The first federal U.S. immigration law was the Page Act of 1875, restricting immigration of Asian laborers. The first comprehensive law was the Immigration Act of 1882. The 1882 Act imposed a charge of fifty cents on entering the country and prohibited the entry of "convicts, lunatics, idiots, or any person unable to take care of him or herself without becoming a public charge. There was, however, an exception for people convicted of political crimes. National quotas were implemented in the 1920s. In 1965 the Immigration and Nationality Act changed the focus to family reunification and skilled immigrants. It also imposed the first limitations on immigrants from the Americas.
The Immigration Control and Reform Act was passed in 1986. The 1986 Act was intended to balance the needs of people in the country illegally at the time and the need to control the US borders. The 1986 gave legal status (not citizenship) to approximately three million immigrants. In return, security at the Mexican border would be strengthened and new penalties imposed on employers who hired people who were in the US illegally. As we know, the border has not been secured, and many of the harshest penalties on employers were dropped from the 1986 Act.
Current law sets legal immigration at 675,000 people annually. A separate number is set for refugees. As stated by the American Immigration Council, "Immigration to the United States is based upon the following principles: the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity." There is a family preference system, and in 2014 64% of legal immigrants were admitted based on family preference. In order to be admitted through the family-based immigration system, a U.S. citizen or sponsor must petition for an individual relative, establish the legitimacy of the relationship, meet minimum income requirements, and sign an affidavit of support stating that the sponsor will be financially responsible for the family member(s) upon arrival in the United States.
Another 140,000 people may be admitted each year based on employment qualifications, however that number includes spouses and unmarried minor children.
In addition to legal immigration, there is obviously a significant amount of illegal immigration. The number of people entering the country illegally along the Mexican border in 2015 was estimated at 200,000, down from 1.9 million ten years earlier. These numbers are people who made it into the country, not the many more who attempted to enter the country but were detained by border security.
It is estimated that eleven million people are currently living in the US illegally, and our politicians can't decide how to treat these people. Since it is not practical to find and deport eleven million people, and since polls show that a significant majority of Americans don't want to deport these people, discussing deportation seems like a waste of time. (In contrast, a recent poll of Canadians indicated that half of their population wants to deport people crossing into Canada illegally over the US border.)
President Obama acted to protect approximately two million illegal immigrants in 2012, creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ("DACA") program by executive order. Under DACA, people who are here illegally who are at least 15 years old, entered the United States before the age of 16, have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, are enrolled in school, have earned a high school diploma or its equivalent, or are honorably discharged veterans, have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to public safety or national security, can apply for deportation relief and a work permit.
President Trump announced that he was rescinding DACA, but is now negotiating with the Democrats, its ultimate status in unclear. Republicans opposed DACA when President Obama signed it but now many oppose President Trump's repeal. The situation is a legal mess and should be resolved, if for no other reason than respect for the law. If people aren't going to be deported en masse, then their status should be resolved in some way so they and the country can move forward.
Moving forward must also include securing US borders. America faces innumerable threats, including terrorism, drugs, crime and disease. Proper screening of people entering the country could greatly reduce these threats. Threats from terrorism are front and center in the news, and threats from drug cartels and other criminals are equally publicized. Threats from disease, however, could be equally damaging. As the world witnessed in 2014, a virus like Ebola can spread quickly with devastating results.
Screening for terrorists, criminals and people with communicable diseases does not mean stopping all immigration. Americans are generous and compassionate. If our country wants to allow impoverished people to move here to pursue a better life, then why not allow them to do so legally rather than paying dangerous people to drive them across the desert in the back of an unventilated truck? If the immigration laws do not reflect the views of the American people, the laws can be changed, but that requires our politicians to actually take a position and vote for (or against) something. Based on recent performance, that may be a long shot.