08/30/2010 05:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why We Should Applaud ICE's Immigration Initiative

On August 26th, the New York Times reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had begun a process to cancel deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants who are waiting for the results of petitions filed by close relatives to receive a green card. The ICE memorandum estimates that approximately 17,000 people would be affected, primarily those that would ultimately win their cases anyway, and be allowed to stay in the country. This change is targeted toward alleviating an all-time-high backlog of pending cases in the immigration courts, where average waiting periods are around a year and a half.

As Mary Giovagnoli writes on the Immigration Policy Institute's Immigration Impact blog, 17,000 out of the close to 400,000 people deported in 2009, is not exactly a significant number. Still, I want to argue that these types of small tweaks to the immigration system are crucial to obtaining larger reforms down the road.

The current backlogs in the immigration courts mirror those of another period in American history, the 1950s and early 1960s. The backlogs I am referring to were not for the immigration court, but rather for people waiting to enter under the visa preference categories. At the time, U.S. immigration policy was governed by the race-based national origins quota system, which privileged immigrants from northern and western Europe, and heavily restricted entrance from the rest of the world.

According to State Department estimates, by 1962, the waiting time for a Chinese skilled worker was approximately twenty-six years, and for Italian siblings of U.S. citizens, close to fifty years.(1) These backlogs had been building throughout the post-World War II period, and ultimately pushed legislators in 1957, 1959, 1961, and 1962 to pass a series of small bills that slowly worked to clear the waiting lists.(2) Each bill had a limited scope, not changing the overall structure of immigration law, and working only to admit people already approved for entry, but unable to obtain a visa. Speaking on the 1959 bill, co-sponsor Representative Francis Walter (D-PA) stated that "no person who would not come to the United States in the course of time anyway, will be given an opportunity to enter this country...this legislation is a simple humanitarian measure fully consistent with the underlying principles of the Immigration and Nationality Act [of 1952.]"(3)

Ultimately, none of these bills amounted to large-scale reform, and none removed the race-based quota system from immigration law. But each bill built upon the one before, and contributed to a general sense on the part of legislators and bureaucrats that the immigration system was broken. By slowly highlighting the difficulties with the visa process, these changes helped to open a space for major comprehensive immigration reform in 1965, with the Hart-Celler Act (Immigration and Nationality Act).

While comparing visa and immigration court waiting times may seem like apples to oranges, the simple fact is that in both cases small fixes help not only to make the system run more smoothly, but also to lay the groundwork for much needed comprehensive change.


(1) Department of State, "Quota Immigrants Registered Under Oversubscribed Quotas," RG 46, Sen.87A-E12, Committee on the Judiciary, Box 40, S.3361, NARA I

(2) P.L. 316, 71 Stat. 639 in 1957; P.L. 363, 73 Stat. 644 in 1959; P.L. 301, 75 Stat. 650 in 1961; and P.L. 885, 76 Stat. 1247 in 1962.

(3) Francis Walter to G.A. Smith, October 28, 1959. Francis E. Walter Papers, Carton 21, H.R. 5896, Lehigh University Archives.