U. S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest

There are currently nearly 40 million foreign-born residents of the United States, and about 22 million of them are in the workforce. They constitute about 15 percent of the workforce. Immigrants have been arriving in the United States at a consistent rate of about 1. 3 million per year over the past decade or so. Perhaps 10-11 million residents and 6-7 million workers are undocumented (or illegal) immigrants.

The composition of the U. S. child population is also changing: one in five U. S. children and one in four low-income children has an immigrant parent. Because so many immigrants work in low-wage jobs without benefits, their children are more at risk in terms of poverty, economic hardship, and lack of access to health insurance, public benefits, child care, and other needed services. Additionally, research distinguishes citizens from non-citizens, legal from undocumented immigrants, and refugees from other immigrants.

Clarifying these distinctions allows for more meaningful analysis of the impacts of public policy on immigrant families. Immigrants compose a growing share of workers in America. Half of all workers entering the workforce in the 1990s were immigrants. While many enter the United States with strong academic credentials and skills, many do not. Immigrants represent 20 percent of low-wage workers, defined as those earning below twice the minimum wage.

Of these low earners, nearly two-thirds do not speak English very well and most have had little formal education. In policy area, the enforcement should be guided by report of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1981), U. S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest that negates individual desires of foreigners, seconded by their American relatives, to live here rather than where they were born, but such desires should not serve as the principal guide to policy.

Consciously defined national interests should determine immigration numbers and the principles of selection among the many applicants. This key concern was well articulated by President Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address when he adopted the superb phrasing of John F. Kennedy, and suggested that we should be less concerned in setting immigration policy with what country a person comes from, and ask instead what the potential immigrant can do for our country.

Immigration should not reduce the welfare of or inflict injury upon any part of the nation. It should not injure the well-being of the domestic labor force, especially the most vulnerable elements of it, should not burden social services, should not be at cross-purposes with sound national population objectives, nor exceed the assimilative or absorptive capacities of American society, nor drain away the scarce intellectual talents of other, needier nations.

Most emphatically, it should not discriminate, in the words of Michael Teitelbaum, "openly, as did the National Origins Quota system that was finally eliminated by the 1965 reform, and . . . not discriminate clandestinely with preference schemes carefully tailored to discriminate in favor of one or another group" as under the current system. ( Teitelbaum, 1986) Implementing that policy — the process of selecting the individuals for admission — should not remain primarily in private hands.

Criteria for selection should primarily reflect consciously chosen and periodically reviewed national needs, not family and kinship relations


Capps, Randy, Michael Fix, Jeffrey S. Passel, Jason Ost, and Dan Perez-Lopez. (2003). "A Profile of the Low-Wage Immigrant Workforce. " Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Fix, Michael, Wendy Zimmermann, and Jeffrey S. Passel. (2001). "The Integration of Immigrant Families in the United States. " Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.