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What is an Immigration Policy?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated Feb 29, 2024
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The term immigration policy refers to a legal policy set in place by a governmental entity, generally a sovereign nation, to manage immigration. Such policies can seek to encourage, limit, or prevent immigration. Most nations employ policies that favor certain desirable types of immigrant while seeking to restrict access from other types. Many nations offer special immigration programs to allow for the reunification of families, although these programs have caused controversy, particularly in Europe.

The history of the United States usefully illustrates all major varieties of immigration policy. Throughout much of the early history of the United States, immigration was largely unregulated, partly because there was strong demand for labor. During the latter half of the 19th century, immigration proceeded rapidly, and provoked a nativist backlash, which led to the passage of laws to limit immigration from areas whose people were seen as less desirable, particularly Asia and southern Europe. From this point on, The United States and most European nations employed immigration policies designed to selectively allow immigration.

Wealth is one key factor in determining the desirability of a potential immigrant. Most nations offer a fast track to citizenship for potential immigrants who can demonstrate that they will bring with them a sizable level of personal wealth and that they intend to use that wealth to invest in the country that they seek to enter. Developed nations also generally seek to ensure that immigrants can support themselves, by requiring either proof of significant personal wealth or of a verifiable offer of employment within the destination country.

Nations generally tune immigration policy in order to exclude those whose values or attributes are seen as undesirable. Members of national or religious minorities have often been excluded, with some nations, such as Japan, using immigration policy to exclude the vast majority of potential immigrants. Other nations, such as the United States, use immigration policy in an attempt to screen out members of groups perceived as hostile, as part of an anti-terror strategy.

Many countries, including the United States and most nations in Europe give preferential treatment to people whose family members already possess citizenship rights. This policy is designed primarily to allow for the reunification of nuclear families. Critics have charged that such programs have been misused, particularly in Europe, by immigrants who contract marriages specifically for the purpose of obtaining citizenship, a prohibited action in most nations.

Both Europe and the United States have experienced problems stemming from immigration policy. European nations have had difficulty assimilating immigrant populations, and these populations frequently form impoverished underclasses, leading to resentment from both natives and other immigrants. The United States has long struggled with the issue of illegal immigration, which provides large segments of the labor force, but which is deeply controversial.

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