Immigration Policy: The Survey On The Treatment Of Refugees And Reducing Illegal Immigration

Monday, October 26, 2015
Syrian Refugees
Image credit: 
Jeff J. Mitchell, Getty Images News

Albert Einstein immigrated to the United States as a refugee from Nazi Germany. This year, millions of Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries in the Middle East and Europe. It has been noted that the biological father of Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple Computer, was an immigrant from Syria. These stories are compelling, but do experts support maintaining and perhaps expanding the traditional American openness to nearly one hundred thousand refugees per year?

We asked a panel of thirty-two immigration policy experts to assess two distinct immigration policy issues: the treatment of refugees and reducing illegal immigration. Notably, most respondents are independent scholars, but of those who are affiliated with a political party are split roughly 50-50 between Republican and Democrat.

QUESTION: Which of the following ideas do you agree would be good for US immigration policy? (The percentages of experts that agree noted next to each action).

78%     Increase US Refugee Limit. The Obama administration recently announced it will increase the annual refugee limit by 30,000 (to 100,000 refugees). This is larger than initially proposed as a response to the millions of Syrian refugees entering Europe, but the US could raise the limit further.

41%     Decouple Refugee Status from Permanent Residency. Refugees allowed into the United States are required to file paperwork for permanent residency within one year, which often leads to eventual US citizenship. A policy change granting only temporary residency would decouple refugee status from permanent residency. Is that tradeoff worthwhile if it increased popular acceptance of more refugees?       

38%     Increase Penalty for Repeated Illegal Entries. One impediment to reducing illegal immigration is the frequency of recidivism. Should penalties for repeated apprehensions by the same individual be increased, to include revoking future visa and residency opportunities as a means of changing behavioral incentives?

16%     End Birthright Citizenship. The Constitution of the United States grants citizenship to any person born on US soil. This policy is uncommon among nations, and appears to open to abuse by foreign migrants and travelers. Ending the policy outright would grant automatic citizenship only to the children of US citizens and green card holders.

16%     Amend/ Re-Interpret Birthright Citizenship. Preserve the fundamental right for children of foreign mothers legally visiting the US, but not for immigrants in the US illegally. Some believe this interpretation, which has never been adjudicated by the Supreme Court, is the proper reading of the 14th Amendment.

13%     Goal of Zero Illegal Immigration. The United States federal government should enforce laws against illegal immigration with a goal of reducing it to zero. Even if achieving the goal is impractical, having the goal is necessary.


Do you agree with the following ideas for reform of U.S. immigration policy?

Only one policy idea was supported by a majority of our panelists, which is to increase the annual limit on refugees accepted into the United States. We did not specify the number, but did note that the current refugee ceiling was set at 70,000 which President Obama has proposed increasing by 30,000.

A September 2015 YouGov poll of public opinion found that a majority of Americans think the United States should provide refuge to people fleeing war or oppression (52% support, 21% oppose), but are less willing to accept more refugees or be more lenient. Indeed, a plurality of YouGov respondents think the US should accept more than one thousand Syrian refugees. The immigration experts in the Peregrine panel are, in contrast, much more supportive of increasing the refugee ceiling.  Perhaps Americans are less disposed to welcoming immigrants from the Middle East knowing that so many refugees from Haiti and Central America are, in a sense, competing for those precious spots and that Middle Eastern refugees are closer to refuge in Europe and elsewhere in their own region. I was curious if experts would support a compromise solution – a temporary refugee status that did not essentially guarantee eventual citizenship. A majority of experts oppose this idea, albeit by just 53-47 percent.

A number of presidential candidates have suggested curtailing the traditional right to citizenship granted to children born on US soil. Ending this birthright was likely to be unpopular, so we also asked a question about limiting, rather than ending, the policy. Surprisingly, ending and amending birthright citizenship had the same level of support – 16 percent of the panel.  However, 75 percent of respondents felt strongly about ending the policy, compared to just under 60 percent who felt strongly against amending it.

QUESTION:  Which statements describe your views on achieving zero illegal immigration?                                                         

Most experts think the goal of zero illegal immigration is misguided (only 41% think the goal is worthwhile), and two-thirds think the focus should be on more specific, higher-priority goals such as fighting cross-border crime and terrorism. But mixed into these six statements is one that has arguably the most relevance to the political debate – the notion that border security is a prerequisite for other reforms. Only 16 percent of respondents agree with that premise, which hints that a vast majority of experts believe reform is better achieved by considering multiple, incremental policy changes.

To reduce illegal immigration, a slightly higher proportion of experts believe that innovative penalties are more necessary than increased apprehension rates, but both statements had fewer than one-third of panelists in support. Perhaps the reason is that increased penalties and enforcement efforts have been already made in the past decade.

QUESTION:  Migration often increases domestic measures of income inequality because of the influx of so many low-skill migrants. The same effect results from high-skill (and high achieving) migrants. What should be the balance between immigration and inequality?

One of the paradoxes of politics is that many of the people who support increased immigration also worry about income inequality, with little apparent awareness that immigration tends to exacerbate inequality. If one had to choose between these two causes, which would, and should win? Only 16 percent of our experts favor restrictions on immigration that raises domestic income inequality. The majority of respondents believe that immigration tends to reduce global inequality, even if it raises domestic inequality.

Is fighting inequality a valid policy goal? Two out of five think that poverty is a valid goal but inequality is not. Presumably, some experts think neither fight is a priority, while others believe the two are linked or at least equally valid. And nearly three in four experts believe that immigration has net benefits for immigrants and native-born citizens, regardless of the impact on inequality.