One of the most divisive and politicized issues facing America today is the question of immigration.  The debate encompasses many, intertwined aspects including illegal immigration and securing the border, the optimal level and mix of legal immigration, and refugee policy.

A Few Facts

-There are more than 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.  A bit less than half of them are from Mexico.  In 2014 about 42% of the undocumented population in the U.S. were people who overstayed their visas.

Jens Manuel Krogstad, Jeffrey S. Passel and D’Vera Cohn.  "5 facts about illegal immigration in the U.S."  Pew Research Center, April 27, 2017.
Robert Warren and Donald Kerwin.  "The 2,000 Mile Wall in Search of a Purpose: Since 2007 Visa Overstays have Outnumbered Undocumented Border Crossers by a Half Million.  Center for Migration Studies, 2017 (+).

-The foreign born share of the population has increased steadily from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.4% in 2015.  The record level was 14.8% in 1890.

Gustavo López and Kristen Bialik.  "Key findings about U.S. immigrants."  Pew Research Center, May 3, 2017.
Gustavo López and Jynnah Radford.  "Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States."  Pew Research Center, May 3, 2017.
U.S. Census Bureau.  "The Foreign-Born Population in the United States."

-The number of deportations (ICE removals) in FY2017 was 226,119; deportations reached a high of 409,849 in FY2012.  About 400,000 people are detained in U.S. immigration detention facilities during the course of a year.

"FY 2017 ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations."  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Immigration Detention 101."  Detention Watch Network.

-The United States admitted 84,995 refugees in FY2016; in FY2019 it will limit refugee admissions to a maximum of 30,000.

Jens Manuel Krogstad and Jynnah Radford.  "Key facts about refugees to the U.S."  Pew Research Center, Jan. 30, 2017.
Phillip Connor.  "U.S. Resettles Fewer Refugees, Even as Global Number of Displaced People Grows."  Pew Research Center, Oct. 12, 2017.


The White House


Remarks by President Trump on Modernizing Our Immigration System for a Stronger America (May 16, 2019)
White House Framework on Immigration Reform & Border Security (Jan. 25, 2018)
Trump Administration Immigration Policy Priorities (Oct. 8, 2017)
Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements (Jan. 25, 2017)

Department of Homeland Security
Immigration Data & Statistics

-U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

"With more than 60,000 employees, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, CBP, is one of the world's largest law enforcement organizations and is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade."

-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

"responsible for identifying and shutting down vulnerabilities in the nation’s border, economic, transportation and infrastructure security."

-U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

"responsible for the administration of immigration and naturalization adjudication functions and establishing immigration services policies and priorities."

Department of Justice
-Executive Office for Immigration Review
"The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) was created on January 9, 1983, through an internal Department of Justice (DOJ) reorganization which combined the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA or Board) with the Immigration Judge function previously performed by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)..."

U.S. Senate Committee on Judiciary - Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration

U.S. House Committee on Judiciary - Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security

Canada  Immigration and Citizenship
Mexico  11 Acciones para Proteger a la Comunidad Mexicana en EUA


National Conference of State Legislatures


List of Sanctuary Cities
Example of Sanctuary City Ordinance


think tank/policy

American Immigration Council

"honoring our immigrant history and shaping how Americans think about and act towards immigration now and in the future..."  Educating citizens about the enduring contributions of America's immigrants; Standing up for sensible and humane immigration policies that reflect American values; Insisting that our immigration laws be enacted and implemented in a way that honors fundamental constitutional and human rights; Working tirelessly to achieve justice and fairness for immigrants under the law.

Center for Immigration Studies

" independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organization founded in 1985. It is the nation's only think tank devoted exclusively to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration on the United States...  It is the Center's mission to expand the base of public knowledge and understanding of the need for an immigration policy that gives first concern to the broad national interest. The Center is animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted."

Migration Policy Institute

"an independent non-partisan, non-profit think-tank dedicated to the study of the movement of people worldwide."

Pew Research Center

"a nonpartisan research organization that seeks to improve understanding of the U.S. Hispanic population and to chronicle Latinos' growing impact on the nation."

controlling the border
Federation for American Immigration Reform

"FAIR seeks to improve border security, to stop illegal immigration, and to promote immigration levels consistent with the national interest—more traditional rates of about 300,000 a year."

Immigration Reform Law Institute

"FAIR's affiliated legal organization. It is the only public interest non-profit law firm in the United States devoted exclusively to protecting the rights and interests of Americans in immigration-related matters."

Numbers USA

"NumbersUSA Education & Research Foundation provides a civil forum for Americans of all political and ethnic backgrounds to focus on a single issue, the numerical level of U.S. immigration."

comprehensive immigration reform
Campaign to Reform Immigration for America

"The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America is a united national effort that brings together individuals and grassroots organizations with the mission to build support for workable comprehensive immigration reform. The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America is, in part, a project of the Tides Advocacy Fund."

America's Voice

"The mission of America’s Voice is to realize the promise of workable and humane comprehensive immigration reform."

Fair Immigration Reform Movement

"the meeting place and united voice of the dynamic grassroots movement advocating for comprehensive immigration reform and the civil rights of immigrants in America...  FIRM is a project of the Center for Community Change, a national organization dedicated to improving the lives of low-income people and people of color."

National Immigration Forum

"The mission of the National Immigration Forum is to embrace and uphold America’s tradition as a nation of immigrants. The Forum advocates and builds support for public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and are fair and supportive to newcomers in the United States."

United We Dream

"United We Dream is the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation. Our powerful nonpartisan network is made up of over 100,000 immigrant youth and allies and 55 affiliate organizations in 26 states. We organize and advocate for the dignity and fair treatment of immigrant youth and families, regardless of immigration status."

The Red Card Solution

"Immigrants who want to become citizens and live in the U.S. permanently would have to comply with existing laws and procedures. The Red Card Solution creates a different system for the vast majority merely seeking work in the U.S."

Welcoming America

"Welcoming America leads a movement of inclusive communities becoming more prosperous by making everyone feel like they belong. We believe that all people, including immigrants, should be valued contributors and are vital to the success of both our communities and our shared future."

National Partnership for New Americans

"We represent the collective power and resources of the country’s 37 largest regional immigrant and refugee rights organizations in 31 states. Our members provide large-scale services—from DACA application processing to voter registration to health care enrollment—for their communities, and they combine service delivery with sophisticated organizing tactics to advance local and state policy."

Cities for Citizenship

"a major national initiative aimed at increasing citizenship among eligible U.S. permanent residents and encouraging cities across the country to invest in citizenship programs."

Naturalize NOW

"a nationally coordinated nonpartisan effort to encourage eligible legal permanent residents to take the first step in participating in America's democracy by becoming a U.S. citizen."

Church World Service: #GreaterAs1

"#GreaterAs1 is a global homebase for refugee solidarity — a campaign to unite the global community in our support of refugees. Today, we face both the worst global displacement crisis since World War II and unprecedented political pushback against life-saving refugee resettlement programs. With more than 65 million people now forcibly displaced from their homes because of war, violence and persecution, it has never been more urgent than now to come together and stand for welcome."

Refugee Council USA

"Refugee Council USA (RCUSA), a coalition of 22 U.S.-based non-governmental organizations, is dedicated to refugee protection, welcome, and excellence in the U.S. refugee resettlement program."

Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)

"...the national immigration detention visitation network, which is working to end U.S. immigration detention by monitoring human rights abuses, elevating stories, building community-based alternatives to detention, and advocating for system change."

Detention Watch Network

"a national coalition of organizations and individuals working to expose and challenge the injustices of the United States’ immigration detention and deportation system and advocate for profound change that promotes the rights and dignity of all persons."

ACLU - Immigrants' Rights and Detention

Immigrant Legal Resource Center

"The mission of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) is to work with and educate immigrants, community organizations, and the legal sector to continue to build a democratic society that values diversity and the rights of all people."

National Immigration Law Center

"one of the leading organizations in the U.S. exclusively dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of immigrants with low income."

American Immigration Lawyers Association
"the national association of more than 15,000 attorneys and law professors who practice and teach immigration law. AILA member attorneys represent U.S. families seeking permanent residence for close family members, as well as U.S. businesses seeking talent from the global marketplace."

a few examples...see a list at Campaign to Reform Immigration for America

Casa de Maryland

CASA's primary mission is to work with the community to improve the quality of life and fight for equal treatment and full access to resources and opportunities for low-income Latinos and their families. CASA also works with other low-income immigrant communities and organizations, makes its programs and activities available to them, and advocates for social, political, and economic justice for all low-income communities."

Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

"...dedicated to promote the rights of immigrants and refugees to full and equal participation in the civic, cultural, social, and political life of our diverse society.In partnership with our member organizations, the Coalition educates and organizes immigrant and refugee communities to assert their rights; promotes citizenship and civic participation; monitors, analyzes, and advocates on immigrant-related issues; and, informs the general public about the contributions of immigrants and refugees."


The Brookings Insitution
Cato Institute
Center for American Progress
The Heritage Foundation

Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends-Immigration


Democrats, Republicans and Major Third Parties


Immigration was one of the keys to Donald Trump's election in 2016 and is almost certain to be a major issue in the 2020 campaign.  The issue is highly politicized, and both sides routinely talk past each other.  The most recent example of this came on May 16, 2019 when President Trump presented a proposal for modernizing our immigration system which Speaker Pelosi declared dead on arrival.  The situation is akin to two rams butting their heads against each other, clearly not a recipe for addressing this complex set of issues in a constructive way.  The Trump Administration has taken a very heavy handed and at times cruel approach, demonizing some immigrants and playing off people's fears.  Many Democrats seem to give lip service to the question of preventing illegal immigration, if they mention it at all.  Both sides use this issue to mobilize their bases;  political calculations by both sides, rather than discussion of what is best for the country, seem to drive the debate.  The way out of the impasse is not clear. 

At the broadest level, the United States must determine what is the optimal overall level of immigration, including the mix of high-skill migrants, low-skill migrants and refugees.  The immigration level appropriate for the early 20th century may not be appropriate as the United States progresses through the 21st century.  A flow of immigration can help boost the economy as the baby boom generation retires.  A humane policy addresses Dreamers, who only know this country, and refugees fleeing oppressive regimes.  At the same time too much immigration can have downside effects on our quality of life, overwhelming infrastructure and causing, for example, even more time spent in traffic. 

As the refugee crisis in Europe shows, migration problems are not limited to the U.S..  Around the world people are dying in efforts to escape conflict and/or poverty (>).  In the United States the tradition of welcoming immigrants is exemplified by Emma Lazarus' sonnet on the Statue of Liberty.  At the same time there are many Americans who want to uphold the rule of law, who see America's way of life being eroded by an influx of illegal immigrants, and who are concerned about securing the border.  Daily one hears reports of the human toll of detentions, deportations, and families being broken apart, including many people who are working hard and contributing to this country.  The foreign born share of the population has risen steadily from 4.7% in 1970 to 13.4% in 2015.  According to the Pew Research Center, the share could rise to 18% by 2065 (>).

Illegal immigration is the flashpoint in this debate.  The problem is not limited to the Southern border with Mexico; estimates are that from a third to over 40% of those in the U.S. illegally are visa overstayers.  Conservatives emphasize law and order as well as national security concerns.  People who want to control illegal immigration are frequently accused of going against America's immigrant tradition or being racist.  Progressive and labor groups sometimes seem motivated by the possibility of adding to their ranks.  One also hears arguments about the impossibility and consequences of suddenly deporting millions of people.  Most of the 11 million here illegally are working and contributing to society.  There are many heartwrenching personal stories of detention and deportation. 

Trump administration policies have stoked fear in the immigrant community, but their effectiveness is debatable.  In the first part of 2019 there was a significant uptick in the number refugees seeking asylum at the Southern border.  On Feb. 15, 2019 President Trump declared a national emergency at the Southern border.  "The current situation at the southern border presents a border security and humanitarian crisis that threatens core national security interests and constitutes a national emergency (+)."  Trump also threatened to impose tariffs on Mexico, but before that happened, on June 7, negotiators reached an agreement calling for Mexico to "take unprecedented steps to increase enforcement to curb irregular migration (+)."  In late June there was the wrenching image of Salvadorean father and his daughter who had drowned in the effort to obtain asylum.  In July there were reports that the administration was considering cutting the number or refugee admissions to zero in FY 2020.  In August ICE raids in Mississippi resulted in arrests of more than 600 people.

Meanwhile the politicization of the issue continues.  As he did in his 2016 campaign, Trump is using fears of immigration in his bid for re-election in 2020 (+).  He argues that "They [Democrats] want free immigration — immigration to pour into our country.  They don’t care who it is.  They don’t care what kind of a record they have.  It doesn’t make any difference." (June 7, 2019)  Democratic presidential candidates have announced detailed plans which would restore a more humane approach to immigration policy (Booker  |  Castro  |  Harris  |  Inslee  |  O'Rourke  |  Warren  |  Williamson).  However the question of deterring illegal immgration sometimes seems an afterthought in these plans and that could play into Trump's hands.  

The DREAMers, youths brought to this country illegally by their parents, have drawn particular attention and concern.  An August 2010 report (>) by the Pew Hispanic Center found that one in eight children born in the United States in 2008 had an "unauthorized immigrant parent [or parents]."  According to the report, "In total, 4 million U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrant parents resided in this country in 2009, alongside 1.1 million foreign-born children of unauthorized immigrant parents."  (One recalls the discussion of "anchor babies," birthright citizenship and whether the 14th Amendment should be revised).  The DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was first introduced in Congress in 2001 to provide a pathway to legal status for undocumented students, but has never passed.  After continued congressional inaction, on June 15, 2012 the Obama Administration announced a temporary, and controversial, fix: Deferred Action for Childhoold Arrivals (DACA).  The process addressed qualifying youths brought to this country illegally by their parents (>).  About 690,000 immigrant youth have received DACA; considerably more were eligible but did not apply.  On Nov. 20, 2014 President Obama went further, announcing the very controversial executive actions Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA).  The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on the matter in a decision issued on June 23, 2016 (+).

Immigration Policy in The Trump Era

Tough talk on illegal immigration was a pillar of Donald J. Trump's successful campaign for the presidency as he promised to "build a wall and make Mexico pay for it (+)."  On the campaign trail he would sometimes set out his views on refugees and illegal immigrants by reading "The Snake" by Oscar Brown.  By contrast, Hillary Clinton vowed to "fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship" but routinely left unsaid or glossed over the question of border security (+).  She promised to introduce immigration reform legislation in her first 100 days, but what that meant if Republicans maintained control in Congress was unclear.  Both candidates seemed to be pandering to elements of their bases. 

President Trump regularly uses the immigration issue to fire up his base; it appears to be a or the central part of his strategy for the 2018 midterm elections.  The "zero tolerance" policy and subsequent furor over family separations in June 2018 led to a temporary rebuff, but did not dissuade Trump from his course.  For example, on June 22 he tweeted, "Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November. Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!"  And on June 24, "We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents..."  Meanwhile, some Democrats went to the other extreme, calling for the abolition of ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement).

The Trump Administration has followed the hard line that candidate Trump set out during the campaign, implementing a catalogue of restrictive measure.  For example:

Deferred Action for Childhoold Arrivals (DACA) and the DREAMers

The administration's Sept. 5, 2017 announcement that it would phase out DACA created a sense of urgency leading up to Mar. 5, 2018.  Activists engaged in many demonstrations, events and actions large and small on Capitol Hill and around the country in late 2017 and early 2018.  One hundred and twenty-two people were losing their status each day.

Trump himself sent mixed messages on the DREAMers.  On Sept. 13 he dined with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi at the White House; the Democrats reported a deal on DACA, but details were murky.  Subsequently they rejected the administration's Oct. 8 policy announcement.  DREAMERs pressed hard for action in the form of a "clean Dream Act" before the end of 2017, seeking to tie it to the short-term continuing resolution to fund the government but Congress left town for the Christmas break without acting. 

On Jan. 9 Trump convened a high-profile meeting with members of Congress to discuss immigration.  During the meeting he called for "a bill of love" but also "a bill where we’re able to secure our border" (+).  White House press secretary Sarah Sanders summarized the meeting by saying four issues are under discussion: border security, chain migration, visa lottery, and DACA.  Coincidentally, late evening on Jan. 9 another major development occurred: a federal judge  issued a nationwide injunction against the administration's termination of DACA, allowing applications for DACA renewals to again be accepted [U.S. Department of Homeland Security et al. v. Regents of the University of California et al.] (+). 

Despite the promising meeting of Jan. 9, negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders appeared bumpy.  In a Jan. 11 Oval Office meeting on immigration, Trump ignited yet another controversy by reportedly using racist and offensive language (+).  Urged on by activists, Senate Democrats sought to tie immigration to yet another continuing resolution to fund the government.  At one point Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) observed, "Negotiating with this White House is like negotiating with Jello.  It's next to impossible."  After a three-day government shutdown, Democrats backed down.

On Jan. 25, the administration announced a legislative framework which included a path to citizenship but also limitations on legal immigration.  The proposal met with generally unfavorable reactions (+).  On Feb. 7 congressional leaders announced they had reached a bipartisan budget agreement, but, to the dismay of DREAMers, DACA still was not addressed.  On the plus side, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did agree to an open debate on immigration in the Senate.  Speaker Paul Ryan did not go as far, prompting House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi to take to the House floor and make a "prayerful human plea to the Speaker."  Pelosi spoke for more than eight hours, a record in the House.  "Give us a vote; what are you afraid of?" she asked Ryan. 

Debate in the Senate started on Feb. 12.  The two sides appeared very far apart, with Democrats favoring a narrow fix and conservative Republicans advocating legislation similar to Trump's framework.  There was even some talk of a short-term measure to protect the DREAMers if a deal could not be reached.  (Of note, on Feb. 13 a second federal judge issued an injuction preventing the administration from terminating DACA >).  On the afternoon of Feb. 15 the Senate voted on four different immigration proposals; each fell short of the requisite 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster (+).  While prospects for a legislative solution on DACA were dim, the legal route continues to unfold.  On Feb. 26 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up the Trump adminstration's appeal in DHS v. Regents (+); the case will proceed on its normal course to the U.S. Court of Appeals and then likely to the U.S. Supreme Court, providing a reprieve for DACA recipients.  Trump stuck to his line, for example tweeting on April 1, "Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. “Caravans” coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!"  Seven Republican attorneys general also weighed in in May with a lawsuit challenging the "unconstitutional" program (+). 

Congress was not done with immigration yet, however.  On May 9, 2018 a group of Republican House members announced they would seek to force debate on immigration using a discharge petition.  Speaker Paul Ryan opposed the effort, but if the petition, introduced by U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), had obtained 218 signatures, the House would, under a resolution by U.S. Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA) (H.Res. 774), have taken up four bills addressing immigration and border security: the Securing America’s Future Act (H.R. 4760, the Goodlatte bill), the DREAM Act (H.R. 3440, the Roybal-Allard bill), the USA Act (H.R. 4796, a bipartisan bill introduced by Hurd), and an immigration bill of Speaker Paul Ryan’s choice.  The discharge petition fell short, but the House was set to vote on two immigration bills (+).  On June 20 the House defeated the Goodlatte bill by a vote of 231-193 (+).  The second "compromise" bill was defeated a week later on June 27. 

Meanwhile supporters of DACA achieved a number of victories in the courts.  First there were rulings requiring the administration to continue to renew DACA permits, and on Aug. 3, 2018 U.S. District Judge John Bates, citing deficiancies in the DHS memo ending DACA (+), ordered that the program be restarted effective Aug. 23 (+).  Another closely watched hearing is occurring on Aug. 8 in Texas before U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen.

Some Historical Perspective

Congress has not managed significant action on the immigration since President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Simpson-Mazzoli Act. on Nov. 6, 1986.  On Jan. 28, 2013 a bipartisan group of eight senators (Republicans Graham, McCain, Rubio and Flake and Democrats Bennet, Durbin, Menendez and Schumer) unveiled the “Bipartisan Framework or Comprehensive Immigration Reform.”  Three and a half months later the group formally introduced the Border Security, Economic Opportunity & Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.  S. 744 weighed in at 844 pages.  The Senate passed the bill, which as amended totalled 1,197 pages, on June 27 on a 68–32 vote, but immigration reform failed to advance in the House.  President Obama then announced the very controversial executive actions Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) on Nov. 20, 2014.  The U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked on the matter in a decision issued on June 23, 2016 (+).

Finally a couple of significant actions on illegal immigration at the state level in recent decades should be highlighted.  In 2010 the immigration issue was brought sharply into focus by S.B. 1070, the tough measure signed into law by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) on April 23.  The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit challenging the constitutionality of Arizona's law on July 6, and half a dozen other lawsuits were filed as well.  In Phoenix on July 28, one day before the law was to take effect, U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton issued a preliminary injunction blocking major provisions of S.B. 1070 from being implemented.  In February 2011, the State of Arizona filed a countersuit against the federal government.  During 2011 other states including Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina passed laws similar to S.B. 1070.  Meanwhile, the Arizona case was winding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in Arizona v. United States on April 25, 2012.  On June 25, 2012 the Court issued an opinon striking down some portions of the SB 1070, but upholding the controversial "papers please" provision (>).  More than a decade earlier, in 1994 California voters passed Proposition 187, which would have denied public services to illegal immigrants; the measure wound its way through the courts before dying in 1999 (1 ,2).  more photos

revised 08/21/19 ema