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The COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) pandemic, and the related federal response, disrupted virtually every aspect of the U.S. immigration system. Visa processing overseas by the Department of State, as well as the processing of some immigration benefits within the country by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), have come to a near standstill. Entry into the United States along the Mexican and Canadian borders—including by asylum seekers and unaccompanied children—has been severely restricted. Immigration enforcement actions in the interior of the country have been curtailed, although they have not stopped entirely. Tens of thousands of people remain in immigration detention despite the high risk of COVID-19 transmission in crowded jails, prisons, and detention centers that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses to hold noncitizens. The pandemic led to the suspension of many immigration court hearings and limited the functioning of the few courts which remain open or were reopened. Meanwhile, Congress left millions of immigrants and their families out of legislative relief, leaving many people struggling to stay afloat in a time of economic uncertainty.This report seeks to provide a comprehensive overview of the impact of COVID-19 across the immigration system in the United States. Given that the landscape of immigration policy is changing rapidly in the face of the pandemic, this report will be updated as needed.
As the current debate over undocumented immigration continues to rage, it is important to keep in mind not only that everyone in the United States is ultimately descended from an "immigrant," even Native Americans whose ancestors arrived here thousands of years ago, but that the rules governing immigration change constantly--and often arbitrarily.
If the current political stalemate over immigration reform is any indication, many U.S. policymakers have yet to heed the lessons of recent history when it comes to formulating a realistic strategy to control undocumented immigration. In 1986, lawmakers passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) in an attempt to reign in undocumented immigration through heightened worksite and border enforcement, combined with legalization of most undocumented immigrants already in the country.
Since 9/11, concern has mounted among policymakers and law-enforcement authorities that foreign terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda might use Mexico as a transit point to enter the United States, relying on the same peoplesmuggling networks as undocumented immigrants and becoming lost in the large undocumented flow. Some lawmakers have voiced fears that terrorists might be among the growing number of undocumented non-Mexicans crossing the southern border, although these Other Than Mexicans (OTMs) come principally from Central and South America. There is no evidence this has happened, despite suggestions by several lawmakers that the extremely small number of Arab and Muslim OTMs apprehended at the border constitutes a threat to national security. Ironically, the U.S. government's efforts to stem undocumented immigration by fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border have increased the profitability of the people-smuggling business and fostered greater sophistication in the smuggling networks through which a foreign terrorist might enter the country. U.S. national security would be better servedif undocumented labor migration were taken out of the border-security equation by reforming the U.S. immigration system to accommodate U.S. labor demand. In the process, fewer immigrants would try to enter the country without authorization, the market for people smugglers would be undercut, and foreign terrorists would be deprived of the large undocumented flows and smuggling infrastructure that might aid their entry into the United States. Moreover, the U.S. Border Patrol could focus more on finding terrorists and less on apprehending jobseekers. Among the findings of this report: Immigrant smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border is a growth industry. The share of undocumented immigrants apprehended along the southern border who reportedly were smuggled into the United States rose from 5.5 percent in Fiscal Year (FY) 1992 to 22.2 percent in FY 2004. The OTM share of apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border rose from 1.1 percent in FY 1997 to 5.8 percent in FY 2004 and then, according to preliminary estimates, spiked to 13.2 percent in FY 2005. More than three-quarters of OTMs are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The largest increases in OTM apprehensions at the southern border since 1998 have occurred among citizens of Honduras, El Salvador, and Brazil, none of which is a likely source of terrorists bent on attacking the United States. From FY 1999 through FY 2004, apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border of OTMs from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian countries of "special interest" to national security amounted to only 0.02 percent of all apprehensions and 0.7 percent of all OTM apprehensions. The number of such apprehensions declined after 2001. Until lawmakers create new avenues for both permanent and temporary immigration that are realistic and flexible, U.S. national security will continue to be undermined by border-enforcement efforts that divert labor migration through undocumented channels and into the hands of people smugglers.
The immigration debate once again is dominated by narrow thinking and the search for simplistic solutions to complex problems. Most lawmakers and the press have come to equate "immigration reform" with the question of whether or not enhanced immigration enforcement should be coupled with a new guest worker program that is more responsive than current immigration policies to the labor needs of the U.S. economy. All but lost in this debate have been the calls by prominent immigration reform advocates to improve and expand pathways for permanent immigration as well. But immigration reform will not be truly comprehensive, or effective, unless it recognizes the vital contributions of temporary workers and permanent immigrants alike, and the inadequacy of the current immigration system in providing legal channels for either to enter the country. Both temporary workers and permanent immigrants fill critical gaps in the U.S. labor force, but permanent immigrants are far more likely to acquire new job skills, achieve upward mobility, learn English, buy homes, create businesses, and revitalize urban areas. Among the findings of this report: In 2003, 48 percent of immigrants who were not U.S. citizens and had been in the United States for 3 years or less reported that they spoke English well, compared to 63 percent for those who had been in the country between 7 and 9 years. Among non-citizen immigrants from Mexico, the share who spoke English well in 2003 rose from 10 percent for those in the country 3 years or less to 26 percent for those in the country between 7-9 years. A workforce composed mostly of temporary workers who leave the country after 6 years would consist in large part of workers who never become highly proficient in English. Among non-U.S. citizen immigrants, only 11 percent who had been in the country 3 years or less owned a home in 2003, compared to 37 percent of those who had been here between 7 and 9 years. The share of non-citizen immigrants from Mexico who owned a home in 2003 rose from 7 percent among those who had been in the country 3 years or less to 26 percent of those who had been here between 7 and 9 years. A temporary-only approach to immigration reform would limit, rather than expand, the number of long-term immigrants who fuel a large portion of the U.S. housing market. Temporary workers have an important role to play in the U.S. economy, but they are no substitute for permanent immigrants who integrate into U.S. society, move up in their jobs, and earn higher incomes over time, thus more fully realizing their economic potential as workers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and consumers.
Although immigration is crucial to the growth of the U.S. labor force and yields a net fiscal benefit to the U.S. economy, current immigration policies fail to respond to actual labor demand.
The public debate surrounding passage of the REAL ID Act by the House of Representatives on February 10 has raised the question of whether or not the U.S. asylum system is vulnerable to infiltration by foreign terrorists. Sponsors of the legislation, which now moves to the Senate for consideration, claim the Act would enhance security by making it more difficult for asylum seekers to prove their cases. However, the realities of asylum processing and the impact of reforms to the asylum system over the past decade point to a need for more resources rather than new restrictions. Abuses of the asylum system, including the most notorious cases cited by supporters of the REAL ID Act, have resulted primarily from applicants getting lost in bureaucratic backlogs or from over-worked Asylum Officers not having sufficient time to closely scrutinize the stories and evidence presented by asylum seekers. The integrity of the asylum system is enhanced by sufficient staffing and funding to allow the thorough and timely adjudication of asylum cases, and adequate training of the immigration inspectors who first come into contact with asylum seekers. Current law already denies asylum to individuals who have engaged in terrorist activity, committed serious crimes, or who may pose a danger to national security.1 And asylum applicants already undergo extensive security checks. The critical issue is whether or not the Asylum Officers who are assigned to review asylum claims have the time and resources they need to efficiently and effectively determine who is a legitimate refugee. The provisions of the REAL ID Act that would raise the bar for all asylum applicants do nothing
The latest attempt by immigration restrictionists to take control of the Sierra Club is again casting a public spotlight on the question of whether immigration to the United States plays a significant role in the destruction of the environment. Anti-immigration activists failed in a 1998 referendum to persuade most Sierra Club members to make immigration restriction an official policy of the environmental organization, which was founded in 1892 by Scottish immigrant John Muir. This time, the restrictionists are attempting to win a majority on the Club's board of directors. As before, the restrictionist camp is using the neo-Malthusian argument that the United States must adopt stringent immigration controls in order to keep the U.S. population low and thereby minimize the amount of resources the nation consumes and the environmental destruction it causes. At first glance, this argument is attractive in its simplicity: less immigration, fewer people, more resources, a better environment. However, as with so many simple arguments about complex topics, it misses the point. Overpopulation is not the primary cause of U.S. environmental woes, and immigration restrictions that remain blind to the economic realities which cause migration are doomed to failure.
As President Bush acknowledged in his January 7 speech on immigration reform, current U.S. policies toward undocumented immigration are unsustainable. In outlining his administration's proposal for a temporary worker program that would include undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, the president observed that immigration reform "must begin by confronting a basic fact of life and economics: some of the jobs being generated in America's growing economy are jobs American citizens are not filling." He described a broken system in which many employers are "turning to the illegal labor market," while "we see millions of hard-working men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy." Crucial aspects of the president's proposal remain unclear, such as the fate of millions of undocumented workers who have lived in the United States for many years or even decades, developing deep roots in their communities and raising U.S.-born children. How these workers and their families would fit into a "temporary" workers program is a key question. However, the proposal has put immigration reform back on the national political agenda for the first time since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Congress should take the president's proposal as a starting point and work to fix a broken immigration system that sends the dual messages "Keep Out" and "Help Wanted" to the Mexican and Central American workers upon whom large sectors of the U.S. economy depend. The cost of doing nothing -- in both lives and dollars -- is far too great.
Latinos experience substantial socioeconomic progress across generations compared to both their immigrant forefathers and native Anglos. But this fact is lost in statistical portraits of the Latino population which donat distinguish between the large number of newcomers and those who have been in the United States for generations. Advocates of restrictive immigration policies often use such aggregate statistics to make the dubious claim that Latinos are unable or unwilling to advance like the European immigrants of a century ago.
Victims of persecution who make it to the United States and are granted asylum from their persecutors must wait 12 years to become lawful permanent residents and 16 years to become U.S. citizens because of arbitrary numerical caps and federal mismanagement. This state of affairs not only is inhumane, but undermines the original intent of Congress to help those who have escaped persecution to integrate quickly into U.S. society.
Policymakers in states from Iowa to Utah and in cities from Albuquerque to Boston have realized that immigration is a key source of long-term economic vitality, particularly in urban areas experiencing population loss, shrinking labor pools and growing numbers of retirees. Immigration, if properly cultivated, can be a key ingredient in urban economic development and recovery.