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Immigration Policy: How the System is Designed to Fail

On February 8, 2024, Professor Lisa Sanchez addressed the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations, revealing three critical insights into the challenges of U.S. immigration policy. She simplified a complex situation for TCFR: It’s a big national/federal issue, the system for reform is imperfect, and current policies are outdated. 

  1. It’s Big and it’s Federalist

The intricacies of immigration policy encompass thousands of regulations and operate across federal, state, and local levels. Aspects ranging from admittance policies to naturalization procedures, access to public services, and deportation protocols, create a decentralized structure which complicates the formulation of cohesive and comprehensive policies. Sanchez explained how traditionally, our immigration system has been accustomed to incremental changes, but this approach no longer aligns with the urgency of the matter. Recent events, such as those in Texas, highlight the tension between federal mandates and state autonomy in immigration enforcement. States like Texas have felt compelled to take matters into their own hands, leading to a patchwork of approaches across the country. Sanchez explained that as we navigate the future of immigration policy, it's clear that any meaningful reform will require a careful balancing act between federal oversight and state-level autonomy.

  • How much autonomy should each state have?

  • Is it appropriate for only border states to possess special autonomy concerning immigration policy?

  • Could the presence of current checks and balances be impeding progress by hindering the swift implementation of solutions?

  • What are the long term consequences of maintaining the current immigration policy?

2. The Reform System is Intentionally Difficult

Sanchez highlighted three challenges with why immigration policy is difficult to reform: 

  1. Congress Motivated by 3 Goals

Reform, Sanchez shared, is complicated by incentives that actually foster failure, as congress is driven by three goals: reelection, policymaking, and career advancement. However, reelection is prioritized, as policies often cannot be passed without maintaining political power, limiting the potential for joint bipartisan change.

2. Focus is On Small Geographic Areas

With reelection taking precedence, this leads to a focus on appealing to small geographic regions, fueling polarization. Sanchez emphasized how both parties utilize different framing tactics, with Democrats favoring humanistic narratives and Republicans emphasizing security concerns. This creates a skewed understanding of immigration data, where statistics are spun to fit divergent conclusions.

3. There’s a Skewed Understanding of Immigration Data

With polarization fueling two narratives, statistics like the number of immigrants entering the US can be conveyed as a raw number, portraying it as a threat or, as a percentage, showing that the US ranks outside the top 10 countries in immigrant percentage. This partisan divide, coupled with a lack of incentives for bipartisan cooperation, perpetuates the dead end in immigration reform.

  • To combat the focus on reelection, should term lengths be extended?

  • How can immigration statistics be better communicated to mitigate partisan division?

  • What approaches or reforms could be implemented to incentivize bipartisan cooperation?

  • Would implementing a national-level voting system for immigration reform alter our current situation?

3. Current Policies are Outdated 

Sanchez emphasized that the outdated nature of current immigration policies, dating back to the 1960s, exacerbates the complexity of immigration policy, failing to align with contemporary migration trends. Sanchez reminded the audience that current policies, dating back to the ‘60s no longer reflect today’s migration trends. This policy mismatch leads to inadequate responses to evolving realities. 

As Professor Sanchez highlighted, the criteria for claiming asylum, rooted in the INA 1965, only cover those who are fleeing from racial, gender, or religious persecution, which fails to encompass those fleeing poverty or gang violence, reflecting disconnect between legal regulations and what we are seeing on the grounds. Since the 1965 immigration policy, which initially promised consideration for all asylum seekers, was formulated at a time when such claims were scarce, the recent surge in asylum claims highlights the immediate need for policy adjustment. Additionally, Sanchez noted that the inertia of the system perpetuates undocumented immigration, as prolonged waits for legal status drive some individuals to illegal means, only complicating the issue further. She explained that despite evident reform imperatives, political posturing often overshadows genuine policy overhaul efforts, leaving states to navigate the gap between outdated federal laws and evolving community needs.

  • Although current asylum criteria mandates a well founded fear of persecution of identity, should a new policy be updated to include fear of violence from gangs or corrupt governments?

  • What role can grassroots advocacy and community engagement play in pushing meaningful immigration policy adjustments at the federal level?

  • Could placing a cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed by the US alleviate or delay various repercussions of current immigration issues?

  • ​​Might imposing a cap on the number of asylum seekers lead to tensions, particularly in light of ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Israel?


Professor Lisa Sanchez “Future of Immigration Policy” speech, February 8, 2024

Ana O'Neill and Professor Lisa Sanchez at the Tucson Country Club

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