For the New President Elect: U.S. Immigration in the 21st Century

k donato - 3x2November 15, 2016 by Katharine M. Donato
As the 2016 presidential campaign showed, the new president-elect has strong opinions about U.S. immigration. A few days after the election, during an appearance on network television, President-Elect Trump made his position on immigration clearer. He will deport 2-3 million illegal immigrants who, he reports, are gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals, and he will build a wall at the Mexico-U.S. border.

In this transition context, I thought it might be helpful to weigh in on these two issues as well as share some other information about U.S. migration and immigrants.

First, despite a popular narrative to the contrary, most U.S. immigrants are legally authorized to live and work in the United States. Approximately three-quarters of all immigrants living in the United States have the legal documents to do so. The evidence on this point comes from the Census Bureau. For example, in 2014, out of approximately 42.4 million U.S. immigrants, approximately 11 million – or 25.9 percent – were undocumented.

Second, President Elect Trump’s desire to deport undocumented gang members, drug dealers, and others convicted of a serious crime is an initiative that many can support. But his number, that there 2-3 million of these people, is way off. A few days ago, the Migration Policy Institute set the record straight with an analysis suggesting approximately 820,000 unauthorized immigrants with criminal records living in the United States. Of these, 300,000 have a felony conviction and 390,000 have been convicted of a serious misdemeanor. Presumably, this is the group that Mr. Trump wants to target for deportation.

Third, of all immigrants living in the United States, more than 700,000 are young adults who have received temporary legal status from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. These recipients passed security clearance before receiving temporary DACA legal status. That means that not one has been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more misdemeanors, or posed a threat to national security or public safety. These young people are doing exceptional things by getting university degrees, serving in the military, and opening up their own businesses.

Fourth, although I doubt President-Elect Trump wants to hear this, the public narrative about the U.S.-Mexico border clashes with reality. Since the 1990s, this border has become highly fortified because of dramatic increases in border enforcement funding, personnel, and technology. Now, very few people attempt to illegally sneak into the United States. Instead, most of those crossing are women and children who, evading threats from violence, corruption, gangs, and drug cartels in Central America, immediately turn themselves over to U.S. border patrol to begin the asylum process.

Fifth, the United States is past due for new immigration policy reform. Although three-quarters of all immigrants are legally authorized, the U.S. visa system has not experienced a major overhaul in decades. In 2013, the Senate passed legislation that many hoped would represent comprehensive immigration reform but it was never debated in the House of Representatives. I doubt any private business would survive after decades of no change, so why should we accept this in the public sector? Comprehensive immigration reform could attract the best and brightest worldwide and meet growing demand for high- and low-skilled labor. It could also encourage family reunification in productive and important ways.

Finally, although many migrated in search of opportunity in the 20th century, in the 21st century most international migrants are on the move to evade threats, whether related to climate change, rising levels of violence, or other conditions. This means that migration governance now has to occur at both global and national scales. Policies and practices that govern migration must consider global conditions and actors as well as national objectives and stakeholders. This will be the only way to adequately and humanely manage the large flows of people fleeing the threats and risks that surround them.