Immigration has been a topic of political debate in the U.S. for centuries. America’s restrictions on the immigration of particular ethnic and national groups date back to 1862, when the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrants from entering the United States. Following this, a series of acts banning immigration from particular racial and ethnic groups have been instated. This anti-immigration legislation often passed after an influx of a new group of immigrants because people felt racially and economically threatened.
In 2020, immigration is a hot topic yet again. After the passage of the DREAM Act and DACA, both of which support undocumented immigrant children by providing them with work visas and pathways to citizenship, increased xenophobia has sparked a counterattack on immigration. During his campaign for presidency, President Trump espoused the idea of a border wall to keep out undocumented Mexican immigrants. Trump furthered these sentiments by issuing two executive orders aimed at curtailing immigration from six majority Muslim countries, North Korea, and Venezuela. Now, many citizens are struggling to find the balance between protections for undocumented immigrants and a strong stance against illegal immigration. Youth are very much a centerpiece on this debate and are advocating for an array of immigration reform.
U.S. Immigration Statistics
More than 44.7 million immigrants live in the United States.
In 2018, according to the Migration Policy Institute, immigrants of Hispanic or Latino origins reached 44% of total U.S. immigrants, amounting to 19.8 million people.
Reported race percentages of legal immigrants in 2018 were as follows: single-race White (46%), Asian (27%), Black (10%), other race (15%).
32% (or 12.6 million immigrants) over 25 years old had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 33% of adults over 25 years old born in the U.S.
Immigrants are projected to add 18 million people to the declining working-age population by 2035.
In response to increasing anti-immigration sentiments, there was an increase from 19,437 border patrol agents in 2017 to 19,555 in 2018.
According to data from fiscal year 2015, 44% of undocumented immigrants overstayed their visas.
The children of immigrants are more likely to grow up in low-income families (meaning families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold). 47% of immigrant children live in low-income households compared to 36% children born in the U.S.
The Department of Homeland Security reports that 340,056 people were deported from the U.S. in fiscal 2016.
Less than a quarter of the United States’ immigrant population is undocumented (23%).
The Immigration Discussion
The United States was founded by and for immigrants. However, with undocumented immigration on the rise, barriers have been put in place to secure our borders and limit immigration, leading to much debate. These arguments have also been spurred by a spike in xenophobic and racist attitudes as many Americans have come to feel threatened by the rising immigrant numbers.
Still, a 2019 Gallup poll found that 76% of Americans view immigration as a good thing for the United States. It also showed that nearly 81% of Americans support a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. In addition, a poll by the Pew Research Center showed that a majority of Americans (69%) are sympathetic (versus unsympathetic) towards undocumented immigrants, and young voters aged 18- to- 29-years old are more likely than older voters to harbor these feelings.
Debate surrounding undocumented immigration took the spotlight in 2018 after Trump announced a “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in criminal charges for hundreds of undocumented immigrants, sent many Mexican immigrants back across the border, and separated nearly 4,368 children from their families. Immense public outcry led to a revision of the family separation policy, which became a family detention policy. Inspired by this revision, politicians and activists called for action to reconnect children to their families and halt the family separation process.
Currently, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals has served as a major action protecting youth undocumented immigrants. This action has been threatened by the Trump administration on a number of occasions, most recently just last month. DACA allows DREAMers (undocumented children that arrived to the United States before the age of 15) to request deferred removal action for two years. This protects them from deportation and allows them to continue to apply to renew their DACA for two more years. DACA recipients are also eligible to obtain work permits and are authorized to work during their two year grace period. One major provision of DACA is that recipients must have continuously resided in the United States from the date of June 15, 2007 in order to be eligible. Additionally, eligibility restrictions have been placed on youth convicted of felonies, significant misdemeanors, or more than two minor misdemeanors.
What Youth Can Do
Voting is an important way in which youth can make an impact on immigration policies on the local, state, and national levels. State immigration laws take a major role in the context of immigration policy as they create offices or task forces on immigration, provide for occupational licensing, provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and establish sanctuary and immigration enforcement policies. By learning about various immigration policy proposals and the process of immigration, youth can more effectively advocate for comprehensive immigration reform. Young people can also utilize other forms of civic engagement, such as calling legislators and going to city council meetings to push for comprehensive immigration reform.
RAISE Act: This bill was introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to effectively redirect the current American immigration system. The act proposed to end the Diversity Visa Program (which provided legal permanent resident visas to people from countries with low rates of U.S. emigration), reduced the amount of sponsored immigrants, and capped the number of refugees to the United States at 50,000.
Dream and Promise Act: This act provides DREAMers (a subset of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. at ages 15 and under) with a path to citizenship and the chance to apply for “conditional permanent residency.” This act also established a streamlined process for conditional permanent residence for immigrants with DACA status.
Securing America's Future Act: This bill was crafted as a compromise between politically right-learning and moderate House Republicans. It would have funded the proposed border wall and limited legal immigration, while also providing a pathway to citizenship for DREAMers and ending the practice of family separation.
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: This act was the brainchild of former President Barack Obama. Through this act, DREAMers could request deferred removal action for two years (with renewal privileges). The act also made them eligible for work authorization by obtaining work permits.