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Immigration Policy | United States of America |

Immigration Policy

Nicholas Parrott

/ 5 Minuten zu lesen

Throughout much of the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy sought to limit admissions according to countries or regions of origin. Building on the Quota Law of 1921, the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration levels to 150,000 persons a year and established the "national-origins quota system".

Major legislation up to 1980

Throughout much of the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy sought to limit admissions according to countries or regions of origin. Building on the Quota Law of 1921, the Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration levels to 150,000 persons a year and established the "national-origins quota system", which aimed to foster immigration from favored Northern and Western European countries while limiting the arrival of the "undesirable races" of Eastern and Southern Europe. This was accomplished by tying national quotas to U.S. census figures on the national origins of the population. Chinese, Japanese, South Asian and many African persons were thus effectively barred from immigrating. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 eased the restrictions of the 1924 Act somewhat while maintaining the national origins premise. Race was eliminated as a bar to immigration, and all countries were allocated a minimum quota of 100 immigrants. Additionally, a system of selected immigration was introduced, with preference being given to skilled immigrants whose abilities where needed in the U.S. as well as to the relatives of U.S. citizens and residents. Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 abolished the national-origins system and thus paved the way for substantial immigration from Asia and Latin America, as well as from Southern Europe. Immigration ceilings were established according to world region, and a seven-category preference system for allocating visas was introduced. According to the preference system, visas were to be issued on a "first come, first served"-basis, both to relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and to potential immigrants with special skills, abilities or training needed in the U.S. economy.

Legislation since 1980

In 1985, amid a period of economic insecurity marked by income inequality, stagnating wages and widespread unemployment, President Ronald Reagan claimed that the U.S. had "lost control" of its borders to an "invasion" of illegal immigrants, thus marking the emergence of immigration as a national security issue. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 responded to this new sense of urgency with four key provisions: enforcement along the Mexico-U.S. border was enhanced, employer sanctions were introduced in order to make employing undocumented workers a less attractive option, long-term undocumented residents were offered an amnesty (the Legally Authorized Worker, LAW, Program), and a special legalization program was created for agricultural workers (the Special Agricultural Worker, SAW, Program).

Following this, the Legal Immigration Act of 1990 contained provisions to increase the inflow of skilled immigrants to the U.S. It introduced a flexible cap of 675,000 immigrants per year beginning in 1995; 480,000 of these admissions were allocated for family-sponsored immigrants, 140,000 for employment-based purposes, and 55,000 for "diversity immigrants" from countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.

In the 1990s focus shifted to immigrants' access to welfare. Most controversially, in 1994, Proposition 187 was passed in California, which denied illegal immigrants access to social services such as medical care. This was only the most well-known of a number of legislative moves against irregular immigrants. The latter 1990s also saw a rise in pressure for increasing the access of highly-skilled migrants to the labor market, in order to fill jobs in the booming economy.

Developments since 9/11

The terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 provided a new impetus for administrative reform of the immigration system. As the attacks were carried out by non-U.S. nationals entirely within U.S. territory, they were seen as a sign that cooperation between federal agencies, state police forces and border control personnel had become inadequate. Following the attacks, responsibility for immigration and border control was consolidated under the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Immigration and security issues were further brought into close association with the 2001 Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act, which expanded the range of offences for which an immigrant could be deported and made it easier to detain non-U.S. citizens for long periods of time. Further acts followed that, too, placed an emphasis on border control and anti-terrorism measures. Although there have been several attempts to reform the "broken" immigration system as a whole in such a way as to reconcile labor market demands for immigrants with border control and security concerns, to date, an agreement on Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) has not been reached.

In 2007, President George W. Bush tried to push for an immigration reform act that included a temporary workers program in order to create more legal opportunities for immigrant workers to come to the U.S. His reform bill did, however, not pass Congress. In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama promised to advocate immigration reform during his first year in office. However, he then failed to make CIR a top legislative topic, partly because major attention was drawn to health care, economic stimulus and financial reform especially during the first two years of his presidency. In 2010, the DREAM Act bill (acronym for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act) was defeated in the Senate. It would have allowed certain illegal immigrants who had come to the U.S. with their parents at a young age and were educated in American schools to become legal permanent residents. While immigration reform has been dormant at the national level, several states have modified their related legislation. Especially Arizona's Senate Bill (SB) 1070 ("Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act"), passed in 2010, has caused considerable attention. It aims at discouraging illegal immigrants from entering and remaining in Arizona and is considered to be the nation's toughest immigration measure. The law makes it a state crime (a misdemeanor) to not carry immigration documents and requires police officers to ask about immigration status during any lawful stop. Opponents of the law said it would increase racial profiling and thus discrimination. Before it went into effect, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the law arguing that it is unconstitutional. In June 2012, the Supreme Court ruled on SB 1070. It upheld the most controversial provision whereby the police have to determine the immigration status of a person stopped or arrested if they suspect this person to be in the country illegally. At the same time, Supreme Court judges struck down other parts of the law which they found to conflict with federal laws such as the above mentioned requirement to carry immigration papers.



  1. See Ngai (1999).

  2. See Durand et al. (1999).

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