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Addressing The Problem of Illegal Immigration Through The Immigration Policies in The United States

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The History of Border Security Policies
    Current Border Security Policies
    Analysis of the Development
  3. Conclusion


Since the Immigration and Reform Act of 1986 the United States has struggled with the development of meaningful immigration policy reform. This prolonged stagnation has led to the compounding problem of desperate immigrants seeking other means of entry into the United States – most common is crossing the border illegally. As a response to this, members of Congress, who are constantly seeing the world through a series of polls, shifted rhetoric from reforming our immigration system to policies focused on keeping these immigrants out. While these policies may be popular with conservative constituents, more often than not, the policies that solely focus on securing the border fail to alleviate the problems causing immigrants to attempt to enter the country illegally.

“For too many years, we have witnessed efforts to secure the border that are grounded not in the complex realities of border life but in simplistic sound bites and assumptions that building a wall can somehow keep our country safe.” – U.S.-Mexico Border Immigration Taskforce (2008).

These policies that focus on securing the border have been successful in reducing the amount of immigrants, but at the cost of making the trip for those who decide to cross more dangerous. In the past five years the development of immigration policy, especially border security, has been based on symbolic speech used to rally the support base for each party. In contrast to this rhetoric, major immigration policy reform in the past has typically come on the heels of bipartisan policymaking. These contrasting methods of creating legislation have resulted in a less efficient policy engine that has not resolved the reason that so many are attempting to cross the border. I will analyze the development of the policies that seek to address immigration concerns by protecting the border instead of meaningful immigration reform. My focus will be the legislation post-Immigration and Reform Act of 1986 and concluding with Congress’ failure to pass the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.

The History of Border Security Policies

During the late stages of the H.W. Bush Administration, immigration remained an issue despite the sweeping reforms made to our policies only a few years earlier. While the amnesty provided to illegal immigrants in 1986 significantly dropped the amount of undocumented citizens, by 1992 the number of illegal immigrants had escalated to an estimated 3.4 million people (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). President H.W. Bush attempted to maintain momentum for positive change in immigration policy, alas incremental reform in the form of the Immigration Act of 1990 was all that he was able to achieve (Government Accountability Office). This small alteration in policy was not a surprise, as per Lindblom’s theory of Incrementalism, but the change did not provide enough access for emigrants leaving the failing economy in Mexico. As a result, many immigrants decided instead to cross the border illegally and due to the conditions in Mexico, did so in record numbers. In order to combat the rising number of immigrants crossing illegally into the Country, a border patrol officer in El Paso implemented an aggressive strategy known as “Operation Blockade” (Center for Immigration Studies, 1993). This strategy, which started in November of 1993, originally called for doubling the amount of agents patrolling the section of the border in El Paso and would last two weeks. The goal was to force immigrants who were attempting to cross the border to the less populated areas of the border, making them cross through the desert and thus deterring them from making the journey. Viewed as a success, a month later Congress increased the budget for INS to 1.5 billion dollars (FY1993) and the program, now named “Operation Hold the Line”, was expanded to other areas of the country. This expansion can be explained by the Punctuated Equilibrium Model, as indicated by the sudden public interest in the topic and politicians responding quickly and symbolically by enhancing the only effective policy solution known. The program initially received positive critique calling the strategy “more humane and more effective” than the current policy in place (CIS, 1993). Shortly after its implementation, the strategy came under fire after migrants began to die after they started crossing in more remote areas, making the trip significantly more difficult and dangerous.

The Clinton administration continued to expand the program in 1994 by laying out an enforcement strategy that prioritized increasing border patrols and deporting criminal aliens (PBS). Clinton’s action was in response to a Gallup poll conducted in 1993 and 1994 showing 65% of voters believing that the government should decrease the amount of immigrants coming into the country. Shortly after the President announced his plan, Congress passed a new immigration law, The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, which called for the hiring of additional border patrol agents and mandated jail time for criminal aliens ( While Congress reacted to the public outcry to curb the amount of illegal immigrants entering the country, they failed to address the systemic problem causing these people to cross the border illegally. Several factors increased the amount of immigrants seeking entry, mainly income inequality between the United States and Mexico, as well as the random lottery process for visas implemented by the Immigration Act of 1990. These policies forced many immigrants to seek alternative ways into the United States, regardless of the danger inherent in these methods. The media portrayed the strategy of increasing border agents and the rising number of apprehensions as a success, further solidifying the positive feedback loop that led to incremental increases in INS’ budget. Furthermore, as INS’ budget increased so did the number of apprehensions. If evaluating the success of this policy by the amount of apprehensions of illegal immigrants, the policy was showed signs of success. However, the real truth was that immigrants were not deterred by these new patrols, and the amount of undocumented immigrants in the country continued to rise rapidly (PBS). The policy cycle in this instance is repetitive and lead to continued support, which is not uncommon in a policy area that is highly symbolic and appears to be working. On the other hand, if the empirical evidence showing how many immigrants were still getting through was available as they were expanding this policy, I expect that Congress would have revised their course. Mostly because the government was then spending unprecedented amounts of money on border security while still have millions of immigrants flow through the border. Instead, the amount of immigrants making their way through was perceived to be diminishing.

The 2000 Census revealed just how many immigrants were still entering the country illegally – between 1992 and 2000 the illegal immigrant population more than doubled from 3.2 million to 7 million. This staggering increase in population took place even as the budget for INS continued to increase to triple the amount spent on border security more than a decade ago (Government Accountability Office). The increasing flow of immigrants was a result of the Mexican economy continuing to decline, primarily due to the cheaper labor being provided in Asia (PBS).

The next major change to the U.S. border security strategy came on the heels of September 11th. Following the attacks on 9/11, citizens along the border became increasingly paranoid that terrorists were finding their way through the border. In response, Congress promised additional funding and resources and provided them in the form of the Department of Homeland Security. “The attacks transformed border control from what had been essentially a public order issue into a national security issue” (CATO, 2012). Following this transformation, what had once been mainly symbolic reasons for expanding the scope of the border patrol, now was a real national security threat with the potential for dire consequences. This shift moved the policy into an area where military experts and national defense strategists were in charge, meaning significantly more money for the task. The major law authorizing the increase in funds for the border came in the form of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. This act allowed the DHS to add 10,000 new agents through 2010, nearly doubling the size of the border patrol ( The implementation of this policy reaffirms the symbolic nature of this policy tree. By adding to the amount of agents on the border, Congress continues to fail to make meaningful change, rather they aim to appease the public with temporary satisfaction. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security now spends over half of the agency’s total budget on securing the borders (CATO, 2012).

Following the tremendous increase in resources that came along with the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security in 2003, apprehensions of illegal immigrants crossing the border began to decline. Since 2006, the number of apprehensions has fallen by more than half (CATO, 2012). This decline coincided with the border buildup during the second term of the Bush administration and predated the onset of the recession in 2008 (CATO, 2012). However, during this time housing markets began to decline and work for migrants seeking to cross the border started to become harder to find. While this potentially undermines the impact that increasing border security has apparently had, the CATO Institute suggests that the figures indicate that enforcement has been a significant factor in discouraging illegal entry. During this same time-frame, change to U.S. border patrol funding had primarily occurred incrementally, again following the model that punctuated equilibrium anticipates.

Current Border Security Policies

As Congress incrementally increased funding for the border security program, largely through the expert pathway but occasionally along the symbolic pathway, they did not address major reforms to the U.S. immigration policy. The challenge, therefore, is whether to continue spending money on border control policies or use that money to begin reforming the immigration process. The debate on this issue, like most issues in Congress currently, has been overwhelmingly partisan. While neither party would dare insinuate that they are willing to compromise border security, by addressing the concerns of immigrants frustrated with the immigration policy they can reduce the burden placed on the border patrol.

By analyzing polling data a trend seems appear, indicating a leveling out of opinions, or at the least a much more favorable view on immigration over the past 20 years (Gallup – see below).

However, while support to change immigration policy is on the rise, the fact of the matter is that people are still concerned about the state of our border’s security. Polling on the topic done by ABC News indicated that while the Senate was considering the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, the majority of Americans heavily supported the proposal in the bill that increased border security measures. When polled by ABC News in June of 2013, over 64% of Americans supported adding 40,000 border patrol jobs, and 53% were in favor of adding 700 miles of a security fence to the border. In response to this polling, the Senate passed the bill out of their chamber by a vote of 68-32, but the House did not act on the bill (

The lack of response in the House, while typical in this day in age, is discerning. Rather than work on a policy issue that a broad coalition of Americans support, and one that has such real implications for people trying to become citizens, lawmakers continue to play politics instead of creating legislation. The longer that this legislation languishes, the worse the problem is going to get. For example, this past summer thousands of unaccompanied children made a treacherous journey from Central America to the United States in order to escape from violent drug crime and extreme poverty (USA Today). The United States had no idea what to do, as most of these children did not apply for asylum; the kids simply walked across the border where immigration officers arrested them due to mandatory enforcement of immigration laws. Now, thousands of kids are awaiting trial, most of whom are unlikely to return to trial, and the U.S. still does not possess a clear policy for handling these types of situations (USA Today). Now as federal legislators fail to address the issue, the States that have received these migrants are stuck dealing with the costs associated as well as the judicial nightmare that ensued. This situation, once a meaningful discussion resumes, should serve as a less to address immigration in the future before faced with an ultimatum, especially immigration that carries a heavy moral obligation.

Analysis of the Development

Throughout the policy history description, I indicated some preliminary analysis of how border security legislation has moved on Capitol Hill over the last 20 years. First, and most importantly, is how border security has changed and through which policy theory does the change occur? As evidenced, the development of border security as a sub-policy of immigration and also defense has been primarily incremental change with periods of rapid reform. Thus, border security prescribes to the theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. This can be shown better through analysis of their budget-

Here, the incremental rise of the budget is clear, but in some instances the budget jumps and immediately after the jumps come some stability – again an indicator of punctuated equilibrium. The reason that the change is more gradual in some areas is because the policy adjustments implementation occurred in a tiered fashion, as to reduce the immediate fiscal implication.

Answering why Congress decided to act at various times can be explained by polling data and public perception of the problem. In this next graphic, congressional hearings are paired against the country’s perception of what the most important problem is. (Next page)

This chart from the Policy Agendas Project demonstrates the relative parallel between the perceptions of immigration as a problem by the American public and the amount of hearings held on immigration over the same period. When compared to the budgetary changes, most reform can be explained by these trends. The close parallels indicate that Congress responded in line to American’s worry, and I argue that is a significant indicator of a symbolic pathway for policy. Furthering this point, in 2006 the CATO Institute noted that apprehensions on the border were starting to decrease significantly, but Americans still perceived immigration as a problem facing their country. Congress responded by addressing their concerns and dealing with the issues, even though empirical evidence suggested that the problem was beginning to resolve. This clear example of a symbolic policy demonstrates the ability for public opinion to shape policy proposals in Congress.


In conclusion, the development of border security policy as an aspect of immigration control has been a policy primarily influenced by the public’s attitude and the symbolic policy making by the legislature. While Congress continues to lack the capacity to break partisanship, immigrants continue to flee Mexico and cross into the United States unlawfully. However, for these immigrants who set out looking for a better life, the result of that dangerous journey is a country where opportunity has always been available for those willing to commit themselves to hard work. It is my hope that our country will realize that and change our antiquated immigration policies. Instead of deporting these citizens, allowing them to become beneficial members of society and assimilating them into our culture would yield far more benefit.

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Addressing the Problem of Illegal Immigration Through the Immigration Policies in the United States. (2019, January 03). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
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