View the Executive Summary for this brief.

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. A full 25% of all entrepreneurs in the U.S. are immigrants, and some of the largest U.S. companies from Kraft to Tesla were founded by immigrants. 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 communities do not become unequal or 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.



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 in legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, “the first and only major federal legislation to explicitly suspend immigration for a specific nationality.

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., such as convicts and individuals deemed likely to become public charges. 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 mistrusted foreigners during this time, and were unwilling to increase immigrant quotas, especially for impoverished refugees.

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. Enacted during the era’s civil rights movement, it abolished national origins quotas, but established country origins; limits on immigration from Western Hemisphere countries were associated with an increase in unauthorized immigration from Mexico. 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 these timelines of the history of immigration in the U.S., from Sutori and Immigration History (provided by the University of Texas), and visualize two centuries of immigration to the U.S., from Visual Capitalist:

By the Numbers

The United States welcomes more immigrants in total numbers (as opposed to a percentage of population) than any other country. After the 2008 recession, about 1 million people moved to the U.S. annually. That pace slowed with changing policy priorities in 2017, and has become a trickle since the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S issues over 1 million green cards annually – half go to new arrivals, and half are renewals for expired green cards. In FY2019, 14% were skills-based for employment purposes, 8% were for refugees, and 69% were based on familial connections. 

In addition to green cards, in FY2019 the U.S. issued over 800,000 visas for workers, including 188,000 H1-B visas  for high-skilled workers and more than 200,000 visas for temporary workers in industries such as agriculture. 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.

According to Giovanni Peri, labor economist at the University of California, Davis, the slow-down in immigration in recent years has resulted in 2.4 million fewer immigrants of working age – about 1% of the U.S. working age population – than if pre-2017 trends had continued.


The U.S. admitted only 11,411 refugees in FY2021, the lowest number since the 1980 Refugee Act was passed. Low admissions is due in part to the ongoing pandemic (the U.S. admitted 12,000 refugees in FY2020 after suspending admissions) and partly due to low admissions caps set by the Trump administration prior to the pandemic.

In addition to refugees, an estimated 700,000 immigrants have or are eligible for reprieve from deportation under Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, “a federal program that gives time-limited permission for some immigrants from certain countries to work and live in the U.S.” The program is for those who have fled designated nations because of conditions that make it dangerous to live there, such as  war or natural disaster.

Census Bureau data from November 2021 found there were 46.2 million immigrants that made up about 14% of the U.S. population. Census Bureau data indicates about 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 26% of the overall U.S. population. In 2020, immigrants comprised 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. After declining in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the number of encounters skyrocketed through 2021 and has continued through 2022.

The majority of people crossing the border have been single adults, mainly young men looking for work (53% of encounters in mid-2021, up from 28% in mid-2019). At the height of encounters during 2019, the majority of people crossing the border were entire families seeking asylum (38% of encounters in mid-2021, down from 64% in mid-2019), 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 and 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. As of December 2021, there were more than 1.5 million cases pending in immigration courts.

About one-fifth of U.S. consulates are still not processing visas after stopping during the pandemic, and those that are open are buried under an estimated 7.5 million visa application backlogs. At U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the department that administers the U.S. immigration system, there are 1.6 million pending work-permit applications as of December 2021, up from about 650,000 in 2019. It took an average of 3-4 months to process an application in 2019; in 2021, it took 9-11 months.


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 labeled “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 for 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 express concerns about immigrants, such as whether immigrants will put additional pressure on welfare programs.

Evidence suggests that immigrants do not consume considerable amounts of welfare funding. A 2018 study by CATO Institute found that the average value of welfare benefits per immigrant (which included lawful permanent residents, guest workers, temporary migrants, refugees, asylees, and illegal immigrants) amounted to $3,718 in 2016, versus the $6,081 average value of welfare benefits per native U.S. citizen, meaning immigrants consumed 21% less benefits than native-born Americans on a per capita basis. 

This held when the study was updated in 2022 with 2019 data; as of 2019, immigrants consume 28% less welfare and entitlement benefits than native-born Americans per capita, with the average welfare benefits per immigrant amounting to $5,778 and the average value of welfare benefits per native-born American amounting to $8,012.

The studies also found that while immigrants consume more than native U.S. citizens in some categories (SNAP and Medicaid in 2016, and WIC in 2019), this consumption is offset by the fact that native U.S. citizens consume significantly more than immigrants in Medicare and Social Security retirement benefits. (Medicare and Social Security are key drivers of the U.S. debt – read more about these two programs in The Policy Circle’s Federal Debt Brief or Safety Net Programs Brief.)

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 – immigrant agricultural workers frequently 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 terminated the program in mid-2021, but a U.S. District Court determined the termination was not issued in compliance with the Administrative Procedure Act and ordered Homeland Security to continue to enforce MPP until the program can be properly terminated. The fate of those in Mexico whose cases are still awaiting decisions is unclear. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the case in April 2022.

The Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been experiencing a “system-wide emergency” since 2019. 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 was “on pace to hit a 20-year peak” in 2021. The higher-than-average trend has continued into 2022, as the graph from Customs and Border Patrol indicates.

CBP notes that the “large number of expulsions during the pandemic has contributed to a larger-than-usual number of migrants making multiple border crossing attempts, which means that total encounters somewhat overstate the number of unique individuals arriving at the border.” Over one-third of encounters in June 2021 were individuals who had at least one border encounter in the previous 12 months, compared to an average rate of 14% between 2014-2019.

Based on a COVID-19-related public health order (Title 42), 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. The child border crossings are putting extensive strains on U.S. facilities, so much so that FEMA was sent to provide support. The support has helped relieve pressure and reduce overcrowding for unaccompanied minors, but overall migration is still elevated. Reports of migrants being mistreated by border patrol agents have added to the attention on the southern border.

The CDC was expected to end Title 42 by mid-2022, but a Louisiana judge temporarily blocked this endeavor. Title 42 has been criticized for infringing on people’s rights to seek asylum. Others anticipate a large surge of migrants at the border if Title 42 is revoked, and say Homeland Security is unprepared to handle the potential rush given that border resources are already stretched thin. 

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 migrants are coming from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (referred to as the Northern Triangle), but there has also been an increase in 2021 of migrants from other countries, namely Ecuador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Haiti, and Cuba. Migrants from all other countries besides the Northern Triangle and Mexico are 20% of encounters as of mid-2021, up from 5% in 2018.

In June 2022, the Biden administration announced the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, a non-binding migration agreement with Latin American countries that marks “a shift in the approach countries take to refugees and migrants amid unprecedented movement across the region.” Particularly for countries including Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Costa Rica that have hosted hundreds of thousands of displaced migrants, efforts will include building up asylum systems, providing more work visas, and increasing border security.

Immigration courts are also facing record-breaking backlogs in cases, with a backlog of 1.6 million cases. The overwhelming caseload has many concerned as to whether or not immigrants will receive notice of their hearings so they know when and where they need to go. One solution is to hire more judges, but many argue this will not fix the issue as judges “require legal assistants, judicial law clerks, interpreters and front-window staff – support roles that are critically under-filled[.]”

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.

DACA/DAPA Dreamers

Some argue that children of illegal immigrants should be awarded 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.

The provides this overview of DACA:

“On June 15, 2012, the secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal. They are also eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a use of prosecutorial discretion to defer removal action against an individual for a certain period of time. Deferred action does not provide lawful status.”

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 June 2020, the Supreme Court rejected in a 5-4 decision the Trump administration’s attempt to cancel the program, but did not rule on the legality of the program itself. In July 2021, a district judge ruled DACA was unlawful because the executive branch does not have the power to grant reprieves to immigrants in the U.S. without authorization, meaning the president overstepped by creating the program.

DHS has said it is working on a regulation to codify a program for this purpose. Congress has made little progress in finding “a legislative solution for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the country as minors”. In the meantime, until other courts weigh in, the ruling prevents new DACA applicants from being approved, although current recipients can maintain and renew their status under the program.

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’ policies.” 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.

Economics of Immigration

Two main options exist for reforming the immigration system: to increase legal immigration, so there are fewer cases of illegal immigration, and to authorize undocumented immigrants already in the U.S..

Research from the University of Pennsylvania Wharton finds that increasing legal immigration in the U.S. can have long-term fiscal benefits, while policies that legalize unauthorized immigrants could potentially increase government debt. The research concluded that legal immigration reduces the burden on native-born younger workers to provide for older retirees. As the children of new immigrants enter the workforce, this becomes a multi-generational effect. As detailed in The Policy Circle’s Federal Debt Brief and Safety Net Programs Brief, the current benefit formula for Social Security has benefits growing faster than revenues because today there are fewer than three workers paying for each Social Security beneficiary, compared to more than 16 workers per beneficiary in 1950. Increased employment-related immigration could reduce this discrepancy in U.S. demographics.

In the case of offering legal status to unauthorized immigrants, there is a productivity boost to the economy in the short-term. However, the research found that unauthorized immigrants earn about 50% less than citizens and lawful immigrants, and are more likely to be older and therefore less likely to have children that will add to the labor force. With fewer earnings and a smaller second generation, legalization policies could cause output per capita to drop in the long-run.

Wage Impact 

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 immigrant 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.

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.”

As the U.S. economy still recovers from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, fewer immigrants has impacted the labor force. The Wall Street Journal reports that industries with above-average levels of foreign-born workers are more likely to have high-job opening rates.

Read here about shortfalls in wage requirements.

Professor Antony Davies of Duquesne University breaks down the economic effects of immigration (5 min):



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.

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