According to Pew Research Center, 62 percent of Americans have said that immigrants strengthen our country. Yet, around 11 million undocumented immigrants face constant fear of deportation, immigration court backlogs number over one million and refugee resettlement in the United States has plummeted. Some immigration applications have been sitting in line since 1995 and are still waiting to be processed more than 20 years later.
Our immigration system is broken beyond repair because it was never well-designed in the first place. The American immigration system is built on quotas: quotas for family reunification, quotas for employment immigration, quotas for refugee resettlement. Each year, we limit the number of people who can immigrate to the United States. In order for anyone to enter the U.S., they need to apply for an immigrant visa, go through multiple rounds of vetting and obtain an approval from an immigration officer under the Department of Homeland Security.
Most of the limits were set in 1990, with an overall quota for non-refugee immigration set at 675,000 immigrants per year. While that quota was set by Congress, the president has the executive ability to limit refugee resettlement. In September, Trump limited refugee intake for 2020 to 18,000, the lowest level since the program was created in 1980, according to the American Immigration Council. Though we’ve long relied on limits in immigration — the modern limits replaced national origin and race-based limits intended to prevent anyone except northern Europeans from coming to the United States — these quotas don’t serve a useful purpose.
Immigrants come to the United States for a variety of important reasons. Some flee violence and oppressive regimes at home, looking for a safe place for themselves and their families. Still more escape poverty and desire access to basic amenities that are unavailable at home. Making the trip to the United States, learning English if needed, adjusting to a new way of life and then facing prejudice, discrimination and outright violence is in no way easy. Yet, to many immigrants, it’s a better option than staying in their native countries.
We have a duty to the world to help the people we can. One of the time-honored ways of helping on an international scale is through immigration. The vast majority of Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, living on stolen land. To inherit that history and then exclude others is to turn our backs on our heritage and to reject America’s diverse, dynamic and inspiring set of overlapping cultures.
The international pressures that drive migration are in large part the result of American foreign policy — our covert operations, drone strikes and military interventions around the world have precipitated the unrest that drives migration today. From the Syrians to whom we gave empty promises to the climate refugees fleeing natural disasters caused by America’s astronomical per capita consumption, we owe it to the world to clean up the messes we’ve created. While opening our doors can’t fix all the damage we’ve caused, the refugees that we’ve displaced deserve to live in the United States instead of squalid camps.
Besides the moral dimension of opening our doors and abolishing quotas, immigration has practical benefits for America. Immigrants contribute far more to public welfare than they use, according to 2013 research findings by Harvard Medical School, extending the viability of important social safety nets like Social Security. Immigrants also boost the economy, resulting in more innovation, higher productivity and bigger tax bases. Without immigrants, the population of the United States would shrink, resulting in labor shortages like those in Japan and Germany.
Hanging on a door in my high school is a sign with the words “Ningún ser humano es ilegal.” No human being is illegal. Without the quota system and extensive immigration visas, the difference between legal and illegal immigration disappears, and rightly so. People already cross the border without detection in pursuit of a better life, settling quietly around the United States and contributing to our country. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Budget-in-Brief, the United States spends about $24 billion each year paying for immigration enforcement — in other words, paying for hard-working Americans to be ripped out of their communities and sent away.
Take Lucio Perez, an undocumented immigrant who has been living in sanctuary in Amherst’s First Congregational Church for over two years. If he leaves the church, Immigration and Customs Enforcement will arrest him and deport him to Guatemala, where he hasn’t been for 20 years. While Perez is forced to live in constant fear in a church only blocks from here, his wife and four kids in Springfield make the trip three times a week to see him. In his own words, as told to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “to be separated from your family is the worst thing that can happen to somebody.”
Perez and the more than 11 million other undocumented immigrants in America are an integral part of this country, and they deserve a shorter path to citizenship. But that’s a stop-gap measure. The only way to truly fix the problem is to dismantle the system that selectively criminalizes immigrants.
Opponents of open border policies make three distinct arguments against immigration. First, they claim that immigrants take jobs away from native-born Americans. Second, they argue that immigration makes America more dangerous, either by increasing crime or by allowing dangerous people into the country. And last, they argue that immigrants should wait their turn in line. However, none of these arguments stand up against the actual evidence on immigration.
To address the first point, it is true that scholarship goes back and forth on the impacts of immigration on wages. However, almost every report agrees that the magnitude of the effect is small. On the contrary, the impactful and powerful forces that depress wages in the United States aren’t imported; they’re domestic: rising wealth inequality, money in politics and regressive taxes keep the wealthy on top and oppress the middle- and working-class families who work for better lives just like immigrants.
As Howard Zinn points out in “A People’s History of the United States,” elites have used marginalized groups as scapegoats for economic anxieties throughout history. Just look at the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, when in 1676 an armed, mixed-race militia rose up against the colonial governor of Virginia. In response, elites gave whites the bare minimum of rights and stepped up racist rhetoric, hardening racial lines and preventing cooperation between poor racial groups against their common oppressor. This time, immigrants have become the target.
An analysis by The Marshall Project shows that immigration decreases crime and that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans. Any argument to the contrary relies on stereotypes and racism rather than facts — take President Donald Trump’s comment in his first campaign speech in 2015 that Mexicans are rapists, bad people and drug dealers.
The argument that immigration increases the risk of terrorism also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. According to a 2016 United Nations report, terrorism is the result of its environment. Armed conflict, poor governance, human rights violations, discrimination, political exclusion and poverty all push ordinary people to turn to violent action. Often, terrorist groups become the only effective local governments. Open borders allow people to escape those pressures, lowering the risk of terrorism while destroying the smuggling networks from which terrorists often profit, according to a study by the Center for Migration Studies.
More importantly, when we allow migration without discrimination, we can reallocate our critical funds for national security to actually identifying and apprehending terrorists instead of targeting innocent undocumented Americans around the country and ineffectively patroling the border. A risk analysis by the Cato Institute shows that from 1975 to 2017, the vast majority of foreign-born terrorists (there aren’t many in the first place) were accepted through the immigrant visa program or on tourist visas. The threat of foreign terrorism exists largely as a figment of American imagination and not in reality. Even so, an open borders policy would only serve to lower that threat.
Our long history of quotas and immigration restrictions further serve to hurt America. Contrary to our policies, immigration makes America stronger, more vibrant and more safe. In 1883, the poet Emma Lazarus wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. / Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” It’s cliche to quote the poem hanging in the Statue of Liberty in an article on immigration, but it’s time that we take it to heart.