The United State’s immigration system is complex and requires actors from all levels of government to develop and implement legislation to deter illegal border crossings and visa overstays. Approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants are currently living in the United States with very few options to acquire citizenship. The delay in court action and subsequent deportation of many of these immigrants has led to a complex issue of whether or not amnesty, or other expedited pathways to citizenship, are possible solutions, or whether mass deportation is required to decrease the number of undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. The Trump Administration recently unveiled a new policy wish list that aims to guide Congress in legislating through the issue.
By the Numbers
The immigration reform debate is fueled in part by claims of an ongoing massive influx of illegal immigrants who bring crime and contraband across our southern border. While the data show that illegal border crossings happen at a consistent rate, Pew reported in 2015 that net migration from Mexico is negative due to more Mexicans leaving the U.S. than coming in.
It is widely accepted by both political parties that something must be done about illegal immigration and the population of undocumented immigrants. The Brookings Institution reported that the combination of overstayed visas and illegal crossings along the southern border result in the large undocumented population currently in the U.S. The issue is increasingly not only how to stop illegal crossings and visa overstays, but also what to do with the population of immigrants who have already assimilated into the U.S. and have been in the country for the majority of their lives. When looking at both problems together, the focus of Congress should be passing comprehensive reform of the way the U.S. issues and enforces visas, while considering the infrastructure security necessary to deter illegal border crossings.
According to the Center for Migration Studies, visa overstays accounted for approximately two-thirds of the newly added undocumented population in 2014, and the total number of immigrants in the U.S. on expired visas is starting to catch up to the total number of immigrants who are in the U.S. after illegally crossing the border. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security Overstay Report states that the principal amount of visa overstays are nonimmigrant 90-day travel visas. Visa overstays occur because temporary visa holders enter the country but never have to “check out;” the Department of Homeland Security recorded over 600,000 such cases in the past fiscal year.
Illegal Border Crossing
Apprehensions in illegal border crossing, by the numbers, are considerably lower than the past and are on a downward trend since a peak in 2005. Over a 16-year period, illegal border crossing apprehensions have declined to just 15 percent of the number of illegal border crossings reported, in 2000. While yearly apprehension numbers can only estimate the number of border crossers who come into the U.S. and evade confrontation, the estimates are significantly lower than the number of visa overstays and nonimmigrant traveler overstays year after year.
The Trump Administration’s Proposed Solution
The Trump Administration has detailed a comprehensive 70-point solution that includes the building of the controversial border wall, a cornerstone of Trump’s presidential campaign. President Trump has also called for an increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers, penalties for sanctuary cities resisting federal immigration enforcement, and the development of a merit-based immigration system.
The plan consists of three distinct parts: border security, interior enforcement, and merit-based immigration policy. In a letter to Congress, the Trump Administration outlined their 70-point wish list for immigration reform in more detail than the original campaign statements. The following is a breakdown of the plan.
Trump’s campaign placed a heavy emphasis on southern border security, promising to build a wall to ensure that criminals and hostile illegal immigrants can no longer enter the United States through the southern border, which initially spawned a heated political debate. The detailed plan includes the wall as a key asset in ensuring border security.
The plan also emphasizes swift border returns and calls for hiring 370 more immigration judges and an additional 1,000 ICE attorneys to cut back on the backlog cases held in immigration courts. Over half a million such cases await a trial. Without further funding and resources, immigration judges cannot effectively adjudicate and prosecute illegal immigrants in a timely manner, adding to the growing population of undocumented immigrants.
The letter calls on Congress to crack down on sanctuary cities whose local law enforcement agencies do not enforce federal immigration laws. The letter asks Congress to withhold grants awarded by the Department of Justice and Homeland Security to cities not in compliance with ICE. While the Executive Order signed earlier this year that attempted to implement this policy is held up in the courts, President Trump emphasizes the Administration’s concern for disobedience of federal immigration law in the detailed principles and policies. The letter goes on to address visa overstays as an additional concern and requests Congress to strengthen visa security by closing easily manipulated loopholes within the current U.S. visa system. The efforts to apprehend nonimmigrant visa overstays as they approach illegality will be strengthened by an increase of 10,000 ICE Officers and 300 federal immigration prosecutors if the itemized requests in the letter are fulfilled.
The largest proposed change to U.S. immigration policy is the shift from family-oriented immigration laws and diversity lottery policies to a merit-based system, signifying a very disconcerting time for people currently in the country on amnesty orders signed by previous administrations. The diversity lottery policy was established with the Immigration Act of 1990, and issues visas by selecting immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration into the country. President Trump has disposed of the diversity lottery policy as a program without enough vetting or security standards to fit the current needs of U.S. immigration.
Instead, the letter suggests adopting a merit-based immigration policy that will establish a preference for skilled workers and those who could prove the ability to support themselves financially in the United States. The new system, if acted upon, will award green cards based on factors the individual possesses to contribute to the economy, which will replace an individual’s ability to receive a diversity visa through the 1990 Act.
Glaringly, the proposed merit-based system fails to specify what the current amnesty visa holders’ fate will be if the new system is enacted into law. In fact, this issue has been the theme of another political debate over the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) program, a policy established by the Obama Administration allowing undocumented immigrants work authorization and relief from deportation if they met certain criteria, namely that they were brought to the country as children. Many of these immigrants have been in the country for years and established roots in the U.S.; some have no connection to their original home countries.
The framework proposed in the 70-point is an ode to Trump’s campaign promises of protectionist policy and hardline immigration, which is drastically different from the previous administration’s approach. With this ideological framework in place, the Trump Administration is hopeful that Congress will craft passable legislation encompassing a large portion of Trump’s immigration ideas. However, House and Senate minority leadership issued a joint statement regarding President Trump’s immigration plans as a failure at any attempt to compromise.
The Administration’s 70-point plan offers guidelines on President Trump’s ideal immigration reform bill and how it will handle the cases of incoming immigrants, but it fails to address interior enforcement – that is, undocumented immigrants who are currently in the U.S. and have been for years, or immigrants who are benefiting from programs such as DACA. Whether these immigrants are DACA recipients, expired visa holders, or have otherwise lived in the U.S. without prosecution or deportation, Congress must address the issue of these 11 million people living in the country without proper documentation.
It is in the best interest of the American people to allow a diverse set of ideas and cultures to enter into the United States, yet the outdated immigration system under which the U.S. currently operates needs to be reformed to fit the current time. Legislative action should be taken to reach across the aisle and promote values that both parties share in order to pass comprehensive immigration reform into law. Congress has the ability to garner bipartisan support through strict enforcement of visa processing and border enforcement, yet must concede on the issue of granting a pathway to citizenship to the people who have assimilated here in order to successfully pass legislation on immigration policy.