U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform

Identification: Federal commission created by the U.S. Congress to conduct a critical, bipartisan investigation of national immigration policies and to recommend changes to Congress

Date: Operated from 1990 to 1997

Also known as: Jordan Commission

Significance: The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform was the most far-reaching body charged with examining immigration legislation during the last decade of the twentieth century.

In 1990, the U.S. Congress sought to establish a more inclusive immigration policy than existed at that time, one that would correct some of the inequities in current immigration legislation. Barbara Jordan, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Texas from 1973 until 1979, was appointed chair of the newly formed commission. Rather than merely attempting to make cosmetic changes in the complex provisions of former immigration policies, under Jordan’s guidance, the commission chose fundamentally to rethink policies and to streamline them by focusing on the three stated aims and intentions of earlier immigration laws:

  • reuniting immigrant families 
  • building pools of workers in areas where they were needed 
  • providing humanitarian respite for those seeking asylum from life-threatening repression in their native countries 

Composition and Mission of the Commission

When Congress created the commission, it made every attempt to ensure that its membership would be bipartisan. Three of the commission’s eight members were appointed by the Republican leadership in both houses of Congress and three were appointed by the Democratic leadership.Twomembers, Shirley Hufstedler and Robert Charles Hill, were appointed by the president of the United States.

The commission was charged with making a critical study of U.S. immigration policies then currently in effect and with making recommendations for sweeping changes in such policies. As was intended, it made interim reports in 1994, 1995, and 1997, prior to submitting its final report in December, 1997. The commission’s first interim report emphasized means of controlling illegal immigration, which had reached staggering proportions by the year in which the report was submitted. The commission recommended increased border controls and the hiring of more border police to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico into Texas, Arizona, and California.

The second interim report, in 1995, focused on legal immigration, emphasizing the goals of family reunification, employment-based immigration, and the admission of refugees fleeing despotic regimes. The report urged the simplification of immigration categories and recommended that no more than 550,000 legal immigrants be admitted to the United States annually.

The third interim report, in 1997, was much concerned with refugee status and granting asylum, urging international assistance even for refugees who could not legally resettle in the United States. The final report, at the end of 1997, amalgamated the earlier reports and dealt in detail with illegal immigration, legal immigration, and border control. It suggested means of helping refugees who could not resettle in the United States.

Impact of the Commission

Although the United States is a nation built by immigrants, immigration policy has long been a thorny issue in the country. Early American settlers were prejudiced against Irish immigrants. As the Irish were assimilated into American society, they in turn became prejudiced against southern Europeans, notably Italians. As Italians were assimilated, they had their own prejudices against members of such ethnic minorities as African Americans, Jews, and Latinos.

The Commission on Immigration Reform had to view realistically the prejudices that its reports would elicit in Congress, whose members must take into account the biases of the constituents who elect them to office and keep them there. The commission expressed its official distress with the hordes of undocumented immigrants who were entering the United States and who were not being deported. It urged more stringent enforcement of existing immigration laws. It also recommended that the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) be disbanded and its functions be assigned to other government agencies. It recommended that immigration-related employment standards should fall to the Department of Labor, refugee questions should be handled by the State Department, and a new bureau of immigration enforcement should be established within the Department of Justice.

As desirable as many of the recommendations of the commission were to some people, they were never acted upon, and the INS remained intact. Later, such extreme measures as erecting a huge border fence were undertaken, but through the first decade of the twenty-first century, no workable solutions were found to stem the tide of illegal immigration and to deal fairly with immigrants, legal and illegal, many ofwhomlive on society’s fringes.

R. Baird Shuman

Further Reading

  • Hing, Bill Ong. Immigration and the Law: A Dictionary. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1999. Comprehensive, alphabetical listing of terms relating to immigration. An outstanding quick reference for those studying immigration. 
  • Joppke, Christian. Selecting by Origin: Ethnic Migration in the Liberal State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005. Study that considers international migration in the light of a world composed of individual nation-states. 
  • LeMay, Michael C. Guarding the Gates: Immigration and National Security. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006. Thorough consideration of U.S. immigration policies from1820 through the late 1990’s. 
  • LeMay, Michael C., and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Based on documents regarding immigration, the scope of this study is impressive. Highly recommended. 
  • Motomura, Nikoshi. Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Thorough and up-to-date account of barriers to legal immigration that face people seeking U.S. citizenship. 
  • Smith, Rogers. Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. Revealing overview of how attitudes toward immigration and immigrants have changed over time in the United States. 
  • Wong, Carolyn. Lobbying for Inclusion: Rights Politics and the Making of Immigration Policy. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006. Interesting account of the role politics play in immigration enforcement and reform. 

See also: Border fence; Border Patrol, U.S.; Bureau of Immigration, U.S.; Center for Immigration Studies; Deportation; Federation for American Immigration Reform; Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.; Immigration law; Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986; A Nation of Immigrants; 9/11 and U.S. immigration policy; Refugees.

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