The state of US immigration policy and how to improve it

Immigrant children now housed in a tent encampment under the new "zero tolerance" policy by the Trump administration are shown walking in single file at the facility near the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, U.S. June 19, 2018.        REUTERS/Mike Blake - RC187D98B970
Editor's note:

Sarah Miner contributed to this post.

The Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border captured national attention and sparked protests across the country. Combined with the recent Supreme Court decision to uphold Trump’s travel ban, this development has brought immigration policy back to the forefront of public debate. Brookings experts discuss the current state of immigration policy, and what the government could be doing to reform it.

Will tough immigration policy deter immigration?

Sarah Bermeo, associate professor at Duke University, wrote on the Future Development blog that migrants from Central America aren’t headed to the United States for economic opportunity. Instead, they’re fleeing violence. Bermeo explains that for people emigrating from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, “waiting for a visa can result in death, rape, or forcible recruitment into crime.” Bermeo argued that this failure to distinguish between economic refugees and those fleeing violence leads to ineffective policies and loss of life.

Brookings David M. Rubenstein Fellow Dany Bahar cleared up another misconception about refugees, noting that “not only are refugees not a burden, rather they are welfare-enhancing assets.” He demonstrated that refugees offer economic benefits such as increased rates of entrepreneurship, international trade, and global investment.

Family separation and its repercussions

In May 2018, the Trump administration announced that it would begin implementing a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, which required that adults crossing the border illegally be criminally prosecuted. Because children cannot legally accompany their parents to jail, more than 2,000 children were separated from their parents and sent to confinement facilities.

On June 24, 2018, President Trump tweeted “When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, Bring them back from where they came.” This apparent suggestion to eliminate due process for those crossing the border prompted David M. Rubenstein Fellow Andre Perry to write that Trump had revealed “zero-tolerance” for democracy. Perry held that Trump’s rhetoric “aims to sever brown immigrants and other people of color from the idea that we can be citizens, and he intends to split justice from democracy to justify his unpardonable actions.”

Judges in immigration courts were among those who felt the heat from the immigration debate. Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler analyzed how a new instruction issued to immigration courts might encourage judges to cut corners to avoid losing their jobs. The instruction, issued by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, requires that judges complete 700 cases per year or risk losing their jobs. Given the large variation in the types of cases that come before courts, a one-size-fits-all case completion quota is bad policy, Wheeler contended. “In courts with more demanding caseloads, judges will often face a choice: protect their economic well-being by cutting due process corners or serve as independent adjudicators.”

“When traumatic experiences are imposed on young children, the impact on their bodies and brains can last a lifetime,” wrote Senior Fellow Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. She addresses the enormous cost of toxic stress on the children who have been separated from their parents. Neurological responses to stress can leave a lasting impact on children in the form of increased vulnerability to temptation and a chronically weakened immune system.

But while many children will likely suffer lifelong consequences as a result of the trauma, recovery is possible. Drawing on trauma research, Hirsh-Pasek emphasized the importance of the child being in the care of an emotionally stable adult and having access to adequate mental health care.

Immigration at the Supreme Court

On June 26, the Supreme Court announced its decision to uphold the latest version of President Trump’s travel ban, which banned travelers and immigrants from seven countries, five of which were Muslim-majority.

Following the decision, Senior Fellow Shadi Hamid wrote that although he is “deeply uncomfortable” with the court’s ruling on moral grounds, it’s not the Supreme Court’s job to decide what’s morally right, only what’s legal. He cautions against comparing the Supreme Court’s ruling to Jim Crow, the Holocaust, or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and encouraged readers to direct their animus over the decision to where it counts: the ballot box.

In a “5 on 45” podcast episode, Fellow Jessica Brandt broke down the effects of the travel ban, which has been in effect since December 2017. Not surprisingly, there’s been a very large (94 percent) drop in the number of immigrant visas granted for the five Muslim-majority countries since last year. She added that the ruling holds extra significance in the context of the immigration debate taking place at America’s southern border, remarking that the court’s ruling sends a message that “the president has broad discretion when it comes to setting visa and border policy.”

What has the U.S. Congress been doing?

The House of Representatives voted on two immigration measures in late June. One was a far-right measure that would have decreased the number of legal immigrants while offering no solution for people with Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and one was a compromise bill that would have provided funding for Trump’s border wall, a path to citizenship for DACA beneficiaries, and kept migrant families together.

Prior to the immigration votes, Senior Fellow William Galston explained how the overwhelming opposition from the American people to the family separation policy has put pressure on moderate Republicans to find a compromise. He noted that the far-right bill was unlikely to pass, but that the compromise bill was “acceptable to most factions.” However, President Trump’s indication that he would veto the bill threw the process into disarray.

Senior Fellow Sarah Binder described what happened in the House as the border control crisis spun out of control. The House voted on and rejected the far-right bill, and Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) postponed a vote on the compromise bill until more conservatives could be brought on board. The compromise bill was overwhelmingly voted down in a 121-300 vote when no Democrats supported the bill.

Research Analyst Christine Stenglein explored how the movement to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has evolved from a grassroots movement to a point of debate in Congress. A bill introduced by Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) outlined a plan to abolish ICE and transfer its most important functions to other agencies. Republicans separately introduced a resolution reaffirming support for ICE. The resolution states that “calls to abolish ICE are an insult to these heroic law enforcement officers who make sacrifices every day to secure our borders.” Stenglein remarked that “the debate was one more illustration of the gridlock over immigration issues that has dominated Congress this year.”

Keep up with the latest Brookings commentary on immigration here.