Case Study

The people of France gave “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” to the United States as a gift of friendship on October 28, 1886.  It was given as a universal symbol of freedom and democracy. The robed female figure representing the Roman goddess Libertas bears a torch and a tabula ansata (a tablet evoking the law) upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence: July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet.

Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” was engraved on a bronze plaque and affixed to the base of the Statue:

…”Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

As an icon of freedom and of the United States, the statue was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad. Between 1886 and 1924, almost 14 million immigrants entered the United States through New York. Those opposed to large numbers of immigrants also turned to the Statue of Liberty as a symbolic figure. In 1890, in response to a proposal for a new immigration processing station, the Statue of Liberty was utilized on magazine covers to depict fears about immigrants’ threat to the liberty it represented.

Why It Matters


Immigrants play an important role in today’s economy, and are projected to account for a substantial proportion of the U.S.’s labor force growth through 2030. This is particularly the case in entrepreneurship: the percentage of immigrant entrepreneurs has been steadily growing since 2000, from 11.7% of entrepreneurs to 20% in 2018, while native-born entrepreneurs have decreased over these years. Ensuring skilled immigrants have the ability to pursue their ventures in the U.S. is just as important as ensuring immigrants have access to the education and training needed to advance their careers and build the skills necessary for them to meet the needs of the U.S. labor force.


Foreign-born residents present social and political challenges and opportunities for local governments. Particularly in urban areas where there are large populations of immigrants, policymakers and citizens play a role in community planning and ensuring “cities can become both more inclusive and more just for all, not more unequal and divided” due to demographic changes.

Additionally, immigration is important to the census because it drives population projections that help report the impact of immigration on the future size and age composition of the U.S. population. The Center for Immigration Studies takes an in depth look at projecting how immigration can impact the U.S. population.



Putting it in Context


Immigration to the U.S. was low during the first half of the 19th century but slowly increased during the mid- and late-19th century, primarily due to famines in Europe and the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War. The influx of migrants saw a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment, first with the Know Nothing Party in the mid-1850s. Tensions surrounding immigration were prevalent especially in California, where American workers openly attacked Chinese immigrants with racist remarks and where legislators passed the Anti-Coolie Act in 1962 to protect white laborers against the low wages for which Chinese laborers were willing to work.

To manage increasing numbers of immigrants, the Immigration Act of 1882 levied a tax of 50 cents on all immigrants landing at U.S. ports and restricted who was allowed to enter the U.S. In order to enter, the federal government needed to determine whether or not the immigrant was capable of supporting her/himself and would not become a burden on society.

Restrictive immigration legislation during the 1920s included the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924, which placed caps on national immigration that favored Western Europeans and barred Asian immigrants altogether. Additionally, the Great Depression in the 1930s and the succession of two World Wars contributed to a sharp drop in new arrivals: most countries “were unwilling to increase their immigrant quotas to admit very large groups of refugees, especially the impoverished and the dispossessed” due to a mistrust of foreigners during this time.

Today, U.S. immigration policies are rooted in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, supported by Senator Ted Kennedy. This act established a system based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. Additionally, President Reagan signed the  Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in 1986. The IRCA called for tougher border enforcement, penalized employers who hired unauthorized immigrants, and provided a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. This legislation, however, did little to stem the tide of illegal immigration “because the strict sanctions on employers were stripped out of the bill for passage.” 

See this timeline of the History of Immigration in the U.S.

By the Numbers

The United States welcomes more immigrants in total numbers (as opposed to a percentage of population) than any other country. Annually, the U.S issues over 1 million green cards – half go to new arrivals, and half are renewals for expired green cards. In 2018, only 13% were skills-based for employment purposes, 14% were for refugees, and 64% were based on familial connections.

In addition to green cards, in 2018 the U.S. issued over 533,000 family and skill-based temporary immigration visas, which granted these visa-holders temporary privileges to live and/or work in the United States. Some are on a path to a more permanent status while others are simply working to fill seasonal needs and after the season are expected to return to their home countries.

The U.S. also serves as the top refugee resettlement country according to the United Nations Refugee Agency programme (UNHCR). The Obama administration increased the allotment cap of 70,000 refugees per year to 85,000 in 2016 and 110,000 by 2017. The Trump administration reduced that number to 45,000 for 2018 and 30,000 for 2019.


In 2018, there were just under 45 million immigrants that made up about 14% of the U.S. population. Census Bureau data indicates 10 million of these immigrants are unauthorized, although some experts note self-reported Census data may not be accurate and the number could be as much as 20 million. Including immigrants’ U.S.-born children brings that total to 28% of the overall U.S. population. In 2017, 29 million immigrants were working or looking for work in the U.S., comprising 17% of the total civilian labor force.

Much of the attention regarding immigration revolves around the southern border. In the last few years, the number of migrants coming to the United States’ southern border has soared, and migrants are overwhelming U.S. authorities. Between 2018 and 2019, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) reported the number of people apprehended or stopped at the border more than doubled.

In recent decades, the majority of people crossing the border have been young men looking for work. Since the beginning of 2019, however, migrants have been entire families seeking asylum, claiming they have a “credible fear” of persecution if they return to their home country. Whether or not they have a legitimate claim must be decided by asylum officers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which creates another waitlist, further contributes to backlog, making it more difficult to process eligible claims and allowing those who do not have valid claims to remain in the system longer. In 2019, there were more than 1 million cases pending in immigration courts.


Role of Government

Article I, Section 8, clause 4 of the Constitution entrusts the federal legislative branch with the power to “establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.”

Specifically, Congress is responsible for crafting the laws that determine how and when noncitizens can become naturalized citizens of the United States. But control over naturalization does not necessarily mean control over immigration, meaning “the federal government is not explicitly granted a general power to exclude or remove noncitizens from the United States.” For the first century after the nation’s birth, many states enacted laws regulating and controlling immigration across their own borders. It was not until the late 19th century that Congress began to actively regulate immigration on a national level, with measures designed to restrict Chinese immigration.

Congressional committees most involved with immigration include the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship under the House Committee on the Judiciary; and the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and Border Safety under the Senate Committee on the Judiciary.

Today, U.S. immigration policy, set by Congress, is executed through a component of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). The agency seeks to “secure America’s promise as a nation of immigrants by providing accurate and useful information to our customers, granting immigration and citizenship benefits, promoting an awareness and understanding of citizenship, and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system.” Other agencies involved include U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) which combines “customs, immigration, border security, and agricultural protection into one coordinated an supportive activity,” and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that focuses on border security and “the illegal movement of people, goods, and funds into, within, and out of the United States.” In the State Department, the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration also plays a role, specifically in assisting refugees and displaced persons.

State and Local Level

The federal government is primarily responsible for enforcing immigration laws, but it may delegate some duties to local and state law enforcement; for example, states still exert influence over immigration policy through their power to issue or withhold state issued identification (driver’s licenses), state-level benefits and state-level cooperation (or lack thereof) with federal officials.

Undocumented immigrants are allowed to apply for driver’s’ licenses in California but not in Pennsylvania. Arizona permits police to question people about their immigration status, but Montana does not. Several states and municipalities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration policy have been labelled “sanctuary cities.” Lack of coherence across state and even county lines is a topic of contentious debate.

Many states have enacted laws designed to help integrate immigrants into society. Efforts include legislation to support civic education classes to help immigrants pass the naturalization test, to fund immigrant integration programs that teach English, and to reduce licensing barriers that would permit educated immigrants to practice their professional skills.


Current Challenges and Areas of Reform

Various Viewpoints

Opinions on immigration policy vary widely.

Open Borders Policy

This point of view favors allowing relatively free movement across national borders. Professor Bryan Caplan of George Mason University says there are different visions of this concept; it could be likened to the way European Union citizens can travel between E.U. countries, but there could still be security measures like TSA in place. He explains, “The way I sometimes describe it is, ‘Unless you belong in jail, you can go where you want.'” Some support this approach for benevolent reasons based in the belief that America is a land of opportunity that should be open to all, while others support such a policy for economic reasons based on the belief that the U.S. economy faces a population problem and open borders would allow people to take a job anywhere they can find one. 

Increased Restrictions on Immigration

Others believe that our immigration policies should be more restrictive because levels of immigration have ballooned over the years, and there is particular concern about the number of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. With so many immigrants living in the nation, it leaves many asking, “What…is the absorption capacity of the nation’s schools and infrastructure? How will the least-skilled Americans fare in labor market competition with immigrants? Or…how many immigrants can the U.S. assimilate into its culture?” An additional component to this is that most immigrants come to the U.S. to work, but they are supporting family members back home, so much of their profits are invested outside of this country.

Benefits or Deportation for Illegal Immigrants

Some argue that we do not do enough for individuals trying to make it in America and that we should provide Medicaid, food stamps and welfare programs to illegal immigrants. Others say that these individuals who immigrated illegally should be deported because they broke the law. Some argue that children of illegal immigrants should be awarded a legal status because the illegal action taken by their parents was out of their control. Others argue that such an exception rewards and continues the cycle of illegal immigration.

Policies In-between

Many Americans support policies in-between the ones outlined above, favoring generous but still restricted levels of immigration. For example, some support increasing the level of high-skilled immigrants, whereas the current system tends to favor family reunification. A popular reform on both sides of the aisle is the mandatory nation-wide implementation of E-Verify – a system that allows businesses to verify a potential employee’s immigration status before hiring the individual. However, some in the business community and the agriculture community in particular say worker visa reforms must come ahead of an E-Verify requirement. The agriculture community faces hardship due to the slow visa processing times – often times immigrant agricultural workers do not receive their authorization until after the growing season has passed.

These various viewpoints inform current opinions and challenges in the immigration debate. Of the few comprehensive reforms that have been introduced in recent years, Congress has failed to reach consensus or compromise and pass immigration legislation.

Efforts have mainly focused on:

  • Securing borders (particularly the southern border with Mexico), 
  • Curbing and reforming illegal immigration, and 
  • Creating a merit-based immigration system. 

Securing the Border

Operational Control 

The U.S. Border Patrol strategy is Operational Control (OPCON), described as the ability to:

  • “perceive and comprehend the operating environment”
  • “mobilize assets, infrastructure and barriers to prevent criminal activity”
  • “and respond to and resolve any illicit cross-border incursions.”

Creating operational control of the U.S. land border with Mexico consists of deployed agents, fences, and technology such as sensors, cameras and unmanned devices in areas where humans cannot provide timely coverage. Additionally, close coordination with partner agencies and foreign government partnerships will help with intelligence gathering. The strategy for achieving operational control consists of a combination of enforcement tactics depending on the terrain.

Former President Trump’s plan was to “build a wall” at the country’s southern border to curb illegal immigration and to enact policies that would deter migrants from coming across the border, such as the Zero-Tolerance Policy, which received backlash for separating children from families.

Still, many crossed the border without authorization because of long delays, and officials say the strain on staffing and resources is unprecedented. For a visual representation, see this Wall Street Journal graphic.

The Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program, also referred to as “Remain in Mexico,” a joint effort with Mexico, was “one of the few congressionally authorized measures available to process the approximately 2,000 migrants who are currently arriving at the nation’s southern border on a daily basis.” Under the policy, families could live and work in Mexico while their asylum cases were adjudicated in the U.S. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all pending MPP hearings were suspended although people continued to be placed in the program. The Biden administration put an end to the program in early 2021, but “the fate of those already sent back to Mexico” is unclear. As of December 2020, of the over 42,000 MPP cases completed, “only 638 people were granted relief in immigration court.”

The Customs and Border Protection has been experiencing a “system-wide emergency” since 2019, and after declining at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the number of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border has been rising since April 2020 and is “on pace to hit a 20-year peak” in 2021, as the graph from Customs and Border Patrol indicates.

Based on a COVID-19-related public health order, adults and families are being turned away, but numbers of unaccompanied minors are surging. By law, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) “has custody and must provide care for” unaccompanied minors, and the child border crossings are putting extensive strains on U.S. facilities, so much so that FEMA was sent to provide support. Poverty, gang violence, natural disasters, pandemic-related job losses, and even favorable rhetoric in the U.S. have all been cited as reasons for the surge in migrants, most of which are coming from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (referred to as the Norther Triangle). This WSJ podcast from March 23, 2021 breaks down what is causing the surge in migrants. 

Immigration courts are also facing record-breaking backlogs in cases. Immigration judges do not have summary judgment authority that allows them “to refuse to schedule cases that lack legal merit,” meaning “meritless cases clog the dockets.” Streamlined procedures that allow asylum officers to decide cases or give judges summary judgment authority would save resources and time: “Cases that are granted would reduce the numbers being added to court caseloads and those eligible for protection would get it in a timely manner, while those who are ineligible would be returned to their home country.” Legislation to make legal immigration faster and easier for those seeking opportunity and a better life would also close loopholes that encourage “the use of asylum claims as the preferred method to enter the U.S.”

The Entry-Exit System

An entry-exit system is our nation’s way of monitoring who is coming into and leaving the country. The 9/11 Commission recommended a biometric entry/exit system. Such a system has been approved and funded by Congress on at least six other occasions, but has yet to be implemented nationwide. The U.S. utilizes a biometric system to track who is entering the country at all points of entry, but exit capability is not deployed at the land border with Mexico. This is a large gap, since about 45% of all entry inspections—land, air, or sea—occur at the southwest land border.

Why has the implementation been delayed? The proposed immigration entry-exit system would be based on digitized physical markers, like fingerprint images, photographs, or iris scans and is estimated to be a $7 billion dollar investment. Additionally, implementation is hindered at the southwest land border due to space limitations as well as the potential for unintended economic impacts on the U.S. trade relations with Mexico.

The argument for installing a biometric exit system is that visa-overstays account for a large percentage (possibly 40%) of illegal immigrants in our nation today. Biometric entry-exit systems can provide precise statistics and a better tracking system for people who have overstayed their visas.


Curbing and Reforming Illegal Immigration

DACA/DAPA Dreamers

The provides this overview of DACA:

In June, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that individuals who came to the United States as children and also meet a series of qualification prerequisites may request “consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal.” Deferred action does not provide lawful status, but “is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time.”

In November of 2014, the Obama administration took executive action to also shelter from deportation the parents of DACA eligible children – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) – and expanded the eligibility requirements for DACA. DAPA has received scrutiny for its constitutionality and experienced  several setbacks in court review. As a result, the policy has not been implemented. These policy measures outlined in DAPA were rescinded in September, 2017, but the action was blocked by three district court judges and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

In March 2019, House Democrats announced the Dream and Promise Act that would put Dreamers and immigrants “who have been protected due to war or natural disaster in their home countries” on the path to citizenship, and this will likely be addressed further by the Biden administration.

See age, date and education requirements in the following video on DACA.


Read more about DACA, DAPA and the court battle here.

Sanctuary Policies

According to the American Immigration Council, there is no legal standard definition of sanctuary policies. Policies can instill greater trust between local law enforcement and communities with large immigrant populations, such as offering English-language classes, issuing identification documents like driver’s licenses, and making it easier for victims of crime or witnesses to work with law enforcement agencies without fear of deportation.

There is also one subset of these policies that “concerns a state’s or locality’s role in cooperating with federal authorities to enforce immigration law,” which is why they are sometimes referred to as “‘sanctuary’ polices.” This can include limiting the ability of state and local police to make arrests for federal immigration violations, for example, although they do not prevent federal officials from carrying out their duties and cannot shield immigrants from deportation or prosecution for criminal activities. These policies “are based on the idea that the federal government cannot compel jurisdictions to take part in immigration enforcement,” based on the Tenth Amendment.

However, as former President Obama wrote in a statement in response to Arizona’s attempt to make stricter illegal immigration enforcement law, “a patchwork of state laws is not a solution to our broken immigration system — it’s part of the problem.”

One point in the debate on Sanctuary Cities, and immigration in general, is whether or not increased illegal immigration correlates to increased crime. In a 2018 statement to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, Jessica M. Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies noted that sanctuary policies that prevent local law enforcement agencies from working with federal immigration agencies can “lead to the release of criminal aliens back to the streets.” This makes it harder to fight crime, especially in terms of the opioid epidemic by “enabling some of the criminals who are distributing the opioids to remain in the communities, where, like American citizen criminals, they often re-offend.”

 A 2018 meta-analysis (a study of studies) investigating the immigration-crime relationship found that “overall, the immigration-crime association is negative – but very weak,” and that individual study design characteristics often affected findings. One 2020 study found that sanctuary policies have actually reduced the number of deportations of people with no criminal convictions, but not those of people with violent convictions.

The Center for Immigration Studies tracks sanctuary policies in cities, counties, and states, and lists 180 counties and cities with these policies.

Reprioritizing Legal Immigration Goals

Merit-based vs. Family/”Chain” Migration

A common suggestion is to adjust our current system to allow more immigrants using “merit” criteria while limiting family to spouses and minor children, which would end the continuous stream of siblings, parents and adult children from immigrating based on familial relations.

Wage Impact 

In terms of economics for merit-based immigration, many have called on Congress to update wage protections to ensure that U.S. workers compete on a level playing field. In 2013, when negotiating the Gang of Eight bill, the U.S. Chamber and the Department of Labor expressed disagreements over wages for new workers and which industries would be included. The focus was heavily on temporary worker programs – low-skilled workers who would be brought in to fill jobs in construction, hotels, resorts, nursing homes and restaurants and other industries.

Not every situation can be accounted for through regulation. During the latest economic recovery, the vast majority of the jobs created were part-time jobs and some analysis has shown that foreign born workers were taking these jobs at a higher rate than native-born workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2018, “foreign-born workers were more likely than native-born workers to be employed in service occupations” such as construction, maintenance, production, and transportation-related occupations, and “less likely to be employed in management, professional, and related occupations.” The difference in occupations often affects differences in wages.

According to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, “over a dozen studies indicat(e) that immigration does reduce wages primarily for the least-educated and poorest Americans. It must be pointed out, however, that there remains some debate among economists about immigration’s wage impact.”

Read here about shortfalls in these requirements.

Recent administrations have all endeavored to address U.S. immigration policy, but there have been few lasting changes, a testament to the complexities of immigration reform. The Biden administration has listed immigration as a top priority issue, and may look to address a path to citizenship for the “Dreamers,” the young immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have since lived in the country illegally, as well as thousands of immigrants with the humanitarian Temporary Protected Status. The Wall Street Journal explains the obstacles of changing immigration policies (3 min):

Ways to Get Involved/What Can You Do

Measure: Find out what your state and district are doing about immigration.

Identify: Who are the influencers in your state, county, or community? Learn about their priorities and consider how to contact them, including elected officials, attorneys general, law enforcement, boards of education, city councils, journalists, media outlets, community organizations, and local businesses.

  • Who are the members of coalitions or task forces in your state?
  • What steps have  your state’s or community’s elected and appointed official taken?

Reach out: You are a catalyst. Finding a common cause is a great opportunity to develop relationships with people who may be outside of your immediate network. All it takes is a small team of two or three people to set a path for real improvement. The Policy Circle is your platform to convene with experts you want to hear from.

  • Find allies in your community or in nearby towns and elsewhere in the state.
  • Foster collaborative relationships with law enforcement, first responders, faith-based organizations, local hospitals, community organizations, or local businesses.

Plan: Set some milestones based on your state’s legislative calendar.

  • Don’t hesitate to contact The Policy Circle team,, for connections to the broader network, advice, insights on how to build rapport with policy makers and establish yourself as a civic leader.

Execute: Give it your best shot. You can:

  • Consider reaching out and asking your local business owners or your local Chamber of Commerce about economic effects of immigration. 
    • You can find your local Chamber of Commerce here.
    • Learn about your local businesses and if owners are first- or second-generation immigrants.
  • Find out if your local schools or higher education institutions offer English as a second language classes.
  • See if there are community-based organizations serving immigrants in your community with USCIS’s locator.
  • Consider hosting a community dialogue to bring those with different opinions together to understand other points of view and strengthen the community. 

Working with others, you may create something great for your community. Here are some tools to learn how to contact your representatives and write an op-ed.


Thought Leaders & Additional Resources


Key Terms

Migrate: To move to a new place

Emigrate: To leave one’s country to live in another

Immigrate: To come into another country to live

ICE: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that is known for detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants. A call to “abolish ICE” gained traction due to immigration policies such as the one that led to family separations.

Asylum: Protection given to noncitizens

Asylum seeker: An individual seeking international protection, whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which he or she submitted it. Asylum seekers apply at a port of entry when they seek admission or within one year of arriving in the U.S. (affirmative asylum) or if they are caught in the US illegally (defensive asylum).

Refugee: When an asylum seeker’s application for asylum is approved, he or she becomes a refugee. This means they have officially been deemed someone who has fled their country of origin and is unable or unwilling to return because of a well-founded fear of  being persecuted. Refugees apply for admission generally from a “transition country” that is outside their home country. They are eligible to become lawful permanent residents one year after admission to the U.S. as a refugee.

Green card: Also known as a Permanent Resident Card, green cards allow people to live and work permanently in the US. Green card holders are referred to as “lawful permanent residents” (LPR). A Green card holder can apply for U.S. citizenship after living in the U.S. for five years.

Visa: A travel document placed in a passport that allows a traveler to travel to a port of entry (such as an airport or land border crossing) and request permission to enter the country. A visa does not guarantee entry, but indicates that an embassy or consulate has determined the traveler is eligible to seek entry. You can learn more about the different types of US visas here.

Wage Requirements: These are put in place to make sure employers do not take advantage of immigrants. For example, visa programs (like the H1-B or H2-B employment visas) require employers to prove they are not paying a foreign worker less than an American worker.

Birthright Citizenship/“Anchor babies”: The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” although there is debate as to whether this applies to any individual born on U.S. soil. Some lawmakers have pursued legislative efforts to define the 14th Amendment as applying only to babies born to a parent in the military, a lawful permanent resident, or a U.S. citizen.

Sanctuary Cities: There is no specific legal definition for what constitutes a sanctuary jurisdiction; however, such cities often do not allow municipal funds or resources to be used to enforce federal immigration laws, usually by not allowing police or municipal employees to inquire about an individual’s immigration status. Local law enforcement officials are not required to alert U.S. authorities about the immigration status of individuals with whom they come in contact.  

E-Verify: An Internet-based system operated by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in partnership with the Social Security Administration (SSA). It provides a link to federal databases to help employers determine employment eligibility of new hires and the validity of their Social Security numbers. Some states have passed legislation making its use mandatory for certain businesses. E-Verify is currently free to employers and available in all 50 states.

Suggestions for your Next Conversation

Explore the Series

This brief is part of a series of recommended conversations designed for circle's wishing to pursue a specific focus for the year. Each series recommends "5" briefs to provide a year of conversations.