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Where We Are With Immigration

In the first article of the OSJ’s “What’s the Deal With Immigration?” series, we took a look at where we were with immigration policy in the US, discovering the ways in which our immigration system has become outdated. This piece seeks to answer where we are now, highlighting how our immigration system has become increasingly harmful in recent decades.

There were many moments and public sentiments in U.S. history that caused a nationwide shift in immigration policies. These changes were often born out of significant world events or U.S. needs, such as the increased demand for agricultural labor following WWII; sometimes these changes were born out of fear. On September 11, 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center marked the beginning of a new era in immigration. The shock of 9/11 caused a sharp uptick in anti-Arab, anti-Muslim, and anti-immigrant sentiments, which quickly led to policy change.

After 9/11, the immigration system became increasingly punitive

Previously, the immigration system had hinged on economic benefit, family reunification, and some humanitarian concerns. After 9/11, the immigration system became increasingly punitive in nature; the focus shifted to enforcement and deportations.

Over time, immigration services have been housed in different departments. In order, they have been housed in the Treasury Department, Department of Commerce and Labor, Department of Labor, Department of Justice, and after 9/11, under the newly-created Department of Homeland Security. DHS included 3 new federal agencies: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

It’s important to note that where immigration services were housed reflected public sentiment towards immigration - first, it was viewed as a labor issue (Department of Labor), and then later as a legal/civic issue (Department of Justice).  When immigration and naturalization services changed to be under the new Department of Homeland Security, it was then viewed as a national security issue.

With the creation of DHS, the US greatly increased its border security and interior immigration enforcement.  In 2006, the Secure Fence Act allowed for the construction of a 700 mile fence along part of the U.S./Mexico border, including a “virtual” wall made up of cameras, drones, sensors, and more border agents. Although intended to deter undocumented migrants, it led to an increase in human smuggling and deaths along the border.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of removals and deportations nearly doubled,

From 2001 to 2011, the number of removals and deportations nearly doubled, reaching its highest rate in 2013 when over 438,000 immigrants were deported, over half of whom had no criminal conviction. Detention rates of immigrants also increased during this time period: by 2018, there were over 40,000 immigrant detention beds filled, at an average holding period of 2-4 years for nearly half of detainees. However, post 9/11, the number of security threats has actually decreased, while charges of immigration violations have increased. In fact, in the 10 years after 9/11, there were only 37 cases of immigrants charged with terrorist activity, while in the decade before 9/11, there were 88 such cases. 

Many policymakers saw the need for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, though often focusing on border security and enforcement, as well as a revision of legal immigration and solutions for undocumented immigrants. In 2006, Congress passed some immigration laws, but did not come to an agreement on Comprehensive Immigration Reform that many had hoped for. In 2012, President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an executive order allowing undocumented immigrants who had been brought to the U.S. as children to receive 2-year periods of work authorization and protection from deportation. Comprehensive Immigration Reform was attempted 3 separate times over the course of 8 years, but failed each time. 

The president closed several more doors to legal immigration

Immigration remained a contentious issue in the following years, and many legal pathways of immigration were eliminated or compromised. A “zero tolerance” policy started in 2018 led to criminal prosecutions of asylum-seeking parents, and separation from their  children. The famous “Remain in Mexico” policy forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while they waited for their day in U.S. court, leading to the creation of unsanitary, makeshift camps where asylum-seekers would wait for months on end, usually to be turned away. 

Meanwhile, refugee resettlement numbers decreased each year, as determined by the president. Between 2017 and 2020, refugee admittance numbers dropped from 53,691 to 11,814 - a new historic low since the refugee program formally began in 1980.  In 2018-19, Public Charge rules were changed, expanding the criteria of immigrants who the government believed were likely to ever need social benefits (food or housing assistance) from being admitted or getting permanent residency in the U.S. As the coronavirus pandemic started in 2020, the president closed several more doors to legal immigration: access to asylum was effectively eliminated, diversity visa entries were suspended, and many pathways of family and employment immigration were shut down.

So where are we now? We have an immigration system that is both outdated and harmful. We are long overdue for immigration policy changes that honor human dignity, respect families, and create opportunities. As 2021 begins, we are hopeful for a long-term solution for a more just immigration system. Read our third and final article next week to learn more about where we’re headed!

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