U.S. Immigration policy wasn’t always so focused on criminalization

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Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump and his administration have consistently targeted immigrants, whether by denying asylum seekers, separating families at the border, blocking coronavirus relief, or escalating arrests and criminalization of immigrants, among other tactics. But while Trump's immigration record is troubling, it didn't come out of nowhere. The United States' approach to immigration has been evolving ever since the country was colonized. The system as we know it today, led by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) dates back to 2002, when the costly and far-reaching federal agency was created — but what did immigration agencies and processes look like before the signing of the Homeland Security Bill? Ahead, we break down major moments in the past 55 years of immigration legislation.

The origins of family-based immigration policy

The civil rights movement that started in the mid-1950s not only helped to usher in landmark legislative wins for voting and civil rights, but it also pushed lawmakers to reconsider their previous stances on immigration. Whereas in the earlier years of the 20th century when immigration laws centered on a quota system that largely favored northern and Western European immigrants; with the 1965 bill, lawmakers heeded calls for a slightly more people-centered approach.

That thinking gave way to the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which offered priority immigration status to those who sought to immigrate for family reasons, as well as to people who brought needed job skills. That said, some of the biggest forces pushing people to flee their home countries in search of refuge in the U.S. were war and other conflicts. Between 1965 and 1995, more than 18 million people immigrated to the country, with a significant increase in immigrants from Asia.

A shift in policy in the 1980s

Immigration policy shifted once again in the 1980s, with more people coming to the U.S. from Mexico, Central America, and South America. An increasing number of immigrants arrived without authorization, which spurred a different kind of reactionary legislation from Congress. Whereas in the 1960s, immigration law focused on families and jobs, in the 1980s and 1990s, criminalization of unauthorized immigration began to root itself in policy decisions.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 provided amnesty to people who did not retain legal documentation prior to immigrating and allowed them to apply for legal status, though they had to wait 18 months to become eligible for green cards. According to the Migration Policy Institute, "The bill included sanctions against employers for the hiring of undocumented migrants, more robust border enforcement, and an expansive legalization program that was unprecedented." Because of this legislation, 2.7 million people received permanent legal residency in the U.S.

That said, the law actually made it fairly easy for employers to avoid those sanctions — all they had to do was ensure workers had paperwork that "reasonably" appeared real — and the sanctions themself were incredibly minimal anyway. As The Washington Post reported, those facts paired with a massive demand for immigrant labor meant the law in fact led to a rise in illegal immigration. Though the bill passed, the opportunity for legal permanent residency drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.

According to the The Brookings Institution, "The bill drew opposition from both the left and the right — right-wingers objected to what they called 'the blanket amnesty' in the bill, and left-wingers and pro-immigrant groups called the requirement that immigrants live in the country ten years before becoming legal 'tantamount to establishing serfdom.'"

The 1986 act also gave way to the first explosion of southern border security: Between 1986 and 1991, border patrol funding increased by 82%, with an increase in agents as well. At the time, the increase in agents amounted to fewer than 5,000 federal officers. Even still, the Migration Policy Institute noted these increases paled in comparison to those that occurred from 1994 on. Case in point: As of 2018, the U.S. staffed nearly 20,000 border patrol agents.

The growth of punitive immigration policy in the 1990s

A few years later, the Immigration Act of 1990 reified previous congressional standings on immigration legislation: that it should address jobs and families. The law prioritized visas for people with advanced degrees and family members of those already living in the U.S., while also providing legal pathways to halt deportations of individuals with family in the country. "Lawmakers said immigrants could, for example, fill job openings for scientists, engineers, computer specialists, nurses and medical technicians," The New York Times reported that year. "Many Government and private researchers have concluded that there will be labor shortages in such areas in the 1990's. They see immigration — the admission of permanent immigrants, not temporary workers — as a way to correct the mismatch between labor supply and demand." As such, the law allowed for legal immigration to rise to 700,000 people per year, or about 40%.

However, an economic recession spurred the creation of legislation that was more punitive than years prior, as hostility toward immigrants tends to increase during economic downturns. In addition to limiting immigration based on job skills with the 1990 immigration bill, Congress also made it more difficult to be an immigrant by further separating the barriers between U.S.-born citizens and people who had not been born here. For instance, in 1996, lawmakers passed a bill that made it difficult or impossible for non-citizens to receive publicly funded benefit programs, such as food stamp assistance, Supplemental Security Income, and Medicaid. Previously, there was no federal distinction between citizenship status and public benefit eligibility. That 1996 law turned out to be so unpopular that other administrations tried to correct for the exclusionary welfare practices, but much of the damage had been done: The law introduced a conversation about what protections non-citizens deserved and legitimated the politicization of public benefits.

Early 2000s policy shifts spurred by the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Up until the early 2000s, immigration agencies were siloed and largely tasked with administering paperwork; the system of detaining people at the border, tracking down people without papers, and incarcerating them while they awaited trial wasn't so much of a thing yet. That all shifted in 2002, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Congress voted to create the Department of Homeland Security. This legislation put all existing federal immigration agencies under one umbrella and later led to the creation of the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) and the development of partnerships with local police departments to find and deport undocumented immigrants.

Naturally, with these changes came a drastic increase in deportations. In 2001, the federal government carried out approximately 18,000 criminal deportations, according to ABC News; the next year, that number jumped to 91,000. And in 2019, the government deported more than 267,000 people — roughly a 1,400% increase from 2001.

The shift toward "security" by the federal government is laid plain in a 2017 brief from the Obama administration: "Today, there are over 17,000 agents and over 700 miles of fence in the areas where our Border Patrol professionals have determined it would be most effective. And, over this period, we have more than doubled the unmanned aerial systems, surveillance capabilities, thermal imaging capabilities, water vessels, and underground sensors on the southern border."

Though immigration policy has changed in the last 70 years, the consolidation of agencies under the umbrella of DHS and the massive increase in funding remains one of the starkest shifts the country has seen — and there's no question that the emphasis on criminalizing immigration is a vast departure from the focus on families and jobs.