What you should know about immigration ahead of the third US presidential debate

This is what immigration into the US actually looks like.
This is what immigration into the US actually looks like.
Image: AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
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During the third and final debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, American voters will likely finally get to hear what the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates think on immigration after a long lull on the subject from both of them.

Immigration is officially on the agenda for Oct. 19.

It’s a high-stakes issue for both candidates. Trump’s strong anti-immigration positions have earned him a devoted following from a faction of the Republican base. Meanwhile, Clinton’s pro-immigrant stance has energized many Latino voters who lean Democrat. It’s also an important matter for the country, which has been struggling with an outdated immigration system for years.

But the two barely touched on immigration during their previous two face-offs, much to the disappointment of the Latino community. Perhaps it was because they had more urgent campaign issues on their plates (sexist comments caught on tape and leaked emails come to mind). Or they could be avoiding the topic as they attempt to appeal to more centrist voters who might be put off by too conservative or too liberal an immigration policy.

If all goes to plan, they should be confronted with the problems associated with illegal and legal immigration during the last debate. Quartz talked to Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute, to help lay out the key immigration problems that either Trump or Clinton will have to solve in the next four years.

The immigrants

Donald Trump has made it seem like the US is in the midst of an illegal immigration crisis. His first TV spot shows dozens of people scaling over walls, as though the US is facing a deluge of Mexican immigrants. (Never mind that the images were actually shot in Morocco, rather than the US-Mexico border.)

In fact, illegal immigration has been falling and is at its lowest point in years. The flow of Mexicans entering the country without documents, a group Trump has called a menace, is a tiny fraction of what it once was.

The big illegal immigration challenge the US now faces is Central Americans fleeing their countries due to violence. They’re not coming strictly for work, like Mexican immigrants in previous decades, but to request asylum because they fear for their lives. Many are children.

Walls are not enough

The new nature of illegal immigration calls for measures other than strict border enforcement. Many of the new arrivals are turning themselves in to border patrol agents rather than sneaking past them, in order to request asylum. “This is why walls are completely irrelevant,” says Chishti.

Plus, all the different types of barriers the US has deployed in the past, whether physical, virtual, or in the form of more boots on the ground, have so far proved to be moderately effective at best. Experts say that other factors, including the US recession, have played a bigger role in decreasing illegal immigration.

It’s the economy…

While the US has been spending billions of dollars to block illegal immigration, it has done little to fix its legal immigration system. Employers, many of them Republicans, have long complained that the US’s guest worker programs fall well short of what the US economy needs. They say they have thousands of low-skill positions to fill that no American wants to take.

If employers could legally hire the foreigners anxious to fill those jobs, there wouldn’t be 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the US.

Welcome families

There are strict limits on immigrants sponsored by companies, but the US has no cap for green cards granted to the immediate relatives of its citizens, which include spouses, children, and parents. Citizens can also sponsor siblings, adult children, and other less immediate categories of relatives (though there are caps for these groups).

In total, relatives made up more than 60% of the one million people or so who got permanent legal status in 2014, according to data from the US Department of Homeland Security. Employer-sponsored immigrants accounted for 15%.

Over the past couple of decades these family members have contributed to the biggest spike in legal immigration to the US since the beginning of the 1900s.


“Is that number too much?” asks Chishti. “It’s subject to debate.”

The hardest question of all

The US also has to figure out what to do with the 11 million unauthorized people living in the US.

About two-thirds of these people have been living in the US for more than a decade, according to the Pew Research Center. They are parents to around four million US-born children who have the right to live in the US, and they contribute to the economy through their jobs and by paying taxes.

But they also represent a real cost for the local governments who have to educate them and provide them with healthcare, says Chishti.

What is the best way to address their plight? Let’s hope to hear some good ideas during the presidential debate.