United States Immigration Policy: A Decades-Old Conundrum

Authored by Casey L. Stiller

This scanned excerpt, written by Charles B. Keely and included in Mary M. Kritz’s U.S. Immigration and Refugee Policy, describes the challenges faced in changing United States immigration policy. Keely gives a brief overview of the current immigration climate within the United States in the early 1980’s.

There have been three major migration periods in the United States in the last century: a largely laissez faire outlook in the 1930s; the Bracero Program, in effect during and after World War II; and, following the elimination of the Bracero Program, passage of major immigration laws in 1965 (Rosenblum and Brick 2011, 1). The Bracero Program was a formal agreement signed between the United States and Mexico in 1942, establishing “a migrant guest worker program,” which had favorable conditions for Mexican immigrants (Rosenblum and Brick 2011, 4). The Bracero Program experienced significant pushback, and upon its expiration in 1964, was followed instead by the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which established per-country caps and a tiered preference system for rationing visas within a country (Rosenblum and Brick 2011, 5). 

In spring and summer of 1980, a mass immigration of 125,000 Cubans flooded into the United States (Copeland 1983, 139). This influx became known as the Cuban Boatlift of 1980, and “with no base of experience and a very limited legal framework, response planning for mass influx emergencies was nonexistent” (Copeland 1983, 140). This migration was also known as the Marial Boatlift, as the immigrants came from the Mariel harbor in Cuba (Gomez 2002, 117). Many of these immigrants were considered “excludable aliens” – meaning they sought admission into the United States but were not granted entry because of issues such as alleged mental health problems or criminal history (Gomez 2002, 117). Ultimately, it was an “uncontrolled and unmanageable situation for the United States” (Copeland 1983, 140).

1986 brought about the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which was influenced by the 1981 Select Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Policy, emphasizing “humanitarian concerns and advocated amnesty for exploited and victimized undocumented workers” (Fernandez 2010). The IRCA provided further amnesty for immigrants living illegally in the United States (Fernandez 2010, 107), but also had a goal of reducing the overall number of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States (White, Bean, and Espenshade 1990).

What is most clear from this brief overview is that United States immigration policies are more geared towards reacting to specific crises, rather than towards establishing long-term guidelines to maintain a balanced system. Many policies are the “outcome of last-minute political compromises” (White, Bean, and Espenshade 1990, 94). The 1980s brought about severe reform to immigration policy and law within the United States. Today, immigration policy remains one of the most controversial topics of conversation, and many of the concerns and considerations that must be taken into account now are those that were brought to attention by Keely, and McCarthy and Ronfeldt nearly forty years ago. While there is no easy answer, perhaps looking to the past for examples of what did not work will help the United States to shape an immigration policy that benefits the country and satisfies overall humanitarian concerns.


Copeland, Ronald. 1983. “The Cuban Boatlift of 1980: Strategies in Federal Crisis Management.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 467, (May, 1983): 138-50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1044933.

Fernández, Lilia. 2010. “Deconstructing Immigration Discourse.” Journal of American Ethnic History 30, no. 1 (Fall 2010): 107-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/jamerethnhist.30.issue-1.

Gomez, Veronica, 2002. “Report No. 51/01, Case 9903 Rafael Ferrer-Mazorra et al (United States) Case 9903, Report No. 51/01, 4 April 2001, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,” Human Rights Law Review 2, no. 1: 117-126. https://heinonline-org.jerome.stjohns.edu/HOL/Page?collection=journals&handle=hein.journals/hrlr2&id=129&men_tab=srchresults.

Rosenblum, Marc R. and Kate Brick. 2011. US Immigration Policy and Mexican/Central American Migration Flows: Then and Now. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/research/mexican-migration-united-states-underlying-economic-factors-and-possible-scenarios-future.

White, Michael J., Frank D. Bean, and Thomas J. Espenshade. 1990. “The U.S. 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act and Undocumented Migration to the United States.” Population Research and Policy Review 9, no. 2 (May 1990): 93-116. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40229886.