America’s Immigration Dilemma in Perspective

Frank Islam & Ed Crego
9 min readNov 6

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Image Credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, Dreamstime, et al

Over the past few months, the media has been almost as overwhelmed by stories about the migrant crisis as the country has been by the influx of migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

This crisis has intensified America’s immigration dilemma. This dilemma is not new. It has existed for decades. The failure to deal with it constructively in the past has made it more difficult to do so today.

In this blog, we examine the immigration dilemma: looking at the surge, its impact, and the current status of immigration in America; reviewing an attempt to address the immigration problem in 2013; describing the growing divide over immigration; outlining recent proposals to address the current crisis; and identifying requirements to resolve the dilemma successfully.

The Migrant Surge

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) reported that more than 260,000 migrants were apprehended trying to cross the southern border illegally in September. This was the highest number of apprehensions for this year to date.

In the governmental fiscal year 2023 (10/1/2022–9/30/2023), the CBP reported more than 3.2 million encounters with migrants. This compares to a total of more than 2.7 million encounters in fiscal year 2022.

These statistics are troubling. Even more troubling is the fact that these migrants are being assisted in their illegal journeys. According to Quinn Owen of ABC NEWS, “Officials emphasize that much of the migration is driven by transnational criminal organizations engaged in the big business of human smuggling.”

While those smugglers reap significant profits from their criminal activities, the United States pays a high price for it. The Migrant Policy Institute opens a policy paper published on September 27, stating: “The likely record number of asylum seekers and other migrants entering the United States after being apprehended at the southern border is placing an unprecedented financial strain on states and cities nationwide…”

The paper goes on to observe:

Although the full fiscal impacts of providing services to the newcomers are unknown, mayors and governors nationwide have cited high costs. New York City spent an estimated $1.7 billion on shelter, food, and other services for migrants through the end of July. Chicago expects to have spent $255.7 million between August 2022 and the end of 2023. Washington, DC spent $36.4 million on migrant services by late August, and expects the total to reach $55.8 million by October. Denver, …has spent $24 million on migrant services as of September… Massachusetts’s governor said the state was spending $45 million a month on migrant services as of August….

A Nation of Immigrants

The migrants are streaming and seeking asylum in the United States because of its unrivaled status as “a nation of immigrants.” In 2023, The Council on Foreign Relations issued an excellent backgrounder written by Claire Klobucista, Amelia Cheatham, and Diana Roy, which provides substantial information on this immigrant nation.

Their paper reveals the following:

  • The United States is home to more foreign-born residents than any other country in the world. In 2021, immigrants comprised almost 14 percent of the U.S. population.
  • Immigrants composed 13.6 percent of the U.S. population in 2021, or about 45 million people out of a total of more than 332 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants, per the 2022 Current Population Survey.
  • The Census Bureau has predicted that the total number of immigrants living in the United States will reach 65 million by 2050.
  • Though the share of the population that is foreign born has steadily risen since 1970, when there were fewer than 10 million immigrants in the country, today’s figure is still slightly below the record high of 14.8 percent in 1890.
  • The undocumented population was estimated to be about eleven million people in 2019; more recent data is not yet available due to difficulty collecting information amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • At the end of FY 2022, there were 1.9 million cases pending in immigration courts, and by mid-2023, that number had grown to more than 2 million, the most on record.
  • A Center for Migration Studies report found that, between 2010 and 2018, individuals who overstayed their visas far outnumbered those who arrived by crossing the border illegally.

An Attempt at Immigration Reform

In their piece for the Council on Foreign Relations, Klobucista, Cheatham, and Roy note that the “last push for a major immigration overhaul came in 2013, following a decade in which Congress debated numerous immigration reforms..” They write that at that time:

President Barack Obama pressed hard for a comprehensive bill that would pair a path to legalization for undocumented residents with stronger border security provisions. The Democrat-led Senate passed this legislation in 2013, but the bill stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

We would add to that analysis, that even though the Senate was “Democrat-led,” the legislation which it passed was bipartisan in nature. It was crafted based upon a sweeping proposal put together by four Democratic and four Republican senators who became known as the “Gang of Eight.” The 1200-page Senate bill with a $50 billion price tag was passed by a solid majority vote of 68–32.

The Senate bill did “stall in the Republican-controlled House.” But the Senate bill’s momentum was slowed down by the fact that in March of 2013 Florida Governor Jeb Bush released his book Immigration Wars: Forging An American Solution, in which he cautioned against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Bush’s book was not dispositive, but it definitely contributed to the demise of the Senate bill in the House.

The Immigration Divide

The demise of the 2013 Senate bill thrust comprehensive immigration reform into limbo for the past decade. During that decade, there has been a growing divide within the American public regarding immigrants and how to handle immigration.

That divide has been driven primarily by former president Donald Trump, who used immigration as a wedge issue during his campaign for president, during his time in office, and since. The Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder notes that:

Immigration was a signature issue for Trump and a perpetual source of controversy during his term. Blaming previous administrations for failing to secure the southern border, he advocated for sharply reducing both legal and illegal immigration. He took several steps, many through executive action, to reshape asylum, deportation, and border policy.

The authors provide provides extensive detail on the steps and actions that Trump took as President in those. Unfortunately, that narrative only tells half the story.

The other half is the anti-immigrant rhetoric that Trump has used continuously to stoke hatred among MAGA supporters and to build a wall between them and the American people who support a more equitable view and treatment of immigrants. Recently, in a National Pulse video interview published in September, Trump declared:

Nobody has any idea where these people are coming from, and we know they come from prisons. We know they come from mental institutions and insane asylums. We know they’re terrorists. Nobody has ever seen anything like we’re witnessing right now. It is a very sad thing for our country. It’s poisoning the blood of our country.”

The Biden administration reversed the rhetoric and many of the negative actions against immigrants taken by the Trump administration with an aggressive agenda of executive actions and a plan that he proposed.

The migrant surge, however, has led to criticisms of Biden’s actions or inactions from many, including Democratic leaders in “blue” cities and states where the influx has had the greatest impact.

Immigration Reform Today

Given this current context, there is definitely a need for immigration reform in the United States today. Journalist and political commentator Fareed Zakaria has written that the “asylum system is broken” and called for a “dramatic overhaul of the system.”

Zakaria is correct, but such an overhaul would only address part of the immigration conundrum. There is a need for a more systematic approach.

The good news is that such an approach has been proposed, believe it or not, in the US. Congress. It is the bipartisan DIGNIDAD (Dignity) Act of 2023. It was introduced by Representative Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL) on May 23, 2023, and has 13 co-sponsors (7 Democrats and 6 Republicans).

If passed, the Dignity Act would address and increase border security, border infrastructure, grant legal status to undocumented immigrants already living in the United States with the possibility of earning citizenship, establish new pathways for asylum seekers, and create new legal pathways for economic migrants and unaccompanied minors.

The bad news is that according to GovTrack, a website that tracks bills and the members of Congress, the Dignity Act has a 0% chance of being enacted.

That was the chance before the congressional chaos which has reigned supreme over the past month. Sadly, the chance today would be less than zero.

The Need for Comprehensive and Strategic Immigration Reform

So, the need remains for meaningful immigration reform. That reform must be more than operational or tactical. It must be comprehensive and strategic.

In a blog posted in 2021, we outlined the parameters for a “comprehensive and strategic immigration system,” and have been advocating for comprehensive and strategic immigration reform since 2013, when we devoted a chapter on immigration in our book, Working the Pivot Points: To Make America Work Again.

In that chapter, drawing upon a 2010 book, Brain Gain: Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy by Darrell West of the Brookings Institution, we asserted that “one of the major flaws of our current system is that it is tilted too far in favor of family reunification over other important national goals.”

One decade later in 2023, there has been no real progress made to correct that imbalance. There is a need for a total revamping of the U.S. immigrations system based upon completely rethinking U.S. immigration policy.

That’s not only our opinion, it is also the opinion of the Migrant Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan organization focused on improving immigration policy. In 2019, MPI launched a new multi-year initiative titled Rethinking U.S. Immigration Policy.

Doris Meissner, senior fellow at MPI, begins, in her concept note announcing the “Rethinking” initiative, as follows:

The U.S. immigration system is in desperate need of an overhaul — and has been for many years. What has been missing is an alternate vision for a path forward that treats immigration as a comparative advantage and strategic resource, while also accounting for heightened security and rule-of-law imperatives, that can together further U.S. interests, values, and democratic principles as a society.

Comprehensive and Strategic Immigration Reform Recommendations

Since 2019, MPI has developed a number of policy briefs to advance its “vision for a path forward.” In May 2021, it issued a “Policy Road Map” policy brief. That road map “sketches the broad contours of some of the most needed reforms in the legal immigration system.”

The vision it outlines includes the following:

  • Addressing the challenge of the country’s unauthorized immigrant population
  • Restructuring the employment-based system to better reflect economic and demographic realities
  • Retaining family-sponsored immigration as a major priority of the U.S. immigrant selection system, but with changes to some backlogged categories
  • Reforming the humanitarian protection system, including U.S. asylum system
  • Injecting much-needed flexibility into immigration levels, with the creation of an independent expert body within government that makes recommendations on annual admissions

Dany Bahar and Greg Wright of The Brookings Institution have also advanced a “road map for immigration reform.” Their research paper, published in May 2023, identifies “weak links in the labor supply chain.”

Bahar and Wright introduce a framework called the “the Occupational Opportunity Network, which identifies strategic occupations that will be in high demand for the next decade; are historically immigrant intensive; and have a high degree of complementarity with other occupations.”

They assert using that framework shows “that the H2B visa program should be expanded to accommodate increased hiring of hospitality workers, drivers, construction workers, and care workers. Similarly, the H1B visa program should be expanded to accommodate increased hiring of health care workers, executives, and engineers, among others.”

We stressed the importance of increasing the flow of immigrants in our recent blog, The Need to Revitalize Our Human Infrastructure, in which we stated “… America needs more immigrants and a strategic process in place in order to address our labor shortage and to revitalize this nation.”

In closing, in 2023 the immigrant issue has become a political football. There is no dearth of solid proposals available that can be drawn upon to create a comprehensive and strategic approach to resolving America’s immigrant dilemma.

What there may very well be, however, is a dearth of elected officials in Washington who are willing to work together to use those proposals to craft the legislation required to accomplish this.

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.