The U.S. Immigration System: Potential Benefits of Reform


The United States is a nation of immigrants. Throughout U.S. history, immigrants have settled the country, contributed to America’s intellectual environment, vibrant culture, national defense, and economic productivity, and so much more. For years, U.S. immigration policy has fulfilled many goals by reuniting Americans with their families from abroad, providing safe harbor for the persecuted from around the world, enriching economic activity, and, ultimately, strengthening our quality of life, academic excellence, culture, and society.

Even as immigration to the United States continues to rise after a midcentury dip (see Figure 1), most agree that America’s immigration policy has failed to keep up with changing circumstances. The current system does not meet U.S. economic needs, no longer reflects the historic humanitarian goal of reuniting families set out in the landmark 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, undermines the confidence of Americans in the rule of law, and has produced divisive and fragmented policy responses at the state level.

The aforementioned concerns are considerable, and they are being raised at a time when our nation continues its recovery from the Great Recession and attention remains rightly focused on the unemployment rate and the need for economic improvement. For these reasons, The Hamilton Project has focused its attention on the economic effects of immigration—and, specifically, the often-misunderstood facts underpinning the debate (see Greenstone and Looney 2010).

Practically, the system for processing both temporary and permanent visas is characterized by long lines and inequities. Economically, current policies limit the gains that the country could garner from the employment-based immigration of workers with needed skills. And fiscally, the burden of caring for and educating immigrants and their children falls disproportionately on certain communities. All of these factors point to a system badly in need of update and reform.

The Hamilton Project believes that an improved immigration system could raise the well-being of all U.S. citizens. This framing memo provides background information on the state of the current immigration system and the potential benefits of reform in order to inform the policy discussion.