All eyes have been on the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks as politicians and pundits assess the impact of changing rules for who can enter the United States. But the fixation on the border can distract from a bigger problem: America’s immigration system hasn’t kept up with the times.
We need an immigration policy that advances our national interest, one that reflects our needs as well as our values. It should complement and support American foreign policy. It should respond to the current realities of workforce demands and international migration.
Yet our immigration system hasn’t been seriously updated since 1986. Our approach, which prioritizes family unification, doesn’t properly support an economy that has been transformed by massive technological change and a vast shift to service-sector jobs.
America is a nation of immigrants, and we need immigrants as much now as ever. But we especially need immigrants who can fill gaps in our workforce, including in science and medicine but also in childcare, elder care, hospitality and agriculture. The COVID-19 pandemic magnified the importance of these jobs. The need will grow more urgent because of declining U.S. birth rates and the aging of the population.
Nearly 20 years ago, a bipartisan immigration task force that I co-chaired with former Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham sounded many of these themes. We recommended simplifying and streamlining immigration, creating distinct pathways for temporary, provisional and permanent immigrants. We proposed a system of secure Social Security cards and worker IDs, along with “smart border” technology to reduce illegal immigration. We called for protecting the rights of immigrant workers and creating a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
Those recommendations still stand. We don’t issue enough immigrant visas for temporary work, and the process can be cumbersome for employers and workers. As a recent Brookings Institution report explains, we can have a win-win situation by using immigrants to fill “complementary” jobs that support the creation of well-paying positions for Americans.
But making even obvious changes to immigration policy is challenging. There are many competing forces in play, and positions are highly polarized.
America has long struggled with immigration. Until 1875, there were no real restrictions on who could voluntarily enter the country. Some of the first came with the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers. Immigration surged in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as cities and industry grew and factories needed workers. An anti-immigrant backlash produced the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which excluded most immigrants not from Northern and Western Europe.
The pendulum swung back after World War II. One of my first votes in Congress was for the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, which repealed national-origin quotas and replaced them with a point-based system. But much has changed.
In recent years, poverty, violence and instability have driven desperate people to try to enter the U.S. in record numbers. Contrary to popular belief, the flow of migrants from Mexico has slowed, but more have arrived from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela, often making asylum claims. The Trump administration used Title 42, an emergency health regulation, to expel migrants quickly. That authority expired this month, but the Biden administration adopted new rules requiring asylum seekers to apply online before entering the country.
Securing the border is important, but we can’t ignore the bigger picture: An immigration system that is long overdue for reform. There are approximately 45 million immigrants in the United States, most of them here legally. They care for our children and our elderly, cook and serve our meals and grow our crops. They conduct research, provide health care, and start and run businesses.
We need a sensible, secure and humane immigration system, for them and for all of us.
— Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.