One step forward, two steps back: immigration policies in the United States


Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Illustrations/Graphics Editor & Chief Copyeditor & Social Media Manager

It’s been three years since former President Donald Trump was in office, but it seems his presence refuses to leave the room. 

On Feb. 21, the Biden Administration announced an immigration policy that would crack down on the United States’ southern borders to prevent a potential surge of illegal immigration once pandemic measures are lifted this May. The policy stated that asylum seekers would be penalized and deported if they entered the country illegally. Biden is also considering reinstating the policy of detaining migrant families who cross the border illegally—something he shut down two years ago to find a more humane approach to handling illegal immigration.

These restrictive policies are eerily Trump-esque as they push a discriminatory approach to political issues. It’s long overdue to truly look deeper into the roots of immigration and find better solutions to dealing with this label that has been the core of our nation since its existence. 

The biggest problem with our country’s modern-day immigration laws is that they’re stuck in the past. Outside of implementing stricter policies, it’s been 58 years since any substantial changes have been made. And Biden is planning to continue this trend.

Immigration has been a defining feature of the U.S. since the formation of the colonies, occurring in four significant peaks. The first wave emerged from the early 17th century—pre-documented colonial U.S.—to the mid-19th century. Most migrants then were European and English-speaking families who sought religious freedom and economic opportunity. However, many were also forcibly moved to the Americas through indentured servitude and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The second wave occurred from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, when national and global events like the California Gold Rush, the Irish Potato Famine, and the European Revolutions of 1848 resulted in an influx of immigrants from China, Ireland, and other countries from Europe to America. 

The third wave occurred during the late 19th century to the early 20th century, with more than 27 million immigrants entering the U.S.—mainly from Europe and Canada. The fourth wave is still ongoing, starting in the late 20th century with most immigrants from Latin America and Asia. 

Historically speaking, all immigration was welcome before 1875, but there was never a lack of opposition from nativists. Anti-immigrant, xenophobic ideals were always brewing; during the early 1800s, hostility against Catholics, and later racism against Asian immigrants, resulted in the first anti-immigration law put into place: The Immigration Act of 1875, or the Page Law.

Similar discriminatory policies continued to grow tenfold, like the Immigration Act of 1891 that expanded the quota of deportable immigrants, including, but not limited to, criminals, paupers, Chinese people, etc.

Then came others like the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Barred Zone Act, which banned immigration from countries in the Middle East to Southeast Asia. The Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act, set an annual quota on immigrants allowed from specific countries with a preference for Northern and Western Europe to “preserve American homogeneity”—I stop myself here, but there are so many more. 

However, as the years ticked closer to the 21st century, many policies and laws were ratified. Such ratifications ultimately came to a peak through the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965, or the Hart-Cellar Act. This law eliminated the cap on immigration numbers for specific countries, lessening nationality-based discrimination, and instead turned the U.S. to focus on policies centered on family unification. Immigration has since then shifted from Europe to Asia and Latin America. The Hart-Cellar Act was a big step forward for its time—but this law is still the basis of any immigration policy and regulation being enforced today.

There have been revisions, like the Immigration Act of 1990, that increased the immigration cap and allowed employers to hire workers with temporary visas—but most changes have been temporary, sudden, unstable, or meant to bring in cheap laborers. Public backlash against illegal immigration made Congress pass restrictive laws in 1996—like the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a policy that made it especially easier to detain and deport noncitizens—to prevent what many citizens thought to be “people from shithole countries,” borrowing the words of Trump, from entering the country.

After 9/11, measures of deportation and arrests grew ever-looming after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where immigrant communities, specifically from Middle Eastern countries, were unfairly scrutinized and targeted. The unjust targeting of immigrant communities only grew stronger as time passed. ICE started to work with local law enforcement agencies to arrest more unauthorized immigrants through the 287(g) program—a program named after a section from the Hart-Cellar Act—yes, the one that was made in 1965.

According to a study conducted in April 2022 by American Civil Liberties Union, at least 67 percent of agencies participating in the 287(g) program have “records of a pattern of racial profiling and other civil rights violations, including excessive use of force,” and at least 77 percent are “running detention facilities with serious and extensive records of inhumane conditions”—mind you, these facilities are being directly partnered with government administration. At least 59 percent of participating sheriffs are reported to have records of “anti-immigrant, xenophobic rhetoric,” and 55 percent have made statements “advocating for inhumane immigrant and border enforcement policies.”

These problems have not changed, and the Trump [the dump] era only made it worse. After former President Barack Obama’s administration, only 34 local agencies were still in the 287(g) program, but after Trump, more than 140 agencies were once again active. The Trump administration encouraged ICE’s unjust tactics of separating families—around 5,500 children were removed from their parents at the southern border—and people were housed in inhumane conditions, eating vomit-inducing food,  experiencing starvation, and suffering from serious health problems. Under Trump, racial profiling became a huge issue: police violence was amped up, and xenophobic rhetoric became stronger than ever. 

We need to ensure that this isn’t repeated.

Immigration has always been a part of American identity. But the American way of dealing with immigration has been saturated with bias and, at most times, disdain. This often looks like choosing to deport people, whether or not they had a valid reason to seek safety. They are detained in inhumane conditions or separated from family. 

American immigration reform has always been based on discrimination, ratified hastily in a half-assed effort to save face and then replaced by other discriminatory laws with lasting consequences. 

Biden’s presidential campaign emphasized the humane treatment of unauthorized migrants, and he seemed to be reversing the anti-immigrant necklace Trump had bolted around America’s neck. Now, however, he’s on track to clip it back. 

The Biden administration needs to take a step back and reevaluate how they’re approaching immigration. The constant back-and-forth between conservative and progressive politics makes it almost impossible for any real, substantive change to be made—but shit needs to be reformed fast before more families are irreversibly damaged for good.

Immigrants are the foundation of the United States. They’re our ancestors, our neighbors, and our friends. No more of this obsolete bullshit that ruins lives—the Biden Administration needs to get the ball rolling for the humane immigration policies they promised from the start.