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Congress, in the Immigration Act of 1990, created the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform to assess current trends in immigration and to recommend changes in immigration policy. Among its other responsibilities, the commission was to assess the impact of immigration on labor needs, on employment and other economic conditions, and on the demographics of the United States.
The commission, in turn, requested the National Academy of Sciences to convene a panel of experts to explore the demographic, economic, and fiscal consequences of immigration—to address some of the questions raised above. The panel was not asked to answer all the current questions about immigration, nor did its mandate extend to setting out alternative policies or making policy recommendations among them. Rather, the panel was asked to provide a scientific basis for policymaking, providing as rich a background as possible against which the commission could do its work.
U.S. immigration policy has always balanced a number of competing goals—economic, social, humanitarian. As long as there is a virtually unlimited supply of potential immigrants, the nation has to make choices about how many immigrants to admit and, within that number, who should be selected. At times in the complicated, never-static history of immigration policy, exclusion has been a matter of simple numbers, based on some notion of what the economy and the society could absorb. At other times, people have been excluded on specific grounds: national origin, race, health status, education, language ability, and job skills, among others. The criteria are obviously linked to the objectives, and the priorities may shift: for example, when other countries practice repression, the nation's historic role as a refuge takes precedence over concern about applicants' facility with English. Freely admitting highly skilled technical workers may mean turning away the more poorly endowed who are fleeing oppression; freely reuniting families, without regard to the degree of relationship or the capacity for self-sufficiency, may tax the society's ability to integrate the newcomers. Choosing policies, then, requires careful consideration of goals and, in turn, careful consideration of the trade-offs to be made in terms of both numbers of immigrants and their characteristics.
A second avenue open to policymakers for affecting immigration involves the ways that immigrants are treated and integrated into the United States after their arrival. The successful adaptation of immigrants, including refugees and legalized immigrants, depends on the ways in which they are treated differently from the native-born—through local programs that find places to live for refugees, job search programs, and English-language programs. Overall, these avenues of policy determine how many immigrants we have, who they are, and how