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Comprehensive immigration reform looms in the near future as the government continues to re-organize itself to more effectively fight terrorism and to adjudicate the wellbeing of a large undocumented population. We have already seen in 2003, as a reaction to the 2001 terrorist attacks, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and reorganization of government agencies responsible for immigration regulation and facilitation. And in 2012 the Obama Administration established the policy of Deferred Action which promises help and hope to undocumented youth. Immigration to the US is once again on the rise, attributing to more than 30 percent of population growth as of the 2010-2011 census, and the estimated number of foreign-born people living in the US, both documented and undocumented, is upwards of 40 million.


The development of modern immigration policy started with the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) which is still used today to support all immigration law. Since the incarnation of the INA, immigration policy has seen numerous changes, many to its improvement such as the end of ethnically prejudice policies in 1965 and a blanket amnesty program in 1986. Below is the story of modern US immigration from 1952 to its most recent policy-Deferred Action of 2012.

1952 - Immigration & Nationality Act

Modern US immigration policy stems from the original 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and its subsequent amendments. The 1952 INA established the current four-category selection system, distributing half of all allotted immigrations to highly educated and exceptional ability foreign nationals. The remaining allotment goes to the three preference-based categories for family of US citizens and permanent residents.


The 1952 INA also kept in place the highly controversial National Origins Formula. The National Origins Formula purposed quotas on immigration per nation. It was deemed prejudice because such quotas did not serve the ever changing needs of international diplomacy, to provide refuge and asylum to the most needful of people, and maintained a seeded goal of ethnic control: Western European quotas being higher than Eastern European ones. President Harry Truman vetoed the 1952 INA because of the National Origins Formula, stating that it was the responsibility of the US to help those in need regardless of their ethnicity. In his veto message, he alluded to the masses of displaced World War II refugees and other fleers of Eastern persecution:


"We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again... these are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration."


Trumans' veto was overruled and the National Origins Formula remained in place until the INA was amended in 1965.

1965 - Hart-Cellar Act & the abolishment of the National Origins Formula

While the 1965 INA, amended by the Hart-Cellar Act, did abolish the National Origins Formula, hemispheric and per-country numerical restrictions were established in its place. The numerical cap put on all visas, except immediate family members of US citizens, was set at 290,000 per year with 170,000 going to countries of the Eastern Hemisphere (Europe, Asia, and Africa). 20,000 was the maximum quota for each individual country in the Eastern Hemisphere. Six percent of the Eastern Hemisphere quota went to refugees. The Hart-Cellar Act led to an increase in Asian immigration to the United States, although the policy was more wholly more restrictive than previously, dropping Western Hemisphere immigration by more than 40 percent of what it was.


Concurrent with civil rights activism of 1960s America, the 1965 INA drastically changed immigration policy in the US - putting a stronger emphasis on family reunification and dissolving racially prejudice practices. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Act into law and proclaimed the abolishment of the National Origins Formula was a necessary and good change:


"For it does repair a very deep and painful flaw in the fabric of American justice. It corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American Nation... The system [National Origins Formula] violated the basic principle of American democracy-the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man."

1970s - Hemispheric & Per-Country Quota Changes

In 1976, 20,000 per-country immigration caps were applied to the Western Hemisphere countries.

In 1978, the separate ceilings for Eastern and Western Hemispheric immigration were combined into one world-wide limit of 290,000.

1980 - Refugee Act

In 1980, the Refugee Act placed refugees as a preference category, providing an efficient pathway for their resettlement and prioritizing humanitarian aid. The Refugee Act also put in place provisions to help recently arrived refugees establish themselves culturally and monetarily in the US as quickly as possible. The Office of Refugee Resettlement was created within the Department of Health and Human Services with the purpose of creating and maintaining programs to benefit recently arrived refugees.

1986 - IRCA & Amnesty

1986 saw comprehensive immigration reform that for the first and only time in US history provided amnesty for undocumented persons in the United States. The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was a blanket amnesty program that forgave persons who had resided in the US in unlawful statuses since January 1, 1982 for unlawful entry and stay and provided them the opportunity for lawful permanent residence (green card). The IRCA also established sanctions prohibiting employers, under penalty of law, from hiring or recruiting undocumented workers; created a new classification of temporary agricultural workers (H2-A Visa); and established a visa waiver pilot program that allowed the admission of certain nonimmigrants without visas.

1990 - Immigration Act of 1990 & the Green Card Lottery

The Diversity Visa Lottery Program was one of the most important provisions of the 1990 Immigration Act and one of the most monumental changes to US immigration policy. The Diversity Visa Program, commonly referred to as the Green Card Lottery, allows nationals from countries with traditionally low immigration rates to enter a visa lottery to be selected for US permanent residency, a green card. The program is unique in that it does not require the applicant to be especially educated or talented or to have a family connection with a US citizen or permanent resident.

1996 - Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) created such provisions as increased border patrol, barred admission to persons persecuted for unlawful presence, and new deportation laws. The IIRIRA holds many controversies and its constitutionality has been questioned in multiple court cases including the 2001 Supreme Court Case Immigration and Naturalization Service v. St. Cyr.

2003 - Department of Homeland Security, Reorganization of Immigration Agencies

The 2001 terrorist attacks spurred many transformative policy changes with the United States government, including immigration policy. In 2003 the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was abolished and its functions placed within the jurisdiction of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in three agencies - US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).


USCIS is responsible for in-country immigration motions - such as petitions by US citizens and permanent residents for foreign nationals and adjustment of status cases. USCIS issues the coveted green card, the informal name for the US permanent residency card. They are also now in charge of Deferred Action cases.


ICE acts to enforce lawful immigration. It is the second largest investigative agency in the United States after the FBI. ICE enforces criminal and civil federal laws that encompass border control, customs, trade, and immigration. Deportation of undocumented or unlawful immigrants is one of the many acts of ICE.


CBP is a federal enforcement agency that acts to secure US borders. Their priority mission is keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the US. CBP controls US entry ports where they determine the legality of incoming immigrants and nonimmigrants and issue visas. They also regulate and facilitate international trade and customs.

2012 - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

On August 15th, 2012, the Obama administration announced a policy to benefit undocumented youth, often referred to as DREAMers. The policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, provides a temporary two year reprieve from deportation and the option to obtain a two year work permit, subject to renewal.


Deferred Action is available to any youth under the age of 30 as of June 15th, 2012 who meet the education and criminal eligibility requirements. The policy is seen as a hopeful substitute to the much sought after DREAM Act which failed to pass Congress through several revisions in 2001, 2009, 2010, and 2011. However, Deferred Action remains a policy set forth through an executive order and has no concrete legislation supporting it.


On June 15, 2012, when Deferred Action was announced, President Barack Obama spoke to the good works the DREAMers were doing and the righteousness of allowing them to continue to contribute to American society:


"Now, these are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag. They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper...it makes no sense to expel talented young people who, for all intents and purposes, are Americans."

Additional Resources and Citations

  1. US Population Decline: http://www.prb.org/Articles/2012/us-population-growth-decline.aspx
  2. History, United States Immigration before 1965: http://www.history.com/topics/united-states-immigration-to-1965
  3. Los Angeles Times, More people moving to the U.S.: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/21/business/la-fi-census-migration-20121221
  4. Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), History of U.S. Immigration Laws: http://www.gcir.org/system/files/219-222_history_of_US.pdf
  5. Criminal Defense Lawyer, What does ICE do? http://www.criminaldefenselawyer.com/resources/criminal-defense/defendants-rights/what-does-ice-do
  6. Forbes, Is the U.S. the most immigrant friends country in the world?: http://www.forbes.com/sites/modeledbehavior/2012/11/18/is-the-u-s-the-most-immigrant-friendly-country-in-the-world/
  7. Wikipedia, Customs and Border Patrol: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Customs_and_Border_Protection
  8. Center for American Progress, The Facts on Immigration Today: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/report/2012/07/06/11888/the-facts-on-immigration-today/
  9. NYU Wikis, Immigration Policy during Industrial and Post-Industrial America: https://wikis.nyu.edu/ek6/modernamerica/index.php/Industry/ImmigrationPolicy
  10. National Public Radio, 1965 Immigration Law Changed Face of America: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5391395 >
  11. Wikipedia, National Origins Formula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Origins_Formula
  12. University of Texas Library, President Lyndon B. Johnson's Remarks at the Signing of the Immigration Bill, Liberty Island, New York, October 3, 1965: http://www.lbjlib.utexas.edu/johnson/archives.hom/speeches.hom/651003.asp
  13. US Department of Health & Human Services, The Refugee Act: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/the-refugee-act
  14. Immigration Direct, Immigrant Visa- Immigration Statistics: http://www.immigrationdirect.com/immigration-statistics/immigrant-visas.jsp
  15. University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia Community College Library, US Immigration Legislation Online: http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1990_immigration_and_nationality_act.html
  16. Wikipedia, Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegal_Immigration_Reform_and_Immigrant_Responsibility_Act_of_1996
  17. Migration Policy Institute, DHS and Immigration: Taking Stock and Correcting Course: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/dhs_feb09.pdf
  18. USCIS, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: http://www.uscis.gov/portal/site/uscis/menuitem.eb1d4c2a3e5b9ac89243c6a7543f6d1a/?vgnextoid=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD&vgnextchannel=f2ef2f19470f7310VgnVCM100000082ca60aRCRD
  19. New York Times, Transcript of Obama's Speech on Immigration Policy: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/16/us/transcript-of-obamas-speech-on-immigration-policy.html?pagewanted=all

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