Debate Over Immigration

July 14, 2000 – Volume 10, Issue 25
Does the U.S. admit too many newcomers? By David Masci


More than 1 million immigrants enter the United States, legally and illegally, each year. Many experts credit the new arrivals with helping to create and sustain the nation's current economic prosperity. But others argue that while immigration gives employers access to a cheap and plentiful labor force, American workers suffer because the newcomers take jobs and suppress wage levels. Critics of the current policies call for stricter limits on immigration and a crackdown on U.S. employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. But supporters of liberal immigration policies warn that severely limiting legal immigration will hurt the economy and that, in any event, employer sanctions are not effective.

Go to top


Hail a taxi, drop off dry cleaning, buy a lottery ticket at the local 7-Eleven. Chances are good that an immigrant from Ghana, South Korea, Mexico or some other faraway nation served you. Indeed, there's a good chance programmers from India or China wrote some of the software in your computer.

Across the country, in towns and cities alike, the United States, more than ever before, is a nation of immigrants.

“It's amazing how things have changed since the 1970s, how many people there now are in this country who were not born here,” says Steven Moore, an economist at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

In the last 30 years the United States has absorbed the biggest wave of immigrants since the turn of the century, when millions arrived at Ellis Island in search of a better life. Today, more than 25 million Americans are foreign born -- nearly 10 percent of the population. 1

And that's good for the economy, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who says the pools of skilled and unskilled workers created by high levels of immigration have greatly contributed to the nation's prosperity.

Newly naturalized Americans take the citizenship oath during a federal court ceremony. The Immigration and Naturalization Service processed 1.2 million citizenship applications in 1998. (CQ Photo/R. Ellis) Newly naturalized Americans take the citizenship oath during a federal court ceremony. The Immigration and Naturalization Service processed 1.2 million citizenship applications in 1998. (CQ Photo/R. Ellis)

“As we are creating an ever more complex, sophisticated, accelerating economy, the necessity to have the ability to bring in . . . people from abroad to keep it functioning in the most effective manner increasingly strikes me as [sound] policy,” he told lawmakers on Capitol Hill in February. 2

Greenspan's comments were just the latest salvo in the continuing debate over immigration, a debate that is older than the country itself. More than 200 years ago, for instance, Benjamin Franklin pronounced recent arrivals from Germany as “the most stupid in the nation. Few of their children speak English, and through their indiscretion or ours, or both, great disorders may one day arise among us.” 3

But to immigration boosters like Greenspan, immigrants' work ethic and motivation make them cornerstones of America's economic prosperity.

“We're getting a lot of the best and brightest from other countries, and of course these people benefit the U.S. economy because they are driven to improve their lots,” says Bronwyn Lance, a senior fellow at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, which works to increase understanding of the cultural and economic benefits of legal immigration. Lance and others say immigrants are more likely to start businesses -- from corner grocery stores to giant computer companies -- than native-born Americans are. Even newcomers with little education aid the economy, immigration boosters say, taking undesirable jobs that employers can't fill with native-born Americans.

Opponents of expanded immigration counter that the United States doesn't need a million newcomers each year to ensure a strong economy. Most immigrants aren't well-educated entrepreneurs but “poorly educated people who take low-skilled jobs for little money,” says Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which opposes high immigration levels. In Stein's view, immigration largely benefits employers by providing a cheap and plentiful labor force. Moreover, he says, the newcomers take Americans' jobs and suppress wage levels.


Immigration opponents also reject the argument that immigrants are willing to do the jobs that most Americans won't do. In parts of the country with few immigrants, low-wage jobs still get done, and by native-born people, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

“Employers could find Americans to do these jobs if they wanted to, but they'd have to provide training and raise wages to do so,” Krikorian says. Immigrants are simply an easier and cheaper alternative for businesses, he and others maintain.

Finally, opponents point out, high immigration levels are overcrowding the United States, especially in urban areas, and preventing immigrants already here from assimilating into American society.

“The way we're going now we won't turn these people into Americans, and without assimilation we will increasingly be beset by ethnic conflicts,” says John O'Sullivan, editor-at-large at the conservative National Review magazine and a noted expert on immigration.

Still, immigration supporters argue, today's newcomers, like those who sailed into New York Harbor in the past, come because they want to be Americans.

“We've always been afraid that new immigrants aren't assimilating and becoming American,” Moore says. But immigrants are attracted to the United States for more than job opportunities. “America is more than a country, it's an idea with concepts like freedom,” he says. “Most new immigrants buy into this idea. That's one of the reasons they want to be here.”

Not all immigrants, of course, are here legally. While there is wide disagreement about how many newcomers the nation should admit, most experts favor taking at least some steps to block the estimated 300,000 or more illegal immigrants who come to the United States annually. Many support beefing up the U.S. Border Patrol, the enforcement arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and some call for greater use of a rarely enforced provision of the 1986 immigration law that punishes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. 4

Proponents of employer sanctions argue that some form of “internal enforcement” is necessary to catch the thousands who slip by border police. “The way things are right now we're sending a message to illegal aliens that once they get into the country they don't have to worry about getting caught,” Krikorian says. This encourages more people to try to enter the U.S. illegally, he says.

Opponents of employer sanctions argue, however, that instead of discouraging illegal aliens, sanctions merely force them to take jobs with employers who are more likely to exploit them.


“In many cases, all we do is push people to take jobs for less pay and with unsafe working conditions,” says Cecilia Munoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino advocacy group. Moreover, Munoz adds, if employer sanctions did work, many businesses, especially in the service sector, would find themselves without workers.

“Many industries rely on [undocumented] labor,” she says, pointing out that illegal aliens are ubiquitous on farms and construction sites and other sectors of the economy that depend on low-skilled workers willing to do grimy, often back-breaking labor.

But immigrants are not just an important source of low-skill, low-wage labor. Skilled workers from abroad are also in demand, mainly in the high-technology sector, and controversy is raging over how many should be issued so-called H-1B visas and admitted on a temporary basis. Current laws permit up to 115,000 H-1B workers, which employers say is not enough. 5

Those who favor expanding the H-1B program argue that it is needed to offset the drastic labor shortage facing high-tech companies. They see the importation of highly educated and skilled workers from overseas as an unfortunate but necessary step in their efforts to stay competitive in a fast-changing and cutthroat industry. “Our colleges and universities are gearing up to turn out more people qualified to do this kind of work, and so we don't see [H-1B visas] as a long-term solution,” says Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). “But right now, we simply don't have enough people to fill all of the jobs available.”

Norman Matloff, a professor of computer science at the University of California at Davis, challenges that claim. “There are plenty of people right here for these jobs,” he says, contending that high-tech firms would rather import well-educated workers from overseas at lower salaries than go to the trouble of recruiting and training Americans.

As the United States enters a new millennium, here are some of the questions being asked in the debate over how many newcomers the United States should admit:

Does the United States admit too many immigrants?

During the 1990s, the United States took in nearly 10 million foreigners, almost double the number that came during the 1980s and more than in any previous decade. 6

For many Americans the large number of newcomers and the prospect of millions more is disquieting. “We've already got gridlock from sea to shining sea,” says FAIR's Stein. “So, of course, people are asking themselves how many new people does this country really need?”

But for the Cato Institute's Moore, the surge in immigration has largely been a blessing, one he hopes will continue. “Over the last 20 years, we've let in more than 15 million people, and it's been a stunning success story,” he says.

In fact, Moore and other immigration proponents credit immigrants with playing a key role in the American economy's stellar performance in the past decade. “If we want to keep this phenomenal economic growth rate up,” the de Tocqueville Institution's Lance says, “then we'd better keep letting in immigrants because they are helping this economy.”

Immigrants aid the economy, Lance and other experts say, because they tend, almost by definition, to be highly motivated and hard working. “This is a self-selected group of people,” Moore says, “because the very act of leaving your home country and taking a risk to come here means that you're probably ambitious and likely to succeed.”

Indeed, proponents say, studies show that immigrants start more small businesses than the native population. And while many are modest “mom and pop” operations, others are at the leading edge of the new economy. For instance, one out of every four new businesses in Silicon Valley is founded by an entrepreneur of Indian or Chinese origin. 7

In addition, immigration proponents argue, immigrants are stoking the economic flames by taking hard-to-fill jobs. “Immigrants offer us a ready supply of hard-working people to fill niches in the labor market in vital ways, be it picking crops or making our food, driving taxis, caring for our children or building our buildings,” Moore says.

La Raza's Munoz agrees, adding: “I don't think people realize how many important jobs are done by immigrants and what would happen if they all went away.”

What would happen, Munoz, Moore and others contend, is that many industries, especially in the growing service sector, would grind to a halt as the people who washed the dishes or cleaned the offices disappeared. “So many important parts of the economy have become very dependent on immigrants,” Moore says.

A billboard near Gastonia, N.C., reflects fears that America is taking in too many newcomers. Nearly 10 million were admitted in the 1990s, the highest level in history. (AP Photo/Robert Lahser)
A billboard near Gastonia, N.C., reflects fears that America is taking in too many newcomers. Nearly 10 million were admitted in the 1990s, the highest level in history. (AP Photo/Robert Lahser)

But Stein says there is a downside to importing workers who are mainly poorly educated with few or no skills. “All we're doing is importing a huge pool of cheap labor, which helps employers but keeps wages low for Americans,” he says

The great need, Stein notes, is for people with a lot of education and skills. “Our future lies in improving productivity by providing our own people with training and education, not importing low-wage labor,” he says.

Moreover, says the Center for Immigration Studies' Krikorian, immigrants are not irreplaceable in certain segments of the economy. “Anyone who imagines that the fruit won't get picked or that the dishes won't get washed without immigrants has a fundamental misunderstanding of market economics,” he says. “All of this service work gets done in the parts of the country where there are few immigrants,” he says, “and it's done by Americans. The question isn't whether the work is going to be done, but who's going to do it?”

Krikorian and others say that instead of importing workers to fill vacancies, the United States should be focusing on training the unemployed here. “If we lost immigration as a source of workers, employers would seek to increase the labor pool by increasing wages,” he says. “They would also look to communities with higher unemployment rates -- more marginal elements of the population -- like those on public assistance, ex-convicts or the handicapped.”

But opposition to immigration extends beyond its economic impact. Many argue that the nation's population is already too high and that admitting close to a million people annually is going to cause intolerable crowding in some areas. Indeed, the Census Bureau predicts the nation's population will rise from the current level of 270 million to more than 400 million by 2050.

“More than 70 percent of this growth is going to come from immigration,” says Tom McKenna, president of Population-Environment Balance, a grass-roots organization that advocates population stabilization to protect the environment. “Think about how crowded our cities are now, and then think about what it will be like with twice the number of people.”

Immigration opponents also claim that the nation needs to reduce current immigration levels to allow the nation to absorb the tens of millions of newcomers who are already here. In particular, they say, a steady stream of immigrants will overwhelm efforts to turn recent arrivals into Americans. “When you have these high numbers of people coming in year after year, you can't assimilate them so easily,” says the National Review's O'Sullivan.

O'Sullivan contends that a lull in immigration would allow schools and governing institutions to teach immigrants English and give them an appreciation for American history and values. “We are a transnational society, and in order to work together effectively we must maximize our common cultural sympathies,” he says. “If every ethnic group retains its own cultural sympathies, it will be hard for us to work together as one people.”

But immigration supporters say that concerns about assimilation are as old as the Republic and just as overblown now as they were in the 18th century. “People who come here want to be American,” Lance says. “Very few would run the gauntlet to get here unless they wanted to become part of this country.”

Lance and others point out that -- just as with previous groups -- today's immigrants are quickly integrating into American society and losing their ties to their country of origin. “Look at the Hispanic kids who grow up here,” she says. “They don't speak Spanish or don't speak it well. They're American now.” 8

In addition, proponents doubt that continued immigration is going to turn the United States into an overcrowded country like China or India. “The numbers [McKenna] uses assume that the birth rate among immigrants will stay constant for succeeding generations,” Munoz says, noting that recent arrivals have more children than native-born Americans. “But data show that the children of immigrants have far fewer children than their parents.”

Should the Immigration and Naturalization Service crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants?

Not long ago, the INS conducted a series of raids against undocumented aliens working in the onion fields of Vidalia, Ga. Within days of the action, five members of the state's congressional delegation -- including both U.S. senators -- had fired off a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno complaining that the agency she supervises had shown a “lack of regard for the farmers.” 9 The letter had the desired effect. The INS stopped arresting undocumented pickers, and the onion crop made it to market.

Similarly, in other parts of the country complaints from local and national politicians have prompted the INS to back off. “This is very ironic,” Krikorian says. “Congress passed [the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986] making it illegal to employ illegal aliens and then basically told the INS not to enforce it.”

The law, which made it a crime to knowingly employ undocumented workers, imposed fines on employers caught using illegal aliens and even authorized jail time for repeat offenders. 10

But the employment-related provisions of the 1986 act have not worked. According to the INS, there are 5 million illegal aliens in the United States, an estimate that many immigration experts believe to be low. In addition, at least 300,000 are believed to enter the country each year. Many industries in the United States rely heavily upon undocumented workers, from the meatpacking plants of the Midwest to the restaurants and garment factories of New York City. “It's very clear to me that we're not sufficiently enforcing the law at all,” says Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration.

In some places, the local economy is largely supported by the labor of illegal aliens. Thomas Fischer, who until recently headed the INS in Georgia and three other Southeastern states, estimates that one out of every three businesses in Atlanta employs undocumented workers. “I'm talking about everything from your Fortune 500 companies down to your mom-and-pop businesses,” he says.


For supporters of tough controls on illegal immigration, the presence of so many undocumented workers in so many industries represents a major failure in immigration policy. “The INS is making no effort whatsoever to fight the ever-increasing presence of illegal immigrants in this country,” says Peter Brimelow, author of Alien Nation, a best-selling 1995 book that argues for stricter controls on immigration. According to Brimelow, a senior editor at Forbes and National Review, the INS' abrogation of duty has led to “the development of a huge illegal economy that is growing.”

The solution, Brimelow and others say, is stricter enforcement of the sanctions already on the books. “They're absolutely necessary, because without them many employers feel free to hire illegal immigrants,” Krikorian says.

Giving employers a green light to bring in undocumented workers has a snowball effect that leads to even more illegal immigration, Krikorian claims. “As long as people in other countries know that they can get jobs easily here, regardless of their status, they will keep coming,” he argues. “Once they get in, there is little to fear since employment laws are basically ignored.”

Moreover, Stein says, “Once someone hires illegal aliens they have a competitive advantage because their labor costs have dropped.” That forces competitors to follow suit, leading to an even greater demand for illegal immigrants and fewer jobs for citizens or legal residents. “It's a vicious cycle.”

But opponents of employer sanctions argue that they are not being enforced for a good reason: They don't work. “When they've tried to enforce employer sanctions in one area or another, they haven't reduced illegal immigration,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a think tank that favors increased immigration.

Sharry argues that sanctions only drive immigrants further into the underground economy. “The only thing employer sanctions do is push illegal immigrants from decent employers into the hands of unscrupulous employers,” he says. “They push them down into the shadier parts of the economy, but not out of it.”

Opponents of sanctions also argue that sanctions are unfair to employers, many of whom don't know they've hired illegal aliens. “Many illegal immigrants are hired unwittingly, because they forged the right documents,” says Lance of the de Tocqueville Institution. “Only a minority of employers knowingly hire illegal immigrants, so imposing sanctions would get many of them in trouble for a good-faith mistake.”

Cato's Moore agrees, adding: “Businesses should not be responsible for being immigration policemen.” Such a system “would lead to great discrimination against foreigners -- regardless of their status -- because businesses would automatically wonder whether a foreign worker was illegal and worth the risk of hiring.”

Moore and Munoz are among those who say that illegal immigration should be controlled at the border, not at the office or factory. “We need to put more people and resources at the border,” Munoz says. “It can work if we put our minds to it.”

But supporters of sanctions say that relying on the Border Patrol to stem the flow of illegal immigration is close to meaningless without “internal enforcement” since, by its own estimate, the patrol only catches one in three people trying to cross into the United States.

Moreover, 40 percent of all illegal immigrants initially enter the United States legally, but stay longer than the time allowed on their visa. “There's no way to stop visa overstays because they came in a perfectly legal manner,” Krikorian says.

Should the number of H-1B visas be increased?

Michael Worry has a problem. The CEO of Nuvation Labs, a 30-person Silicon Valley software-engineering firm, said he is constantly grappling with a shortage of employees. “We've had positions go unfilled for months at a time,” he said. 11

So Worry has done what many others in similar positions have done -- hired workers from abroad, many admitted only on a temporary basis. In fact, one-third of his workers are temporary foreign employees.

For years, Worry and others in the information-technology industry have complained of an almost crippling shortage of skilled workers. “The number of jobs in our industry has grown so fast that our colleges and universities just can't keep up with demand,” says ITAA's Miller. “We have no choice but to look abroad.”

Miller says there is already a huge gap between the number of jobs and qualified workers in the information-technology industry. Industry estimates of the shortage run as high as 800,000. 12 In addition, according to a recent Cato report, the demand for skilled high-tech jobs is expected to grow 150,000 per year over the next five years. 13

Like many high-tech companies, Nuvation tries to bring in qualified workers from abroad using H-1B visas, which require applicants to have a bachelor's degree and allow a stay of up to six years.

But firms that fill vacancies with H-1B visa holders complain that the program is much too limited to fill their needs. “The demand for high-tech workers is clearly outpacing the number of people that can currently be brought in” under the H-1B program, says Rep. Smith.

In the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the INS can issue up to 115,000 H-1B visas. But pro-business groups point out that demand is so great that the agency already has issued its quota for the year. Moreover, under existing law, the number of H-1B visas issued will drop to 107,500 next year and 65,000 the year after that.

High-tech companies and others have vigorously lobbied Congress to substantially increase the number of H-1B visas, and several bills are under consideration, including one sponsored by Smith that would lift the cap on H-1Bs for the next three years. The House Judiciary Committee approved that measure on May 18. Another measure sponsored by Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., that would increase the number of available visas to 195,000 for the next three years won the approval of the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 9.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehends undocumented immigrants hiding in a truck near the Mexican border in Douglas, Ariz. Arrests have risen since the 1994 launch of “Operation Gatekeeper,” a renewed effort to crack down on illegal entries. (Newsmakers/Joe Raedle) A U.S. Border Patrol agent apprehends undocumented immigrants hiding in a truck near the Mexican border in Douglas, Ariz. Arrests have risen since the 1994 launch of “Operation Gatekeeper,” a renewed effort to crack down on illegal entries. (Newsmakers/Joe Raedle)

Supporters of expanding the H-1B program are confident that an increase will become law this year, especially since the idea has the backing of the White House and numerous members of Congress from both parties. “The time is right for this, and I'm fairly optimistic that we'll be able to work something out,” Miller says.

But opponents of an increase -- including many labor unions and some Democrats in Congress -- argue that they are unnecessary and harmful to American workers. They say that companies clamoring for more temporary foreign workers are not taking advantage of the domestic labor force.

“Just call any employer of programmers in any city -- large or small -- and they'll tell you that they reject the overwhelming majority of job applicants without even giving them an interview,” the University of California's Matloff says. For instance, he says, Microsoft rejects all but 2 percent of the applicants for technology jobs. “Now, how can they do this when they claim they're so desperate for workers?” he asks.

The real reason employers want more H-1Bs is they don't want to find and train skilled U.S. workers, Matloff says, although there are many highly qualified Americans who only need to have their skills updated. “These companies don't want to take the time and spend the money it takes to hire and train domestic workers,” he says. “I think many of them are afraid that they'll lose someone after they've trained them.”

In addition, opponents say, temporary visas allow companies to keep industry wages low. “If there were a labor shortage in one industry or another, wages would naturally rise and workers would shift into this area,” says David A. Smith, director of public policy at the AFL-CIO. “But H-1B visas distort the market by bringing in outside workers, and that holds down wages.”

Matloff points out that 79 percent of H-1B visa holders make less than $50,000 per year. While such a pay level is above the national average, it is considered low for skilled high-technology workers. “This is the kind of industry where if you're any good, you make at least $100,000 a year,” he says.

Finally, opponents argue, H-1B visas give employers too much leverage over these temporary workers, because many are desperate to get permanent work status and need the company's assistance to do so. According to the National Review's O'Sullivan, “employers say that they will help them get a green card, but in the meantime, 'you belong to us.' ” Since the process can take up to five years, O'Sullivan and others argue, an H-1B visa can often lead to a form of indentured servitude. “This whole aspect of the system is open to terrible abuse,” he claims.

Instead of expanding the H-1B program, critics say business and the government should focus on training and hiring domestic workers for high-tech jobs. “H-1B visas prevent us from doing what we need to generate a long-term supply of skilled labor that we're eventually going to need in this industry,” the AFL-CIO's Smith says.

But H-1B supporters counter that high-tech companies really are facing a skilled labor shortage. They note that the unemployment rate within the information-technology industry is generally much lower than the already low national rate of 4 percent. “Look, our colleges and universities simply can't keep up with demand,” Miller says.

Moore agrees. “It's vital that we have access to these highly skilled workers in order to maintain our competitive edge,” he says. “We're getting the cream of the crop from developing countries like India. It's sort of a form of reverse foreign aid, a gift from the rest of the world to the U.S.”

In addition, supporters say, the information-technology industry is already doing much to train new and existing employees to keep up with industry changes. “We're already the leader in spending on worker training,” Miller says. “We spend 60 percent more than the financial-services industry or more than $1,000 per year, per employee.”

H-1B supporters also dispute the notion that they are trying to bring in temporary workers to permanently replace domestic talent in order to drive down wages. “The law requires that we pay these people the prevailing wage, so they are well compensated for what they do,” Miller says.

Go to top


The Latest Wave

The foundation of the current im-migration system dates back to 1965, when Congress overhauled the rules governing who could and couldn't enter the United States. Since 1920, immigration quotas had largely favored Northern Europeans over people from other parts of the world. The quotas, coupled with the impact of the Great Depression and World War II, markedly reduced immigration into the country.

From 1930 to 1950, fewer than 4 million newcomers arrived in the United States, less than half the number in the first decade of the 20th century. The heated debates that had accompanied the great waves of immigration in the late 19th and early 20 centuries faded, replaced by smaller questions, such as whether to allow refugees from Europe to emigrate after World War II. “Immigration didn't even really exist as a big issue until 1965, because we just weren't letting that many people in,” author Brimelow says.

In 1965 the landscape changed. The quota system was replaced by one that gave preference to immigrants with close relatives already living in the United States and to those with special skills needed by American industry. The law, which took effect in 1968, set an overall annual cap of 290,000 immigrants -- 170,000 from the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 from the Western Hemisphere.

Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, candidates for this year's presidential election, both favor raising the number of skilled foreign workers admitted to the United States on H-1B vis (CQ Photo)
Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, candidates for this year's presidential election, both favor raising the number of skilled foreign workers admitted to the United States on H-1B vis (CQ Photo)

The 1965 law dramatically changed the face of immigration. Until the late 1960s, most immigrants came from Europe. Thereafter, the majority of newcomers hailed from the developing world -- nearly half from Latin America. Initially, the country took in many refugees escaping communist regimes in Cuba and Indochina. In the late 1970s and '80s, a large group of immigrants came from Central America, where a number of brutal wars were raging. 14 But the largest number of newcomers -- fully 20 percent of all immigrants between 1968 and 1993 -- came from impoverished Mexico. 15

In the wake of the 1965 law, the United States also began grappling with illegal immigrants, also mainly from Mexico. The number of undocumented aliens entering the United States increased dramatically from the mid-1960s to the mid-'80s, in spite of beefed-up Border Patrol efforts. The number of illegal aliens apprehended at the border reflects the increase. In 1965 fewer than 100,000 undocumented aliens were stopped, but by 1985 the number had exceeded 1.2 million. 16

Many of the illegal aliens had for decades been accustomed to crossing the southern border for agricultural work and then returning to Mexico at the end of the picking season. In fact, for more than two decades the United States had allowed migrant pickers into the country legally. But the so-called Bracero program was discontinued in 1964, prompting many to begin crossing the border illegally.

In 1986, Congress moved to stem illegal immigration by passing the Immigration Control and Reform Act. IRCA attacked the problem by using a carrot-and-stick approach. On one hand, the act granted a general amnesty to all undocumented aliens who could prove that they had been in the United States before 1982. But it also imposed monetary sanctions against employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers. Repeat offenders risked prison.

Four years later Congress moved to overhaul the system governing legal immigration, passing the Immigration Act of 1990. The new law increased the number of aliens allowed to enter from roughly 500,000 each year to 700,000. It also set new country-based quotas in an effort to alter the impact of the 1965 law, which had heavily favored immigrants from Latin America and Asia. Newcomers from other countries, especially from Europe, received a greater share of the entry visas. In addition, more visas were set aside for workers with special skills. 17

The decade that followed the 1990 act saw the largest influx of immigrants in U.S. history, with nearly 10 million newcomers arriving on America's shores. Most still came from Latin America (particularly Mexico) and Asia. But a substantial number came from Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Congress took one more stab at reforming the rules governing legal and illegal immigration in 1996. But efforts to lower levels of legal immigration stalled after running into tough opposition from business groups and others. Instead, the new law focused on curbing illegal entry into the United States by beefing up the Border Patrol and streamlining deportation procedures. 18

Family Reunification

The rules governing legal immigration are often criticized for being everything from misguided to contradictory. “It's actually worse than the tax code because there's absolutely no real rationale behind it,” Brimelow says. “It's just a collection of accidents.”

But others say the current system actually works quite well, especially given the number of people who emigrate to the United States each year. “We have a very well-regulated immigration system,” La Raza's Munoz says. “It actually does work.”

The cornerstone of the current system revolves around family reunification. Roughly two-thirds of all immigrants who enter the United States legally each year are sponsored by a close relative. Of these, around 75 percent are either the sponsor's spouse or child.

The idea behind family reunification is that people already living in the United States should be able to live with their close relatives, even if they are not legal residents. “Doesn't your neighbor Jose have the right to live with his wife Maria?” Munoz asks. “That's the question people need to ask when they think about family reunification.”

A state labor investigator interviews a 15-year-old Chinese immigrant, at left, working in a New York City garment factory. Many recent immigrants take low-wage jobs, which critics contend can lower the wage scale for other Americans. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
A state labor investigator interviews a 15-year-old Chinese immigrant, at left, working in a New York City garment factory. Many recent immigrants take low-wage jobs, which critics contend can lower the wage scale for other Americans. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Few people would answer “no” to Munoz's question. But many immigration experts say that while family reunification is important, it is given too much weight in the current system. For his part, Brimelow says family reunification takes legal immigration “out of the realm of public policy and turns it into a civil rights issue, giving certain people a right to immigrate.”

Brimelow and others would like to see a much greater share of visas issued to necessary and skilled workers. “An employment-based system would benefit this country much more than one that stresses family ties,” he says.

Even the National Immigration Forum's Sharry, who favors the current high levels of family-based immigration, supports an increase in employment-related visas. “Employers need to be able to sponsor a greater number of people each year,” he says. “The existing numbers are much too low.”

Currently, the INS can issue up to 140,000 employment-related visas -- known as green cards -- per year. Unlike H-1B and other temporary work visas, a green card gives an immigrant permanent status. The rules allow no more than 9,800 work visas to be given to people from any one country, to ensure a certain amount of ethnic diversity. The INS also issues an additional 50,000 green cards each year by lottery, attracting 7 million applicants. 19

The low number of permanent work visas makes it difficult for employers to sponsor workers from abroad. According to Sharry and others, this leads many businesses to turn to illegal immigration. “If you're a restaurant owner and you need people and can't sponsor someone, of course you're going to turn to undocumented workers,” he says.

There are other ways for immigrants to enter the United States. For instance, the country can take in tens of thousands of refugees per year. The number, 78,000 in FY 2000, is determined each year by the president and Congress. 20

And, of course, many foreigners enter or remain in the country illegally. The INS estimates that around 300,000 people per year move to the United States without proper documentation. Few are ever detected and fewer still deported.

“The dirty little secret of our system in this country is that once you get here you can stay if you want to,” Moore says. “It's like lawyers say: Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

Go to top

Current Situation

Election Issue?

Like many issues, immigration comes and goes from the political agenda. In 1996, for instance, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole ran advertisements in California blaming the state's many illegal immigrants for high crime, poor schools and other social ills. Dole's ads came on the heels of congressional passage of a number of immigration-related measures, including a stricter deportation law and a welfare-reform bill that denied benefits to legal immigrants.

Four years later, the terrain is much different. Congress is no longer trying to get tough with immigrants and instead is working on legislation to increase the number of visas for high-skilled foreign workers. Meanwhile, a coalition of Republican and Democratic policy-makers, including Jack Kemp and former HUD Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, has formed to push for a relaxation of immigration laws. 21

Most analysts say the changing political winds are largely due to the economy. The United States is in the middle of the longest economic expansion in its history -- with high rates of growth, very low unemployment and (until recently) a booming stock market. In a period when many Americans feel more financially secure than ever before, traditional fear that immigrants will threaten jobs or cause societal upheaval is fading.

Not surprisingly, polls show a growing acceptance of immigrants by the public. According to a Gallup Poll taken last year, 44 percent of Americans favor restricting immigration, down from 65 percent in 1995. 22

The change in attitude has not been lost on the political establishment. Both presumptive nominees in this year's race for the presidency seem to support the status quo, speaking in positive terms about recent immigrants and their contributions to America's economy and society. Vice President Al Gore has said that immigration has made the country “not only culturally richer, but also spiritually stronger.” 23

Gov. George W. Bush, R-Texas, has expressed similar sentiments. He even stated that he might have entered the country illegally himself in search of work had he been born poor in Mexico. Bush has also proposed breaking the INS into two separate agencies with an eye toward improving services to legal immigrants.


Neither candidate has called for any major initiatives aimed at increasing or decreasing immigration levels, although both support expanding the H-1B visa program to allow in more skilled workers. In addition, Gore said he supports restoring benefits to legal immigrants that were taken away by Congress as part of the 1996 Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Bush has yet to state his position on the issue.

But, aside from these relatively narrow proposals, immigration is unlikely to emerge as a big issue in this year's presidential race, many experts say. “This is not national issue like education or health care, and I don't see that changing in the coming months,” says James Thurber, a professor of political science at American University.

Thurber and other experts say most Americans really don't care very much about immigration right now. “Look,” Krikorian says, “the bottom line is that the economy is too good and unemployment too low for many people outside the Beltway to be thinking about this very much.”

The National Immigration Forum's Sharry, however, thinks that immigration might be “the sleeper issue” of the year. “The fastest-growing group of new voters is immigrants and so, of course, Bush and Gore are going to try to address issues important to these voters, including immigration,” he predicts.

Sharry believes that each candidate will try to use immigration as a way of attracting Latino and other minority voters in states that are thought to be strongholds for their opponents. “I think Bush will try to pin Gore down in California by appealing to Latinos, and Gore will do the same in Florida, which is likely to go to Bush.”

For example, Sharry says, “I could see Bush trying to address illegal immigration by saying that he would sit down with the president of Mexico and work out a solution.” Sharry also believes that Bush might stress his pro-immigrant stance as a way of appealing to moderate white voters who might still be scared that he is too conservative. “He could propose a bunch of pro-immigrant initiatives to show that he's not a mean Republican,” Sharry says.

The issue might also rise if Patrick Buchanan receives the Reform Party's nomination and becomes a serious candidate, in the same way the party's founder, H. Ross Perot, did in 1992. Buchanan has long opposed most legal immigration and has vowed to put the military on the U.S.-Mexico border to stop illegal immigration.

“Buchanan could really force this if he works it right,” Brimelow says. “If he sold this as a jobs issue, it might fly.”

Go to top


Focus on the Economy

There is a commonly held belief among immigration opponents and boosters alike that when the economic growth slows or stops, so will support for letting immigrants into the United States. “Immigration is always driven by the economy -- is always a big issue when the economy is poor and a non-issue when it's doing well,” says Cato's Moore, who favors continued high levels of immigration.

“Only when this economy goes south and your job is threatened will an atmosphere of fear and insecurity take over,” he says. “When it's Jose who is competing with you, most people will say, 'Things would be fine if only we could keep Jose and his kind out of the country.' ”

Immigration opponent Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform agrees that the last decade of high economic growth has left the immigration debate withering on the vine. But unlike Moore, Stein approaches the prospect of an economic downturn with anticipation, not worry.

“In the current heady, narcotic trance this country's in, there's a detachment from reality about immigration,” he says. “But when the economy comes down to Earth, this issue will come to the fore, and there will be a backlash.”

Stein believes that when the American people actually turn their attention to immigration, they will demand substantial reductions in the number of people allowed entry each year. “I think the public really wants a breather for at least 20 if not 30 or 40 years,” he says.

The National Review's O'Sullivan concurs, arguing that Americans “will come to see that we need to reduce it at least for a while, so that we can absorb the people we already have.” O'Sullivan doesn't “see us closing the doors, but bringing it down to the level it was in 1950s, when we let a quarter of a million people in each year.”

Others also predict a backlash when the economy slows, but not against continued high levels of immigration. “Instead of doing something about immigration, we'll stick it to the immigrants themselves when things slow down,” Krikorian says. “That's what we've done in the past.”

Krikorian sees the potential for another Proposition 187 -- the 1994 California ballot initiative that denied social services to illegal immigrants. “The reason Proposition 187 passed wasn't because people really favored it. They were pissed off at our immigration policy, and it was the only way they could register their opposition.”

“Sticking it to the foreigners” is the easy way for policy-makers to assuage the public's concern about immigration without actually doing anything about it, he says. “We'll continue to propose these anti-immigrant measures instead of sensible restrictions on immigration because too many powerful groups have an interest in keeping things as they are,” he says.

Krikorian and others blame both major political parties for wanting to preserve the immigration status quo. GOP support parallels that of big business, which favors high levels of immigration in order to maintain a steady supply of both unskilled and skilled labor. Democratic support for immigration stems from its connection to various ethnic groups -- largely Asian and Hispanic -- that favor higher levels.

But others say a backlash, in any form, is unlikely for a number of different reasons. According to the de Tocqueville Institution's Lance, newcomers will continue to be welcome because the American people have come to accept high immigration levels as almost a permanent condition.

“If you look at the past 10 years, it seems that the pendulum has really swung in favor of immigration,” she says. “Sure, we may have moments -- especially during recessions -- when there is a fear of foreigners, but unless there is a major catastrophe, like a war or a depression, I don't think the American people will seriously question” current immigration policies.

Sharry agrees. “I think the premise is that immigration is a good thing and will increasingly be viewed as a crucial part of our economy,” he says. Besides, Sharry says, the economy is unlikely to take the kind of nose-dive that would actually prompt people to rethink immigration policy.

“I think the economy's going to stay relatively strong for the foreseeable future,” he predicts, “and this will lead not only to a preservation of the current system but to an expansion of it.”

David Masci specializes in ethics, religion and foreign-policy issues. Before joining The CQ Researcher as a staff writer in 1996, he worked as a reporter at Congressional Quarterly's Daily Monitor and CQ Weekly. He holds a law degree from The George Washington University and a bachelor's in medieval history from Syracuse University.

Go to top


Should illegal immigrants be permitted to remain in the United States if they have been here for several years?


Frank Sharry
Executive director, National Immigration Forum . Written for The CQ Researcher, July 2000

“Vicente” and his wife are from Latin America and graduated from U.S. colleges in the early 1980s. They stayed on and led exemplary lives. He works in customer service for a technology company; she does marketing for a direct-mail firm. Their three U.S.-born children are all-star Little League players.

There's only one hitch: Mom and Dad are in the United States illegally. They missed the 1982 cutoff for the previous legalization program.

Then there is “Blanca.” She graduated from high school with top honors but found her hopes of attending college dashed because she does not have proper immigration papers. Her family fled persecution and civil war in El Salvador, but inequitable treatment under successive administrations has kept her parents in legal limbo.

Three legalization measures pending before Congress would enable some 750,000 people in situations like these to live and work in the United States legally. The proposed bills, all of which enjoy bipartisan support, would:

  • Update an immigration law provision that allows undocumented immigrants of good moral character who have resided and worked in America since before 1986 to remain permanently;

  • Correct for past unequal treatment among groups of similarly situated Central American and Haitian refugees; and

  • Restore Section 245(i) of the immigration code to allow those on the verge of gaining permanent status to remain in the United States to complete the paperwork process.

Enactment of the three measures is both the right thing and the smart thing to do. It will correct past mistakes that have unfairly kept immigrant families in bureaucratic limbo, stabilize our work force at a time of growing labor shortages and keep families together.

As President Ronald Reagan said when he signed the legalization provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, offering permanent legal status to those already rooted in our communities “will go far to improve the lives of a class of individuals who now must hide in the shadows, without many of the benefits of a free and open society. Very soon many of these men and women will be able to step into the sunlight and, ultimately, if they choose, become Americans.”

It's time to revive our great heritage as a nation of immigrants and reward those who have already proven to be valued and positive members of our country by enacting these targeted measures this year.


Dan Stein
Executive director, Federation for American Immigration Reform . Written for The CQ Researcher, July 2000

Politicians perpetually talk about the need to control illegal immigration. But because the talk is rarely backed with action, about 6 million illegal aliens now reside in the United States. Now, some in Congress are suggesting illegal immigration once again be rewarded by granting amnesty to millions of brazen law violators.

What sort of signal does this send? It tells people we will do little to stop them and even less to deport them if they decide to bypass the legal immigration process. It tells them we will grant them legal status if they have the fortitude to stick it out for a few years. Is it any wonder the illegal immigrant population equals the population of Massachusetts?

The last amnesty in 1986 -- which Congress pledged would never be repeated -- legalized some 3 million people and cost taxpayers an estimated $78 billion.

Today, immigration enforcement has virtually collapsed. And despite the fact that financial institutions manage to run millions of electronic verifications every day, the government has yet to develop a system that can even authenticate a job applicant's right to work and live in the United States. Consequently, the availability of jobs and generous social services continues to attract illegal immigrants.

Another amnesty would tell the world that the United States literally is unable to control its borders. Such an admission inevitably would force a reappraisal of the validity and purposes of the meaningless immigration quotas now on the books.

Illegal immigration also inflicts economic injury on Americans in the lower half of the wage structure. Numerous studies show that immigration, especially illegal immigration, results in wage loss for Americans who must compete against illegal immigrants.

While amnesty proponents argue that legalization will give illegal aliens more bargaining leverage, even this questionable merit is likely to be short-lived. Another amnesty is guaranteed to set off an even greater influx of illegal immigration as people perceive this to be our way to deal with the problem periodically.

Amnesty is not the answer. The only way to stop illegal immigration is to link aliens' ability to immigrate with their willingness to play by our rules. Encourage those here illegally to return to their home countries through incentives and get control of our borders -- only then would any discussion of an amnesty and reward program be responsible.

Go to top


1920-1964After decades during which tens of millions of people emigrated to the United States, a new, restrictive immigration policy substantially limits the number of newcomers who can settle in the country.
1921Congress passes The Quota Act, which establishes a new system of national-origin quotas favoring Northern Europeans over immigrants from Southern Europe and elsewhere.
1924Congress passes the Johnson-Reed Act, which stiffens the national-origin quotas established three years earlier. The law also creates the U.S. Border Patrol to combat illegal immigration.
1930The coming decade will see immigration drop to roughly 500,000, down substantially from the more than 8 million who emigrated to the United States during the first decade of the 20th century.
1942Workers from Mexico and other nations are admitted to work temporarily in the United States, mainly in California's agricultural industry, under an initiative later called the Bracero program.
1952The McCarran-Walter Act retains the national-origins quota system.
1954The U.S. government institutes “Operation Wetback” to stem the increase in illegal immigration. The program is successful.
1964The Bracero program ends.
1965-1980The civil rights movement prompts Congress to end racially restrictive immigration quotas. The new law leads to a large influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia.
1965Congress passes the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments, which remove racial quotas and substantially increases the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States each year.
1968Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, previously admitted freely into the United States, are subjected to quotas, largely in response to a surge in illegal immigration after the 1964 expiration of the Bracero program.
1980The annual number of legal immigrants entering the country surpasses a half-million.
1981-2000sAn increase in legal and illegal immigration prompts Congress to change the system.
1986The Immigration Reform and Control Act makes many illegal aliens eligible for permanent residence and establishes sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers.
1990Congress passes the Immigration Act, which raises the immigration ceiling to 700,000 a year and grants preferences to relatives of U.S. residents or citizens and to aliens with high-demand work skills.
1992Patrick J. Buchanan makes curtailing legal and illegal immigration one of the cornerstones of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.
1993Some 880,000 legal immigrants arrive in the United States.
1994Californians pass Proposition 187, which denies social services to illegal aliens. The initiative is later struck down in the courts.
1996Congress passes the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which toughens border enforcement and streamlines deportation procedures.
1998Immigrant voters, particularly Latinos, prove crucial in a host of congressional and gubernatorial elections.
2000GOP presidential candidate George W. Bush proposes splitting the Immigration and Naturalization Service into two separate agencies -- one to guard the border and the other to process legal immigrants.

Go to top

Short Features

Fifty years ago, the population of the United States was 89 percent white and 10 percent black. Latinos, Asians and other minority groups constituted a mere sliver of the demographic pie. Thanks to immigration, everything has changed.

Today, more than one-quarter of Americans are not white -- more than double the percentage in 1950. Hispanics now account for 12 percent of the population and are about surpass African-Americans as the nation's largest minority. Asians, though only making up 4 percent of the U.S. population, are the nation's fastest-growing minority group.

Fifty years from now, America will look even more different. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, slightly more than half of the anticipated 400 million residents will be white. Fully one-fourth of the nation will be of Latin American descent. And there will be almost as many Asians as there are African-Americans.

Some immigration experts warn, however, that census projections can be misleading. “There are a lot of assumptions built into the data that may not be correct,” says Jeff Passel, a demographer for the Urban Institute, a social policy think tank in Washington, D.C. “It's really impossible to know these numbers.”

The numbers can get tricky because, for instance, no one knows how many new immigrants will enter the United States in the future. In addition, it's difficult to predict what the birth rates will be among various immigrant groups.

More important, Passel says, the Census Bureau's projections assume that today's racial categories will remain the same. “One hundred years ago,” he says, “Americans didn't think of Italians, Jews and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe as white. Now, obviously they do.” Future racial categories may be much broader, incorporating Hispanics and Asians into the same racial group, for instance. “In 50 years people may not make distinctions between, say, Hispanics and whites, just like they don't between Italians and whites today,” Passel says.

The blurring of racial distinctions may be nudged along by high rates of intermarriage between new immigrant groups and other Americans. Third-generation Asian-Americans marry outside their race more than 40 percent of the time, according to the National Immigration Forum. Similarly, third-generation Latinos marry non-Hispanics about one-third of the time.

“All of this mixing across racial lines is going to make these categories very fuzzy,” Passel says, adding that fuzziness will allow these new groups to more easily integrate into American society, just as newcomers a century ago have done today.

But other experts are much more concerned about coming demographic changes. “Our ethnic component is part of what makes the United States what it is, and that's going to be radically altered,” says Peter Brimelow, a Forbes magazine editor and author of Alien Nation, a 1995 book that makes a case against allowing high levels of immigration.

It's foolish, Brimelow contends, to assume that a society that is no longer dominated by one racial group -- whites, in the case of the United States -- will be able to avoid tremendous tensions. “I don't think multiracial societies work -- period,” he says. “Our differences are irrepressible.”

He fears that a United States with large racial blocks could undergo the same ethnic tensions that have troubled countries like the former Yugoslavia. Some pockets of the country, he says, could diverge so greatly that they will become de facto independent states. “I think parts of the country are going to be as different as different parts of the world are today,” Brimelow says.

But many immigration experts say such concerns are unfounded. They believe that new immigrants will do much as their predecessors did -- work very hard to become part of American society while retaining pride in their heritage.

“People think that cities like [Los Angeles] are going to be so Mexican that they'll secede from the union,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “But L.A. is going to be Mexican in the same way that Boston is Irish or Milwaukee is German.”

Go to top

Every day, thousands of Mexicans, Central Americans and others illegally cross into the United States along its southern border. The U.S. Border Patrol last year apprehended more than 1.5 million undocumented immi-grants. It expects to catch even more this year.

Still, for each one caught entering illegally, at least two others sneak through. “It's clear that we're not doing nearly enough to secure our borders,” says Gregory Rodriguez, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

A major reason the border is so porous, Rodriguez and others contend, is that the Border Patrol is woefully understaffed. More than 9,000 agents guard the country's northern and southern borders. That's roughly double the number of personnel as in 1993. Still, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, the Border Patrol could easily use another 10,000 people in the field.

Roger and Brent Barnett scout for undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States by crossing their ranch near the Mexican border in Douglas, Ariz. (Newsmakers/Joe Raedle) Roger and Brent Barnett scout for undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States by crossing their ranch near the Mexican border in Douglas, Ariz. (Newsmakers/Joe Raedle)

A recent University of Texas at Austin study estimates that the Immigration and Naturalization Service's enforcement arm needs 16,000 agents to effectively guard the 2,000-mile border with Mexico. 1

But the Border Patrol's efforts to boost its size have been slowed by the lure of other opportunities. “They've been training a lot of people, but there's been a lot of turnover as well,” Krikorian says. “They've lost a lot of people to organizations like the Houston Police Department because Border Patrol agents are a good catch since they have the most rigorous training of anyone in the federal government.”

Indeed, as of last year, 40 percent of all Border Patrol agents had been on the job two years or less. 2 “”

Go to top

For many who live along the southern border, the Border Patrol's current force is simply not enough. For example, in a recent poll, 89 percent of Arizona residents indicated that they favor using the military to help patrol the border. 3

Some border residents have even taken matters into their own hands, policing their property and arresting undocumented immigrants caught trespassing. Over the last two years, Arizona ranchers Roger and Donald Barnett have captured about 3,000 illegal aliens and turned them over to the Border Patrol.

Some have accused the Barnetts, who use rifles and dogs for their searches, and other ranchers of “hunting” human beings. “It's illegal for citizens to detain other people -- regardless of their status -- unless they are breaching the peace,” Adler says. “This is vigilante activity, plain and simple.”

But the Barnett brothers defend their actions. “They're on my land, they're trespassing and I have a right to protect my property,” said 57-year-old Roger Barnett, who owns a 22,000-acre ranch along the Mexican border near Douglas, Ariz. 4

Others say neither military nor civilian action is the solution. Krikorian and others advocate giving the Border Patrol more of the tools it needs to adequately do the job. In addition to more agents, Krikorian favors erecting more physical barriers in areas where the flow of illegal aliens is heavy.

He also believes that those apprehended repeatedly should be imprisoned as a deterrent for them and those who would follow in their footsteps. “Right now, you have to be caught 10 or 15 times before you face prosecution,” Krikorian says. “As things stand, everyone just gets an air-conditioned ride back to Mexico and a chance to try again.”

And try again, they do. Many undocumented immigrants are willing to cross long stretches of desert and other rough terrain in order to enter the United States. Such determination has put some aliens at terrible risk. Since October, the Border Patrol has found 217 undocumented aliens dead near the border. Most had either drowned or died of thirst in the desert. Agents rescued more than 1,000 others in imminent danger during the same period.

To reduce the number of deaths, the Border Patrol has stepped up its efforts to train agents in lifesaving techniques. The agency also is putting up warning signs along those parts of the border considered the most dangerous to cross -- either because of long stretches of desert or dangerous waterways.

The high number of deaths along the border is “unacceptable,” said Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which oversees the Border Patrol. “We want to reduce the number of deaths and increase safety on both sides of the border,” she said at a June 26 press conference. 5

[1] William Branigin, “Border Patrol Being Pushed to Continue Fast Growth,” The Washington Post, May 13, 1999.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tim McGirk, “Border Clash,” Time, June 6, 2000.

[4] Quoted in William Booth, “Emotions on the Edge,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2000.

[5] Quoted in Michael A. Fletcher, “Lifesaving on the Border,” The Washington Post, June 27, 2000.

Go to top

The Next Step


“Illegal Immigration: A Lucrative Business and a Global Concern,” UPI News, June 22, 2000. Illegal immigration is a growing concern worldwide. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain have opened the gates to a massive flow of population movements, perhaps the largest since World War II. Tens of thousands of Eastern Europeans in search of better economies have been arriving in droves in Western Europe every day.

“New Immigration Bill Breaks Stalemate on High-Tech Workers,” UPI News, April 11, 2000. Breaking a stalemate over immigration, a key House chairman introduced new legislation to eliminate the existing caps on temporary visas for foreign workers taking high-tech jobs in the United States. The bill marked a dramatic turn in a long-simmering dispute over how to fill hundreds of thousands of high-tech jobs that are available in the United States. The legislation proposed by Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, would eliminate the cap on the number of visas available to foreign workers but would require U.S. industries to prove that their hiring and pay of U.S. workers does not drop off with the rise in foreign workers.

“U.S., Citing Elian Case, Opts to Review Immigration Policy,” Los Angeles Times, June 30, 2000, p. A8. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, reflecting on the end of the Elian Gonzalez saga, said that federal officials will undertake a review of immigration policies to determine whether any changes are needed in light of the seven-month ordeal. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is part of the Justice Department, took a pounding along the way in the lengthy debate, drawing criticism from some activists who believe that U.S. policy is riddled with inconsistencies.

Branigin, William , “Colombians Fleeing Homeland; U.S. Officials Worry About Tide of Immigration Flowing North,” The Washington Post, July 28, 1999, p. A14. Driven by worsening economic conditions and political violence, growing numbers of Colombians are fleeing their country in an exodus that U.S. officials fear may turn into an immigration crisis. Activists are urging the federal government to help the fleeing Colombians by offering temporary refuge to those who reach the United States and by softening the criteria for granting political asylum.

Branigin, William , “Immigration Rules to Be Eased For Salvadorans, Guatemalans,” The Washington Post, May 20, 1999, p. A27. The Clinton administration has announced long-awaited regulations that will make it easier for nearly a quarter-million Salvadorans and Guatemalans to obtain legal status in the United States. The regulations, in the works at the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the past year and a half, will allow illegal immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala who are covered by a previous class-action lawsuit to apply to remain in this country through a new, simplified procedure outside a courtroom.

Branigin, William , “Trouble Getting Out of Africa; Immigration Effort Hits 5-Year Mark,” The Washington Post, June 22, 2000, p. V1. They first caught each other's eye at a teacher-training session in a suburb of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. It was late 1993. He was a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer, she a Zimbabwean student-teacher on her way to a rural school. With Mark Forror's two-year tour nearing an end, they got engaged and made plans to marry in the United States. Forror, an Alexandria, Va., resident, applied for a visa for his bride-to-be, a process he expected would take a few months. Instead, five years have passed, with the couple separated not only by an ocean but by what the 38-year-old Forror describes as a bureaucratic morass worthy of Kafka.

DeYoung, Karen , “U.S., Cuba Discuss Immigration Pact; Washington and Havana at Odds on Smuggling, Return of Illegal Migrants,” The Washington Post, Dec. 13, 1999, p. A19. Cuba says the United States promotes the smuggling of illegal immigrants by sea to Florida even as it professes to want to stop the practice. Washington says Havana impedes the legal emigration of Cuban physicians and other medical personnel to the United States in violation of existing agreements. To make immigration more orderly, Washington has agreed to admit at least 20,000 Cubans a year, many of them chosen by lottery, and Cuba has agreed to facilitate their departure.

Eric Pianin , “Cuba Delays Talks on Immigration, Citing Elian Case,” The Washington Post, June 20, 2000, p. A8. Cuba has indefinitely postponed an upcoming round of biannual migration talks with the United States, citing its “preoccupation with the return of Elian Gonzalez as the reason,” the State Department said. The talks, held twice yearly under agreements signed by Havana and Washington in 1994 and 1995 to regularize the flow of Cuban immigrants to this country, were due to begin in New York on June 27.

Escobar, Gabriel , “Immigration Transforms A Community; Influx of Latino Workers Creates Culture Clash in Delaware Town,” The Washington Post, Nov. 29, 1999, p. A1. Celbin DeLeon is a pioneer. He is among the first Guatemalans to buy a house in Georgetown, Del., setting roots in a community that has not warmed to the arrival of Latinos drawn by the poultry industry's voracious need for workers. Until the wave of immigrants this decade, the quiet seat of Sussex County had not changed much in generations. By 1995, a sudden and large influx of Guatemalans turned this into a modern-day company town.

Greenhouse, Steven , “Coalition Urges Easing of Immigration Laws,” The New York Times, May 16, 2000, p. A16. Jack Kemp, the former Republican candidate for vice president, and Henry G. Cisneros, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, are leading an unusual coalition of conservatives and liberals that is beginning a major campaign to persuade Congress to ease the nation's immigration laws. Kemp and Cisneros are scheduled to announce an initiative in conjunction with immigrant groups and the nation's Roman Catholic bishops that calls for admitting more immigrants into the United States and granting amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.

Krueger, Alan B. , “Economic Scene; Work Visas Are Allowing Washington to Sidestep Immigration Reform,” The New York Times, May 25, 2000, p. A2. The inscription on the Statue of Liberty is quietly being rewritten: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; I'll also take your skilled employees under the temporary visa program, H-1B.” The H-1B visa was established in 1990 to permit foreigners with a college degree or higher to work in the United States for a renewable three-year term for employers who petition on their behalf. In 1998, the program was expanded to allow 115,000 workers, up from 65,000, to enter the United States in fiscal years 1999 and 2000. President Clinton and many members of Congress would like to increase the limit to 200,000 a year the next three years.

Montgomery, Paul L. , “Immigration: All Decry System of Illegal Workers, While All Use It,” Los Angeles Times, June 25, 2000, p. M1. The questions surrounding immigration, in both Europe and the United States, are as full of contradictions as any in politics. The United States, in its mythology “a nation of immigrants,” in fact gave preference in its immigration policy through much of the 20th century to white people from Northern Europe, with Southern European people allowed some access and the rest of the world subjected to strict quotas. The Justice Department estimates there are 5 million illegal immigrants in the United States now, attracted by jobs that are low-paying to U.S. workers.

Pan, Phillip P. , “Demonstration Presses for Immigration Rule Change; 5,000 Urge Congress To Grant New Amnesty,” The Washington Post, Oct. 17, 1999, p. C5. More than 5,000 protesters from across the country, including illegal immigrants from four continents, marched through Washington and staged a noisy demonstration in Lafayette Square urging Congress to grant a new amnesty for all illegal immigrant workers. It has been 13 years since Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Now, according to government estimates, there are more than 5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, with an additional quarter-million arriving every year.

Pan, Philip P. , “Protesters Demand Immigration Amnesty,” The Washington Post, June 25, 1999, p. B2. Hundreds of Central American immigrants staged a colorful demonstration to urge the U.S. government to grant all refugees who fled civil war and poverty in the region the same amnesty given to Cuban and Nicaraguan immigrants two years ago. The Clinton administration issued regulations making it easier for as many as 50,000 Salvadorans and Guatemalans to become permanent residents, including many who had been in legal limbo for as long as 15 years.

Mary Jordan , “Hands -- and Hopes -- Across the Sea; Tough U.S. Immigration Policy Keeps Asian Families Apart,” The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 1999, p. A1. Fairly or unfairly in a land built by and for immigrants, U.S. immigration policy results in the rending of millions of families, with some members in America and some in their homelands.

Pressley, Sue Anne , “Hispanic Immigration Boom Rattles South; Rapid Influx To Some Areas Raises Tensions,” The Washington Post, March 6, 2000, p. A3. As the 2000 census is sure to confirm, the Hispanic population in America is exploding, from 22.4 million in 1990 to an estimated 30.3 million in 1998. Once the census is completed, many believe the latest estimates will prove shockingly low. In small towns and large cities, particularly across the South, the influx of Hispanic immigrants, mostly illegal, is straining schools and social services, forcing police departments and other agencies to rethink their ways of dealing with citizens and changing forever the old idea of what a Southerner is.

Sengupta, Somini , “The Immigration Debate; Full Employment Opens the Door,” The New York Times, June 18, 2000, p. A4. Just a few years ago, lawmakers were in full cry about the supposed dangers of immigration -- from crime to welfare cheats to lost jobs. Yet now Congress is poised to pass a bill that would grant visas to tens of thousands more temporary high-tech workers from abroad. And an unlikely coalition of business and immigrants rights groups is pushing to fling the door open wider: to unskilled workers who could fill shortages in hotels and on farms, and even to roll back an array of restrictive measures passed with great fanfare in1996.

Tulsky, Fredric N. , “Abused Woman Is Denied Asylum; Immigration Ruling Reflects Split Over Gender Persecution,” The Washington Post, June 20, 1999, p. A1. A foreign woman fleeing a violently abusive spouse cannot gain asylum in the United States even if she faces a direct and serious threat of harm in her home country, a federal immigration panel has ruled in a case that is drawing protests from asylum advocates and women's groups. The decision by a sharply divided Board of Immigration Appeals, the Justice Department panel that sets and interprets U.S. immigration policy, reflects a growing philosophical tension over how to treat women's claims of gender persecution.

Immigration and the Courts

“Court rules against immigration statute; law applies to out-of-wedlock births,” The Washington Post, Sept. 18, 1999. A longstanding immigration law making it easier for a child born out of wedlock overseas to become a U.S. citizen if the child's mother is a citizen is unconstitutional sex discrimination, a federal appeals court has ruled. The law relies on “outdated stereotypes . . . the generalization that mothers are more likely to have close ties to and care for their children than are fathers,” the court said.

“Court Upholds Civil Fines in Immigration Cases,” Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1999, p. A29. A hearing officer who works for the Justice Department and is not a judge can impose fines for the use of forged immigration documents, a federal appeals court ruled. In a 2-1 decision, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the fines were civil penalties, not criminal punishment, and did not have to be imposed by a federal judge with life tenure. Federal immigration law since 1924 has made it a crime to forge immigration documents or to knowingly possess or use forged documents. A 1990 law added civil penalties of between $250 and $2,000 for each forged document that was used to evade the ban on employment of illegal immigrants.

MacGregor, Hilary E. , “Judge Bans Indefinite Jailing by INS; Ruling Affects Noncitizens Who Are Ordered Deported But Can't Go Back to Home Countries,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 29, 2000, p. A1. A U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles has ruled that the federal government may not indefinitely jail non-citizens who have been ordered deported because of crimes, but whose home countries will not take them back. The issue of how to handle people whom the Immigration and Naturalization Service terms “criminal aliens” has been a recurring one nationwide. The INS currently holds about 3,800 such “lifers” across the country, ranging from petty thieves to murderers.

Savage, David G. , “Justices Uphold Broad Deportation Power for U.S. Immigration; Supreme Court Rules That Crimes Committed in Homeland Can Be Grounds for Expulsion,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1999, p. A3. The U.S. Supreme Court made it harder for those fleeing political persecution to win asylum in the United States, ruling that the government is free to deport an illegal immigrant who committed a serious crime in his homeland. The 9-0 ruling upholds the government's broad power over immigration matters, a consistent theme of the court's recent rulings.

Immigration and Naturalization Service

“INS Reports Progress in Naturalization; Immigration Agency Says It Has Greatly Reduced Its Backlog of Citizenship Applications; Critics Say It Has Sacrificed Other Responsibilities,” Los Angeles Times, Oct. 29, 1999, p. A23. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service announced it slashed the nation's immense backlog in citizenship applications by nearly a quarter last year and said applicants can now expect to wait about 12 months to become citizens, down from 28 months a year ago. But critics questioned the INS statistics and complained the agency had fallen behind in other work -- such as issuing green cards. The backlog reached a high of 1.8 million applications last year, with immigrants in some cities facing waits as long as three or four years after submitting their paperwork.

Branigin, William , “INS Shifts 'Interior' Strategy to Target Criminal Aliens; Critics Say Plan to Curtail Work-Site Raids Will Hurt Immigration Compliance,” The Washington Post, March 15, 1999, p. A3. In what it calls a “major shift” in strategy, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is moving away from its traditional raids on job sites to round up illegal immigrants, emphasizing instead operations against foreign criminals, alien-smuggling rings and document fraud. The new “interior enforcement strategy” affords a measure of relief to the estimated 5.5 million illegal immigrants living in the United States and the thousands of businesses that employ them.

Mittelstadt, Michelle , “Legal Immigration at 10-Year Low; Congressional Action Blamed,” The Washington Post, Aug. 12, 1999, p. A6. The United States granted permanent residence to 660,477 foreigners last year, marking the lowest level of legal immigration in a decade as the federal immigration service struggled to deal with a growing backlog of green card applications. The figures for fiscal 1998, announced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, reflected a 17 percent drop from 1997 and a 28 percent drop from the year before that.

Go to top


Alexis de Tocqueville Institution
1611 N. Kent St., Suite 901, Arlington, Va. 22209
(703) 351-0090
The institution works to increase public understanding of the cultural and economic benefits of immigration.

Center for Immigration Studies
1522 K St., N.W., Suite 820, Washington, D.C. 20005
(202) 466-8185
The center conducts research on the impact of immigration.

Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR)
1666 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20009
(202) 328-7004
FAIR lobbies in favor of strict limits on immigration.

National Council of La Raza
1111 19th St., N.W., Suite 1000, Washington, D.C. 20036
(202) 785-1670
La Raza monitors legislation and lobbies on behalf of Latinos in the United States.

National Immigration Forum
220 I St., N.E., Washington, D.C. 20002
(202) 544-0004
The forum advocates and builds public support for pro-immigration policies.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
425 I St., N.W., Suite 7100, Washington, D.C. 20536
(202) 514-1900
The INS, part of the Department of Justice, administers and enforces U.S. immigration and naturalization laws.

Go to top


[1] Data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau. For background, see Charles S. Clark, “The New Immigrants,” The CQ Researcher, Jan. 24, 1997, pp. 49-72.

[2] Greenspan testified before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs on Feb. 24, 2000.

[3] Quoted in John Micklethwait, “The New Americans,” The Economist, March 11, 2000.

[4] For background, see Kenneth Jost, “Cracking Down on Immigration,” The CQ Researcher, Feb. 3, 1995, pp. 97-120.

[5] For background, see Kathy Koch, “High-Tech Labor Shortage,” The CQ Researcher, April 24, 1998, pp. 361-384.

[6] Figures provided by the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

[7] Micklethwait, op. cit.

[8] For background, see David Masci, “Hispanic Americans' New Clout,” The CQ Researcher, Sept. 18, 1998, pp. 809-832.

[9] Quoted from Douglas Holt, “INS Is Scaling Back Its Workplace Raids,” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 17, 1999.

[10] Mary W. Cohn (ed.), Congressional Quarterly Almanac (1986), p. 61.

[11] Quoted in Karen Cheney, “Foreign Aid: Hiring Abroad Can Ease Your Labor Woes,” Business Week, April 24, 2000.

[12] Micklethwait, op. cit.

[13] Suzette Brooks Masters and Ted Ruthizer, “The H-1B Straitjacket,” CATO Institute, March 3, 2000.

[14] For background, see David Masci, “Assisting Refugees,” The CQ Researcher, Feb. 7, 1997, pp. 97-120.

[15] For background, see David Masci, “Mexico's Future,” The CQ Researcher, Sept. 19, 1997, pp. 817-840.

[16] Figures cited in Peter Brimelow, Alien Nation (1995), p. 34.

[17] Kenneth Jost (ed.), Congressional Quarterly Almanac (1990), p. 482.

[18] Jan Austin (ed.), Congressional Quarterly Almanac (1996), p. 5-3

[19] Micklethwait, op. cit.

[20] Mary H. Cooper, “Global Refugee Crisis,” The CQ Researcher, July 9, 1999, pp. 569-592.

[21] Steven Greenhouse, “Coalition Urges Easing of Immigration Laws,” The New York Times, May 16, 2000.

[22] Figures cited in Mike Dorning, “Acceptance of Immigration on the Rise,” Chicago Tribune, April 3, 2000.

[23] Quoted in Ibid.

Go to top

Document APA Citation
Masci, D. (2000, July 14). Debate over immigration. CQ Researcher, 10, 569-592. Retrieved from
Document ID: cqresrre2000071400
Document URL:
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Immigration and Naturalization
Feb. 24, 2017  Immigrants and the Economy
Sep. 02, 2016  U.S.-Mexico Relations
Oct. 23, 2015  Immigrant Detention
Sep. 27, 2013  Border Security
Mar. 09, 2012  Immigration Conflict
Dec. 2010  Europe's Immigration Turmoil
Sep. 19, 2008  America's Border Fence
Feb. 01, 2008  Immigration Debate Updated
May 04, 2007  Real ID
May 06, 2005  Illegal Immigration
Jul. 14, 2000  Debate Over Immigration
Jan. 24, 1997  The New Immigrants
Feb. 03, 1995  Cracking Down on Immigration
Sep. 24, 1993  Immigration Reform
Apr. 24, 1992  Illegal Immigration
Jun. 13, 1986  Immigration
Dec. 10, 1976  Illegal Immigration
Dec. 13, 1974  The New Immigration
Feb. 12, 1964  Immigration Policy Revision
Feb. 06, 1957  Immigration Policy
Nov. 27, 1951  Emigration from Europe
Feb. 09, 1945  Immigration to Palestine
Sep. 30, 1940  Forced Migrations
Apr. 18, 1939  Immigration and Deportation
Jul. 27, 1931  Deportation of Aliens
Mar. 12, 1929  The National-Origin Immigration Plan
Aug. 19, 1927  Immigration from Canada and Latin America
Nov. 01, 1926  Quota Control and the National Origin System
Jul. 12, 1924  Immigration and its Relation to Political and Economic Theories and Party Affiliation
Immigration and Naturalization
Labor Standards and Practices
Outsourcing and Immigration
No comments on this report yet.
Comment on this Report