In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Historical Perspectives before 1965
  • Demographic Trends
  • Immigrant Incorporation
  • Political Participation and Partisanship
  • Public Opinion on Immigrants and Immigration
  • Anti-immigrant Backlash
  • Immigrant Rights Movements
  • Immigration Politics and the Media
  • Data Sources

Political Science Immigration Politics and Policy in the United States
Heather Silber Mohamed, Emily M. Farris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0223


Although the Statue of Liberty, one of the premier symbols of the United States, welcomes “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” America’s relationship with its immigrants has long been ambivalent. Throughout the United States’ history, there have been persistent and charged debates over the nature and consequences of immigration. At times, America has greatly restricted the number and characteristics of newcomers, despite its aspiration to be identified as a “nation of immigrants” and a “melting pot.” The heated, contentious debate over who should be included in the United States, and how they should be included, persists in the halls of Congress, the judiciary, the executive branch, and at the state and local levels. The literature related to history and contemporary debates regarding immigration politics and policy in the United States is expansive. This article addresses scholarship on a number of specific policy debates, as well as popular reactions to these polemics. The works below focus on three overarching themes. First, we discuss scholarship about the policies themselves. This research includes a historical perspective, looking back at early immigration policies that were characterized by a quota system and the exclusion of Asian immigrants, as well as a view on contemporary policy debates emerging since the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. This significant piece of legislation overturned the system of national origin restrictions and led to the development of the current immigration policy regime. The second broad theme explores the immigrants themselves, including demographic trends, political and economic incorporation, and political participation. The final major theme includes reactions to contemporary policy debates by both the public and the press. Works in this area focus on public opinion about immigration policy, social movements emerging in response to the immigration debate, the anti-immigrant backlash, and media coverage of immigration politics. The end of this article also highlights key data sources for those wishing to conduct additional research in this area.

General Overview

A number of books present excellent overviews of the evolution of immigration policy over time. In this section, we describe books that span centuries of US immigration history and provide overarching introductions to the topic. In other sections, we discuss scholarship focusing on specific time periods. (Historical Perspectives before 1965 explores the earliest phases of immigration in the United States, while Contemporary Policy Issues examines debates emerging following the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act.) Focusing on immigration politics and policy from the founding of the United States to the early 2000s, Zolberg 2006 provides an extensive survey of hundreds of years of legislation and policymaking. Parker 2015 connects the history of immigrants to that of other marginalized groups in the United States. In addition to presenting a historical overview, Daniels 2004 provides a useful discussion of the histories of different groups of immigrants by national origin. Both Smith 1997 and Tichenor 2002 approach immigration history from the perspective of American political development, which seeks to understand the ways that culture, ideology, and institutions influence political and policy changes in the United States over time. Smith 1997 explores how ideas about what it means to be American have shaped immigration policies during different time periods, while Tichenor 2002 emphasizes the role of institutions and institutional change in immigration policy. Law 2010 presents an alternative perspective, as the author seeks to understand variation in the role of the federal courts in shaping immigration law. Finally, two notable books present useful introductions to key ideas about immigration. DeSipio and de la Garza 2015 is a helpful and highly accessible textbook that includes a synopsis of immigration history, while the edited volume Hirschman, et al. 1999 presents clear descriptions of a range of concepts and ideas about migration in the United States.

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

    This accessible, balanced book presents a clear overview of US immigration policy from 1882 to 2001. Daniels points out the inconsistencies in immigration policy, particularly as it deals with restricting immigrant groups. The early history is presented chronologically, while the second part of the book, which examines post-1965 policies, focuses on specific national origin groups, as well as post-9/11 policies.

  • DeSipio, Louis, and Rodolfo O. de la Garza. U. S. Immigration in the Twenty-First Century: Making Americans, Remaking America. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2015.

    This book, appropriate for undergraduates as an introductory text, is a comprehensive look at historic and contemporary immigration policy issues in the United States. The textbook includes a helpful, concise history of immigration policy, with a specific focus on the 2006–2007 congressional debates, which students will find accessible. DeSipio and de la Garza also include a chapter on naturalization policy, which focuses on questions of eligibility and process. Other chapters explore immigrant rights and immigrant civic and political participation.

  • Hirschman, Charles, Philip Kasinitz, and Josh DeWind, eds. The Handbook of International Migration: The American Experience. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999.

    This edited volume focuses on key themes related to contemporary immigration, and is appropriate for undergraduate and graduate classes alike. The book’s chapters are authored by preeminent scholars in political science, sociology, and anthropology, and cover a wide range of topics, including the causes and consequences of immigration as well as immigrant incorporation.

  • Law, Anna O. The Immigration Battle in American Courts. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511750991

    Traces more than a century of decisions made by the US Supreme Court and the Courts of Appeals on immigration policy. Law demonstrates the importance of institutional context and the interaction between the courts and the bureaucracy in shaping immigration policy. Recommended for advanced undergraduates and graduate students interested in the legal system, the bureaucracy, and immigration law.

  • Parker, Kunal. Making Foreigners: Immigration and Citizenship Law in America, 1600–2000. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139343282

    Parker’s book ambitiously covers the myriad ways US policy has legally constructed the immigrant or foreigner over the course of four centuries of history. The work details the long-standing relationship between foreignness and subordination by connecting the history of the immigrant with other marginalized groups, such as women, the poor, and Native Americans.

  • Smith, Rogers. Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U. S. History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997.

    Smith examines the ascriptive nature of US citizenship laws, asking how and why civic identities are restricted, often based on race, ethnicity, or sex. He points to “civic myths,” employed by those in power to advance their influence over a society. Smith’s book is in contrast to earlier works in American political development that tend to downplay the importance of race; Smith presents an alternative account that allows for varying definitions of “the people” across time.

  • Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.

    Using an American political development approach, Tichenor presents an authoritative overview of US immigration policy starting in the 1800s. With an emphasis on historical institutions, he examines the ways that the three branches of government have influenced policy development, and, in particular, shifts between periods of inclusive and restrictive US immigration policy over time.

  • Zolberg, Aristide. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

    Very thorough overview of immigration politics in the United States, from the nation’s founding through contemporary policy debates, focusing particularly on the development of federal policy. Rich with historical detail, this book would work well for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on immigration politics.

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