Walking the Line: An Inquiry into Our Current Immigration Policies

by Tanner D’Ortenzio

On May 19th, 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act establishing numerical limits on the total amount of immigrants and the use of a quota system for establishing limits on said immigrants. This landmark piece of legislation was passed due to a large amount of Jewish immigrants leaving Eastern Europe. Fleeing from religious anti-semitism in the forms of violent, targeted riots called pogroms and accusatory blood libels. Based off of the 1910 U.S. Census, this act restricted the annual immigration from any country in the world to three percent of the current U.S. residents of said countries. In use until 1965, the National Origins Formula was the system brought forth from the Emergency Quota Act that restricted the number of unskilled immigrants based on the existing proportions of immigrants in the United States. At face value, this aimed to reduce the number of immigrants from both Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as Asia. While its underlying purpose was to maintain the ethnic makeup of the heavily protestant, Western European American population. In 1952, while the United States was embroiled in controversy surrounding the red-scare, Congress passed The Immigration and Nationality Act. This act amended the system of quotas previously in place by eliminating restrictions of immigrants from Asian countries, but at the same time adding quotas that favored Western European immigrants. The most powerful provision of this act,  Section 212(f) states,

Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act amended the previous act from 1952 by eliminating the discriminatory quota system. This act by President Lyndon B. Johnson would forever change the ethnic makeup of the United States. Upon the signing of this historic piece of legislation, President Johnson said how “The days of unlimited immigration are past. But those who do come will come because of what they are, and not because of the land from which they sprung.” (LBJ) The last amendment to the original act of 1952 pertaining to the entry of immigrants, was enacted under President George H. W. Bush on November 29th, 1990. This act increased the number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. to 675,000 per year, as well as ending the exclusion of homosexuals as being classified as “sexual deviants”. At the time, each one of these pieces of legislation did not seem particularly revolutionary. But, for our country to continue with our egalitarian ideals our immigration system must be updated to accommodate the rising needs of the modern world. Not only this, but more Americans must be educated on how exactly our immigration system works and the faults within it. It is vital to the cohesion of our society that we amend our current immigration policies to ease the strictness of our current system, end the use of immigration quotas, and provide a quicker path for foreign workers to acquire residence and citizenship. Regardless of the true intent of these bills from the past, it is evident that they built our immigration policies and laid the groundwork for our legal immigration processes today.

Before explaining our current system of immigration, there must be a distinction between the meaning of a Green Card and a Visa. According to HG.org, a legal and government information website:

The primary difference between a green card and a visa is that the visa is only a temporary pass that lets you enter the United States and remain there for a specific period of time, whereas the green card is a permit that does not only allow you to enter the US, but also lets you stay there for as long as you want. Unlike the visas, green cards do not come with an expiry date. (HG.org)

Furthermore, there are two different types of Visas: non-immigrant and immigrant visas. The former being for individuals who plan on leaving the country after their business is conducted. For example, students, tourists, etc. While the latter gives individuals the opportunity to apply to be a permanent resident. Currently, there are multiple ways to legally immigrate to the United States. According to the U.S. Department of State, “A foreign citizen seeking to immigrate generally must be sponsored by a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident immediate relative(s), or prospective U.S. employer, and have an approved petition before applying for an immigrant visa.” The most common path to citizenship is through immediate family members or preferred family members. Immediate family members can be defined as “a spouse of a US citizen; minor children, under the age of 21, of a US citizen; and the parents of a US citizen.” While preferred family members are categorized as “adult children, over the age of 21, of a US citizen and a spouse or child, regardless of age, of a legal permanent resident.” (Hirby) In most cases, anyone seeking to acquire a visa this way will be sponsored by their spouse (who must be a U.S. citizen) and would be allowed to bring immediate family including children under the age of 21, and in some cases, their parents. Possibly the most desirable of all the paths to citizenship would be obtaining a work visa. There are multiple forms for obtaining a temporary work visa, but to obtain a permanent work visa, The U.S. Department of State requires that you must meet one of these five categories:

E1 Visa – For the purpose of carrying out international trade

E2 Visa – Professionals Holding Advanced Degrees and Persons of Exceptional Ability

E3 Visa – Skilled Workers, Professionals, and Unskilled Workers (Other Workers)

E4 Visa – Certain Special Immigrants

E5 Visa – Immigrant Investors

The E1 Visa is by far the vaguest of the five. The requirement of substantial international trade is not explicitly defined, but “At least 50% of the volume of trade carried out must be between the United States and the designated treaty country (“principal trade”).” (Velie) Both E2 and E3 Visas require labor certification approved by the Department of Labor and a potential job offer. E4 Visas pertain to a wide variety of potential applicants, for example, ministers of religion, broadcasters, translators, etc. Additionally, this category of Visa does not require a labor certification. Lastly, the E5 Visa is designed “for capital investment by foreign investors in new commercial enterprises in the United States which provide job creation”. (U.S. State Dept.)

The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program provides individuals with 50,000 immigrant visas per year in the form of a lottery. Generally, these individuals are chosen from countries with low immigration to the U.S, although this is not always the case. The Diversity Immigrant Visa or DV requires the “applicant to have a high school education, or its equivalent, or two years of qualifying work experience as defined under provisions of U.S. law.” (U.S. State Dept.) While this program seems to be a very promising way of stimulating ethnic diversity, fraudulent emails and letters pose a serious problem for potential applicants. It is quite common for people to receive false emails confirming their acceptance into the DV, adding another layer of difficulty. (U.S. State Dept.)

Perhaps the most controversial of the paths towards citizenship would be to apply for refugee or asylum status. Refugee and asylum status have one key difference: in order to apply for refugee status, the individual must be living outside the U.S. while political asylum seekers must reside in U.S. territory. In addition to this requirement, individuals seeking refugee status must have a referral from either The UN Refugee Agency or their countries U.S. Embassy. On the other hand, the process of applying for political asylum is much less strenuous. Mainly only requiring the application to be completed within one year of arriving in the United States. All of the policies previously explained are definite strides in the right direction. But this should not be a reason to become complacent, rising global issues require that the laws previously in place be amended to fit our current issues.

Overall, our current system of immigration is far too restrictive. Historically, our current rate of immigration is low. “Since 1820, the United States admitted on average 30 percent more legal immigrants per capita (0.45 percent of the population per year) than it did in 2017.” (Bier) The quota from 1990 of only allowing 675,000 legal immigrants into the U.S. is astonishingly outdated. Our country is growing exponentially in both the economy and in population. In 1990 the U.S. population sat around 250 million people while today we sit closer to 327 million. Not only this, but only seven percent of the total green cards of any category are allowed to be distributed per country. Meaning people from countries with a high demand to enter the U.S. will be forced to wait in line behind far more people than other countries with lower demand. In theory, this system would allow for far more equality, but the reality is far from the truth. Due to this incredible amount of backlog, some individuals who applied for Visas 10 to 20 years ago are only starting to obtain their visas as of May 2018. (U.S. State Dept.) Shockingly, the previously mentioned E1 Visa ( “has a quota of 40,000 (including spouses and children)” (Bier) On top of all this, there is no opportunity for year-round work for uneducated potential immigrants. These uneducated workers are forced to obtain temporary work visas, limiting both the ability for the workers to fully immigrate and crippling the industries they work for. Every piece of immigration reform Congress could ever pass will encounter problems that can only be revealed through time. Therefore allowing State Legislatures to give out a predetermined amount of work visas would allow for potential workers to contribute to the economy of each state. Not only could this incentives population growth, but it could also stimulate sectors of each state’s economy that are untouched by the average American worker. Our future policies must walk the line between complete, unadulterated, open borders and ignorant xenophobia.