National Interests and Common Ground in the US Immigration Debate: How to Legalize the US Immigration System and Permanently Reduce its Undocumented Population

Donald Kerwin
Robert Warren
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock

National Interests and Common Ground in the US Immigration Debate: How to Legalize the US Immigration System and Permanently Reduce its Undocumented Population


The conventional wisdom holds that the only point of consensus in the fractious US immigration debate is that the system is broken. Yet, the US public has consistently expressed a desire for a legal and orderly immigration system that serves compelling national interests. This paper describes how to create such a system. It focuses on the cornerstone of immigration reform,[1] the legal immigration system,[2] and addresses the widespread belief that broad reform will incentivize illegal migration and ultimately lead to another large undocumented population.

The paper begins with an analysis of presidential signing statements on seminal immigration legislation over nearly a century. These statements reveal broad consensus on the interests and values that the United States seeks to advance through its immigration and refugee policies. They constitute additional common ground in the immigration debate. To serve these interests, immigration and refugee considerations must be “mainstreamed” into other policy processes. In addition, its policies will be more successful if they are seen to benefit or, at least, not to discriminate against migrant-sending states.

Not surprisingly, the US immigration system does not reflect the vast, mostly unanticipated changes in the nation and the world since Congress last meaningfully reformed this system (27 years ago) and last overhauled the law (52 years ago). The paper does not detail the well-documented ways that US immigration laws fall short of serving the nation’s economic, family, humanitarian, and rule of law objectives. Nor does it propose specific changes in categories and levels of admission. Rather, it describes how a legal immigration system might be broadly structured to deliver on its promises. In particular, it makes the case that Congress should create a flexible system that serves compelling national interests, allows for real time adjustments in admission based on evidence and independent analysis, and vests the executive with appropriate discretion in administering the law.

The paper also argues that the United States should anticipate and accommodate the needs of persons compelled to migrate by its military, trade, development, and other commitments. In addition, the US immigration system needs to be able to distinguish between undocumented immigrants, and refugees and asylum seekers, and to treat these two populations differently.

The paper assumes that there will be continued bipartisan support for immigration enforcement. However, even with a strong enforcement apparatus in place and an adaptable, coherent, evidence-based legal immigration system that closely aligns with US interests, some (reduced) level of illegal migration will persist. The paper offers a sweeping, historical analysis of how this population emerged, why it has grown and contracted, and how estimates of its size have been politically exploited.

Legalization is often viewed as the third rail of immigration reform. Yet, Congress has regularly legalized discrete undocumented populations, and the combination of a well-structured legalization program, strengthened legal immigration system, and strong enforcement policies can prevent the reemergence of a large-scale undocumented population. In contrast, the immense US enforcement apparatus will work at cross-purposes to US interests and values, absent broader reform.

The paper ends with a series of recommendations to reform the legal immigration system, downsize the current undocumented population, and ensure its permanent reduction. It proposes that the United States “reissue” (or reuse) the visas of persons who emigrate, as a way to promote legal immigration reform without significantly increasing annual visa numbers.


[1] Effective legal immigration policies constitute the cornerstone of reform because, without them, the immigration enforcement system and any eventual legalization program will not be able to deliver on their promises.

[2] The paper treats US refugee admissions as a form of legal immigration.

Author Names

Donald Kerwin and Robert Warren

Journal Journal on Migration and Human Security
Date of Publication 2017
Pages 297-330
DOI 10.1177/233150241700500205
Volume 2017
Issue Number 2