Coming to the United States: Policies toward immigrants and guest workers

An Online Deliberative Society Discussion

Overview of legal and illegal immigration in the US

Immigration is a sensitive political issue that has an impact on jobs, communities, and families.

We are exploring these issues in a deliberative process with the TechCrunch community. The broad scope of this project is immigration reform, and this briefing document provides a balanced guide to the issues under consideration. This document emphasizes the issues that are relevant to the over nine million readers of TechCrunch and the greater technology community.

To begin the discussion on immigration, it is important to note that there has been disagreement in the media and public discourse over the most accurate way to describe people who enter the US without legal permission. Some argue that they should not be described as "illegal,"" as it is impossible for a person to be "illegal," but rather that their activities which are illegal. Therefore, there is preference for the terms like "undocumented," "irregular," or "unauthorized". Although none of these terms provides an entirely accurate description of legal status, this document uses the term "unauthorized," as it is considered to provide an unbiased representation of those who reside in a country without legal permission.

Immigrants in the United States have arrived in both legal and illegal ways. Legal ways of entering the United States include obtaining visas for school, work, through family sponsorship programs, and/or through refugee resettlement programs. Family-sponsored visas always allow permanent residence, as do refugee visas and some employer-sponsored visas (when the employer can prove that it cannot find qualified American workers to fill the position). Other visas, such as H-1B work visas and student visas, allow students and temporary workers to reside in the US for fixed periods. This document will provide an in-depth look at multiple kinds of temporary work visas, including coverage of H-1B visas, which provide certain number of years of work authorization to workers in specialty - often technical - occupations.

Illegal ways of entering the United States include overstaying visas and crossing borders without permission by car, ship, or foot. Asylum seekers represent a special case, since they often cross borders without formal permission, yet they possess immediate legal authorization to remain in the US upon arrival, although whether they can turn this into permanent status or not depends upon their asylum application's success. While asylum seekers may enter the US without authorization and remain legally, immigration enforcement issues arise when the reverse occurs, and people remain in the country after the documentation granting them legal status has expired.

Two centuries of Immigration to the USA graph1

Immigration history graph

Immigration History Timeline


In 1965, the Hart-Cellar Immigration and Nationality Act abolished the national origins quota system that had been in place since the 1920s. Under the new law, immigrants were granted visas based on their skills and family relationships with US citizens or permanent residents. The annual visa limit was set at 170,000, although immediate relatives of US citizens and "special immigrants" (including former citizens, religious ministers and employees of the US government abroad) were exempted from this quota.2


The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) addressed the status of unauthorized immigrants and created a path to legalization. Those seeking legal status had to prove continuous physical presence in the US since January 1, 1982, possess a clean criminal record, provide proof of registration with the Selective Service, and demonstrate basic knowledge of US history, government, and the English language.3

This act also changed hiring policies, requiring all job applicants to provide proof that they are authorized to work in the US. Furthermore, both employers and newly hired employees were required to sign an employment verification form, which confirmed an employee's identity and employment authorization. The IRCA furthermore stated that the Immigration and Naturalization Service or the Labor Department may inspect employers' records and impose fines of up to $10,000 for each unauthorized immigrant hired.4


The Immigration Act of 1990 set the total immigration quota at 700,000, allocating 465,000 visas for family-based immigrants, 55,000 visas for spouses and children legalized under amnesty programs for unauthorized immigrants and 140,000 visas for employment-based immigrants. Family-based visas remained the largest category, and new spaces were reserved for employment-based immigrants.5

Further reforms brought about changes to immigration law relating to asylum, detention and deportation. The Act also created the Diversity Visa program, which created visas for individuals from countries with historically low levels of immigration to the US.6

In 1996, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act intensified both border control and interior monitoring by imposing criminal penalties for illegal border activities and barring deported unauthorized immigrants from re-entering the US for periods of 3-10 years.7

The 1998 American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act (part of the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1998) expanded the H-1B cap and imposed a fee on employers of H-1B workers. This legislation was intended to address the increased demand for skilled foreign workers created by the tech boom and set the H-1B visa cap at 115,000 for 1999 and 2000.8


In the 2000s, immigration caps on certain countries were changed. Immigration from some countries (such as the former Soviet republics) increased. Increased utilization of the Diversity Visa expanded the number of applicants who could immigrate legally to the U.S. Large increases occurred in the 2000s in the number of applications for H1B temporary worker visas. Between 2001 and 2003, the H-1B cap was set at 195,000, although it reverted back to 65,000 (with an additional 20,000 visas allocated to advanced degree holders) in 2004.9

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act was introduced in 2001 and created an accelerated path to legalization for unauthorized youth who had entered the US as children, graduated from high school in the US, and attended college here.11

In 2006, the Senate and the House passed separate legislation for path-to-citizenship and border security issues. They couldn't come to agreement. In 2007, there was a compromise bill, but it was criticized widely and failed in the amendment stage. These bills called for increased border security, a path to legalization for unauthorized immigrants, the creation of a new visa program for guest workers, and increased family and high-skilled immigration.

In 2008, the Bush administration increased the time new STEM graduates of US universities can work in the US from 12 months to 29 months.


In 2013, there has been a great deal of public attention focused on the issue of immigration reform. The US Chamber of Commerce, which represents United States business interests,12 and the AFL-CIO, which represents United States labor unions,13 reached a deal14 to support a version of immigration reform. Although the AFL-CIO opposed the language of provisions for raising the annual quota on H-1B visas,15 and the Chamber of Commerce objected to the expansion of employment verification for foreign workers,16 both organizations expressed overall support for comprehensive immigration reform. This effort culminated in S.744, a bill that passed the US Senate. No bill with an equivalently broad scope has passed the US House of Representatives. There have been bills dealing with one aspect or another of immigration reform that have been put forward in the US House of Representatives. These have passed out of the relevant subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee but have not yet been brought to a final vote in the full House.

In June of 2014, House Speaker John Boehner announced that the House will not act on immigration legislation.17>

Note: A brief timeline of immigration from 1790 to 1950s is available at the end of the document.

Immigration Numbers

Most recent estimates place the total foreign-born population of the US at approximately 40 million. Of these, 18 million are naturalized citizens and 22 million are legal or temporary residents. More than 11 million foreign-born non-citizens are in the country without legal permission.18

Of these 11 million undocumented immigrants, most arrived after 1987; some of those who arrived earlier were not eligible for legalization in the immigration reform of 1986. The unauthorized immigrant population has declined by about 500,000 since it peaked at 12.2 million in 2007.19

In terms of legal immigration, approximately 1 million immigrants enter the country each year as legal permanent residents, although 4.6 million applications for legal permanent resident status are still pending. As of January 2010, an estimated 12.6 million green card holders resided in the United States, about 8.1 million of whom were eligible to naturalize as citizens.20

International Context

Immigration is a global issue. According to the United Nations, there are approximately 214 million immigrants worldwide. Of these, 30-40 million immigrants do not have legal residence status, which means that fifteen to twenty-percent of all immigrants globally do not have the legal right to remain in their countries of residence.21

Different countries let different numbers of new immigrants enter and settle legally each year. In 2011, Canada, with a population of 35 million, gave 240,000 immigrants permanent residence. The UK, with a population of 61 million, issued 167,000 grants of settlement. The US, with a population of 317 million, issued 620,000 long-term residency visas or green cards. The US gives permanent residence status to fewer immigrants than Canada or the UK on a per capita basis. Compared with Japan, however, the US grants twice as many immigrants permanent residence status.

It must be noted that many regions of the US, especially large urban areas, have experienced dramatic increases in immigrant populations in recent years, often causing major fiscal problems in state and local governments. A 1997 NRC study found that the average California family was paying over $1,100 in extra taxes per year as a result.

Immigration internationally

Country Number of people who are granted Permanent Residence each year Total Country Population Number of people offered Permanent Residence per year
Canada 7 people for every 1,000 residents 35,000,000 248,000
UK 3 people for every 1,000 residents 61,000,000 167,000
Australia 8 people for every 1,000 residents 23,000,000 190,00022
Hong Kong 9 people for every 1,000 residents 7,000,000 65,00023
Japan 1 person for every 2,000 residents 128,000,000 30,000
France 3 people for every 1,000 residents 66,000,000 200,00024
USA 2 people for every 1,000 residents 317,000,000 620,000

Existing Employment-Based Visas

The current employment-based immigration options take into account the talents and skills immigrants and guest workers can contribute to the economy, the kinds of jobs they can fill (jobs that are going unfilled because of a lack of specialized skills, jobs that citizens are unwilling to fill at current wages, etc.), and the investments that immigrants can make in the United States that could create domestic jobs.

The government notes that 140,000 employment-based visas are made available each year.25 Of these, 92,000 are first and second priority immigrants, meaning they either hold advanced degrees, or are "persons of proven extraordinary ability in their field."26

The most common types of merit-, investment-, or skill-based immigration involve L-1, H-1B, O, and EB-5 visas. L-1 and H-1B visas fall into the nonimmigrant visa category, which means that they are used by workers who may only plan to live in this country during the course of a single multi-year job (technically, these latter types of visas are not for immigrants but for temporary workers, sometimes referred to as "guestworkers").

The H-1B visa is an initial 3-year visa, renewable for a second 3-year term, for total of 6 years and may be extended in 1-year intervals if the employer sponsors a green card application for the worker. It is important to note, however, that the H-1B visa is not intended to be a path to permanent residence and that sponsoring an H-1B worker for a green card typically costs the employer between $10,000 and $20,000. While this cost may deter some employers from undertaking the green card sponsorship process, standard underpayment rates for H-1B workers lead to savings for the employer that exceed the maximum $20,000 cost of green card sponsorship. A report from the Government Accountability Office states that at least 18% of H-1B workers who entered the country between 2004 and 2007 had applied for permanent residence by 2010. About half of these applications had been approved, 45% were still pending and 3% had been denied.27

What this shows is that, although it is possible for H-1B workers to gain permanent resident status, relatively few are able to obtain employer sponsorship, and even fewer receive green cards.28

Investment visa programs are designed to address the issue of creating domestic jobs, and they fall into two categories: E-2 and EB-5. E-2 visas last between 2 and 5 years and require a capital investment that generally exceeds $100,000. EB-5 visas are immigrant visas, which require an investment of at least $500,000 in an enterprise that creates at least 10 jobs.29

A maximum of 10,000 EB-5 visas are issued each year, and these visas ultimately allow recipients to apply for permanent residency.30

Visa Types

Common types of Visas
Visa type Target Description Number Issued in 2012
L-1 Corporate transfer of employees based internationally The L-1 in a nonimmigrant visa issued to people who work internationally for a US-based company and are transferring to a US office for work. It allows for intra-company transfer for a length of time ranging from a few months to seven years,31 depending on the applicant's country of origin. 62,430[1] nonimmigrant visas issued in FY2012
L-2 Spouses and dependent children of L-1 visa holders The L-2 is a nonimmigrant work visa for the dependents of L-1 visa holders. This visa is valid for 2-year intervals and can be renewed for the duration of the L-1 visa. Spouses of L-1 visa holders are eligible to work full-time in any US business, as long as an Employment Authorization Document is approved. Dependent children on an L-2 visa are not, however, eligible for employment authorization.32 71,782 nonimmigrant visas issued in FY2012[2]
H-1B Skilled workers, including many high tech workers An H-1B visa is a nonimmigrant visa issued to persons from a foreign country with a sponsoring employer. This visa allows guest workers to stay for an initial 3 years, after which the visa can be renewed for an additional three years of work authorization. At any point in this 6-year period, an employer may sponsor an H-1B worker for a green card.33 135,530[3] nonimmigrant visas issued in FY2012
O Exceptionally talented and recognized globally as one of the best in their field The O is a nonimmigrant visa issued to persons with extraordinary ability in specific areas such as arts, sciences, or athletics. Applicants for this visa must show substantial supporting documentation to demonstrate their abilities and talents. The visa is generally for a few years with the possibility of extensions. 10,590[4] temporary nonimmigrant visas issued in FY2012
EB-5 Immigrants who are investors The EB-5 visa is an immigrant visa that was created in 1980 for investors. This visa requires applicants to invest from $500,000 to $1,000,000 in targeted employment areas to create or preserve at least ten jobs, excluding the applicant and their immediate family. The investment must be in an area that has been approved. 7,641[5] long-term immigrant visas issued in FY2012

Family-based Immigration

The visa program for family-based immigration is for relatives of US citizens seeking to immigrate to the US. Historically, family visa sponsorship has served as a key mode of immigration and is frequently cited as the foundation of US immigration policy. Various visas are allotted for relatives, in order to keep families together. These are for immediate relatives of US citizens: children, parents, spouses, and siblings.34

According to the US Government, 236,000 immigrant visas were issued in FY2012. Note that in the US, siblings of US citizens have a special category of immigration. 59,898 sibling visas were granted in 2012. Although the number of family visas granted annually may appear high, many point out that family visa issuance levels are in fact too low to meet the demand. Due to a high volume of applications and insufficient application processing support, the current wait time for a family visa may be up to 20 years.

Other Types of Visas

Some types of visas do not fall into either the family- or employment-based categories. One of these is the Diversity Visa, which allows a fixed number of people from countries with historically low levels of immigration to the US to enter the country each year, though not more than 7% of these visas may go to citizens of any single country. This type of visa (also known as the Green Card Lottery) is an immigrant visa that was created in 1990 and first used in 1995. Approximately 55,000 visas are made available through this annual lottery, 5000 of which are automatically allocated to refugees from Central America and the former Soviet Union.35

This visa is designed to diversify the immigrant population in the US, and provides an immigration pathway to people from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, who may not qualify for other ways to immigrate to the US. 33,125 Diversity Visas were issued in FY2012,36 with the greatest number of visas going to people from Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Iran, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.37 Out of the 11 to 14 million people who apply for the Diversity Visa each year, only 55,000 receive green cards.

A second kind of visa that is neither family- nor employment-based provides refugee status to individuals who face persecution in their home countries. The number of refugees around the world has hit a 19-year high, with more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people worldwide. The United States has resettled more than 3 million refugees since 1975. In 2012, the United States accepted more individuals for resettlement with refugee status than any other country in the world. In 2012, 58,238 refugees were admitted; the refugee ceiling was set at 76,000. In 2013, the U.S. reduced its refugee ceiling to 70,000.

In addition to refugee resettlement programs, the US government allocates 10,000 temporary visas each year to people who are victims of crimes, which include rape, torture, trafficking, incest, female genital mutilation, slave trade and kidnapping. These visas last up to four years and include family members of the victim. To petition for a U visa, an individual must provide information to assist government officials in investigating the crime and submit a certified portion of Form I-918 (Petition for Nonimmigrant Status).38

Immigrant and Nonimmigrant Visas Issued at Foreign Service Posts
Fiscal Years 2008-201212

2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Immigrant Categories
Immediate Relatives 238,848 227,517 215,947 216,856 235,616
Special Immigrants 2,559 4,325 3,043 1,861 5,219
Vietnam Amerasian Immigrants 77 48 23 35 75
Family Sponsored Preference 169,896 176,273 200,567 192,891 189,128
Employment-Based Preference 13,472 13,846 12,701 15,099 19,137
Armed Forces Special Immigrants1 1 0 0 0 0
Diversity Immigrants 45,246 46,761 49,771 49,507 33,125
Schedule A Workers2 - - - - -
Total 470,098 468,770 482,052 476,249 482,300
Nonimmigrant Categories
Visas Issued 6,603,076 5,804,182 6,422,751 7,507,939 8,927,090
(B1/B2/Border Crossing Cards)3 [750,483] [707,255] [971,886] [1,143,100] [1,493,267]
Total 6,603,076 5,804,182 6,422,751 7,507,939 8,927,090

Note: The totals on this table do not include replaced immigrant visas

1Special Immigrant totals include returning residents, Iraqi and Afghan translators, and certain Iraqis or Afghans employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government.

2Section 502, Title V, Division B of Pub. L. 109-13 enacted May 22, 2005 (the REAL ID Act of 2005) amended Sec. 106(d) of Pub. L. 106-313 to provide for the recapture of 50,000 Employment Preference numbers that were unused in Fiscal Years 2001-2004. The recaptured numbers were to be used for workers with petitions approved under the Department of Labor's Schedule A labor certification regulations. Issuances ceased in Fiscal Year 2007.

3Combination B1/B2 visitor visas/Border Crossing Cards are issued to Mexican nationals. B1/B2/Border Crossing Card issuances are included in the "Visas Issued" line.

Issue 1: Employment and Family-Based Visas

On the whole, people will agree that a country's immigration program is designed to benefit the country and its citizens. Therefore, when thinking about immigration for the United States, it is important to weigh how each of the current and proposed visa programs would change the United States and whether those changes would be beneficial or detrimental. Often, programs are partially beneficial or partially detrimental and their effects change over time.

Much of the debate over policies for granting employment-based visas arises from employers' claims that they have difficulty in hiring workers with the skills they need, for their particular company. Employers have to choose between domestic -- citizen or permanent resident -- or non-domestic workers, who qualify for H-1B. Those decisions are often made based on the skills needed, pay required, and the attractiveness of the job for the domestic vs. international work force. The attractiveness might arise from the desirability of a company's location, the quality of work experience available for the candidate in the country of origin, or other factors.

H-1B employees on temporary work visas cover a wide spectrum of skills, experience levels, and industries. Fully 42% of the H1B are in systems analysis or programming, and 54% are paid entry-level wages (either for entry level jobs, or underpaid compared to a domestic worker).

Occupations Approved for H-1B Workers, FY2000-FY2009

Occupations Approved for H-1B Workers

Frequency of Wage Levels Reported on Approved LCAs, June 1, 2009 - July 30, 2010

Occupations Approved for H-1B Workers

From the GAO Report

"H-1B workers are often not paid wages associated with the highest skills in their fields. Specifically, these data show that over half (54 percent) of the workers with approved LCAs (Labor Condition Application) from June 2009 through July 2010 were categorized as entry-level positions and were paid at the lowest pay grades allowed under the prevailing wage levels (see table 5). This pay grade is designated for jobs needing a basic understanding of duties and the ability of the worker to perform routine tasks that require limited judgment. In comparison, 6 percent of approved applicants whose wages were reported on the LCA were paid within the top pay grade designated for workers that requires sufficient experience and a high level of independent judgment. However, such data do not, by themselves, indicate whether H-1B workers are generally less skilled than their U.S. counterparts, or whether they are younger or more likely to accept lower wages."

H-1B in STEM Fields

Today, employers would like to hire more H-1B workers - particularly in technological and STEM fields - than are able to enter the country under existing quotas. The changes proposed in the Senate bill would increase the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 per year to 115,000-180,000 per year, depending on demand.39

Studies of the IT labor market have revealed that there is no shortage of STEM graduates and that, in fact, there is only one available STEM job for every two US STEM graduates. These studies reveal that, despite the sufficient supply of US STEM graduates, many STEM and IT employers still hire H-1B workers.40

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting growth in the IT job market show, however, that 685,800 new jobs in computer and mathematical occupations will be created by 2022,41 yet US universities graduate only 51,000 computer science students each year. Supporters of a higher H-1B visa cap cite this data as evidence of increased need for H-1B visas and argue that temporary foreign workers will supplement the American tech labor force.42

Others maintain that these projections are misleading, since jobs in computer-related occupations do not necessarily require a computer science degree,43 and Bureau of Labor Statistics projections have historically served as inaccurate indicators of future labor market conditions.

In response to charges that STEM and IT employers hire H-1Bs over equally qualified Americans, some technology industry employers say that H-1B workers fill niche positions for which there are no trained US workers. There are no doubt anecdotal examples of this happening. However, data on wages for computer and mathematical occupations do not reflect a shortage. Economists argue that if tech employers were encountering difficulties in finding qualified workers, this increased demand would be reflected in higher wages for tech employees. Data on rate of pay for IT professionals show, however, that wages have been increasing by only 0.5% per year since 2000. This does not imply a limited tech workforce and suggests instead that a surplus of tech professionals offers employers little incentive to attract workers with higher pay.44

Criticism of H-1B

Criticisms of the H-1B system center on claims that temporary foreign workers are typically hired due to their willingness to accept low wages relative to their skills and experience. According to a paper from the Economic Policy Institute, despite a legal requirement to pay H-1B workers the average wage in a given occupation, pay rates often fail to reflect special technical skills and advanced degrees, leading to an estimated underpayment of H-1B workers by 15-20% compared with US citizens with similar skills, experience and occupation.45 Although other studies place the rate of underpayment closer to 3%, there is nonetheless agreement that H-1B workers are paid less than their value on the open market.46

One of the sources of H-1B workers' underpayment is the use of the H-1B visa to hire young, temporary employees. Not only will young H-1Bs accept lower wages than older Americans, but they also form a large pool of temporary entry-level workers, which enables employers to keep wages low by consistently refreshing the H-1B workforce. Instead of allowing H-1B employees to become established in their companies - and to gain greater bargaining power in salary negotiations - employers can hire new low-wage foreign workers after the visas for current employees expire. Although this does not occur in all cases, and some H-1B employers do sponsor guest workers for green cards, the H-1B system nonetheless contributes to underpayment and age discrimination in the tech industry.

Another factor influencing the underpayment of H-1B workers is the fact that H-1Bs who have obtained sponsorship for permanent residence are unable to change employers while their green card applications are pending (a period that typically lasts several years). This restriction, known as "tethering," leads to underpayment by depriving temporary foreign workers of the bargaining power that they would have with mobility in the labor market.47 Opponents of tethering argue that it is detrimental to both American citizens and legal permanent residents, since it makes foreign applicants more attractive to employers.

Critics of the H-1B system call attention not only to legal loopholes in wage requirements, but also to the insufficient annual number of visas. In 2007, 2008, 2013 and 2014, the demand for H-1B visas was so high in the first week of the application-filing period that officials held a lottery to determine which applications to process. A study by the Partnership for a New American Economy (PNAE) assessed the impact of this lottery and found that rejection of applications in 2007 and 2008 led to slower wage growth and lower rates of job creation for American workers. Had the rejected applications been approved, wage growth would have been 3.2% higher and 231,224 additional jobs would have been created.48 A study from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) further attests to the positive economic influence of H-1B workers, revealing that every 100 additional H-1B workers were associated with an additional 183 jobs among US natives between 2001 and 2010.49

In assessing the studies pointing to the economic benefits of higher H-1B caps, it is important to consider that PNAE is a lobbying group aimed at immigration expansion. The NFAP report relies, as well, on data from a study sponsored in part by PNAE. Some argue that these advocacy groups employ misleading data manipulation strategies to serve political ends and that other research does not corroborate their results. Researchers from UC Davis and Colgate University have calculated - contrary to PNAE and NFAP findings - that increases in foreign STEM workers over the past two decades have had no significant impact on employment rates for both college-educated and non-college-educated Americans.50

Furthermore, although the PNAE and NFAP reports suggest that H-1B workers have a positive economic impact, opponents of a higher H-1B visa cap maintain that the issue of underpayment must be addressed before the implementation of policies that would substantially increase the H-1B population. If the H-1B cap is raised without attention to the underpayment issue, they argue, the exploitation of guest workers will become even more prominent in the tech industry, which will, in turn, lead to lower wage standards for Americans.51

Supporters of EB-5

In addition to the issues surrounding H-1B visas, immigration reform addresses policies related to immigrants' investments in the US economy. Supporters of EB-5 investor visa argue that encouraging such investment-based immigration options helps to create domestic jobs, which will improve the US economy and lower unemployment. However, those opposed to such investment-based immigration argue that this is a temporary solution and does not solve long-term unemployment issues. Furthermore, the jobs created from these investment-based visas may not be in line with the real business needs or skills available and immigrant investors may face deportation if their investments to not create the requisite number of jobs. That is, the investment-based visas may create jobs that are not needed. In addition, some supporters of EB-5 suggest that instead of issuing the visas to individuals, that the EB-5 program should issue visas to families. This change would remove spouses and children from the EB-5 visa quotas and thus allow a greater number of investors to enter the country.

Furthermore, some supporters of increasing investment-based immigration support making a Startup Visa available to immigrant entrepreneurs who already hold H-1B or student visas.53 There is currently no clear immigration channel for foreign entrepreneurs, and an H-1B visa can be issued to an entrepreneur only if that individual obtains sponsorship from a US-based board of directors. Noting that this essentially places company owners under employee control, supporters of the Startup Visa believe that it provides a more practical and straightforward path to business creation in the US. The Startup Visa would attract and retain talented entrepreneurs, promote greater innovation and allow the US to remain competitive in the global technology industry.54 However, those who oppose this visa argue that it is preferable to encourage people who are already in the US to start businesses and encourage innovation.

Some people have argued for the creation of a visa category similar to the UK's "Entrepreneur Visa." This UK visa allows any entrepreneur who has access to £50,000 of investment funds to get a three-year visa, which is convertible into permanent residency after a period of 5 years.55

Job Creator Visas

For immigrants already here on another visa, there are proposals to create Job Creator visas that allow immigrants to apply for long-term residency. Some argue that too many immigrants will fall under this category, as the requirements are to start a business and hire ten US workers. Others argue that this type of visa would mainly benefit wealthy, highly educated immigrants, perhaps to the detriment of industries dependent on low-skilled forms of employment-based immigration. Agricultural employers, for example, have recently experienced labor shortages due to an insufficient immigrant workforce, a lack of immigration pathways for low-skilled workers and US citizens' reluctance to fill agricultural jobs.

Aside from employment- or investment-based immigration, family-based immigration accounts for a substantial number of visas issued each year. Some argue that the quota for family-based visas should be increased in order to minimize the separation of family members. Others argue that applicants expect long wait times for family-based visas and that there should be no expectation of a shortened wait time.

Fourth Preference Family-Based Immigration

In addition to discussions of changing overall family-based visa quotas, there has recently been debate over Fourth Preference family-based immigration, through which US citizens can sponsor their adult siblings for green cards. Supporters of sibling immigration claim that it preserves family unity, while opponents argue that sibling sponsorship creates the potential for nearly unlimited family-based immigration.

The Senate bill seeks to address the large backlogs in employment- and family-based visa applications by replacing diversity and sibling visas with a greater number of merit-based visas. This new merit-based system would award points to applicants with advanced educational credentials (at a minimum, a bachelor's degree), employment history in fields with high demand for workers, family connections in the US, and English language skills. Supporters of the points system assert that it would provide a better method for ensuring that that immigrants' backgrounds and skills better reflect current economic needs. Opponents contend, however, that the points system would result in an ethnically and socioeconomically homogeneous immigrant population, excluding family members of US citizens without extensive education or professional skills, people who work in the informal economy, and people from less-privileged regions of the world.

Diversity Visa

Proposals to eliminate the Diversity Visa category have sparked debate over the social role of immigrants from underrepresented regions. Those who oppose this change argue that ending the diversity lottery would make it virtually impossible for immigrants from certain areas of Asia and Africa to enter the US. They furthermore argue that, because 99.5% of Diversity Visa applicants are ultimately unsuccessful in their attempts to gain entry into the US, the diversity lottery causes American society to appear exclusive and damages the country's global reputation. Although these immigrants may not have the education and technical training of employment-based immigrants, supporters of the Diversity Visa maintain that they make valuable economic and cultural contributions to US society. 56

Opponents of the Diversity Visa argue, however, that the randomly awarded Diversity Visas have no substantial economic benefit and simply increase application processing times for other visa categories. They propose that the visas issued under the diversity lottery be reallocated to reduce green card application backlogs for employment- and family-based immigrants.57

With reference to the debate over shifting visa categories and quotas, some immigration advocates propose that all existing employment, family, and humanitarian visa categories should remain in place and that additional merit-based visas should be created. Proponents of this change believe that it would help to reduce application backlogs across all visa categories. Opponents, however, argue that creating new visas would lead to unprecedented increases in immigration, which would place burdens on public services systems and increase unemployment among US citizens.58

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Create a Start up Visa This visa would allow 75,000 entrepreneurs to start U.S. businesses annually. It would create a specific immigration category for entrepreneurs, whose companies currently cannot sponsor their own executives for work visas. Only people already here on a student visa or an H-1B work visa would be eligible for the Startup Visa, which would prevent certain qualified individuals from entering the country. This new visa category would furthermore increase competition among US entrepreneurs. Finally, the visa holders are dependent on funding from investors, which means investors may have significant control over the visa holders.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Allow foreign students who study technology, science, engineering and math to stay in the US and seek employment. Currently, 26.0% of STEM students stay in the US on H-1B visas after graduation.60 Since foreign-born STEM students comprise 45% of graduate degree holders from research-intensive universities,61 allowing them to stay in the US after graduation would expand the country's technical workforce. Inclusion of these new workers in the American economy would, in turn, lead to job creation and wage growth in both technical and non-technical professions.62 There are already enough US citizen STEM graduates to fill available position in these fields. Furthermore, foreign students exhibit lower rates of patenting in their future professions than their American counterparts.59 Increasing the number of immigrant STEM professionals would lead to greater unemployment among American STEM degree holders and diminish the patenting capacity of the US workforce.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the total number of H-1B visas to 115,000 annually, with the potential to raise this number to 180,000 depending on unemployment rates for professionals. The number of master's degree holders exempted from H-1B limits would increase from 20,000 to 25,000.67 Since the H-1B visa cap was lowered to 65,000 in 2004, there have been no unused H-1B visas in any given year.64 In 6 of the last 9 years, the H-1B quota was met within 90 days of the opening of the application. The insufficient number of H-1B visas prevents companies from filling all open positions, leading to lower rates of job creation and slower wage growth for American workers.65 Research has shown that each increase in the foreign STEM workforce by 1% of the total US workforce has led to 4-6% wage increase for college-educated workers in both STEM and non-STEM fields.66 Proposed reforms of the H-1B system do not address the underpayment of H-1B workers, allowing abuses not only to persist but also to become more widespread. By creating a larger pool of temporary, low-wage foreign workers, the higher H-1B cap would undercut wage standards for American workers.63

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Create a limit of H-1B visas per company as a percentage of their workforce based in the US. By limiting the total number of H-1B workers employed by any one company to 50% of the total workforce, the Senate bill would prevent companies from hiring mainly low-salary H-1B workers at the expense of equally qualified Americans. Furthermore, the increased demand for skilled US-based workers would motivate H-1B firms to invest in training and educational programs. Placing limits on the hiring of H-1B workers would would increase business costs for companies that are reliant on H-1B labor. Employers accustomed to the low cost of H-1B labor could perceive the hiring of Americans as prohibitively expensive, which may lead to outsourcing.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Eliminate the employment-based green card backlog and exempt dependents, PhD holders and advanced degree holders in STEM fields from the future 140,000 annual green card quota.70 Wait times for employment-based green cards are typically between 5 and 8 years, although, in some extreme cases, they can last up to 70 years. These long wait times may deter highly skilled individuals from seeking employment in the US.69 Granting permanent residence status for increased numbers of foreign workers could harm American workers' job prospects.68

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the number of H-1B visas issued to STEM workers. H-1B STEM workers' international background allows them to contribute unique skills and perspectives to their companies. Even if they are not leaders in technological development, they nonetheless diversify the workforce and account for 10-25% of aggregate productivity growth over the past 20 years.71 EAll STEM degrees are not necessarily in fields that are relevant to US economic needs. Employers should further consider hiring people with STEM degrees that are already in the US.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
End the Diversity Visa lottery. Elimination of this visa category would help to clear the backlog of visa applications from countries with high levels of immigration to the US. There are other ways to give preference to increase diversity of immigrants. There is no need to have a separate visa based on the lottery system. Incorporation of the Diversity Visa into the merit-based points system would make it nearly impossible for less-educated immigrants from African, Asian and Eastern European countries to enter the US. This would reduce the diversity of immigrants in the US.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase EB-5's limit to 10,000 families rather than 10,000 individuals as per the Senate bill approved in 2013. Foreign investment in the US economy will create jobs for workers already in the US. Such investment provides direct business investments into communities in the US. EB-5 brings investment but doesn't prioritize where investment goes. This visa does not factor in special expertise or skill.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Do not automatically allow the siblings of all American citizens to immigrate to the US as permanent residents. Siblings should be treated as a factor among others such as educational qualifications and professional qualifications, they should not be given special preference.Families won't be able to reunite siblings as often. Separating immediate family members presents difficult problems for families.

Immigration reform proposal not in the Senate bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase family-sponsored visa quota. More opportunities for legal family immigration would prevent people from entering the country illegally to join their family members.

A strong system for family immigration is one of the key characteristics of US immigration policy, yet existing quotas prevent many family members of citizens and permanent residents from entering the country.
Family members may not have the skills or education necessary to contribute to the US economy.

Additional family immigration places an increased burden on governmental services.

Immigration reform proposal not in the Senate bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Salaries for H-1B visas should be tied to local median wage for a given occupation. Wage requirements for H-1B temporary workers would prevent employers from undercutting local wage standards. Since H-1B employers tend to be concentrated in areas with a high cost of living, this would help to ensure that H-1Bs are fairly compensated. Tying pay rates to local median wages would increase business costs for companies that employ H-1B workers. It must be noted, however, that these companies tend to have high profit margins relative to businesses in other industries.

Even with this change in wage requirements, the H-1B system would still be subject to abuse, since current monitoring and enforcement programs allow employers to underestimate H-1B workers' skill sets and thus offer them lower pay than their equally qualified domestic peers.

Immigration reform proposal not in the Senate bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the U visa cap and end certification requirements for U visas. Increasing the number of U visas represents a shift toward a more humanitarian immigration policy. Ending the certification requirement ensures that people with limited English language abilities will not be excluded from the U visa program. Ending the certification requirement could enable people to claim U visas when they are not actually eligible.

Immigration reform proposal not in the Senate bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Expand O visa and proactively recruit O visa qualified individuals. Increasing the number of O visas would attract more people at the top of their fields to the US, improving the country's international reputation in a range of fields Processing additional O visa applications would draw bureaucratic attention away from more pressing visa-related matters, such as reducing application backlogs.

Methods of Enforcement

How do we enforce our immigration policies?


Immigration enforcement falls into two basic categories: measures aimed at regulating border crossings and efforts to ensure that immigrants already present in the US act in accordance with immigration law. Existing border regulation policies focus on monitoring by the Border Patrol and National Guard, apprehension of illegal border crossers and construction of fencing.72 Current internal enforcement measures focus on preventing visa overstays and ensuring that employers adhere to laws regarding employment of immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) oversees border control and enforcement of immigration laws. Within DHS, the bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is responsible for monitoring borders and ports of entry, while the bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is charged with investigative projects aimed at enforcing immigration laws. In this sense, CBP focuses on illegal border crossing activities, while ICE monitors illegal activity by immigrants already present in the US.

Two main channels of illegal immigration

Illegal immigration occurs through two main channels: overstaying a visa and illegally crossing the border.

Visa Overstays

Visa overstays constitute a major challenge for interior enforcement officials.

Visa overstays constitute a substantial immigration enforcement problem because they lead to steady (and often difficult-to-detect) growth in the unauthorized immigrant population. Current procedures for gathering biometric information at ports of entry do not provide the government with sufficient data on visa overstay rates. For this reason, the Department of Homeland Security has been unable to report on the number of people present in the US on an overstayed visa,74 although the Pew Hispanic Center estimates that visa overstays account for 33-50% of illegal immigration to the US.

Illegal Border Crossings

Further problems arise from illegal border crossings.

CBP agents focus their attentions on preventing the entry of undocumented individuals into the US and reducing drug and human trafficking activities in border regions. Under present conditions, a force of 21,165 Border Patrol agents75 arrest approximately 300,000-350,000 illegal border crossers per year.76

DHS estimates that 40 to 55% of all illegal border crossers are apprehended, and 23% are turned back without being arrested. Although these figures provide some indication of CBP effectiveness, DHS does not offer data on the estimated number of people who take up residence in the US after illegally crossing the border.77

In addition to physical apprehensions of illegal border crossers by CBP agents, maintenance of border security occurs through the construction of fencing along the Southern border. Over the past decade, the federal government has authorized the construction of additional pedestrian and vehicle fencing, which will increase the total length of the border fence from 135 miles which have currently been built up to 700 miles by adding 565 miles of fencing. For context, the US border with Mexico is 1954 miles long.

Employment Verification

Methods for enforcing immigration law include employment verification and deportation.

Employment verification provides a means for detecting unauthorized immigrants living in the US.

The employment verification program, through which employers certify that job applicants are legally eligible to work in the US, provides one of the government's primary means for challenging illegal residence in the US. E-verify is a web-based system managed by US Customs and Immigration Services to help employers determine whether prospective employees are legally eligible for employment. Mandated use of this system currently operates on a state-by-state basis,78 and more than 15 US states have implemented some type of required E-verify program.79 Overall use of the program increased eight-fold between 2006 and 2010, from 1.7 million to 13.4 million queries, covering about one out of four people hired in the United States in 2010.80


In terms of interior enforcement, deportation serves as a common method for upholding internal immigration law. The Obama Administration has prioritized deportation of criminals, and, as of 2011, ICE officers have been ordered not to arrest undocumented immigrants who are guilty of only minor offenses, nor those who are parents, students or caregivers.81 Despite this emphasis on deporting only unauthorized immigrants who are guilty of violent crimes, Human Rights Watch estimates that 72 percent of the close to 900,000 non-citizens deported for criminal convictions between 1997 and 2007 were deported for nonviolent offenses. These deported individuals left behind over a million family members in the US, many of whom are citizens or permanent residents.82 Since 2009, over 2 million immigrants have been deported, at a cost of approximately $2 billion per year for US taxpayers.

Substantial federal attention has recently been directed toward minimizing deportations of unauthorized immigrants who came to the US as children. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program provides protection from deportation for the 2.1 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to US before age 16 and have resided continuously in the US for more than 5 years. During the period of deferred action, eligible individuals are not considered to be unlawfully present in the US, and if they remain in deferred action status for two years without committing any crimes, they may become eligible for work authorization.83


Illegal immigration issues and methods of enforcement have risen to the forefront in discussions of immigration reform. Some lawmakers argue that illegal immigrants should be provided with a path to citizenship, while others contend that legalization programs should not begin until border enforcement problems are resolved.84

The path to citizenship refers to a legal method by which unauthorized immigrants can achieve permanent residency and/or citizenship. Because unauthorized immigrants arrive in the country for a variety of reasons, and may have children who are legally citizens, there are many different ideas for paths to citizenship.

Unauthorized immigrants currently have few options for changing their legal status and can apply for citizenship only after returning to their country of origin. Some of them would have a chance of being accepted as immigrants, but this process would take many years. Meanwhile, many have families in the US, work here, and are enmeshed in communities.

Under the Senate bill on immigration reform of 2013, unauthorized immigrants will be automatically granted registered provisional immigrant status, which will be upgraded to legal permanent resident status and, ultimately, full citizenship. Registered provisional immigrants must remain in this status for 10 years before becoming eligible for legal permanent residence. Legal permanent residents must remain in this status for 3 years before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship. Thus, currently unauthorized immigrants who gain legal status under the Senate bill must wait at least 13 years before they are able to naturalize.

Before instituting these paths-to-citizenship measures, however, the federal government must implement a series of border enforcement triggers. These include the construction of 700 miles of fencing, deployment of 38,405 border patrol agents and establishment of a mandatory employment verification system.85

Issues Related to Enforcement

After peaking at 1.7 million in 2000, the number of border apprehensions has been declining steadily throughout the past decade, reaching the lowest point since 1970 in 2011. GAO estimates that between 40 and 50% of illegal border crossers go undetected. Some lawmakers have deemed this decrease in border crossings representative of a decline in border control effectiveness and therefore called for an increase in the number of border security personnel deployed to the Southern border. Other lawmakers argue that the decline in detection of illegal border crossers results from an overall decline in the number of crossings. The shifting economic situation in Latin America means that the number of people who attempt to immigrate to the US is neither steady nor fully predictable.

Supporters of the increase in border security point to the high level of undetected border crossing as evidence of the insufficiency of current border control measures in stopping illegal border activity. Opponents of sending additional personnel to the Southern border argue, however, that an increase in the number of Border Patrol agents and National Guard personnel sent to the Southern border represents a misdirection of funds and resources. They point out that violent crimes in Southwest border counties overall have dropped by more than 40 percent and are currently among the lowest in the nation per capita, making this a low-priority region for increased federal oversight.86

Caught at the Border

Furthermore, according to data gathered from Department of Homeland Security, the number of Mexicans caught at the border has decreased significantly in the last ten years.87 The number in 2001 was over 1.2 million and in 2011, the number was closer to 300,000. In comparison, there is a slight rise in the number of Central American and others being caught at the border over the years.

Caught at the border graph

Border Security

In addition to calling for increased border security personnel, Congress has also ordered the construction of additional fencing along the US-Mexico border. Those in favor of fencing construction maintain that it prevents illegal entry into the US.88 Opponents of the border fence contend, however, that its effectiveness in deterring illegal border crossers does not justify its cost and, furthermore, that additional border fencing will harm US-Mexico relations.89

The construction of border fencing and deployment of additional personnel would result in an unprecedented increase in enforcement spending. While supporters of this allocation of funds claim that it is essential for maintaining border security, opponents contend that the border is more secure than ever and that the funds would be better directed toward the development of new enforcement strategies and technologies.


In an effort to more effectively detect unauthorized immigrants - particularly those in the country on overstayed visas - the Senate bill calls for a mandatory nationwide employment verification system. Supporters of mandatory E-verify implementation argue that the current state-by-state approach is insufficient for identifying unauthorized workers. They maintain that E-verify would add a measure of standardization to an otherwise disorganized detection system. Opponents of mandatory employment verification argue, however, that the E-verify system has a high error rate, which would prevent legal immigrants from gaining work authorization. Furthermore, smaller companies may not be able to support this overhead required to comply and therefore could be reluctant to hire in certain contexts.

Detention Practices

When ICE identifies unauthorized immigrants, deportations serve as the most common method for immigration law enforcement. Following a 2007 Congressional mandate, approximately 34,000 ICE detention beds must be filled every day. Opponents of these detention practices argue that this number is excessive and leads to long wait times in overcrowded facilities.They furthermore point to the high cost of detention, claiming that taxpayers spend billions of dollars each year to effectively imprison people who are guilty of only minor offenses. One small facility in Texas houses close to 2000 persons and it costs $2 billion in 2012, which is about $5,000 per person deported, with average stay of one month.90 In this facility, people are also given color-coded suits to signify the level of serious of offences- minor, mid to serious level offenders.

Given that 11 million persons are currently in this country illegally, many argue that full-scale detention and deportation would take many years to complete and thus may not be the right solution for the US. They further argue that our current treatment of unauthorized immigrants is inhumane.91 Supporters of existing federal detention requirements maintain, however, that detention practices highlight the severity of immigration law violations and are thus vital to limiting future illegal immigration. They argue that detention and deportation provide a starting point for alleviating the problems of unauthorized entry into the US.92

Deportation Arguments

Some argue that deportations are not always in the best interest of US citizens, particularly US citizen children whose parents are undocumented immigrants. Opponents of parental deportations claim that they are disruptive to family unity and harmful to children, pointing to the 204,810 parents of US citizen children are deported between 2010 and 2012 and the 5,100 children who are in foster care due to parental deportations.93

Those who wish to maintain current practices for deporting parents, however, argue that unauthorized immigrants - regardless of parental status - act in opposition to immigration law and should receive no special treatment. Supporters of parental deportation furthermore claim that deported individuals have had a detrimental overall impact on society, citing the 74% of deported parents have been convicted of crimes (although 40% of convictions were for low level crimes like driving offenses) and the 13% who had been deported before.94

Prosecutorial Discretion

Prosecutorial discretion in the immigration context has been said to both stymie and move immigration reform forward. Put simply, prosecutorial discretion is the ability for authorities to decide what charges should be brought in court and how they should be construed, given that prosecutors do not violate civil rights.

Some supporters of prosecutorial discretion have argued that the Executive Branch has not done enough to exercise its powers in that area. It is said that certain decisions are well within the prosecutorial discretion of INS and DHS, such as whether to parole someone, to pursue formal removal proceedings, to extend voluntary departure, and to impose fines. Those in favor of such actions have argued that the Executive Branch should do more in executing its power of prosecutorial discretion and encourage INS, DHS, and other relevant authorities to do so as well; there is a lot the President can do without waiting for congressional action.

However, others argue that significant prosecutorial discretion has been exercised and perhaps should be more limited to reduce inequality of results. Since last year, the current prosecutorial discretion program allows for a person who is not authorized to be in the US, but who does not have a serious criminal record, to remain in the country. It does not, however, provide the person with employment authorization. Those opposed to using prosecutorial discretion argue that this ability should be used sparingly, and all agencies and the executive branch should follow the laws set forth and not bypass them with prosecutorial discretion.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the number of prosecutions for border crossings to up to 210 per day. Increasing the number of prosecutions will deter illegal entry into the US because violators will have to serve prison time.

This proposal also signals to employers that the number of unauthorized immigrants may decrease and encourage them to hire fewer unauthorized workers.
Implementing this proposal would place financial burdens on the judicial system.

Placing numerical requirements on the number of daily prosecutions could increase the risk of unfair imprisonment.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the number of Border Patrol agents deployed to the Southern border to 38,405 by September 30, 2021. Increasing the number of border agents will provide greater security to our Southern border.

More security will deter persons from entering the US without inspection.

This proposal will relieve some burden of local governments that have limited experience and resources with such matters.
This proposal requires greater government spending on border security; such government dollars could be better used in other areas.

Persons who want to enter the US without inspection will find other ways to enter the country to get around the increase of border agents. This proposal does not solve the problem of persons entering this country without inspection.

Funds spent on border security have an opportunity cost of not being able to spend those dollars on health, education, research, and other worthy causes.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Allocate $1.5 million for the construction of border fencing, including double-layer fencing in some areas. This proposal would reduce illegal border crossings, including human and drug trafficking.

Greater and more secure border fencing would reduce the number of persons needed to patrol the border and save costs in the long term.
This proposal would increase tensions between Mexico and the US (especially since reform legislation does not permit construction of fencing along the Northern border).

Increasing fenced areas is not sustainable in protecting our border. Long term solutions for deterring persons from entering US without inspection is more important.

The fences would still not be foolproof against organized crime transporting cocaine and other hard drugs to the US because these smuggling operations have historically used multiple means to cross the border, including doing so by sea and air.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Introducing a federal mandate on employment verification systems. By making it more difficult for unauthorized workers to gain employment, mandatory employment verification would prevent future persons from entering this country illegally and provide a more effective means for identifying visa overstayers.

Mandatory employment verification holds employers accountable for their hiring decisions and protects employees from unsafe work environments.
The current program under the Department of Homeland Security checks for valid social security numbers but not necessarily for misuse. So, if the SSN is valid, the program assumes it is used legitimately. This program leads to significantly high errors.

The root of the problem is border security, so further funds from the federal government should be used towards security our border.

Unauthorized immigrants who are working hard in legitimate industries should be the lowest priority for enforcement.

Reform Proposal not in the Senate Bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Allow state governors to deploy National Guard troops to the Southern border. National guard troops provide reinforcement to Border Patrol agents and support fencing construction projects.

Federal, state and local governments faces budget cuts, so this proposal of deploying National Guard troops will relieve financial burden in other areas.
Deployment of National Guard troops is expensive, and the funds used to deploy the National Guard could be more effectively used otherwise.

Members of the National Guard are not trained for enforcing border security. Their expertise should be used whether most relevant.

Reform Proposal not in the Senate Bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Hold fewer unauthorized immigrants in detention centers. This would improve conditions in overcrowded detention facilities and would prevent the criminalization of unauthorized immigrants who are guilty of only minor crimes (such as traffic violations). Eliminating the threat of detention eliminates one of the major penalties for unauthorized immigration. This would lead to increased violations of immigration law.

Issues: Path to Citizenship

The debates regarding a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants center on immigrants' contributions to society. Many unauthorized immigrants work in in unskilled and undesirable below-minimum-wage jobs, generally earning lower wages than they would if granted legal residency status.95 Supporters of the path to citizenship argue that legal status would enable currently unauthorized immigrants to earn more, pay higher taxes, and make greater overall economic contributions. Furthermore, these unauthorized workers would no longer be targets of DHS activities, allowing immigration enforcement officials to focus their attentions and resources on dangerous criminals. Opponents of the path to citizenship claim, however, that allowing up to 11 million new legal workers to enter the workforce would result in higher unemployment among US citizens.

In addition employment-related issues, unauthorized immigrants share access to certain services but are not participating in social obligations, such as jury duty.96 Supporters of the path to citizenship believe that legal status will increase civic involvement among once-unauthorized immigrants, allowing them to better integrate into American society. Opponents claim, however, that newly-legalized immigrants may not have sufficient background knowledge of the American legal and judicial systems to take on such responsibilities as serving on a jury. Furthermore, some politicians argue that legalizing unauthorized immigrants could shift the electoral balance of power between political parties in some parts of the US.

While granting legal status to unauthorized immigrants has received substantial political attention, there have also been debates regarding new policies for legal methods for taking up permanent residency in the US. These proposals involve increasing the overall number of employment-based green cards by counting only workers, not family members, toward the annual green card quota. Supporters of this policy state that the current green card quota does not meet the demand for employment-based permanent residence. This creates backlogs in the employment-based green card application system, which could be reduced if family members were allowed to enter through other channels. Opponents of this change in green card issuance contend that family members are likely to take jobs in the US and should therefore be treated as employment-based green card holders.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Unauthorized immigrants should be granted registered provisional immigrant status for 10 years before being eligible for legal permanent residence. Providing a path to citizenship will create safer working environments for unauthorized workers. Working conditions for those with unauthorized status is often unsafe because some employers take advantage of unauthorized workers assuming that workers will be afraid to report unsafe work conditions.

Granting provisional immigrant status will decrease the dangerous pool of gray-market U.S. residents which might produce and/or hide security threats, including consistent workarounds which drugs and/or trained terrorists might use.

A path to citizenship will enable the government to start collecting income taxes and increase revenue for government. Furthermore, full citizenship maximizes economic and strategic positives and the sooner that happens, the more the money is worth.
A path to citizenship already exists, as noted by the many visa options – we do not need an additional path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. Furthermore, creating a new pathway would encourage more people to enter the US illegally.

The 10-year wait does not guarantee citizenship. Even for people with family in the US, the wait may be very long.

Granting provisional immigrant status would impact wages, employers and the US economy significantly. The cost of some products and services would increase and might become prohibitive for many companies.

Senate Bill Reform Proposal

Proposal Pros Cons
Provide DREAMers with a faster path to work authorization and, ultimately, legalization. Legal workers tend to earn significantly more than illegal workers, which in turn leads them to pay higher taxes, invest more in education and make greater contributions to the overall economy.

This proposal would likely reduce drop-out rates for such students. Keeping students, in general, in school longer is beneficial to our economy and will likely reduce crime rates. With inequality increasing among Americans overall, this proposal would mitigate some of the growth in inequality. Legalization frees up security agencies to focus more resources on violent criminals and other higher priority offenders.
The prospect of legal work authorization for children of those who are currently unauthorized creates an additional incentive for people to immigrate without authorization.

The DREAMers could negatively impact opportunities (such as enrollment in college programs) for students who are legally in the US.

Reform Proposal not in the Senate Bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Give priority to non-citizen parents of US citizen children in the visa application process. Accelerating the visa application process for parents of US citizen children would protect against family separation.

Providing priority for non-citizen parents with US citizen children would reduce the number of people who may overstay their visas. Since it is difficult to track people who overstay their visas, this would encourage more people to stay in the US legally.
The time period is already pre-defined for non-citizen parents of US citizen children to renew their status or apply for staying in the US legally. Such persons should allow for enough time for their application processes.

There are other categories of persons that wish to have more priority in these application processes as well.

Reform Proposal not in the Senate Bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Applicants should return to home country while waiting for visa. Given that those individuals violated the law this would ensure that lawbreaking is neither incentivized nor endorsed.

Applicants for other visas must return to home country while waiting, therefore immigrants applying under this path to citizenship should be required to do the same.
If the wait is long, sending them back to home country may result in time exceeding the length of life remaining.

Returning home would be disruptive to lives of applicants, family members, and coworkers and would increase applicants' financial burden, due to temporary loss of work and cost of travel.

It is unrealistic that a high percentage of unauthorized workers would comply with such a law.

Reform Proposal not in the Senate Bill

Proposal Pros Cons
Increase the total number of green cards issued annually by 100%. Increasing the number of green cards would reduce waiting periods for green cards.

Green cards to highly skilled foreign nationals would likely create more jobs and innovations for the US.
Increasing the number of green cards does not guarantee the clearing of the backlog of green card applicants.

There remains concerns that those receiving green cards would take jobs away from people that are already in the US.



The Naturalization Act of 1790 passed by Congress meant that any "free white persons" of "good moral character" could apply for citizenship after two years of residence. The residency requirement was increased to 14 years in 1798.


In 1802 The Jefferson Administration revises the Naturalization Act of 1798 by reducing the residency requirement from 14 to five years.

1840s and 1850s

In the 1840s Crop failures in Germany and the Irish potato famine along with displacement due to industrialization in European society lead to a new period of mass immigration to the United States.

California Gold Rush spurs immigration from China. 20,000 Chinese miners arrived in California in 1852 alone.97

The Know-Nothings, a nativist political party seeking to increase restrictions on immigration, win significant victories in Congress, a sign of popular dissatisfaction with growing immigration from Catholic Ireland. Protestant Americans feared that growing Catholic immigration would place American society under control of the Pope.


African Americans gain citizenship with the 14th Amendment. Burlingame Treaty with China and need for workers to build the Transcontinental Railroad spurs increase in Chinese immigration


The Naturalization Act of 1870 expands citizenship to both whites and African-Americans, though Asians are still excluded. In 1875 the first restrictive federal immigration statute was passed which barred the entry of prostitutes and convicts.


1882 Chinese Exclusion Act blocked immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and barred Chinese in the US from citizenship, although Chinese merchants and students were still permitted to enter.


Ellis Island, the location at which more than 16 million immigrants would be processed, opens in New York City.


After President William McKinley is shot by a Polish anarchist (September 6, 1901) and dies a week later (September 14, 1901), Congress enacts the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which prohibits the entry into the US of people judged to be anarchists and political extremists. Anarchists, epileptics, polygamists, unaccompanied children, people with physical disabilities and people with mental disabilities are added to the exclusion lists. Beggars ruled ineligible for immigration.98


Mexican revolution triggers increase in immigration among significant numbers of economically displaced individuals and families.


The 1921 Emergency Quota Act restricts immigration from a given country to 3% of the number of people from that country living in the US in 1910.99 Asian immigration strictly limited. Special categories are established that don't count against per-country quotas for wives of citizens, learned professionals and domestic servants.


In the name of unity among the Allies, the Chinese Exclusion Laws are repealed, and China's quota is set at a token 105 immigrants annually.100


The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) of 1952 sets forth qualifications for naturalization, ranging from regulation of foreign students to management of temporary workers to authorization of humanitarian protections such as asylum and refugee admissions. The INA also contains quotas or limits on the number of legal immigrants who may come to the country each year, numbers which were last adjusted in 1990.

Discussion Co-sponsored by TechCrunch, the Knight Foundation, Reframe It, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Miami Foundation and the Center for the Greater Good

Briefing Committee

Michael Clemens, Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Development
Ron Hira, Associate Professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society/Public Policy at Rochester Institute of Technology
Cheryl Little, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Americans for Immigrant Justice
Norm Matloff, Professor of Computer Science at UC Davis
Craig Montuori, Founder and Executive Director of PolitiHacks
Hal Salzman, Professor of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University
Manuel Santamaria, Director of Grantmaking at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation


  1. Migration Information: reprinting of Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (various years). Note: The 1990 spike in LPR admissions reflects the one-time adjustment of newly legalized immigrants under IRCA. Note: These data represent persons admitted for legal permanent residence during the 12-month fiscal year ending September 30 of the year designated.
  2. 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
  3. 1965 Immigration Reform and Control Act
  5. SFSU
  6. UCDavis
  7. Cornell Law
  24. eurostat
  27. Page 35 GAO-11-26 H-1B Visa Program
  95. Congressional Budget Office
  97. Center for Migration Studies, Migration Policy Institute, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy (Thomas Aleinikoff et. al.,) Compiled by: Julia Spiegel and Ed McCarthy
  99. Earlier entries in table adapted from