Immigration Policy in the USA

Essay, 2007

15 Pages, Grade: 3


Table of Contents


1. U.S. immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s

2. Reasons for changes in U.S. immigration policy

3. Interest groups

4. Conclusion



My essay will be about the immigration policy of the United States of America. The U.S. administration has tightened measures against (illegal) immigration to the USA since the 1980s. Especially the immigration of unskilled workers should be avoided. As we will see, the U.S. administration struggles with lacking reform in immigration policy, that’s why a conflict between the federal and state level exists. Especially since the terrorist attacks of 11th of September 2001, the immigration policy has dramatically been changed. Now security issues have become the most important topic. Already existing bilateral relations between the USA and countries of origin of immigrants have also been affected. The first chapter of this essay will be about the changes in immigration policy since the 1980s. I will try to describe the most important new anti-immigrant laws. Furthermore I will show the reasons for these legal changes.

In the second chapter I will write about general reasons for changes in immigration policy in the United States and the meaning of the incidents of September 2001. The third chapter will be about the interest groups which are important in immigration policy. I will try to show how immigration policy is influenced and by whom. My hypothesis for this essay is that U.S. immigration has changed at the latest since the beginning of the 1990s, the level of education of the immigrants got more important because of economic reasons. Since the terror attacks in 2001 immigration is restricted because of safety reasons.

1) U.S. immigration policy in the 1980s and 1990s

The 1980s brought fundamental changes in the U.S. immigration system. New laws in the 1980s and 1990s restricted the immigration – for example the movement of Mexican workers to USA. At the same time with the “North American Free Trade Agreement” an economic integration of the Mexican market took place.[1]

The anti-immigration laws in the beginning of 1980s were made because of the allegedly rising number of “undocumented” migrants and the fears of the population resulting from it.[2] The law changes happened in a climate of economic insecurity and cold war hysteria, the immigrants became scapegoats for the problems of the US nation. Politicians like Ronald Reagan brought “solutions” for the “problem” of migration like the setting of border controls and the media adopted phrases like “floods” of Latin Americans and so further deepened the anxiety of the US population. Reagan also mixed the national topic of immigration with the threat of terrorism from abroad.[3]

These situation resulted in the “Immigration Reform and Control Act” of 1986 which should reduce the immigration from Mexico. Anyhow the number of migrants rose, so in 1990 the next immigration-reducing law was passed and the money and staff for border control was increased. Also some states did act against immigration, although it is not their matter but rather that of the federal policy.[4] In connection with the “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996” and the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996” it came to a further tightening of anti-immigration-measures, the first one for example brought more Border Patrol agents.[5]

There was no real increase in the immigration of undocumented workers in the 1980s. Rather it was the plan of government-politicians and other actors outside the government to use scare tactics to have profits resulting from the misuse of political issues like undocumented migration and drugs, so the mentioned laws were the result of these tactics and of the political climate which was found by it.

The migrants in connection with drugs became the new enemies of the U.S. population who should be a threat for national security. Politicians also wanted to show that the Mexican-U.S. border is still safe in times of integration of the Mexican market.[6] Daniels agrees with that and sees several reasons for the pushing of immigration policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. On the one side the government had no solution for “immigration crises” (for example “Marie boatlift”), the consequence were anxieties, anti-immigrant attitudes, violence and the passing of new laws. Furthermore the immigrants were accused to spread AIDS, steal the American’s jobs and to bring crime into the country. The fears about non-existing illegal immigrant crises were further deepened by public officials.[7] In the mid of the 1990s the hostility to immigration reached a peak.[8]

The already mentioned „Immigration Reform and Control ACT of 1986” was a policy, which began to deal with immigration between Mexico and USA.[9] The protection of the border was intensified and it became more difficult for illegal immigrants to come to the USA in the following years. Illegal immigrants who were already in the USA were partially “legalized” – by the Clinton administration.[10] Because many people died at attempting to illegally cross the border, George W. Bush and the Mexican President Fox met to discuss about amnesty for the illegal immigrants. Instead of an amnesty the “Partnership for Prosperity”-program was decided to help the Mexican economy – especially at the border area – and so to reduce illegal immigration.[11] Papademetriou states that there is a lack of full cooperation in the immigration issue between Mexico and the USA.[12]

According to Smith, the U.S. immigration policy is based on false beliefs of illegal immigration and the assumption that immigrants want to stay permanently. So the administration tried to reduce the number of immigrants by strengthening the border controls. The result was that the number of migrants who before these measures left the USA after staying and working there for a few years now decreased because it got more difficult to come in the USA and to leave it. The NAFTA agreement led not only to increased market relations but also to increased immigration.[13] Border patrol nowadays plays a crucial role in the immigration policy of the USA: In 2005, the Border Patrol was the second largest arm-bearing branch of the federal government.[14]

In the USA immigration issues a long time were centralized in the so called “Immigration and Naturalization Service” (INS) which has often been criticized for being inefficient. In 2003, as a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 the “Department of Homeland Security” became the new immigration bureaucracy[15] which now had most of the functions in policy and implementation that the INS had before. There are also many other institutions that have to do with immigration, for example the Department of State and the Department of Labour.[16]


[1] Massey, Douglas/ Durand, Jorge/ Malone, Nolan (2002). Beyond Smoke and Mirrors – Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration, New York, Page 2.

[2] Massey/ Durand/ Malone 2002, Page 47.

[3] Massey/ Durand/ Malone 2002, Pages 86-87.

[4] Massey/ Durand/ Malone 2002, Pages 89-93.

[5] Massey/ Durand/ Malone 2002, Pages 95-96.

[6] Massey/ Durand/ Malone 2002, Pages 101-103.

[7] Daniels, Roger (2004). Guarding the golden door – American immigration policy and immigrants since 1882, New York, Page 220.

[8] Daniels 2004, Page 232.

[9] Smith, Stephanie (2006). U.S./Mexico Border and Illegal Immigration Policy Analysis,, Page 7

[10] Smith 2006, Pages 8-9.

[11] Smith 2006, Pages 9-10/ Papademetriou, Demetrios (2004). U.S. & Mexico Immigration Policy & the Bilateral Relationship,, Page 4.

[12] Papademetriou 2004, Page 4.

[13] Smith 2006, Pages 19-21.

[14] Portes, Alejandro/ Rumbaut, Ruben (2006). Immigrant America – A Portrait, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Page 359.

[15] Scheindlin, Dahlia (2003). Labor Migration: A survey of policy and implementation in select countries, Pages 8-9.

[16] Davy, Megan/ Meyers, Deborah/ Batalova, Jeanne (2005). Who Does What in US Immigration,

Excerpt out of 15 pages


Immigration Policy in the USA
University of Salzburg  (Institut für Geschichts- und Politikwissenschaft)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Immigration, Policy
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Markus Rachbauer (Author), 2007, Immigration Policy in the USA, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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