrant. The rationale behind such policies is that it will make cities safer by ensuring that illegals are not afraid of calling the police when they are victims of crime. Los Angeles even requested that *ICE agents stop calling themselves “police” because they believe it undermines trust in their local police force (New York Times 02-25-2017). Several hundred cities across the United States have such policies in place; one example is Chicago, Illinois (CNN 01-25-2017). Such policies may also exist at county or even state level. A bill named SB-54 is currently moving through the California legislature that would make it a *sanctuary state (Los Angeles Times 12-07-2016, 03-16-2017).
These widely differing policies from place to place are caused by disagreements on the issues. One example is that there is no consensus on the kind of migration needed. 56% of Americans believe that priority should be given to immigrants who are highly skilled or educated (Pew 09-28-2015d). Yet some businesses have expressed a need for immigrants, often illegals, to fill unskilled jobs that Americans cannot or will not take on (Bloomberg 03-12-2014). This raises the question of unfair competition between businesses, some of which may hire illegals to pay them less and exploit them. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was passed, creating *employer verification: the burden is on the employers to check that the people they hire are in the country legally. If they do not comply, businesses may face sanctions and penalties such as fines (Huffington Post 09-09-2016). President Trump has planned a nationwide rollout of a system, E-Verify, that would make checks more difficult for immigrants to get around.
Another thorny issue is that of immigrants who have committed crimes. Given that several million illegals live in the United States and government resources are limited, the Obama administration (2009-2017) decided to prioritize the *deportation of those who had committed serious criminal offenses, such as murder or drug trafficking. Moreover, since space in detention centers is limited, low priority arrestees benefited from a policy of *catch and release, which meant that they were freed pending trial. But this is due to change under President Trump (2017-), who on January 25, 2017 signed executive order 13768, giving priority to anyone having committed a chargeable criminal offense. But since being in the country illegally already falls under this definition, de facto this means that any undocumented immigrant is now a potential target for *deportation. President Trump also vowed to end *catch and release (New York Times 01-26-2017, Reuters 01-26-2017).
*Mixed-status families pose a particular problem, especially in cases when children are legal residents or even citizens, but their parents are undocumented. In practice, it means that the children can stay in the United States but their parents cannot. Over 5000 children live in foster care because their parents are detained or *deported; an average of 17 children a day are placed in state care, at least temporarily, for this reason (CNN 10-27-2013). To some children, the situation seems particularly unfair because they were brought to the United States by their parents and never made a conscious decision to break the law; some only discover their illegal status relatively late in life (Washington Post 09-24-2014).
As a result of this difficult situation, several attempts at comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level have been made.
5. Attempts at reform in Congress (2001-2013)
The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was first introduced in 2001 and then several more times during the Obama presidency (2009-2017), but always failed to pass in Congress. It would have granted a *path to citizenship to migrants who meet certain criteria, especially having been brought to the United States as children, being educated and being of good moral character. The rationale was that these educated migrants, who have often known nothing other than life in America and are thus well integrated, would be able to contribute to the economy. Persons meetings these requirements would have been granted conditional status first, then *permanent residency, which would eventually enable them to apply for full citizenship (NBC 03-30-2017). Despite the repeated failure to get this legislation passed, the proposal prompted these young migrants to become organized. Commonly known as *DREAMers, they have founded advocacy groups such as United We Dream, which claims over 100,000 members (United We Dream 2017).
A new attempt at reform was started in 2005, with a relatively tough bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner. Commonly known as the Sensenbrenner Bill, its official title was the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act or H.R. 4437. It was passed by the House in December 2005. The Senate, in disagreement with this proposal, put together its own, less strict bill in April 2006, known as the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA) or S. 2611. But neither house passed the other’s bill, spelling the end of both proposals.
The Sensenbrenner Bill, primarily concerned with border protection, was viewed as extremely tough against immigrants and polarized public opinion. It caused some vigilante groups to start patrolling the Mexican border themselves, and prompted some states to pass strict legislation targeting immigrants. However, it also caused a massive wave of protests in the Hispanic community in 2006, often credited with bringing the Latino vote to the attention of political leaders (Los Angeles Times 03-04-2016).
The last major attempt at reform in Congress came in the shape of the *Gang of Eight Bill, after the bipartisan group of eight Senators who sponsored the project, officially known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. It sought a compromise, promising both a *path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and increased border security (Washington Post 04-16-2013). It once again failed to pass. His membership of the “gang” later put Senator Marco Rubio at a disadvantage when he ran for president in 2016 (Washington Post 04-24-2015).
6. The Obama presidency (2009-2017)
Given the repeated failures of immigration reform in Congress, the Obama administration took executive action to make changes.
In 2012, various memoranda within the *DHS created a program known as *DACA or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (USCIS 12-22-2016). It targets *DREAMers: undocumented migrants who were brought to the United States as children and meet certain conditions may have their *deportation deferred. In other words, they are granted temporary relief and may apply for a work permit. *DACA thus encourages *DREAMers to *come out of the shadows and cooperate with authorities. However, it does not give them legal status or a *path to citizenship. Roughly half a million young undocumented immigrants benefited from this program as of 2014, 77% of whom were Mexicans (Pew 08-15-2014). Of course, the program was not without its controversies, as critics blamed it for causing the 2014 border crisis, when a higher than usual number of immigrants, especially unaccompanied children, tried to cross into the United States (Los Angeles Times 06-19-2014).
President Obama once again tried to take action in November 2014. First, he planned an expansion of *DACA, meaning that a total of 1.8 million youths could be eligible for the program. Second, he proposed a new program dubbed *DAPA or Deferred Action for Parents of Americans. This targeted parents who are themselves undocumented immigrants, but whose children are US citizens or *permanent residents. These parents would have their *deportation deferred and be eligible for work permits. However, this would not mean legal status or a *path to citizenship (USCIS 04-15-2015). An estimated 3.5 million illegal immigrants were considered eligible for this program. In other words, both these programs aimed at granting temporary *deportation relief to about half of all illegal immigrants living in the United States (Pew 01-19-2016).
But just a month later, in December 2016, 26 states filed a lawsuit against Obama’s recent executive action (both the expansion of *DACA and the creation of *DAPA), citing, in part, what they saw as an abuse of executive power on the part of the president. In February 2015, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, a federal court, granted a preliminary injunction halting these new programs, pending trial. The case worked its way to the Supreme Court, where Texas v. United States was decided in June 2016. But Justice Antonin Scalia had died just a few months previously, leaving the highest court in the land with only eight judges. As a result, the Supreme Court split evenly and the 4-4 vote did not set a legal precedent, thereby leaving the preliminary injunction of the lower court in place. Although technically an actual judgment has not been rendered by the District Court, this legal drama effectively spelled the end of *DAPA and the *DACA expansion.
Overall, President Obama’s legacy on immigration is not uncontroversial, including in immigrant communities. On the one hand, pro-immigrant advocacy groups have expressed gratitude for the creation of *DACA. On the other hand, many also feel that he did not do enough to help pass immigration reform in Congress. Moreover, his administration *deported over 2.5 million immigrants, more than under any previous president in history, causing a leading immigrant advocacy group to brand him the “deporter-in-chief” of the nation (NBC 01-15-2017).
7. Immigration under President Trump (2017-)
On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump formally announced he was running for president. During his speech at Trump Tower in New York, he famously declared: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. […] They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” In the same speech, Mr Trump also announced that he would build a wall on the southern border and that Mexico would pay for it (Washington Post 06-16-2015). Today, only about a third of the border is protected by walls or fencing (Le Monde 01-24-2017). Furthermore, in the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13, 2015 and the San Bernardino attack on December 2, 2015, Mr Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” at a campaign event on December 7, 2015 (Washington Post 12-07-2015). Thus, the tone was set for a campaign, and perhaps also a presidency, that would use extremely tough, if not downright offensive, rhetoric on the subject of immigration.
Tough language on this topic continued to be used after the inauguration, both by President Trump and his administration. Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly thus announced in March 2017 that he would not hesitate to separate children from their parents at the border (CNN 03-07-2017).
The president made good on his campaign promises by signing executive order 13767 on January 25, 2017, which launches the building of the wall along the southern border. This was done despite the transition team’s earlier concession that the American taxpayer would pay for it… before apparently being reimbursed by Mexico (CNN 01-06-2017). 70% of Americans seem to doubt this, believing that they will ultimately pay for this costly enterprise (Pew 02-24-2017). On March 16, 2017 the president unveiled his budget plans, including about 3 billion dollars for increased border security and the wall. But in the budget compromise reached a month later with Congress, the president gave up on funding for the wall (Washington Post 04-30-2017), a project whose future now seems uncertain.
Also on January 25, 2017 President Trump signed executive order 13768 targeting *sanctuary cities by withdrawing some of their federal funding. Mayors of several cities have vowed to continue their policies despite these threats, while the executive order has been attacked in court (Bloomberg 01-26-2017). The same order also says that anyone having committed a chargeable criminal offense is potentially subject to *deportation. Since being in the country illegally already constitutes such an offense, this de facto ends the Obama policy of prioritizing only those undocumented immigrants having committed serious offenses (New York Times 01-26-2017).
Finally, because *DACA was the result of executive action, it can be reversed by subsequent administrations. Many beneficiaries of *DACA who had *come out of the shadows under Obama thus feared that they would be *deported now that they had reported to authorities. For the moment, however, the Trump administration has left *DACA in place, while at the same time asserting that they do not consider the matter settled for good, and that any undocumented immigrant may be *deported (CNN 02-21-2017, New York Times 02-21-2017). Beyond the actual policy coming from the White House, it seems that administrative culture within *ICE has also changed and officers feel “new freedom to *deport” according to the New York Times (02-25-2017).
The other headline-grabbing policy of the Trump administration is of course the so-called “Muslim ban” (although the White House rejects this term), i.e. executive order 13769, signed on January 27, 2017, and executive order 13780, signed on March 6, 2017. Although it is difficult to estimate how many people are potential targets of these orders, it is worth pointing out that a 2011 survey found that 2.75 million Muslims live in the United States, 63% of whom are immigrants (Pew 02-27-2017). Moreover, within new arrivals, Asian immigrants (some of whom are from Muslim-majority countries) are becoming more numerous than Latin Americans, which means that the number of Muslim immigrants is increasing (Pew 09-28-2015c).
The first order included very strict provisions for the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Syria), who could no longer enter the United States pending a review of background checks. This included even those holding *green cards. Admission of all refugees into the United States was suspended for 120 days and the annual intake of refugees capped at 50,000. Since the order came as a surprise and law enforcement personnel was not given clear guidelines, implementation was at first chaotic, with travelers detained for hours at airports. The order was also criticized for targeting Iraqis: it was feared that, in future, locals might not cooperate with US armed forces in war theaters if the United States could not guarantee their protection, thus hampering efforts in the war on terror. The order therefore sparked a wave of protests (NPR 01-29-2017). On February 3, 2017, a federal court issued a nationwide restraining order stopping the implementation of this policy.
This prompted the administration to issue a second order on March 6, 2017, rescinding the previous one and making a few changes, such as exempting *green card holders and citizens of Iraq. Several provisions of this order became the target of a preliminary injunction from a federal court on March 29, 2017, thus halting implementation of the order nationwide. The administration has appealed the decision and fresh court hearings are expected in May 2017 (Chicago Tribune 03-29-2017).
Over the last few decades, the United States has witnessed an unprecedented wave of immigration, posing new challenges for the political class and society at large. But typical Washington gridlock has meant that little substantive reform has happened, although the vast majority of Americans see the current immigration system as broken. When attempting to alleviate the problem through executive action, President Obama (2009-2017) found himself between a rock and a hard place. Some Republicans accused him of abuse of executive power, while some immigrant lobbies were disappointed with his perceived lack of action on the issue, branding him the “deporter-in-chief”. But what little change there has been is fragile: precisely because it happened through executive action, it can be undone by any subsequent administration. When President Trump came to power in January 2017, there was much speculation whether his actual policies would be as tough as his campaign rhetoric. Three months later, although the president seems to walk a tightrope on the issue, it appears that promises of a crackdown on immigration will be kept.
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Pour citer cette ressource :
Anne-Kathrin Marquardt, "Immigration to the United States of America: Current Challenges and Debates", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mai 2017. Consulté le 29/11/2023. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-americain/immigration-et-minorites/immigration-to-the-united-states-of-america-current-challenges-and-debates