Immigration: Issue Explainer

They founded Google. They’ve made huge advancements in biochemistry. They invented donuts, basketball, and video games. They grow our food, care for us in hospitals and at home, code software, and do countless other jobs up and down the economic ladder.

We’re talking about immigrants to the United States. Immigration is, in many ways, the story of America. For hundreds of years, people have come here from around the world to build this country into what it is today.

And for nearly as long, people have asked whether there should be limits on how many immigrants are in the U.S. or where they come from.

It’s a close-to-home issue that touches on family, culture, economics, and race — so naturally everyone is very chill about it.

Er, not so much.

Who Can Come?

In the beginning, people really just showed up. We didn’t have much in the way of immigration laws, just wide open spaces (the U.S. wasn’t even a country until 1776). If you managed to get here on a boat, you could pretty much stay.

After the Civil War, a few states passed new immigration laws — but the Supreme Court stepped in and ruled that actually the federal government should be in charge of regulating immigration.

As more and more immigrants arrived, Congress began passing new laws that put limits on who could and couldn’t immigrate to the U.S. Over time, these laws excluded Asian people, people with certain political beliefs, people with contagious diseases, and many others. Still, between 1892 and 1954, more than 12 million people became Americans at Ellis Island.

Here’s how things work today: For starters, if your goal is to live in the U.S. permanently, you’ll want to become a lawful permanent resident (aka get a green card). This is a long process that can take years. There are four ways to become a lawful permanent resident of the U.S.:

  • To join a family member (nearly 70% of immigrants qualify this way)
  • For a job that requires special skills or helps fill a shortage in the U.S. (about 12% of immigrants qualify this way)
  • Through a lottery for people coming from countries that don’t have a lot of people immigrating to the U.S., known as the Diversity Lottery (only 4% of people come this way)
  • To flee a humanitarian crisis or persecution (13% of people come this way)

In fiscal year 2019, more than one million people (1,031,765 to be exact) became legal permanent residents of the U.S. If that seems like a lot, consider how many people are on the waiting list: as of November 1, 2020, nearly 4 million people were waiting to get an immigrant visa (that number is higher than the year before because of the pandemic, but the 2019 number was still well over 3 million).

Name check: the federal government budget runs from October 1 to September 30 each year. We refer to that period of time as the fiscal year. Say the fiscal year begins in 2020 and ends in 2021. We call that FY2021 or fiscal year 2021.

Where Are You From?

Back in the day (as in 1910), 80 percent of immigrants came from Europe. Today, the whole world looks different and 80 percent of immigrants come from Asia or Latin America. In FY 2019, people born in these countries made up the most new legal permanent residents:

  • Mexico
  • China
  • India
  • Dominican Republic
  • Philippines
  • Cuba

Here’s Where Things Get Tricky

Immigrating to the U.S. the legal way takes a long, long time. It can also be expensive — most applicants have to pay hundreds of dollars in fees and much more if they need help from a lawyer. Plus, only a fraction of people seeking legal permanent resident status each year can get it. Far more people from around the world want to come here than the legal immigration system allows. Many come looking for work, or are trying to escape violence in their home countries.

People who come to the U.S. outside of the legal immigration system are known as unauthorized immigrants (you’ve probably heard other terms like “undocumented” or “illegal,” but “unauthorized” is what we’ll use here).

Experts estimate that the largest group of unauthorized people in the U.S. are people who overstayed their visas. These are people who entered the U.S. legally as tourists, students, or for work, but stayed past the date they were supposed to leave. Other people enter the country using fraudulent documents, or cross into the U.S. and avoid being inspected by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Around 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants live in the U.S. today. About two-thirds of them have lived here for a while, at least ten years. While they are not legally allowed to work, many do (and pay billions of dollars in taxes each year). There’s a lot of debate over how to handle unauthorized immigration and people have many different ideas.

More or Less

Immigration is a personal and emotional issue for a lot of people. Questions often come up about whether immigration is good or bad for the economy, causes crime, or drains government budgets. Let’s look at a few of the big issues.

The Economy

Most experts agree that immigration is good for the American economy. Almost three-quarters of immigrants who are working in the U.S. are doing so legally, and people born in another country pump around $2 trillion a year into the American economy (that’s about 10 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, if you want to get technical).

Plus, immigrants bring some serious smarts. Compared to people born in the U.S., they’re more likely to work in science, tech, and engineering; to win Nobel prizes in physics, chemistry, and medicine; to develop more technologies that get new patents; and are almost twice as likely to have doctorate degrees. Still, as you’d expect, a huge population of people coming from all over the world under all kinds of conditions is very diverse. Immigrants are also, for example, more likely than native-born people to work construction or service jobs.

Government Programs

Whether you’re eligible for government benefits depends on your immigration status. People who are legal permanent residents or have some other permanent authorization to live in the U.S. (like refugee status) are eligible for some government programs, including welfare, SNAP (also known as food stamps), Medicaid, Social Security, and affordable housing vouchers. Same goes if you want to enroll in an insurance plan under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Certain benefits are also available to immigrants who are not legal permanent residents, and that sometimes includes unauthorized immigrants. For example, unauthorized immigrants are eligible for emergency medical care and WIC (nutrition assistance for children under five and their mothers). Unauthorized parents might qualify for SNAP if they have children who are U.S. citizens. And public schools are required to enroll any child regardless of immigration status.

To make things more complicated, the states like to mix it up. In about half of states, more immigrants — sometimes including unauthorized immigrants — can access certain benefits like SNAP or Medicaid (health insurance for low-income people).

Do immigrants use government benefits more than people born in the U.S.? It’s not entirely clear. Most research suggests that immigrants use government benefits at the same or lower levels than people born in the U.S., but some studies dispute that.


This one is easy: immigrants are not here on a crime spree. In fact, unauthorized immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the U.S.

Let’s Make It Official

Some people advocate for reforms that would make it possible for unauthorized immigrants to get legal status. For example, President Biden has proposed a plan that offers an eight-year path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who pass a background check and pay taxes. It would also make it easier for immigrants to join family members who are already in the U.S. legally.

Not everyone agrees with that approach. Some people say that the U.S. should not reward people with citizenship if they broke the law to enter the country, especially when there are plenty of people taking the legal steps to become citizens.

The Dreamers

Some unauthorized people in the U.S. — around 2 million — were brought here as children. A federal government program called DACA protects about 700,000 of them from being deported (DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). It also allows them to work legally, get a social security number, and obtain a driver’s license or state ID card. The Obama Administration created the DACA program in 2012 and the Trump Administration tried to end it in 2017. The matter went to court and, for now, people with DACA can renew their status to stay in the country and new people can apply.

Who’s eligible? Not everyone. In order to be granted DACA status, a person must:

  • have been younger than 31 when the program was enacted (in other words, born after June 15, 1981).
  • have entered the U.S. before turning 16.
  • have lived in the U.S. continuously since 2007.
  • be enrolled in school, have graduated from high school, have a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the military or Coast Guard.
  • Have not been convicted as an adult of a felony, significant misdemeanor, three or more non-significant misdemeanors, or pose a threat to national security or public safety.

People who are eligible for DACA have to renew their status every two years.

While DACA allows those 700,000 people to stay in the U.S. legally for now, it does not give them a visa or green card, and it doesn’t make them eligible for lawful permanent status or citizenship. Plus, Congress didn’t enact a law creating DACA; it’s a program that the president and the Department of Homeland Security created. That means the program could end at any time and people who have been granted DACA do not have any guarantee that they can stay in the U.S. long-term. That’s why many people think Congress should pass a law making DACA official.


There are two main federal agencies in charge of enforcing immigration laws: U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Both are part of the Department of Homeland Security.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP)

These folks have the job of securing America’s borders. They do so at 329 official entry points (often called “ports of entry”) to the U.S., along our borders with Mexico and Canada, and along the coastal waters of Florida and Puerto Rico. The Border Patrol monitors surveillance systems, maintains traffic checkpoints, and conducts patrols and anti-smuggling investigations.

On a typical day, Customs and Border Protection apprehends 1,107 people and arrests 39 wanted criminals between U.S. ports of entry (in other words, people coming into the country somewhere other than a designated entrance). They also encounter 634 people at U.S. ports of entry who do not have permission to enter the country for one reason or another.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

Employees of this agency arrest and detain people it believes are in the U.S. without authorization. They also have the job of removing (deporting) unauthorized people from the country if that’s what an immigration judge orders. Sometimes, a judge will release an unauthorized person back into the community while their case is being decided, and ICE will be tasked with supervising that person as their case works its way through the immigration system.

What’s Going on at the Southern Border?

Immigration is always a big issue — Congress has been trying and failing to reform the system for decades — but it’s been in the headlines nonstop for the past few years. The situation is changing constantly but here’s what you need to know.

Immigrants arriving at the U.S. southern border used to be largely single men, but around 2014, that started to change. A growing number of migrants is now coming from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, fleeing poverty and violence (these three countries are often referred to as the Northern Triangle). That includes a big increase in families and children traveling alone. Around two-thirds of those children are teenagers, while others are younger.

When they arrive in the U.S. many of these children stay in jail-like facilities and are often there longer than 72 hours, the legal limit. Others are living in temporary or permanent shelters. President Biden’s administration has been working to increase space at shelters and, when possible, more quickly transfer children to relatives they may have in the U.S. They haven’t been able to keep up with the number of people arriving, though, and Vice President Harris has urged migrants not to make the journey to the U.S.

This all comes after four years of anti-immigrant language and actions from President Trump. His policies included requiring asylum-seekers to stay in Mexico while waiting for a hearing from a U.S. immigration court, and fast-tracking asylum cases in a way that rarely allowed a person to speak with a lawyer.

Long-term, many policymakers, including President Biden, say we should focus on improving the economy and overall safety in the Northern Triangle so that fewer people will feel the need to leave.

The Players

As you can see, a lot of people have a hand in the immigration system. Here’s some more detail on who does what. Click on the players to learn more about how they impact other issues.


Since immigration is a federal issue, the president has a lot of authority. He can tell federal agencies to make changes to U.S. immigration policy. President Obama, for example, was behind the creation of DACA, while President Trump oversaw construction of 450 miles of wall along the southern border and lowered the cap on the number of refugees allowed in the U.S. More recently, President Biden announced that the federal government would use the words “noncitizens” or “migrants” instead of “illegal aliens” and has said he wants to restore the refugee cap to its previous level.

Federal Agencies

When the president wants to take a policy from paper to real life, it’s often up to federal agencies to get the job done. When it comes to immigration and border security, the Department of Homeland Security is the leading actor. It includes:

  • Citizenship and Immigration Services

    This crew oversees lawful immigration to the U.S. If you’re applying for a green card, a work visa, or trying to verify that someone is legally permitted to work, this is the place for you.

  • Immigration and Customs Enforcement

    This agency arrests, detains, and removes unauthorized immigrants from the country.

  • Customs and Border Protection

    These folks patrol U.S. borders and ports of entry to prevent people from entering the country without authorization.

The Department of Homeland Security has a hand in all kinds of other policies. For example, it can give a country a Temporary Protected Status designation, which allows some people from that country to stay legally in the U.S. When a federal agency makes a policy change, they often do it in consultation with the White House.


Members of Congress have some strong opinions on immigration, but they haven’t managed to do much legislating on the issue lately. Many experts say Congress really, really needs to weigh in. For example, the U.S. offers a visa known as the H-1B visa, which allows highly skilled employees to work here and is important for tech companies (though they aren’t the only kinds of companies that benefit). Some people argue that the U.S. should offer more H-1B visas, or that a few big companies are taking unfair advantage of the H-1B program, or that the U.S. shouldn’t be bringing in foreign workers at all. Either way, this is a place where Congress could — literally — lay down the law.

Another example: the House of Representatives passed the American Dream and Promise Act in March 2021, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the Dreamers and some other people with temporary immigration protections. But that bill isn’t law yet because it hasn’t passed the Senate.

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court has gotten involved in some major immigration issues over the past few years. In 2016, the court rejected an attempt by President Trump to end DACA. Later, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that people who had been granted temporary protected status (a kind of temporary humanitarian relief) because their home countries were dangerous would not be eligible for green cards.

Both of these programs were created by the executive branch rather than through legislation passed by Congress, so there’s a lot of discussion still going on about them. There are other times when the Supreme Court can step in — they can choose to halt (or allow) the deportation of an unauthorized immigrant.


Some states have policies that prevent local law enforcement officers from asking a person about their immigration status or arresting a person for an immigration offense. Places with these kinds of policies are known as sanctuary states or cities (that’s a general term, not an official designation). Some governors have either supported or opposed sanctuary policies. For example, Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that made Washington a sanctuary state, while Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill preventing sanctuary cities in Arkansas.

State Legislatures

Some states allow unauthorized immigrants to get driver’s licenses. The decision to pass or defeat a bill making that possible lies with state legislatures.


Just as governors have responded to national immigration issues, some mayors have, too. Mayors in Atlanta, Chicago, New York, and many other cities have refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities.

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