news·9 min read

Immigration in the US

Jul 21, 2019

In recent months, illegal border crossings have reached record levels. Here’s what you need to know about the immigration debate in the US.

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The Story

America has been wringing its hands over how to approach immigration for years.

The Background

Throughout history, US immigration laws have reflected an evolving set of values and priorities. Whether it was admitting immigrants based on race (yes, this was a thing until the ‘50s) or developing a more comprehensive refugee policy in the wake of international crises (think: the Vietnam War). This timeline breaks down the major moments:

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But what’s the overall driving factor of US policy?

It’s a combo of things related to security, the economy, and the country’s moral obligations. There are competing strains of thought. On one side, it’s that immigrants make significant contributions to society – by filling jobs, creating culturally diverse communities, and boosting America’s competitiveness and standing on the world stage. On the other side, it’s that immigration can’t be a free-for-all. The US likes law and order (the OG version, not SVU). 

Really? SVU is so much better though.

We’ll save that debate for another time. The point is, the US has, for decades, had a bit of a conundrum on its hands: how to create an immigration system that balances all of these interests aka helps the economy flex its muscles, doesn’t get bogged down in bureaucracy, upholds the country’s international reputation, keeps the country safe, establishes respect for the rule of law, etc, etc.

I get it. It’s complicated.

Ding ding ding. We get into more specifics on immigration policy in recent decades with Skimm Notes:

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The Big issue

In recent months, there’s been a surge of people coming to the US through Mexico, leading to a further backlog of asylum requests that could take years to be heard in court. Reports have come out about overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in detention centers. Meanwhile, the Trump admin is determined to discourage migrants from coming to the US, arguing that their asylum cases aren’t legitimate. 

What’s causing the surge?

A few things. First, many migrants are fleeing high levels of poverty and violence in an area called the Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. These are three of the most dangerous countries in the world, in part due to gang violence. In 2015, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world for a country not at war. The countries are also dealing with things like government corruption and struggling economies.

So it makes sense that people want to leave…

Correct. Although violence in those countries has started to go down. And overall, the number of people apprehended for trying to illegally cross the Southwest border has been trending downward for the past nearly-two decades. 

I’m sensing a ‘but’ coming…

Correct again. In recent months, those numbers spiked – to the highest levels seen in more than a decade. Particularly among families and kids traveling alone. Many still say they’re fleeing poor conditions at home. But there may be a few other factors: 

  1. The Trump admin’s reversal of its 2018 policy to separate adults and children caught crossing the border illegally in order to prosecute the adults. This may have encouraged more families to make the trek to the US, knowing they’re more likely to be released from detention quickly than if they were traveling alone.

  2. The admin’s “metering” policy of only letting in a certain number of asylum applicants each day means many are forced to wait in Mexico for their turn. The Dept of Homeland Security found evidence that this is pushing more migrants to instead cross the border illegally. 

  3. There are other reasons, like booming smuggling operations and a severe years-long drought in parts of Guatemala and Honduras, which left roughly 2 million people in the region at risk of hunger. For these reasons and others, there’s a growing number of people pursuing asylum cases in the US. We get into the history of asylum, and the qualifications in Skimm Notes.

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What’s the Trump admin doing in response?

It’s been working to curb the flow of people coming into the US through Mexico. Here are three major steps it’s taken:

  • ”Zero tolerance” policy: the one that led to family separations. After backlash, the admin stopped separating families. But the policy to prosecute every adult caught crossing the border illegally remains in place. 

  • “Remain in Mexico” policy: the one that requires some migrants to wait in Mexico while their asylum claims are processed. The policy is being challenged in court.

  • Ending asylum protections: the admin is ending asylum protections for most people traveling through Mexico. This is also being challenged in court.

The Debate

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There are a ton of opinions on how to handle immigration into the US. Here are a few takes:

The economy is one key source of tension in the immigration debate.

Crime is another flashpoint. ICE says it’s arrested more than 137,000 people in the past year with criminal convictions or pending criminal charges.

  • Team Who’s Your Data points out that there’s no evidence immigrants – including undocumented immigrants – are more likely than US-born citizens to be involved in crimes. In fact, there’s some evidence that immigrants are less likely than US citizens to be involved in crimes, though the reason is not clear.

  • Team We Need Better Border Security says ‘we know the data.’ But tends to believe that any amount of crime, drugs, and violence is not acceptable – and that the US needs to know who’s coming in and out of the country. 

The Impact

Today’s US immigration system impacts immigrants, the economy, and international relations.

Immigrants: There are 44 million foreign-born residents in the US, making up more than 13% of the total US population. Of that number, more than 10 million are undocumented. Here’s a glimpse of how the US process impacts them...

  • Detention centers: In recent years, hundreds of thousands of people (including children) have been stopped while crossing into the US illegally. Some have died in US custody. Reports have also come out showing children faced with cramped and unsanitary conditions in US detention centers. 

  • Living while undocumented: Undocumented immigrants face higher risks of depression and anxiety. Children separated from their parents also face higher risks of trauma and PTSD. Meanwhile, people granted DACA status tend to be employed and have collectively paid billions of dollars in taxes. 

  • Deportations: Millions of people have been deported in recent years. In many cases, undocumented immigrants – including former US veterans – have reportedly been sent to areas in Mexico with high murder rates. Here’s what the deportation process tends to look like. 

The world: An administration’s immigration strategy has the potential to affect everything from foreign aid to trade with other countries. For example, during his first term, Trump has done things like threaten Mexico with tariffs unless it found a way to reduce the number of Central American migrants reaching the US-Mexico border. It led to Mexico deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the country’s borders. He also cut aid to Central American countries, accusing them of not doing enough to prevent their citizens from coming to the US. But some worry that cutting aid could make life harder in those countries and ultimately encourage more people to flee.

The economy: Immigration can have a key impact on the economy. (See: The Debate)


The US has long called itself a nation of immigrants. In 2018, the Trump admin removed that language from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ mission statement. As you can tell, the immigration debate is fraught, complex, and heated. And is more broadly a debate over the character of this country and the direction it should head in.

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