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May 2017
Vol. 62, No. 5

From the CEO

Broken immigration system causes harm

By Angelo McClain, Ph.D, LICSW

Public article The general public overwhelmingly favors immigration reform. Poll after poll shows that Americans want well-enforced, sensible and sustainable immigration laws. 

Congress must weigh competing economic, security and humanitarian concerns and pass legislation that addresses demand for high-skilled and low-skilled labor; the legal status of undocumented immigrants living in the country; border security; and interior enforcement.

Since the election of Donald J. Trump, the immigration debate has once again moved into the forefront of political consciousness. Trump’s executive orders on border security, interior enforcement and refugees, which have been challenged in the courts, attempt to follow through on some of his controversial campaign pledges.

Notwithstanding the political divisions in Washington, lawmakers must begin the process of reforming our immigration policies.

Despite differing views about how immigrants affect American society, the general public’s views of immigrants are more positive than negative.

According to a 2011 Rasmussen poll, by a margin of 57 percent to 35 percent, more say immigrants strengthen rather than burden the country. By a similar 59 percent to 35 percent margin, most believe that the growing number of newcomers strengthens society rather than threatens traditions. 

By a roughly three-to-one margin (76 percent to 23 percent), the public thinks unauthorized immigrants should be eligible for citizenship. In fact, a Gallup poll, found that among Republicans, support for a path to citizenship (76 percent) was higher than support for a border wall (62 percent).

A look at Census Bureau data from 2015 reveals that immigrants comprise about 13 percent of the U.S. population: some 43 million out of a total of about 321 million people. Together, immigrants and their U.S.-born children make up about 27 percent of U.S. inhabitants.

According to the Pew Research Center, immigrants made up roughly 17 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2014; of those, about two-thirds were in the country legally.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, the undocumented immigrant population of approximately 11 million has leveled off. A February 2017 Customs and Border Protection report shows a 36 percent drop in crossings from the year before.

The Pew Research Center says more than half of the undocumented immigrants have lived in the country for more than a decade, and nearly one-third are the parents of U.S.-born children.

Though many of the policies that aim to reduce unlawful immigration focus on enforced border security, individuals who arrive in the United States legally and overstay their visas comprise a significant portion of the undocumented population.

According to the Center for Migration Studies, individuals who overstayed their visas have outnumbered those who arrived by crossing the border illegally by 600,000 since 2007.

A growing number of immigrants who cross the U.S.-Mexico border are Central American asylum seekers, many of whom are minors who have fled violence in their home countries. Under a 2008 anti-human trafficking law, minors from noncontiguous countries have a right to a deportation hearing before being returned to their home countries.

In 1965, in signing the Immigration and Nationality Act, President Lyndon B. Jonson said that “the harsh injustice of the national-origins quota system had been abolished.”  The Act banned all discrimination against immigrants on the basis of national origin, replacing the old prejudicial system and giving each country an equal shot at the quotas. 

When Congress created the national-origins system in 1924, it intentionally skewed immigration quotas to benefit Western Europeans and to exclude most Eastern Europeans, almost all Asians, and Africans.

Trump’s executive order to revive the discriminatory national-origins system has many observers very concerned. 

Our neighbors, friends and classmates who are immigrants live under constant threat of deportation and separation from their families. With so many members of our communities at risk, harsh enforcement of outdated and dysfunctional immigration laws is unwarranted.

Parents of citizen children, students, and those with clean records and deep American roots should be free of suspicion and safe from arrest.

For more than a century, social workers have advocated for meaningful, compassionate immigration policies. Social work is deeply rooted in social action for immigrants, tracing back to the 1889 settlement movement established by Jane Addams.

Social workers are committed to the values and principles expressed in the NASW Code of Ethics that reminds us of the dignity and worth of all people.

As social workers, we see the suffering caused by our broken immigration system in the communities, schools, agencies and clinics in which we work. We see communities under siege, families torn apart, and workers exploited. 

We seek to continue our legacy of welcoming, protecting and caring for our immigrant brothers and sisters.

Contact Angelo McClain at

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