Immigration Policy in the United States

The United States of America is home to more than 42 million immigrants (Zhong and Batalova). People cross the border of the country for a variety of reasons, including the search for employment, education, better life, asylum, and protection, among others. Despite the country’s ability to house so many newcomers, the number of illegal immigrants is worrying. According to Renwick and Lee, there are about 11 million unregistered immigrants in the country. With the increasing security threats to the lives of Americans, particularly terrorism threat, the issue of illegal immigrants is becoming a thorn in the flesh of America. However, this threat must be balanced with the concurrent increase in labor demands. Therefore, the immigration policy on this category of persons is currently a hot debate in the country. This paper explores the current policy on undocumented immigrants as espoused by the Obama regime, as well as the responses to this policy from both state and non-state actors.


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Policy Background

Currently, America has an organized immigration policy framework in the form of the Immigration and Naturalization Act that permits an influx of a maximum of 675,000 immigrants into the country (American Immigration Council). The policy is informed by several principles, including the reunification of families, admission of individuals with skills that are deemed valuable to the economy, protection of persons who have fled from their countries for various reasons, and the promotion of diversity. This framework provides for a structured immigration plan for absorbing a large number of non-nationals who come into the country on an annual basis. The system is organized as it documents the number of refugees who are allowed in each category.

Krogstad and Passel in their article on illegal immigrants point out the fact that their numbers have stabilized over the years. Between 1990 and around 2007, the number of illegal immigrants in the country has increased from 3.5 to around 12.2 million. During the 2008/9 global recession, the numbers dropped to about 11 million and have been stable since then. Another important thing to note was that the Mexicans account for close to half of the unauthorized immigrants, but their numbers have been declining over time. The proximity of the border, as well as its size, is probably attributable to a large number of illegal immigrants. Lastly, Krogstad and Passel note that this category of immigrants makes up over five percent of the labor force in the United States, rendering it an important class of residents and hence worth investigation.

The issue of border security versus labor demands in the United States has been at the forefront of political debate in the last couple of years. On the one hand, a part of the political class, mostly the Republicans, supports a stricter approach to dealing with illegal immigrants, and they argue that this class of persons is a security threat to the lives of American citizens and their property. The Democrats, on the other hand, show a bit more tolerance for undocumented immigrants as exhibited by the actions of their leader who is the president. His policies toward immigration have caused much uproar in the political arena by drawing criticism and applause from players in equal measure. When Obama clinched power, one of the promises he made was that he would comprehensively deal with the immigration issue in his first term. However, he did not. Instead, during his second term, slightly over two million illegal immigrants have been deported (Renwick and Lee).

Official and Unofficial Actors and Interest Groups

The legislature has been at the forefront of seeking a solution to this debate. The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act is a wide-ranging policy reform that seeks to address the current demand for labor, the legalization of the undocumented individuals who are already in the country, as well as the strengthening of border controls (Renwick and Lee). The bill has already passed the Senate, but the House of Representatives has not taken a vote on it yet. As an alternative to a comprehensive law, the Congress is considering a piecemeal approach to immigration reform. Lawmakers have proposed three different laws, including the Immigration Innovation Act that seeks to double the number of non-permanent visas for high-skilled employees from 65,000 to 115,000 (Renwick and Lee). The Startup Act is another law that proposes the establishment of an entrepreneurs’ visa for immigrants and STEM visa for individuals educated in the United States and those who are highly qualified in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM). The Secure Our Borders First Act is another bill that proposes strict penalties for high-ranking Department of Homeland Security officers who fail to control the flow of illegal immigrants into the country, among other tough border control measures.

Following what seems like the reluctance of the legislature to pass a comprehensive law on undocumented immigrants, the president has resorted to executive action (Birkland 87). In 2012, President Obama announced that his government would effectively discontinue the deportation of the class of immigrants who came to the United States before attaining the age of 16 and were not above the age of 30, and who had resided in the country for the period of uninterrupted five years with no criminal history. This executive order is referred to as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The order was applied to about 1.7 million individuals and it offered them renewable work permits and a chance to apply for a two-year deportation extension (Zhong and Batalova). Toward the end of 2014, the president made another executive action public, known as the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA). According to this policy, parents of American citizens would be permitted to apply legally for work permits deferring their deportation for up to three years. This policy would affect as many as five million individuals. The order also did away with the Secure Communities Program that allowed the exchange of fingerprints between local police and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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The above executive orders have elicited much reaction from crucial players in the immigration policy-making arena. Acting for 26 states, a conservative advocacy group known as the American Center for Law and Justice sued the state, claiming that the executive action made by the president was illegal. The group was successful in its action as an injunction was issued barring the implementation of the executive order by a federal judge in Texas. The administration, however, appealed this decision to delay the implementation of the DACA.

State and local immigration policies have also perceived the president’s executive orders in varied ways. Some states have been highly receptive to the order and enacted immigrant-friendly policies. For example, in California, undocumented immigrants can apply for a driver’ license, sit on juries, monitor polls, and even establish their legal practice (Renwick and Lee). They are only not permitted to vote. However, some states like Arizona have been hostile to this class of persons. The famous SB 1070 law made it mandatory for all immigrants to carry their identification documents and allowed the authorities to detain them on reasonable suspicion of being in the country illegally. The law also contains a provision that has been christened as the ‘papers, please,’ which allows a law enforcing officer to ask persons, who they feel are in the country illegally, for proof of citizenship. Civil liberties groups have been against this provision, stating that it creates an environment for racial profiling. Three of the four major controversial provisions of the SB 1070 law have since been struck down by the Supreme Court. 

Potential Consequences

One of the major impacts of the illegal immigrants’ policy debate is on the presidential elections that will take place in November 2016. President Obama was widely supported by the minorities owing to his promise to loosen the grip on the control of illegal immigrants. The presidential candidate who adopts a similar approach is likely to win this key vote. Hillary Clinton, the Democrat nominee, is likely to win this key vote because Trump declared from the onset that he would be tough on illegal immigrants. The legislative wing of the country is also likely to take charge of the policies made in this sector. The piecemeal approach that may result in the enactment of the three laws discussed above is likely to be the most preferred approach to dealing with the immigration issue as opposed to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act. Furthermore, given that over five million workers will probably be affected by the DAPA, the Supreme Court is likely to give a favorable ruling to the federal government.


This paper has extensively discussed the illegal immigration issue in the United States. The debate is a hot topic, and the key players are trying to push for policies that are favorable to them. The Obama regime seems to be beneficial to the minorities who are somehow tied to the country by announcing the DAPA and DACA, which are favorable to immigrants. The legislature, on the other hand, has been indecisive and failed to pass a comprehensive law to deal with illegal immigrants. A piecemeal approach to the enactment of undocumented immigration policies is the most likely route. The DAPA and DACA executive actions have elicited further debate in states, and some interest groups have gone to court to seek reprieve. The illegal immigration debate is likely to be a key determinant of the voting patterns during the November presidential polls. It will be interesting to see how the incoming administration will deal with this issue.

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