Can our broken immigration system be reformed? I believe it can be reformed to meet our nation’s labor, family reunification, and humanitarian goals, and it can be done on the basis of sound information.
America has been the land of immigrants. The image of the Statue of Liberty and the poem, “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus, have been symbols of our nation. Unfortunately, the “golden door,” referenced in Lazarus’ poem, has always been closed to many. Reform of the immigration system must be done on the basis of national interest and not national prejudices.
If we look to U.S. immigration history in the last hundred years, we can see three periods. In the 1920s, we had a national quota system, which excluded many Southern and Eastern European nations, as well as many from Asia. In 1965, we saw the reform of that prejudicial law, which certainly did improve things.
The period between 1980 to 1990 saw the passing of The Refugee Act of 1980, which put the U.S. in conformity with the international laws on refugee acceptance. In 1986, the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalized almost three million people. In 1996, concerns over continued undocumented immigration gave rise to new restrictive laws. Since 1996, there have been more restrictive laws and policies, with immigration increasingly framed as a national security issue.
Immigration policies should meet national needs. Unfortunately, these policies have been frequently politicized, often playing to our national prejudices. An evidence-based system should guide the political process and has the potential to bring about a just and fair system to meet our national interests.
A feedback loop between the media and public opinion is influencing immigration policy at the expense of evidence-based approaches. When President Harry Truman vetoed a 1952 law which upheld the prejudicial national origin quotas, he said, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hammered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in the field of immigration.” Truman was able to epitomize in one sentence the problem we face with immigration policy.
One challenge we have to deal with is the exclusion of undocumented people in our country. This population is misunderstood and often demonized in the media and popular culture. Most people would be surprised to learn that the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has been decreasing since 2010. This population change is primarily driven by Mexican nationals voluntarily leaving the United States.
In recent years, the number of people who entered legally and overstayed temporary visas is much greater than the number who illegally crossed a border. Whether they came over our borders without inspection or have overstayed their visas, the vast majority have sought to build a secure life for themselves and their families and to contribute to their communities. Throughout the devastating pandemic, undocumented immigrants were working at disproportionately high rates in essential jobs, often without proper workplace protections.
Unregulated immigration is not good for the country, nor is it good for those without status who are excluded from full participation in our nation’s life. We cannot have a nation that does not manage migration. However, as we look at reform, we must distinguish between different types of migrants, and we must expand legal pathways for labor and family migration, as well as refugees, those seeking asylum, and other humanitarian flows, such as people fleeing national disasters.
Reform must begin by dealing with those who are here in our country without status, and any reform must be flexible and continuous. Immigration reform deals with the lives of people and our national identity. We cannot revisit immigration reform every 10 or 20 years.
One of the major contributing factors to the undocumented population is the backlog in the family-based visa system, which can stretch for decades in some cases. Many people, tired of waiting for long periods of time, come to join their families rather than seek alternatives abroad. Also, having a functional asylum system is critical as we see because of the turmoil in Central America and other countries.
There are many children who have been brought here by their parents, through no fault of their own. These native-English speakers are well-integrated and deserve a chance to be educated and contribute to our nation.
To resolve this national challenge, we must learn from both our past mistakes and successes. In the IRCA legalization process, a large percentage of U.S. undocumented residents were not able to legalize. Legalization must be complete and meet the needs of all people present at the time in the United States.
There is another older section of the immigration law that has been in effect since 1929, called “registry.” This provision allows people who arrived before a certain date to obtain status and eventually citizenship. In 1929, the entry date for registry was 1921. If immigrants had good moral character and had resided in the country since 1921, they could apply for permanent resident status.
This program recognized the equitable ties developed in the U.S. over a long period of residence. It has allowed many who have owned homes, started businesses, and had US children to remain. Congress last advanced the registry cut-off date in 1986 when it moved forward the date to January 1, 1972. In order to use the registry program today, an immigrant would need to have lived in the United States for over 50 years.
By changing this date to January 1, 2012, Congress would be able to legalize the majority of the U.S. undocumented population. In addition to changing the registry date one time, Congress should allow this date to advance automatically into perpetuity.
This would prevent the United States from having extremely long-term undocumented immigrants. This would be one way to put our nation on the road to having an immigration system that is truly in the national interest.
Bishop DiMarzio retired on Nov. 30 and is continuing his research on undocumented migration in the United States.