Immigration is among the various critical issues facing the United States. In particular, America needs to address how many more immigrants should be admitted annually and who should they be.
While some Americans want increased immigration, others want levels to remain about the same as the recent past and still others want reduced immigration. In addition, while some would like more immigrants of their own ethnic group, others oppose admitting immigrants of certain ethnic and religious groups.
However, others contend that it would be in the best interests of the nation to select immigrants largely on the basis of merit, skills and education or a point system, as is used in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Of course, a shift from selecting immigrants on the basis of family ties to a point system would have an enormous impact on the more than 4 million people waiting in family and employment-based green card backlogs.
Since its founding on July 4, 1776, immigration, that is the immigrants and their descendants, has accounted for most of America’s population growth.
If no immigrants had arrived on America’s shores after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the country’s population of 2.5 million at that time would have grown to slightly less than half its current 331 million.
Today’s number of foreign-born living in the U.S. is close to 45 million, or nearly 14 percent of the country’s population. Since the passage of the seminal 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, the country’s foreign-born population has more than quadrupled.
Known as the Hart-Celler Act, this legislation has had an enormous impact on the composition of the country’s population, including how immigrants would be selected. It ended an immigration-admissions policy system based on national-origins quotas and gave rise to large-scale immigration, both legal and unauthorized, leading to an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse America.
In 1960, for example, the top five immigrant groups, which accounted for about half of the foreign-born population, were from Italy, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom and Poland. By 2018, the top five immigrant groups, also accounting for nearly half of the foreign-born population, were from Mexico, India, China, the Philippines and El Salvador.
As in the past, America’s population growth during the 21st century will largely be the result of immigration. By 2060, for example, if immigration continues at the level of the recent past of about 1.1 million annually, the U.S. population is projected to increase to 405 million.
If immigration were zero, the U.S. population in 2060 would be 3 percent smaller than it is today, or 320 million. To stabilize the size of the population would only require a fraction of levels of the recent past.
Moreover, if immigration remains at slightly more than 1 million per year, the foreign-born share of the American population is projected to increase to 14.9 percent by 2028 and reach 17.1 percent by 2060.
With zero future immigration, however, the proportion foreign-born in 2060 would fall to 5 percent.
It is evident that the number of people wishing to immigrate to the U.S., estimated at more than 150 million, far exceeds the number the country can realistically accept. Consequently, choices will have to be made regarding how many should be admitted annually and who those individuals should be.
The nation needs to effectively address unlawful immigration and border security. Thirty five years ago, Congress adopted the Immigration Reform and Control (IRCA) and with it an estimated 2.7 million individuals unlawfully resident in the country were granted legal status, the — largest in U.S. history.
Today, the estimated number of people residing unlawfully in the country is four times the number when IRCA was adopted, approximately 11 million or almost a quarter of today’s U.S. foreign-born population. In addition, the immigration court’s backlog of cases is at a record high of 1.3 million, with delayed court hearing days.
IRCA also made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire or recruit any individual unauthorized to work in the U.S. and established a system for verifying the legal status of employees. That part of IRCA clearly failed to be implemented effectively. Today, nearly 8 million undocumented migrants are working in the country.
Several decades ago, Congress created the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and found that a substantial but well-regulated legal immigration is in the national interest, but illegal immigration is a threat to the nation’s long tradition of immigration and to its commitment to the rule of law.
The chair of that commission, Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), succinctly described a fundamental principle for the desired immigration policy for the U.S., “Those who should get in, get in; those who should be kept out, are kept out; and those who should not be here will be required to leave.”
The United States, like every other nation on the planet, needs to address immigration. In addition to its important demographic, economic, social and political effects, immigration also raises serious concerns and ethical questions, including those relating to human rights, poverty and development equity, environmental degradation and climate change.
Until the country adopts clear policies and implements effective programs, immigration will remain a crisis for the country and continue to be a divisive issue dividing Americans.
The new Biden-Harris administration and the 117th Congress have a unique opportunity to repair America’s broken immigration system, unite the country in dealing with immigration and increased diversity and continue having immigrants contribute to the advancement of American society.
Joseph Chamie is an independent consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including international migration, fertility, mortality, growth, gender and aging.