America's immigration policy reform: Polemics, idealism and slogans

America's immigration policy reform: Polemics, idealism and slogans
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America’s immigration policy reform is increasingly being overwhelmed by polemics, idealism and slogans.

The formulation of well-reasoned, sensible and realizable immigration policy requires taking into account a host of considerations, especially demographics, laws, rights and messages.

Regarding demographics, a great deal of migration information and statistics on levels, trends and projections are available. For example, among America’s population of 330 million are 45 million foreign-born migrants, or 14 percent of the population, with about one-quarter of them, nearly 11 million, residing in the country unlawfully.


The annual number of U.S. immigrants in the recent past and assumed in Census Bureau projections is about 1.1 million. In contrast, the number of people wishing to emigrate to America, the world’s top destination country, is estimated at nearly 250 million.

In the nearby countries of El Salvador, Haiti and Honduras, for example, about half of their populations say they would like to move to another country permanently and the country of choice, where 3 million migrants from those countries already live, is the U.S.

If future immigration continues at approximately the level of the recent past, America’s population will reach 400 million slightly after mid-century. Some advocate for more open U.S. borders, permitting substantially greater immigration. For example, if the annual intake of immigrants were 10 million, America’s population would be 1.6 billion by the century’s close and be the world’s most populous country.

Many in the business community, economists, government officials and others may welcome the prospects of an American population with well over a billion people by century’s end. Many, however, are concerned about the consequences on the environment, climate change and the quality of life from an American population that would be more than triple its current size.  

In virtually every country laws require authorization for entry, residence and employment. Stated simply, open borders do not exist.  


Moreover, countries are uniformly opposed to illegal immigration. The global community of nations stresses the importance of safe, orderly, legal and regular migration based on laws, treaties and rights.

The Biden administration has indicated that while they are committed to expanding legal migration pathways for opportunity and protection, America has borders and laws must be enforced. In addition, the administration recognizes that the government’s current programs are not equipped to welcome a flood of people because they have been stripped of personnel and weakened by the coronavirus.

An important law impacting America’s immigration policy is the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, or birthright citizenship. Despite the past rulings of the Supreme Court on this issue, some, including the former Trump administration, have attempted to reinterpret or modify the amendment, which confers citizenship on births taking place on U.S. territory. 

Many unauthorized migrants overlook or downplay that they are in violation of the law and stress the need for a pathway to citizenship. They also contend that the passage of time confers a claim to legal status and eventually citizenship. 

The right to freedom of movement was established in Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, although everyone has the right to leave and return to one’s country, they have no right to emigrate to another country. 

That distinction in migration rights coupled with huge demographic differences between migrant sending and receiving countries is fueling the great migration clash. In brief, the supply of potential migrants vastly exceeds the demand for migrants.  

In addition to the right to leave one’s country, the Universal Declaration’s Article 14 established the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol elaborated this human right with definitions and responsibilities of nations granting asylum. 

An asylum claimant must demonstrate persecution based on at least one of five grounds: race; religion; nationality; membership in a particular social group; political opinion. Poverty, unemployment, lack of housing, education and health care and crime are generally not considered legitimate grounds for asylum. 

America’s nearly 400 immigration judges are under a mountain of backlogged cases. Between 2008 and 2018 the numbers of new asylum requests jumped six-fold.

The time between an asylum claim and a court hearing is lengthy, with pending cases at some locations waiting on average more than several years. In addition, in 2018 about 16 percent of U.S. asylum cases that originate from a credible fear claim were granted.  

It is vital for U.S. immigration policy to have a clear, consistent and effective message both domestically and abroad. Unfortunately, America suffers from a bipolar immigration policy disorder.

The official U.S. immigration policy is: we are a nation of laws, a country with borders and unauthorized migration is unlawful and those who do not qualify to remain in the country won’t be able to do so. 

The unofficial U.S. immigration policy is: if you can get in and keep a low profile, you can stay and eventually become a legal resident. 

Rather than relying on polemics, idealism and slogans, U.S. immigration policy reform needs to be well-reasoned, sensible, realizable and take into account demographics, laws and rights. Also, the U.S. needs to cure itself of its bipolar immigration policy disorder, replacing it with a policy that is clear, consistent and enforceable. Otherwise, America will continue to struggle and become even more divided, partisan and disaffected on the fundamental issue of immigration. 

Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."