Undocumented Immigration Policy in the U.S.


The future of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States hangs as the government works to create a new policy for illegal immigration (Krogstad). As of 2017, 78% of undocumented immigrants were from Latin American countries, and more than of them were from Mexico alone (Siegel). These statistics raise questions about the security of the U.S.-Mexico border. As the Trump Administration makes controversial policies to secure the border and remove these undocumented people, national tension over the issue is growing. Many Americans believe that undocumented immigrants pose a threat to the safety of the U.S. and its economy, while others are fighting to protect these people that are trying to make better lives for themselves and their families.


Personal Interest

Last year, I focused a school research paper, called the I-Search, on refugee resettlement in the United States. Learning about the lives of refugees in America sparked my interested in the general topic of immigration and the struggles that immigrants face in the United States. My research also helped me build empathy and understanding for a group of people that I knew little about; I hoped to do the same for undocumented immigrants in this project. Another reason I chose undocumented immigration as my theme is because it is a very relevant issue. I wanted to make sense of all the information that the news is filled with each day regarding this topic. Furthermore, I live in the liberal bubble of the Bay Area, so I lack a good understanding of more conservative opinions on immigration. I hoped to understand the reasoning behind all of America’s differing opinions on undocumented immigrants. Overall, I wanted to develop my own stance on the very controversial issue of undocumented immigration. 


Historical Background:

 Latin American Illegal Immigration to the U.S. 

The Hart-Cellar and and the end of the Bracero Program mark the beginning of Mexican and Latin American undocumented immigration to the United States. The Hart-Cellar Act, otherwise known as the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, abolished the racist 1924 National Origins Quota System, the quota system set annual numerical limits on the number of immigrants of a certain race or ethnicity allowed to come into America (“History of U.S. Immigration Laws”). The system gave immigration preferences to Europeans, while it limited the number of immigrants from Asian countries (Chishti). Latin American countries were not put under any immigration restrictions in the National Origins Quota System. The Hart-Cellar Act created new numerical restrictions on immigration. It put a cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, which includes Latin America, for the first time in U.S. history (Hong). The Hart-Cellar Act is also significant because it created a new system that favored higher skilled immigration applicants and people with family relations to citizens. In fact, three-fourths of immigration admissions were set aside for people applying through the family category (Chishti).

The Hart-Cellar Act gave way to both more legal and undocumented immigration. It caused the largest sources of immigrants to switch from Europe to Asia and Latin America, because the system no longer gave preferences to European immigrants (“History of U.S. Immigration Laws”). This change in immigration patterns, as represented in the graphs below, gave way to future growth in Asian and Latin American immigration through family networks, because the act prioritized family relations. Ever since the act was passed, Latin American people have made up more than half of the immigrants coming to the United States. However, by placing a cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere, some of the immigrants coming to America started to enter illegally (Chishti).


(“Largest U.S. Immigrant Groups over Time, 1960-Present” )


In 1964, around the same time the Hart-Cellar Act was passed, the Bracero Program was shut down by the U.S. government. The program, pictured below, was an agreement between the United States and Mexico between 1942 and 1964 that allowed Mexican men to do temporary agricultural work under labor contracts with American employers (“About the Bracero Program”). This guestworker program was created to make up for the labor shortages caused by World War II. At its peak, 400,000 laborers came to the United States in one year (Siegel). 4.6 million Mexican workers participated in the program in total (Chishti).

The Bracero Program ended because of reports of abuse and exploitation by the employers (Hong). Nevertheless, a relationship between the Mexican workers and American employers had been established. When the program ended, the Mexican laborers still came to the United States to work the jobs that had been available to them through the program (Chishti). This, combined with the Hart-Cellar Act, caused Latin American undocumented immigration to start in the United States.

By 1980, the number of undocumented people had reached 1.5 million. For most of the 1980s and 1990s the United States’ economy was booming, while Mexico was going through an economic depression. During this time, millions of young people left Mexico to find work in the United States (Siegel). By the year 2000, there were 8.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States (“Illegal Immigration, Population Estimates in the United States”). These growing numbers have gotten us to where we are today: 11 million undocumented immigrants (Krogstad). 

Image above: (Carbajal)


Present-Day Issue



Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, commonly referred to as DACA, was an immigration policy introduced by President Barack Obama in 2012. DACA protects more than 600,000 of the undocumented immigrants living in America today. The temporary program was created in reaction to congress’s failure to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act) since it was put forward in 2001. The DREAM Act would have given given a path to citizenship to some undocumented immigrants that were brought to the United States as children (Robertson). The DACA program allows for its recipients, also known as “Dreamers”, to have deferred action from deportation and eligibility to a work permit, but does not provide pathway for naturalization (Dickerson).





Image above: (Rhoads) 

The Trump Administration’s current fight against undocumented immigration has become a heated issue in America. In 2017, President Donald Trump repealed the DACA program. This means that the recipients of DACA will lose their protection once their two year protection status has expired, and they could be deported if caught by the government (Dickerson). Trump supports the conservative view that undocumented immigrants are unsafe and often criminals (Bennet). Donald Trump’s controversial plan to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, Executive Order 13767, has been made to try and block unauthorized immigrants coming to the United States from Latin America. 




(“President Trump Outlines Four-Pillar Immigration Plan”)

Above is a video, from this past January, of President Trump introducing his “Four Pillars”  immigration reform plan in his State of the Union Address. The first pillar, as described in the video, is to reform DACA and create a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants living in America. The second pillar is to make stronger border security, which includes his plan to build a wall along the southern border. The third pillar is the elimination of the visa lottery that gives green cards to countries with low numbers of immigrants. The lottery would change to a merit-based system that would admit more skilled workers. The final pillar is a plan to end “chain migration”. In other words, immigration would be limited to the immediate family (Trump). The President’s controversial plan is currently being debated over in the government, as many continue to fight for the continuation of DACA.


Policy Solution: Pathway to Citizenship 

Larger share of unauthorized immigrants are long-term residentsTo solve the issue of undocumented immigration, a policy that prioritized a pathway to citizenship over maximizing border security and increasing deportation enforcements would be the most beneficial and sensible for the United States. There would little impact on the U.S. economy if a plan like this were put in place. The change in national income due to illegal immigration is -0.07 % of Gross Domestic Product (Hanson). Although undocumented immigration lowers net national income, the loss is essentially a wash.In addition, labor intensive industries would suffer if an enforcement-only policy was created and caused large scale deportation. This is because these businesses oftentimes rely on undocumented immigrants to do the low-skill jobs.

Another reason a path to citizenship should be implemented is because more than half of undocumented immigrants living in America are simply overstaying their visas rather than entering illegally (Bier). Therefore, wall dividing the United States and Mexico would be ineffective.

Furthermore, undocumented immigrants make up about 6% of California’s population, and in 2014, as represented in the graph to the right, 66% of them had lived here for ten or more years (Hayes). This percentage has since grown. On a national level, one third of undocumented immigrants are parents of children born in the United States (Felter). These statistics show that undocumented people have settled in and adapted to life in America. Many have built their lives and family here. If they were to be deported, many would be sent back to countries they barely know and have little connection to. Currently, there is no way for these undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status. For all these reasons, a policy that gives a pathway to citizenship should be enacted. 

A pathway to citizenship would give undocumented immigrants about 13 years to become citizens of the United States. This pathway would give undocumented immigrants the opportunity to have eight to ten years with temporary legal status, or a work permit. The remaining of the 13 years with permanent resident status, also known as having a Green Card (Moorhead). After this, an undocumented immigrant would be able to apply for citizenship.


(“Larger Share of Unauthorized Immigrants Are Long-Term Residents”)

How You Can Get Involved!

If you are still unsure about your stance on undocumented immigration policy, read the article below to gain an understanding of the different opinions on a pathway to citizenship.

Read this article:

Continuing to educate yourself and those around you is vital to help the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States have the opportunity to reach citizenship status. Undocumented immigration policy is currently changing and being debated, so keeping up to date with government actions is a simple way to inform yourself and support pathway policies. Having discussions with friends or people in your community is also a good way to spread your knowledge about undocumented immigrants.

Contact your local and state government representatives to push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. For tips on how to contact your representatives, look at the link to the American Civil Liberty Union page. Another way to actively support these people is to sign the ACLU petition to the Secretary of Homeland Security, also linked below, to protect undocumented immigrants from ICE and deportation.  

How to write to your representative:

Sign the ACLU ICE petition:


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Works Cited 

“About the Bracero Program.” Bracero History Archive ,

Bennet, James, et al. “Trump’s Backward View of Immigration.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Feb. 2018,

Bier, David. “Why the Wall Won’t Work.” Cato Institute, 10 Apr. 2017,

Carbajal, Tanya. “Bracero Program Workers in Field .” Latina Lista , 8 May 2015,


Chishti, Muzaffar, et al. “Fifty Years On, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act Continues to

Reshape the United States.” Migration Policy Institute , 2 Mar. 2017,

Dickerson, Caitlin. “What Is DACA? Who Are the Dreamers? Here Are Some Answers.” The

New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Jan. 2018,

Felter, Claire, and Danielle Renwick . “The U.S. Immigration Debate.” Council on Foreign Relations,

Council on Foreign Relations, 13 Mar. 2018,

Hanson, Gordon H. The Economics and Policy of Illegal Immigration in the United States.

Migration Policy Institute , 2009, The Economics and Policy of Illegal Immigration in the United States,

Hayes, Joseph, and Laura Hill. “Undocumented Immigrants in California.” Public Policy Institute of


“Historical Timeline – Illegal Immigration.”, 30 Jan. 2017,

“History of U.S. Immigration Laws.” Federation for American Immigration Reform,

Hong, Jane. “The Law That Created Illegal Immigration – LA Times.” Los Angeles Times, Los

Angeles Times, 2 Oct. 2015,

“Illegal Immigration, Population Estimates in the United States.”, 18 Mar. 2016,

Krogstad, Jens Manuel, et al. “5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S.” Pew Research Center,

27 Apr. 2017,

“Larger Share of Unauthorized Immigrants Are Long-Term Residents.” Pew Research Center ,

Http://, 19 Sept. 2016.

“Largest U.S. Immigrant Groups over Time, 1960-Present.” Migration Policy Institute, 2016,

Moorhead, Molly. “What Is ‘a Pathway to Citizenship’?” PolitiFact, 2 Apr. 2013,

“President Trump Outlines Four-Pillar Immigration Plan.” CBS News , Youtube , 30 Jan. 2018,

Rhoads, Anna. “Keep DACA and Keep the Dreamers .” Inklings News , 28 Sept. 2017,

Robertson, Lori. “The Facts on DACA.”, 23 Jan. 2018,

Siegel, Robert, and Selena Simmons-Duffin. “How Did We Get To 11 Million Unauthorized

Immigrants?” NPR, NPR, 7 Mar. 2017,

Trump, Donald. “State of the Union Address .” State of the Union, Feb. 2018,

United States Capitol , United States Capitol ,


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  1. April 27, 2018 by Natalie.Craig

    I can tell you are very passionate about this topic. I thought you did an extraordinary job! Very good Kathryn.

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