Immigration In The United States: Immigration Policy

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 The United States defines itself as an ambitious and innovative nation built upon democratic, patriotic, and revolutionary ideals. Americans adhere to a constitution by the governed, fight for freedom against powerful countries, and lead the globe in scientific and technological advances. A major source for the characteristics of American society occurs in the diversity of its people. This diversity is the result of immigration. Immigration within the United States is a current and major point of contention in terms of policy. Establishing entrance into the country, deportation out of the country, and eligibility for citizenship has continuously been debated since America’s founding. Because the nature of this topic has become overtly politized and racialized, one believes that the United States’ policy towards immigration has the potential to measure the country’s social progression.

To comprehend the United States’ immigration policy, one must become familiar with the composition of the American people, the fear that immigration may elicit, and the evolution of who determines such policy.

Many Americans are descendants of early immigrants from various countries and provinces—Great Britain, Cameroon, Italy, Mexico, and China to name a few. While Americans are prideful of being a “nation of immigrants”, concerns about those who are perceived as “undesirable” (the criminal, impoverished, ailing, “racially inferior”) have been features of immigration policy in the States since its inception. Some fear that immigration negatively impacts the economy, depletes social welfare programs, and enables higher crime rates. To combat this fear lawmakers responded by increasing the government’s resources to implement confining immigration laws with penalties for any violations. These penalties take form as imprisonment and deportation. However, contrary to popular belief, this power to control immigration was not initially designated to the federal government. It was originally granted to the states.

The states of America established admissions criteria and regulated passengers at ports. Although the federal government lacked the power to create and enforce immigration policies, they were able to pass naturalization laws like the First Federal Naturalization Law of 1790, which gave citizenship to ‘any alien, being a free white person’ who had been residing in the United States for two years. However, these roles shifted after a series of Supreme Court decisions in the late nineteenth century that established the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration. From there on forth, states could pass laws that impacted immigrants living within their territory, if these laws did not lead to immigration control (Armenta 18).

Modern examples of the government overriding the states and executing federal power are prevalent during the Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan administrations.

During the Roaring Twenties up until the turning point of the Civil Rights movement, the effort to control immigration was based upon the National Origins Act of 1924. This policy drastically reduced the number of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe and was enacted by Congress because of the overwhelmingly negative response most old-stock Americans expressed towards immigrants. They feared that Anglo-Saxon heritage would diminish because foreigners spoke different languages, practiced native customs, had radical political views, and could potentially ruin the “purity” of the white race. The act operated by a quota system. Each European country was only allowed two percent of the number of its American citizens recorded in the 1890 census, annually, to enter the country. Not only did this nationally and racially considerate law regulate European immigration, it completely banned Asian immigration.

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Due in part to the Civil Rights movement highlighting the highly discriminatory manner of the Origins Act and President John F. Kennedy’s stance against the quota system, efforts to revise immigration policy in the United States ensued after Kennedy’s death. Congress debated as to whether the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 (proposed by Kennedy) would have any substantial effect, with many members believing that it would not. However, because the morality of Congress and then President, Lyndon B. Johnson, was in question Johnson signed the bill into law. The act abolished the National Origins Formula and gave preference to certain categories of people: U.S. citizens’ family members, skilled laborers, and refugees. Unlike Congress and Johnson’s predictions, there was an immediate impact of this policy. Asian immigration quadrupled during the Vietnam War, and millions fled communist regimes during the Cold War.

While the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 had a positive and long-lasting presence in the migration of immigrants to the United States, issues that called for the elimination of the quota system of the National Origins Act reoccurred in the new policy—one issue being a cap system. The policy placed caps, or limits, on immigration per country and overall, as well as by category. Although one understands the similarities between the quota and cap system, progress is evident because the caps are a fairer system. It is unrealistic to grant permission to every person seeking entrance into America, but it is even more unrealistic to barely allow admission into the United States. The cap system provides a better opportunity for newcomers to seek citizenship. By allowing a diverse group of immigrants to enter the country, social progress is made because Americans are forced to interact with people of contrasting backgrounds. This interaction has the potential to eliminate the fear and disconnect that people face in an everchanging society.

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter asked Congress to pass a bill that would add two thousand border patrol agents to the U.S.-Mexico border, impose penalties on employers who hired illegal immigrants, and allow illegal immigrants to gain legal status. Congress refused to pass the bill, however in the following year, they created the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy. The commission’s task was to evaluate immigration policy and make suggestions to improve it. Changes that members recommended were financially punishing companies that knowingly hired illegal immigrants, allowing a one-time pardon for illegal immigrants, and an increasing legal admittance into the United States. President Ronald Reagan agreed to use these recommendations as a basis for compromise on immigration policy. He signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It made it illegal for companies to hire or recruit illegal immigrants for work and required them to verify the citizenship of employees by forms of identification. This policy also granted temporary citizenship to illegal immigrants who entered the country before January 1, 1982. If an illegal immigrant faced no major judiciary punishments, they were eligible to apply for permanent citizenship.

Similarly, to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 had immediate and long-lasting ramifications on immigration policy. For example, the verification of citizenship still applies in the workplace and government funding for border protection continues to increase. While progress was made for illegal immigrants to obtain permanent citizenship and be protected from misconduct by their American employers, many problems arose from the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986—one of which pertains to identification fraud. Although verifying the citizenship of workers through an employer seems feasible, this led to the widespread use of falsified paperwork and the federal government had no control in the beginning to enforce penalties. 

Overall, one believes that individual progress was achieved for most illegal immigrants who sought out citizenship and employment and for American citizens who strongly supported stricter boarder protection. However, one does not believe that a great deal of positive social change occurred, because the rapid increase of immigrants from Mexico and the development of reinforced protection along the southern border led many Americans to despise Mexican immigrants and rarely any protection was offered to immigrants to combat this.

In conclusion, the debate about how progressive the United States immigration policy is currently in contrast to its beginnings is ongoing. The most apparent reasoning for this is because of how politized and racialized the topic is. Many people view immigration on a blue and red spectrum without realizing the importance of compromise, while some view immigration as a threat to their racial identity and American culture. It does not help that a plethora of leaders in the political arena encourage these ideologies. Moreover, one hopes that the future yields a more productive and tolerant society that can look beyond the racial and citizenship status of its people.

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