Rethinking Immigration Policy

My grandfather was just 16 years old when he came to the United States in 1904. He left his home in Romania, boarded a ship in Hungary, and sailed to New York, disembarking on Ellis Island. He didn’t have any money, didn’t speak English, didn’t have a job, and didn’t have family waiting for him in America. After spending a short time in New York, he left for Dearborn, Michigan, and eventually settled in Aurora, Illinois.

In those days, there were no immigration laws, at least not in the way we think of immigration laws today. Until a few years before my grandfather immigrated, each state had its own immigration policy. In the late 1800s, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government had authority over immigration, striking down state immigration laws.

Beginning in the 1890s, our border was open, the only laws related to immigration were quotas that were set for each nationality entering the country. The quotas had a preference for northwestern Europeans but didn’t exclude any nationality from entering the country.

Today, its common for people who oppose immigration to claim that immigrants of the early 20th century entered the country legally, unlike today’s immigrants. It’s hard to say that early 20th century immigrants followed the law when they came to the United States since there really weren’t any immigration laws at the time. It’s literally impossible to break a law when no law exists.

Another argument against present day immigration is that immigrants of the past had to show identification to prove their identity, and they had to have a job set up before they could enter the country. Both arguments are incorrect.

First, most immigrants in the early 20th century did not have to provide identification because most countries at that time did not provide any type of identification documents to their citizens. Early 20th century immigrants entered the country and provided their name and country of origin to immigration officials on Ellis Island. Many immigrants had their name changed at Ellis Island, leaving their birth name behind. Even if they had documentation establishing their identity, it would have been meaningless because they left Ellis Island with a different name than they had when they entered the country. For instance, my grandfather entered the country as Vacile Mindgyar and left Ellis Island named Louis Mindar.

Second, very, very few immigrants had jobs set up before they came into the country. One of the reasons my grandfather moved first to Michigan, then to Illinois, was because he was chasing work. In those days, factories and mines needed workers and they welcomed immigrants to become employees. Unlike today, there were no laws requiring employers to prove that their employees were U.S. citizens, and there was no fear that a foreigner was going to steal the job of a citizen.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Congress implemented comprehensive immigration laws. But even then, the law was quite different than what we think of as immigration law today. For instance, the law implemented in the 1960s emphasized the reunification of families and worked to attract skilled workers. It wasn’t designed to close the border or keep immigrants out of the country.

It wasn’t until 1980 and the Reagan Administration that the United States began to govern the admission of refugees. In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the first legislation in the country’s history to address the number of undocumented immigrants in the country. But rather than being punitive, the IRCA was designed to grant amnesty to the millions of undocumented immigrants that had been living for years in the United States.

Ronald Reagan is often given credit for (or blame for, depending on your perspective) bringing the issue of illegal immigration to the fore. But even Reagan would likely feel uncomfortable with the stance of Republicans today concerning immigration. Reagan saw immigrants as an asset to the United States, deserving of respect. He was opposed to undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but he wanted to find a way to grant them amnesty, leading to them becoming citizens.

Ever since Reagan put it in the spotlight, Republicans have become increasingly hostile on the issue of immigration, and have demanded harsher and harsher punishment of immigrants, even when they enter the country seeking asylum. So much so that it has become acceptable behavior for some Republican governors to ship illegal immigrants and asylum seekers to far off locations where they have no support, often sending them in the cold of winter without coats or shelter.

More recently, the State of Texas has installed razor wire buoys in the Rio Grande River, resulting in injury and death to several immigrants crossing the river. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, has defied an order from the Supreme Court to allow immigration officials access to the razor wire buoys so they can remove them from the river. In other words, the governor is breaking the law—even causing death and injury—to prevent immigrants from breaking the law. Yet, while immigrants looking for a better life in America are being injured and dying, Abbott has so far gone unpunished, even as he continues to defy court orders.

It would be easy for opponents of immigration to claim—as they often do—that the immigrants wouldn’t be injured if they just didn’t break the law, but it is our immigration laws themselves that force asylum seekers to enter the country illegally. Let me explain.

In order to apply for asylum, an asylum seeker must be physically present in the United States in order to make application. There is no way to go online to fill out an asylum application. There is no app to complete the process from anywhere in the world. It can only be done at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office within the United States.

Did you follow that? If you want to apply for asylum, you are forced to enter the United States illegally. Then, once an asylum seeker applies, it can take years—often three to five—before their case is ever heard and a decision is reached on whether or not they will be granted asylum and allowed to stay in the United States.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why it takes so long. There are a couple of reasons. First, ICE has to do their due diligence, looking into the circumstances the asylum seeker is running from, and determining the asylum seekers background. ICE does the best job they can to determine whether or not the asylum seeker is the type of person we want in the United States. But that takes time, ICE is understaffed and there are far too few immigration judges deciding the asylum cases.

The most hardline immigration legislation in history recently passed the Senate on a bi-partisan basis, but the bill is said to be DOA in the House, where Republican Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) has refused to bring the legislation to a vote. This, despite the fact that there appears to be more than enough votes to pass the historic legislation. As crafted, the legislation would provide much more money to ICE to implement a quicker, more restrictive non-custodial asylum process; changes and alternatives to detention; funds for more ICE agents and immigration judges and court; as well as other changes that have been demanded by Republicans in recent years.

The politics of immigration are maddening, but rather than focus on the particulars, I’d like to offer a completely different approach to immigration. Currently, the approach to immigration is punitive. The main purpose is to punish those foreigners who enter the United States, regardless of the reason they enter. It’s a disrespectful approach that emphasizes pain and inconvenience. It’s an approach that presupposes that immigrants are a blight on our country and we have to do everything in our power to keep them out. As for those that make it in, we try to make it as unpleasant as possible for them in hopes that their pain and suffering will dissuade others from following in their footsteps.

I would submit that our approach is all wrong, and that it guarantees we get the very outcomes we claim we want to avoid. To start with, I think we need to recognize that immigrants, far from being a drain on our society, are a net benefit. Financially, according to the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, immigrants pay about the same in taxes as they receive from state and federal governments in benefits. On top of “money in-money out” considerations, immigrants tend to take jobs that Americans don’t want to do, such as agricultural work like picking fruit and vegetables, and milking cows, which helps keep food prices low for all of us.

Immigrants also tend to open small businesses at a higher rate than native born Americans, creating jobs and sparking local economies. According to a study conducted by economists at the MIT Sloan School of Management, immigrants are a whopping 80% more likely to found a business that native born Americans, and the businesses they found employ 1% more employees than comparable businesses founded by native born Americans.

In a nutshell, we need to begin from the perspective of immigration being good for the United States. It’s something we should encourage, recognizing that we can’t and shouldn’t just open our borders and let anyone in. But rather than fight immigration, we should design an organized process that gets the results we want. And that process should be respectful and fair, not punitive.

Unites States immigration law is incredibly complicated. In fact, it is the second most complicated federal code, surpassed only by the Internal Revenue Code (i.e. tax laws). What if we were to simplify and streamline immigration law in the United States, making it easier to understand and apply? And what if that new immigration code attracted the types of people we need to fuel our economy, not just those running from corrupt, violent situations in their home country. Right now, we are attracting the world’s most desperate people. We can and should help them. But what if we also designed our immigration policy to attract skilled, educated people who could slide right into our economy and help build it?

I don’t mean to say that reform of our immigration policy is easy. It’s not. But neither is it impossible.

My overarching point is that immigration can be a boon to the United States. We should embrace it and design an immigration policy that is respectful, fair, modernized, and which encourages immigrants—particularly asylum seekers—to follow the law without having to break the law. The only thing we’re currently lacking is the political will to get it done.


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