Securing the Border and Fixing Our Broken Immigration System

By Lora Reis

Image: California Border Patrol, Kelly McCarthy

This article is an excerpt from the “2020 Mandate for Leadership: A Clear Vision for the Next Administration.” It looks back at policy decisions made by the Trump administration over the past four years. You can purchase your copy of “Mandate 2020” here.

When the Trump administration took office in 2017 after publication of the last Mandate on Leadership, it faced a government and a people divided over how to address immigration enforcement and border security reform. The administration also faced the legacy of decades of inaction or failure in implementing legal reforms.

Reform of legal immigration is long overdue. The system, last restructured in 1965, establishes a preference for the legal migration extended to relatives. As a result, the U.S. takes in legally about a million immigrants a year.


The largest category is family-based. Many are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, children, and parents), but this group also includes a substantial number of extended relatives. Overall, the U.S. awarded 68% of its green cards in 2016 for family-based reasons. 

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The U.S. also maintains a Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, the “visa lottery,” that awards 50,000 visas per year drawn from a random selection of entries. 

This lottery and all the family-based green cards, plus various other smaller categories like refugee, asylum, and various humanitarian categories, account for almost 90% of lawful immigration, with employment reasons accounting for only about 12%. 

Further, immigrants from any one country are capped at 7%. This system leaves the U.S. at a significant disadvantage in competing for the best global talent.

In 2018, the administration proposed significant reform of the legal immigration system, beginning a debate about moving to a system focused primarily on merit: admitting more working-age immigrants who were more likely to help grow jobs and grow the economy. 

This proposal proved controversial. There was no political consensus on how to modernize the U.S. legal immigration system.

Inextricably intertwined with reforming the legal immigration system is the urgent need to recommit ourselves to policies promoting patriotic assimilation. At the 1976 Democratic National Convention, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas warned that “the great danger America faces [is] that we will cease to be one nation and become instead a collection of interest groups.”

Regrettably, her fears have been partially realized. We as nation have lost our consensus on patriotic assimilation as well as on pressing for education, welfare, and pro-family policies that facilitate the naturalization process.

Enforcement of immigration laws also remains a persistent challenge. In recent years, about two-thirds of new illegal immigrants have been those who overstayed a visa, not those who crossed the border illegally. In fiscal year 2017, 606,926 visitors and other non-immigrants overstayed their visas for more than 60 days, evincing a desire to remain in the U.S. illegally.

Washington also failed to reach consensus on addressing meritless legal claims. The current immigration court system has a backlog of over 800,000 cases. 

Immigrants with viable claims of asylum or other meritorious claims for legal status in the United States should have confidence that their cases will be handled in a fair, legal, and expeditious manner, but because our immigration court system is so overwhelmed, cases of merit are combined with meritless cases, each of which can take years to resolve. 

In many cases, the abuses are flagrant. For example, the U.S. government rejects about 90% of asylum claims after review. Even when cases are resolved, if they result in a deportation order, many do not report for deportation. 

The government estimates that about a million individuals currently present in the U.S. have exhausted every legal appeal and have been issued a valid deportation order.

Legal loopholes have become a powerful incentive for more illegal immigration. The Heritage Foundation research team in Mexico found examples of individuals being coached on how to make asylum claims. Human smugglers have been discovered assembling fake families that then claim refugee status. 

Legislation was proposed to close legal loopholes, but there was no political consensus for passage.

In part, meritless legal claims and exploitation of the asylum process in 2018 spurred an unprecedented surge of illegal border crossings that overwhelmed the capacity of the Department of Homeland Security to manage them and demonstrated that security at the border was inadequate. In fiscal year 2018, numbers spiked, up from a 46-year low the previous year. In fiscal year 2019, illegal migration could reach one million.

In 2019, in an effort to address the surge of illegal activity at the border, the administration requested emergency funding for additional border security. Failure to agree on this funding resulted in the longest shutdown in government history. 

Subsequently, the administration sought to divert other federal funds (for example, money appropriated for the military) to support border operations, stirring additional controversy and engendering several federal lawsuits. 

Exacerbation of the partisan divide over the course of 2019 made the prospects for bipartisan action even less likely. Opponents of the administration proposed even more radical alternatives, such as abolishing the agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws and blocking any federal funding for the construction of barriers at the southern border.

With little likelihood of bipartisan action, the administration proposed a new strategy. About 80% of Americans agree on what they want the government to do, yet Washington has always insisted that any solution must start with compromising on the 20% about which they do not all agree. 

This approach usually involved a comprehensive Obamacare-like bill that started with delivering amnesty and a promise to fix everything else later.

That strategy has been tried and has failed multiple times. Instead, the administration has argued for starting with the 80% that most Americans want: Secure the border, make our immigration laws work, enforce them, and deliver meaningful immigration reform. This is the right strategy that can deliver meaningful reforms after 2020.

Lora Ries is a senior research fellow specializing in homeland security at The Heritage Foundation. Reproduced with permission. Original here.