On July 4, 2014, President Obama spoke to a crowd of soon-to-be American citizens and delivered what has become an old adage in United States political rhetoric: “America is and always has been a nation of immigrants.” For many people, that statement rings true: Spaniards, Frenchmen and Englishmen sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in search of new land and new resources, among other motivations. This is what we read about in our American History textbooks. For others, the president’s words ring hollow: Lives are risked sneaking into the U.S. in search of a better future, families are hidden and paperwork is forged. These are the stories we watch on the news.
Immigration reform is one of the hot-button issues for the upcoming election — after all, who can forget “the Donald” demanding that the Mexican government pay for a wall? Reform has been a legislative item as of late, with Senate legislation in 2013 introduced by the Gang of Eight and executive action taken by President Obama in November 2014. But proposals take many different forms, ranging from fence building to amnesty granting.
Most components of immigration reform fall under two broad categories: border security and citizenship. Relevant border security concerns — Department of Homeland Security funding, building a wall to keep criminal activity out and so on — are frequently paired with explosive rhetoric. (Check out Trump’s announcement speech or any Daily Show segment thereafter for reference.) Currently, Border Patrol has doubled the number of agents since 2001, with approximately 19,800 in service. Increases in staffing and funding accompany screenings of shipping containers and about 651 miles of fencing.
The other focus of reform efforts, citizenship, attempts to grapple with the complex problem of what to do once immigrants arrive in the U.S. illegally. Proposals range from granting blanket amnesty (no questions asked citizenship) to deportation. Most debates in the past have looked at creating a Pathway to Citizenship (P2C) — a procedure for illegal immigrants in good standing to become citizens — and visa programs.
According to the Center for American Progress, about 1.9 million people were in America in 2012 on temporary visas. However, problems exist with current programs: caps on the number of available H1-B visas are too low to allow all qualified applicants in, data that informs visa decisions are woefully outdated and deportation mechanisms for when visas expire are inconsistently utilized.
We are in the midst of an election cycle, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about at least some of the candidates’ positions. Donald Trump is currently lighting up media ratings with his ideas on immigration. Besides building a wall, Trump has taken issue with the section of the 14th Amendment that establishes birthright citizenship. Hillary Clinton is an advocate of a new Pathway to Citizenship and has expressed interest in providing deportation relief. Bernie Sanders has promised to create a P2C, downscale border fence efforts, sign the DREAM Act and rework trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA. Jeb Bush, the ex-Florida governor, supports a more conservative and rigorous pathway, but only when coupled with expanded border security programs.
Between all of these alternate views and proposals, we should see some exciting intra-party dialogue over the upcoming primary debates. Trump and Clinton have both criticized Bush, which has caused him to fire back with a more negative campaign. Sanders, as a son of an immigrant parent, feels strongly about the issue, as do Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. Cruz, who was born in Calgary, Canada, could face “birther” criticism if he begins to poll better. Rubio is a first generation American whose parents emigrated from Cuba in the 1950s and a Senator in the heavily immigrant-populated Florida.
Who’s right? Well, that’s for you all to decide. As for whether America actually is a “nation of immigrants,” it seems apparent that immigration, citizenship and the debate over “what’s American” is here to stay.
Robert Danco is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. Investigative Politics appears every other Wednesday on thehoya.com.