Policy Outlook for Immigration Reform

William A. Galston
Bill Galston
William A. Galston Ezra K. Zilkha Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

July 17, 2009

There is broad agreement that the nation needs to overhaul its immigration policies, but how to change national policy is once again shaping up as a major debate. After recent failed attempts in Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws, policy options have been sharpened over the last several years and a new administration and Congress now have a fresh opportunity to enact reforms.

Because America thinks of itself as a nation of immigrants, any discussion of immigration policy is bound to raise deep questions of national identity. The wide-reaching transformations we are now enduring cast these questions into high relief. How can we as a nation continue to admit large numbers of diverse immigrants and over time, live up to our motto of E Pluribus Unum ‘out of many, one?’

This brief discusses federal policy domains and options currently “on the table” — legalization, border security, worksite verification, the management of admissions and immigrant integration. It identifies how existing laws might change so that our immigration system functions more effectively and more fairly.


Although the United States has been a “nation of immigrants” from the start, the flow of immigrants has been anything but smooth and steady. Instead, we have experienced waves of immigration in response to economic and legal changes, and we are in the midst of one today. The current wave rivals an earlier period¬, which lasted from the 1880s through World War I. During the first decade of the 20th century, 8.2 million immigrants were legally admitted, a record that stood until the last decade of that century, when 9.8 million legally entered. The running total for the current decade (through 2008) has already reached 9.2 million. Similarly, at the World War I peak, about 15 percent of the U.S. population was foreign-born. More recently, the share has risen from a low of less than 5 percent in 1970 to nearly 13 percent today. If recent trends continue, the percentage of foreign-born residents of the United States is likely to hit a record before the end of the next decade.

One difference between past and current trends is the large number of immigrants who are living in the United States without legal status, including those who arrived with legal visas and overstayed and those who entered surreptitiously. These estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants have come to represent the failure of the U.S. immigration system either to achieve adequate levels of enforcement and security or to strike a sustainable balance the nation’s economic needs with the core interests of its existing workforce. What to do about the unauthorized population is the most contentious issue of the current debate.

Given the current economic context—a period of exceptional economic growth followed by a severe recession of uncertain duration—the nation’s admissions system and management of future immigration flows have come to dominate the debate. At the same time, border security, worksite enforcement, and to a lesser extent, immigrant integration, are also important elements of contestation.