A Recent History of American Attitudes and Policies Toward Immigrants

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A guide to 30 years of America’s stance on immigration — plus the policy changes and deadlocks along the way.

By Elena Gooray


About 100 people gather to rally in support of Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration policy in 2014 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Immigration has become a favorite political buzzword leading up to today’s election, taken to symbolize the fundamental differences between our two major presidential candidates. But the recent spike in discussions around immigration can obscure a long stalemate: America has been stuck on immigration reform for three decades. Whoever takes control of the Oval Office in January will inherit a legacy of immigration-law false starts — and face the burden of trying to beat that streak.

Below, we’ve put together a guide of major moments in United States immigration policy since 1986, the year President Ronald Reagan signed what is considered to be the country’s last comprehensive reform law. Over that period, we also tracked public response to one Gallup polling question:

Thinking now about immigrants — that is, people who come from other countries to live here in the United States, in your view, should immigration be kept at its present level, increased, or decreased?

Overall, that question has revealed Americans to be increasingly receptive toward immigrants. The percentage of people who believe immigration to the U.S. should decrease dropped to 38 percent as of last June, since peaking around 65 percent in the mid 1990s — charting a nearly 30 percent decline in anti-immigration sentiment. During that same time, the percentage of Americans calling for increased immigration in the Gallup polls more than tripled, from 6 percent to 21 percent. But the legislative milestones (or lack thereof) attest: It’s been a bumpy road getting here.


Reagan signs into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act. The IRCA has two big aims: offering amnesty to certain immigrants, and strengthening anti-immigration enforcement to tighten border security and punish businesses for hiring undocumented workers.

Reagan’s law awards green cards to around 2.7 million immigrants — but leaves another two million immigrants who did not meet amnesty requirements in legal purgatory, the Washington Post reported. Funding shortages for border patrol and lax business restrictions, in turn, hamper the law’s enforcement goals. The IRCA will go on to garner a mixed legacy and be recognized as a cautionary tale of how sweeping immigration reform can go wrong.

Public Opinion: In June of 1986, 35 percent of Americans want to keep immigration at current levels, 7 percent want it to increase, and 49 percent call for a decrease.


President George H.W. Bush signs into law the Immigration Act, which raises the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. and creates a lottery system that gives preference to relatively underrepresented countries. But the system precedes increased immigration from many regions and countries, including China, the Philippines, India, Canada, Africa, Europe, and Mexico, one University of Colorado–Boulder study found.

Public Opinion: Three years after the Immigration Act of 1990, 24 percent of Americans would keep immigration at current levels, 6 percent would increase, and 65 percent would decrease (a 16 percent jump from 1986).


Border security, visa application monitoring, and the risk of deportation intensify under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed by President Bill Clinton. Immigrants can now be deported for a new slate of non-violent crimes and for receiving any one-year prison sentence.

Public Opinion:In July of 1995, 27 percent of Americans say to keep immigration levels the same, 7 percent say increase, and 62 percent say decrease.


The Patriot Act, authorized by President George W. Bush, makes it easier to reject visa applications or deport immigrants based on suspected connections with terrorist organizations. The Patriot Act leads to unjust targeting of people with Arab and Muslim backgrounds, a panel from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights wrote in 2002. (It will eventually be renewed in 2011 by President Barack Obama.)

Public Opinion:In June of 2001, before the September 11th terrorist attacks, 42 percent of Americans would keep immigration at current levels, 14 percent would increase, and 41 percent would decrease. The numbers shift in October, after the attacks: Thirty percent would keep at current levels, 8 percent would increase, and 58 percent would decrease.


Bush authorizes the Real ID Act, based on recommendations from the 9/11 Commission, establishing national standards for identification cards, expanding definitions of terrorist organizations and activities, limiting judicial review of some immigration decisions, and expanding the federal government’s authority to build barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Public Opinion:In December of 2005, 31 percent of Americans would keep immigration levels the same, 15 percent would increase, and 51 percent would decrease.


The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM) offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 and graduated from high school in the country. But the DREAM Act dies in the Senate, never achieving the wide bipartisan support some of its supporters foresaw.

Public Opinion:In July of 2010, 34 percent of Americans would keep immigration stable, 17 percent would increase, and 45 percent would decrease.


A bipartisan Senate team known as the “Gang of Eight” passes an immigration bill that is more comprehensive than DREAM: the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. This legislation would strengthen border security, electronically track immigrants’ employment eligibility, and create routes to citizenship for the majority of America’s undocumented population. But the bill never passes in the House of Representatives, mirroring events seven years prior when the Senate pushed through immigration reform that the House failed to close.

Public Opinion: Between June and July of 2013, 40 percent of Americans would keep immigration stable, 23 percent would increase, and 35 percent would decrease.


The Supreme Court considersObama’s attempt to shield from deportation undocumented immigrants who are the parents of U.S. citizens or green card holders. Missing a member following the February death of Antonin Scalia, the Court deadlocks in a four-to-four vote. Preliminary data suggests U.S. deportations declined from 2014 to 2015, though the Obama administration has overall deported immigrants at record numbers.

Public Opinion:Between June and July of this year, 38 percent of Americans would maintain current immigration levels, 21 percent would increase, and 38 percent would decrease.