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Reforming U.S. Immigration Policy

Updated: Mar 15

America is a land of immigrants. But how do we balance this national identity with necessary border security and immigration bureaucracy?

Big Picture

Immigration policies have been a subject of extreme contention since the inception of the United States. However, the data is clear: with smart immigration reform, America will see huge increases in GDP, while setting ethical and humane standards for national immigration policy.

  • Graphic From: Niall McCarthy. “U.S. Immigrant Population Hit Record 43.7 Million In 2016.” Statista. 19 Oct. 2017.

  • This figure illustrates the increase and subsequent percentages of immigrants as a portion of the United States population since 1900. The graphic shows a sharp increase in both the number of immigrants in the U.S. and the percentage of the American population that they hold.

Operative Definitions

  1. Amnesty: The process of releasing certain individuals from criminal liability; pardoning.

  2. DREAM Act: A bipartisan bill introduced in 2001 that provides temporary conditional residency, the right to work and a pathway towards citizenship on the condition that they attend college or serve in the U.S. military for a minimum of two years while exhibiting good behavior.

  3. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): An agency within the Department of Homeland Security. Its main division focuses on arresting, detaining and deporting unauthorized immigrants within the U.S.

Important Facts and Statistics

  1. Between 2014 and 2017, the U.S. gave $750 million to the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

  2. It is estimated that there are between 10.5 million and 12 million undocumented migrants in the U.S., and that they have a lower rate of criminal convictions than native-born Americans.

  3. People traveling as families constituted the majority of apprehensions at the southwest border of the U.S. in 2019. This marks a shift from the previous immigration apparatus in the U.S., which was oriented toward individuals and young males.

Six-Point Plan

(1) Provide unauthorized immigrants who have no criminal record with a path to permanent residency. 

This will be available only to undocumented immigrants with no felony charges who register with authorities within six months of the policy coming into force, including those under the DREAM Act. This will help immigrants integrate into society and contribute economically to the country, encouraging a level of involvement in U.S. society which will help ease tensions between immigrant and non-immigrant communities.

(2) Revamp and finance the existing Executive Office of Immigration Reform (EOIR). 

Under the status quo, this agency’s primary role is to conduct removal proceedings in immigration courts and pass formal judgments on appeals which arise from these cases. The U.S. should hire 540 more immigration judges over the next three years to accelerate the immigration hearing process. This will be further pushed by establishing a minimum number of cases for judges to hear in a given period. The wait times for citizenship and the lawful permanent resident process must be limited to ensure no one is left waiting too long. The EOIR must also permit spouses and families to immigrate together. Increasing transparency and making all forms available online and in multiple languages will ease this transition.

(3) Reorient the goals and purpose of ICE. 

Focus our ICE agents on deporting criminal unauthorized immigrants. Charges of felonies, domestic violence and willful failure or refusal to depart must be prioritized; this ensures that ICE resources are utilized effectively. In addition, ICE needs to adopt higher ethical standards, particularly at migrant detention facilities where the human rights of detainees have been violated. Such a policy will prohibit family separation and see increased internal and external inspections, as well as medical, religious and legal services. This will help to ensure the safety of migrants within our borders and return the U.S. to a point of moral authority.

(4) Increase aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by $250 million per year for long-term stabilization. 

Many immigrants come from the countries El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Providing more assistance will decrease the number of immigrants to the U.S. This aid will be used to help ensure elections are fair, giving people more of a voice in their countries and more reason to stay. The aid will continue until the number of immigrants drops below a level that is manageable by border protection authorities. The conditions for this aid must be specific, based on clear and tangible governance reforms in the governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, rather than broad goals. Creating incentives for the Central American governments to curtail emigration with increased investments in job markets and infrastructure would increase the quality of life in the region and decrease migration patterns north. In addition, grant opportunities will be made more accessible to local organizations with the goal of addressing the water and material shortages, gang violence and other ills that are the root cause of illegal immigration. Proposals will be advertised and accepted to submit in Spanish.

(5) Reallocate $1 billion in funding from punitive immigration policies to job-focused programs and another $1 billion to Customs and Border Protection.

Immigration policy funding is better spent on helping immigrants become useful members of society than it is on punishing them. We should use the funds to grant healthcare access to qualified immigrants. Alongside these programs, extra funds will expand training facilities and increase digital surveillance at the Mexico-U.S. border.

(6) Increase funding for more prominent border infrastructure. 

It is true that a nation without a border is not a nation. Despite increased funding for EOIR and Central America and the reorienting of funds for ICE, it is still critical to ensure that the US border maintains a physical presence and is able to deter illegal immigration. Greater focus must be paid towards legal paths towards citizenship. A weak southern border will neutralize any foreign investment the U.S. makes toward Central America and will further incentivize unauthorized crossings into the U.S. Although increased surveillance and training facilities will help deter illegal immigration, physical barriers must be maintained in order to decrease pressure on border security from record levels of crossings.

Why This Initiative Is Important

This proposal will grant amnesty to unauthorized immigrants who do not have criminal records, while also addressing the fiscal impact of immigration. Immigration is a key component to boosting the economy. These policies aim to restructure the immigration system in a way that prioritizes the safety and national security of the United States. Further national security will be maintained with secure border infrastructure. Once the government implements policies geared towards granting citizenship to more immigrants, there will be an increase in the number of taxpayers, leading to more funding for education, healthcare and infrastructure.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual authors.


The following student(s) worked on this nonpartisan proposal: Victoria Ely, University of Southern California; Grace Richardson, Point Loma Nazarene University; Leon Langdon, New York University; Marco Wertheimer, Lafayette College; Connor O’Neill, Lafayette College; Cameron Olbert, University of Edinburgh.

The following individuals worked with our student interns and contributed expertise, wisdom and moral support to the development of this proposal:

  1. Kemal Kirisci: Director of the Center on the United States and Europe's Turkey Project, Brookings Institute. Washington, DC.

  2. Erin Corcoran: Professor of Global Affairs, Notre Dame; Executive Director, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Notre Dame, IN.

  3. Ann Lin: Professor of Immigration Law, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI. 

Note: Not all participants agree with every aspect of this proposal. To arrive at a proposal that takes multiple views into account requires compromise and difficult decisions. 


Ernst et al., “US Foreign Aid to the Northern Triangle 2014–2019: Promoting Success by Learning from the Past”, Wilson Center. Dec. 2020,

Gramlich J. and Noe-Bustamante, L., “What’s happening at the U.S.-Mexico border in 5 charts”, Pew Research Center. 9 Nov. 2021,

Kamarck, E. and Stenglein, C. “How many undocumented immigrants are in the United States and who are they?”, Brookings Institution. 12 Nov. 2019,

Mallinder, L.. “Amnesty and International Law”, Oxford Bibliographies Online Datasets. 2018

Nixon, R. and Qui, L., “What is ICE and Why Do Critics Want to Abolish It?”, New York Times. 3 Jul. 2018,

North American Integration and Development Center, “No DREAMers Left Behind: The Economic Potential of DREAM Act Beneficiaries” Aug. 2018,

Nowrasteh, A., “New Research on Illegal Immigration”, Cato Institute Blogs. 13 Oct. 2020,

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