Since the first settlers landed in New England, the United States has been a nation of immigrants from myriad nations across the globe. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Congress began to take measures to close America’s gates. Most significantly, the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants to 150,000 by federal quota, and Asian immigration was prohibited entirely. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 overhauled this quota system by shifting from national quotas to a preference system that favored meritocracy and family ties, while maintaining a cap on the number of visas issued annually. America became a nation of immigrants once more; in the three decades following the act, three times more immigrants were admitted to the United States than in the 30 years prior to its passage.

The modern  benchmark  for immigration  reform  is the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. At the time, it was thought that 3 million illegal immigrants lived in the United States. This law granted a conditional pardon and protection from deportation to a majority of those immigrants. It also tightened border security and gave the federal government the ability  to punish  employers  who  knowingly  employed undocumented workers. It was believed these measures would do much to stem the influx of undocumented persons into the country. In 2012, however, an estimated 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants live in the United States. It is clear that earlier attempts to end the influx of illegal immigration have failed.  With this in mind, both Republicans and Democrats seek reform of a battered system.

There are likely to be two key focal points of this ideological clash in this election. The first is the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act of 2010, an Arizona state law that was partially struck down by a 5-3 Supreme Court decision on June 25, 2012. The second is the Obama administration’s proposed Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which promises conditional permanent residency to younger illegal immigrants of “good moral character” who have graduated from U.S. high schools and lived in the country for at least five years prior to the bill, with additional benefits to those who complete bachelor’s degrees or serve in the military.


The Supreme Court overturned most of the Arizona law, determining that immigration law and enforcement are primarily the domain of the federal government and that the Arizona law went “too far” in asserting states’ rights. However, the decision left the most controversial part of the law intact, a provision allowing police to compel individuals to prove their residency status while enforcing other laws, as long as they have “reasonable suspicion.” A large part of the controversy is the fear that this will essentially become a tool for racial profiling and discrimination against the Latino community in Arizona. Civil rights groups express further concerns that the ability of police to compel residents to “prove their innocence” with regard to their residency is a fundamental injustice, an invasion of privacy, and a disturbing and questionable assertion of state power.

Writing the dissenting opinion on the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the Arizona law, Justice Antonin Scalia summarizes the general feeling of those in favor of reform through harsher and more consistent punishment: “[Arizona’s] citizens feel themselves under siege by large numbers of illegal immigrants who invade their property, strain their social services and even place their lives in jeopardy . . . and will be able to compete openly with Arizona citizens for employment.” The concern is that laxness in federal enforcement allows illegal immigrants, simply by virtue of being in the country, to leech resources from legitimate citizens and permanent residents.  Partially this is a classic argument over scarce resources. Each state only has so much money, land, and jobs to provide — even to its fully legitimate citizens. Added to this is moral outrage that stems from a belief that these illegal immigrants cause this drain knowingly and to benefit themselves, while flouting the laws of the country that supports them. Amnesty and lax enforcement then only encourage more illegal immigration and more of the aforementioned problems, and it indirectly punishes the law-abiding taxpayer for the illegal activity of others. Those who support stronger immigration control also often do so to prevent crime. Living under the radar, as illegal immigrants must do, to some degree necessitates participation in less than legitimate activities, whether that is working below minimum wage or involvement with gangs and organized crime. Such are the arguments made by those that push for tighter restrictions and more consistent, harsher punishments.

It is a matter of opinion whether federal policy is indeed lax. The Supreme Court cited the number of annual deportations at nearly 400,000—a number expected to grow. The system may be ineffectual because it is overburdened, not because it is excessively forgiving. President Barack Obama has stated his opposition to the Arizona law, viewing it as an assault on fairness. Governor Mitt Romney on the other hand supports several sections of the law, while principally defending the right of states to write their own immigration-related legislation.


The DREAM Act reflects an opposing view of how best to deal with the issue of illegal immigration. This solution would selectively absorb potentially productive alien residents (immigrants) into the American citizenry in order to reduce many of the problems related to crime and resource drain. Arguably, by providing opportunities for these younger immigrants to become properly educated, fully contributing citizens, the United States would benefit more from their continued presence and productivity than through their deportation. The DREAM Act also appeals to the moral intuition that the children of illegal immigrants ought not to be punished for the transgressions of their parents, which is likely the reason the act specifically targets “alien minors.”

This act would do little to assuage the fears of those who support stricter enforcement on the grounds that illegal immigrants potentially take the jobs of legitimate citizens. However, it would at least ensure that those granted amnesty under DREAM would be working “above board,” and would be unlikely to participate in criminal activity or to undercut unskilled legal labor by working for less than minimum wage. Critics argue that by continuing to grant amnesty, the act rewards and encourages illegal immigrants. They also fear fraud by illegal immigrants who would not be covered under the act — most notably gang members exempted by the “good moral standing” clause.

Mitt Romney has stated that while he personally opposes the bill, he does support the idea of granting permanent citizenship to illegal immigrants who honorably serve in the U.S. military. President Obama supports the idea of allowing foreign college students to remain in the United States after graduation.8 On June 15, 2012, Mr. Obama controversially used executive authority to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants who may qualify under the DREAM Act. This is not a permanent shift in law but, according to the President, a “temporary  stopgap measure.” Republicans were angry at what they saw as an overreach of authority, claiming that Obama had done an unfairly gone ahead without approval from Congress.


One of the few policies that both party leaders agree on is the construction of a fence along the border with Mexico, though Republicans tend to believe Mr. Obama did not go far enough in ensuring security when construction of the initial fence was completed in 2011. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney supported the failed 2007 Immigration Reform bill that attempted to find a pathway to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. Mr. Romney has since denounced the attempted legislation as an “amnesty plan.” However, one could generally say that Republicans support the rule of law over social tinkering, and consequently support stricter and harsher immigration laws.

Conversely, Democrats are typically in favor of modifying existing legislation to create what they view as a more beneficial social environment. Their policies tend to be more a reflection of where they want society to go in the future, rather than a strict upholding of the law as it exists now. Although these are generalizations of the views held by both parties, they do help illuminate the issue of immigration reform within a greater sociopolitical context.

-This article was written by Ross Duncan and appears in full in The IDEA Guide to the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections.