This essay collection lays out a series of recommendations for immigration policy reforms Congress should make that would have immediate and obvious benefits for the American people.
The 15 academics, scholars, entrepreneurs, lawmakers, lawyers, advocates, and immigrant contributors are experts in their fields, experienced advocates, or have first-hand experience with our system. They represent a broad spectrum of political ideologies and—almost assuredly—have different ideas about what fundamental reforms to our immigration system for the 21st century should look like.
Foreword by Suzette Brooks Masters
When I first began working on immigration issues 20 years ago, immigration was explicitly linked to the national interest. Now, immigrants and refugees have been so demonized, enforcement so prioritized, and the border so mythologized that the very belief in immigration as a vital foreign and economic policy tool has been undermined. Further, the way we talk about these issues has become disconnected from how those immigration policies will help Americans and further the national interest. That must change.
One reason the current administration’s anti-immigrant message resonated with so many Americans is that proponents of more open immigration and more generous humanitarian policies may have taken for granted the public’s understanding of how immigration policies contribute to their lived experience. In making a case for more generous immigration policies, have its proponents neglected receiving communities’ reactions to the changes taking place around them?
The post-2016 period isn’t our first nativist convulsion, and it won’t be our last. One hundred years ago, America shut the door to immigration for 40 years after the last great immigration wave. Today, America is home to about 45 million foreign-born individuals—14 percent of the U.S. population—approaching the peak levels reached at the turn of the 20th century. Demographic change of this magnitude can be destabilizing, and trigger anxiety and fear, especially when it’s not managed. That was true 100 years ago, and it’s true today.
I spent most of 2017 and 2018 thinking about how an explicit anti-immigrant agenda could gain traction and be electorally successful in a diverse nation like ours. I honed recommendations for how to defend against grievance politics. My main takeaway is this: since immigration is a culture and identity issue, we need narrative and culture change strategies to promote norms, values, and behaviors—and undergird policy changes—that affirm our pluralistic ideals, interdependence, and our shared fates.
Narratives that affirm unity, create space for complexity, and connect immigration to the wellbeing of all Americans are critical right now. Policy matters too, of course, as this paper’s 15 great ideas demonstrate. They would represent significant improvements in our current laws and regulatory regime. But it’s hard to persuade the public and the politicians we need to reach with policy arguments alone.
We should deploy an inclusive narrative that does not alienate. That means avoiding depicting immigrants and refugees as superheroes or super-victims—what I call immigrant “exceptionalism”—to uplift their contributions and challenges. We must also be careful to plant immigrants firmly in our social fabric and communities, not elevate them above ordinary Americans. Finally, we need to emphasize how immigration supports American ideals and speak to how it will improve Americans’ lives, in conjunction with other policies and interventions.
This paper highlights a few creative immigration policy proposals. It explains how they benefit immigrant communities and American communities, uphold American values like freedom and opportunity, and advance American foreign policy and national security goals. In short, they serve the national interest.
Suzette Brooks Masters is an immigrant integration expert and consultant. She previously oversaw immigration grantmaking at the J.M. Kaplan Fund and has held fellowships at the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity & Citizenship at The New School, the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center, and the Open Society Institute’s Forced Migration Project. After receiving her JD from Harvard Law School, she has worked as a corporate and environmental attorney and as a consultant for non-profit organizations involved in immigrants’ rights. Follow her on Twitter @SuzetteMasters.
Introduction by Kristie De Peña
Immigration policy is not just about how we treat others. It has direct implications for Americans. Done well, immigration can protect family values, strengthen national security, reduce unemployment, spur innovation, stimulate competition, increase public safety, enhance the U.S. economy, reinforce international relations, and provide help to those most in need.
Behind this collection of essays is a set of implicit assumptions built on the series of principles. Niskanen published last year that we believe should guide our nation’s immigration policy reform. These assumptions are that innovation and entrepreneurship are good for America; supporting flexible immigration policies and creating opportunities for both immigrants and Americans is fundamental to our success as a nation, and our humanitarian policies are a cornerstone of the heart of our nation. Perhaps most importantly, we believe that with very few exceptions, the immigrants coming to America do so for the right reasons, and we benefit by welcoming them.
It is often said that for over thirty years, there have been no “meaningful” reforms to the U.S. immigration system. But that is not accurate; many meaningful changes happened through the executive. In the marked absence of Congressional action, administrations have filled the legislative void left gaping by Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike.
For its part, Congress loudly bemoans (or celebrates) the substantial changes made by administrations through the rulemaking process but does nothing to upset the status quo. What is left in the wake of disparate administrations are unpredictable policies that disrupt businesses, families, and government, and fuel global anxiety.
We can no longer allow our lawmakers to hide behind the veil of paralysis. We must obligate lawmakers to create a space to consider and weigh-in on purposeful, pragmatic immigration reform. Neither can we rest on the ideas of past immigration reform proposals. We must be bold in our efforts to redefine reform. Although we are eager to reverse many of the Trump administration’s changes, it is pivotal that we refuse to accept the status quo as “good enough.” We can—and should—demand better policy.
Our issue selection for this piece, and the authors invited to contribute, were deliberately and thoughtfully considered. The 15 academics, scholars, entrepreneurs, lawmakers, lawyers, advocates, and immigrant contributors are experts in their fields, experienced advocates, or have first-hand experience with our system. They represent a broad spectrum of political ideologies and—almost assuredly—have different ideas about what fundamental reforms to our immigration system for the 21st century should look like.
There are notable policy gaps—low-skilled immigration, temporary protected status, asylum policy—that are not addressed in this series. It is not because they lack urgency or reform opportunities. Quite the contrary, Niskanen and many of the authors and organizations here have written extensively about these topics. I urge you to explore the additional reading section pieces for substantive analysis on these and many other critical topics.
These essays demonstrate how even the most seemingly immigrant-focused policies benefit Americans. In this collection, Professor Idean Salehyan explores why resettling Venezuelan asylum seekers will improve our national security. Attorney Greg Siskind advocates for allowing international physicians to treat patients in rural areas of America. Representative John Curtis (R-UT) makes a case for strengthening support for democracies worldwide by welcoming Hong Kong refugees. Dreamer Kai Martin highlights the past contributions of her fellow Dreamers to the COVID-19 response and envisions opportunities for a promising future. For each essay, Suzette Brooks Master authors the call-out to illustrate the precise benefits of each policy reform for Americans and immigrants.
The downside to presenting a handful of ideas in an accessible way is that it is light on the details immigration reformers crave, and does not present the entire scope of changes that must happen simultaneously to create lasting reforms with bipartisan support. But targeted and narrow reform proposals like those included in this collection are meaningful pieces of the broader reform puzzle that lawmakers must explore and pursue.
Although historically rife with controversy, immigration policy reform in America does not have to continue to be hopeless. We just need to empower Congress to get back in the game of good governance.
Kristie De Peña is the Vice President for Policy and Director of Immigration at the Niskanen Center.
Photo Credit: Obama White House Archives, Public Domain.