American Immigration: Pervasive Issue or Complicated Blessing?

Photo via Investigative Reporting Workshop

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Right now is an unprecedented time in U.S. immigration. In the past year, the southern border has received more than 2.4 million immigrants—a historic amount. Migrants are crossing the Darién Gap—a thick strip of jungle connecting South America to Central America—in record numbers. That’s more than four times the amount of 2010, indicating a substantial uptick in immigration from South America instead of the usual Central American suspects, such as Mexico. Indeed, immigrants from South America, especially Venezuelans, are becoming a larger proportion of people seeking entry into the U.S., and are driving the massive flow of migration northward. 

U.S. politics have recently been saturated with discourse over the border crisis, even more than in past years: Republicans are accusing Democrats of allowing the U.S. to be flooded with immigrants, Biden has switched course and become more stringent on immigration policies, and former President Trump, who is running again in 2024, promises to terminate every open border policy of the Biden Administration. Pressure is being applied to deal with the border situation, yet no solution can be found.

It is important to realize that, in the case of the U.S., immigration is a very good thing—but not at all costs. A popular accusation is that immigrants do not contribute to the U.S. economy, but instead leech off of social security and government handouts. This is not the case: nearly three-quarters of permanent migrants work. In addition, an influx of labor is generally allocated to areas with worker shortages—which the U.S. is severely struggling with—and immigration has been associated with increased entrepreneurship in past research. Immigration assists the U.S. economy by providing labor where it is needed the most, and introduces a spirit of entrepreneurship by accepting ambitious, hard-working individuals.

Immigrants also help to support the aging U.S. population by bolstering the working-age population. An employment shortage will likely be a feature of the U.S. workforce in the next century as baby boomers retire and the birth rate continues to decline. Moreover, the U.S. population is expected to begin flatlining by 2080, and to shrink by 2100. As the balance of the population begins tilting towards the older generation and starts to shrink, a foreign-born workforce will be one of the only ways to support the population and economic growth of the U.S. 

Policy overhauls are necessary to address the current immigration crisis affecting the U.S. The Biden administration should follow suit of other wealthy countries that have been able to increase migration while strongly enforcing their borders. For instance, Australia, although having a foreign-born population of 29% (America’s is 14%), has an intense deportation policy for immigrants arriving illegally. Voters in countries that have more control over who comes in are often more supportive of immigration. The abysmal polarization of immigration in U.S. politics could be resolved with a more robust border protection policy in conjunction with increased legal pathways to gaining citizenship, such that legal immigrants are not forced to wait years to attain U.S. citizenship. As it stands, immigrants entering the U.S. apply for asylum to have a legal right to stay and acquire work authorization. The asylum system was not created for this reason, nor is it prepared to deal with the currently massive volume of immigration. It is vital to national interests that policy is shifted in favor of constructing other avenues of legal status that are able to quickly and viably identify immigrants coming to the U.S. illegally.

Since its inception, the U.S. has been a nation of immigrants who have fueled its meteoric economic rise. However, this is no excuse to allow unbridled and undocumented immigration to flood the U.S. As the once young nation transitions to an aging population, politicians and voters must realize how crucial immigration is to supporting U.S. economic growth and how damaging protectionist policies would be if adopted. The goal of future presidential administrations, in addition to the current one, is finding alternative legal pathways to citizenship and prioritizing them in budgeting and effective policy-making. Enforcement of borders must be at the top of the agenda as well, given the discordance among the public that illegal immigration sews. America is going to need to agree on immigration soon—the quicker they realize that, the better.

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This article was edited by Sarah Shanahan and Natasha Tretter.