Contradictions and cross currents in US immigration debates and policy-making

Periodic efforts to update America’s immigration policies have often been blocked by intra-political party contradiction. Democrats typically praise immigration for enriching a multicultural society, but fear its impacts on low-income workers and the environment. Socially conservative Republicans stress the sovereign right of a country to control its borders, while free-market Republicans emphasize individual liberties to seek employment across borders. There is general agreement that America’s current immigrant policy is “broken,” but attempts to fix it also seem “broken” in the sense of failing to produce effective legislation.


See also:

Trump's wall

Recent immigration reform efforts in the U.S.

Historical perspective: An Immigration Policy that Worked (1900-14)


The asymmetry of partisan politics on US immigration

      Trump "sees immigration as a campaign issue. Democrats should" also.

        Economist, November 20, 2018, p. 46  (abridged)

"When opposing political parties both think they are winning, one of them is usually wrong…Democratic strategists..[have] noted that…[Trump’s] immigration policies, including his wall, caging of migrant children and threat to deport  immigrants, known as “Dreamers”… are unpopular. [Yet this] ignores how asymmetrically the two parties are affected by partisanship, in which attitudes towards immigration, the most polarising issue, play a big part. The bumper representation given to small states in the Senate means Democrats need to win more conservative places than Republicans need to win progressive ones.

    Only a handful of voters understand the details of immigration policy. Rather…  the issue is a repository for broader anxieties and allegiances…In the hands of a skilled opportunist like Mr Trump, immigration is scarcely a policy problem at all. It is a means to rally nativist sentiment to win power…

   The Democrats’ main error on immigration is not to have been too political about it, but the opposite. They have primarily viewed immigration as a policy problem, to be unpicked through bipartisan compromise…The president does not want a bipartisan deal on immigration. He wants to keep it as a campaign issue.

   By ignoring immigration, the Democrats will let him have it -and when his name is on the ballot, in 2020, the onslaught will be fiercer. They need to redefine the issue…[and] take the politics of immigration more seriously. Mr Trump has sandbagged them with it once -and could do so again."


"Trump wrong about Honduran migrants, Democrats incoherent"      Economist,  October 27, 2018 (abridged, emphasis added)

"According to President Donald Trump, the “caravan” of migrants trudging north towards the United States represents “an assault on our country.”

….Much of what Trump says is untrue, or at least unsubstantiated…migrants in the caravan are mostly ordinary Hondurans who would rather live somewhere peaceful and rich than poor and violent. There is no evidence of Middle Easterners among them, or an unusual number of criminals, or that Democrats had anything to do with organising them.

     While Mr Trump inflames the issue, Democrats duck it…They should concede that Trump, though he lies about the details, has got one big thing right. America cannot let people in simply because they arrive in a crowd. The law must be applied impartially to everyone. Democrats should offer to regulate migration soberly and pragmatically.

     Trump has failed to pass new laws to restrict the number of immigrants, but has raised countless bureaucratic hurdles to stop students and skilled legal immigrants from settling, even though American dynamism and innovation depend on them, and made family reunions harder and less predictable. He has reduced the number of refugees admitted …to one for every 14,500 Americans. (Relative to its population, cash-strapped Lebanon hosts 3,600 times as many.) It may be that few in the caravan qualify for asylum -Honduras is not at war. And Mexico, as the first more-or-less safe country they reach, ought to take its fair share. But all those who apply for refugee status deserve a hearing.

     America is hardly being submerged by illegal immigrants. The number has fallen since 2008. Border apprehensions are less than half what they were in the early 2000s. Mass deportations that began under Barack Obama have continued under Mr Trump. The border is as secure as a 3,000km land frontier between a rich country and a developing one can reasonably be. America can pick whom it lets in, welcoming much-needed fruitpickers and care assistants as well as entrepreneurs and coders. But Mr Trump rejects the idea that made America great in the first place—that anyone can become American. If Democrats cannot hammer him for that, they do not deserve to win."


“The ever-present contradictions of U.S. immigration policy”

Alfredo Corchado, 
Homelands, review by Jill Leovy, Washington Post, June, 2018 (abridged here)


U.S. immigration policies have long been rife with contradictions and prone to backfire, and migrations tend to proceed regardless, following their own highly complex logic. It was Ronald Reagan who approved amnesty for illegal immigrants and wanted to liberalize trade with Mexico, and Bill Clinton and Barack Obama who doubled down on deportations.

  The consequences of these efforts were mostly unintended. Drug imports to the United States mushroomed with NAFTA, and after amnesty, which was supposed to slow migration, a flood of sponsored relatives of immigrants poured north. Meanwhile, in Mexico, a brutal drug war erupted, villages emptied, and even dietary habits were altered, unleashing a diabetes epidemic. Americans’ drug fixation has visited untold horrors on Mexico… “and now - hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of deaths later- Americans want marijuana legalized.”

  What’s clearest is the extent to which sweeping global economic forces overwhelm the best-laid plans…No one, no government or corporation, has a grip on the broad changes that move populations and create identities.


Migration now a major partisan divide in America (Jan-18):

"Stranger danger," Economist, January 20, 2018:

'Hostility to immigration used to be found in both parties. No longer.'


( The Economist, July 19, 2014 )
( The Economist, July 19, 2014 )

Peter Beinart, "How Democrats lost their way on immigration," Atlantic, July 2017.


Drew Keeling, "In immigration debate, echoes of Ellis Island."

(Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2013)


Drew Keeling, The Business of Transatlantic Migration between Europe and the United States, 1900-1914 (Zurich: Chronos, 2012), especially chapter 5.


Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006)


Daniel J. Tichenor, The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).


                          This page last updated 15-December-2018