by Lina Newton. New York and London: New York University Press, 2008. 240pp. Cloth $65.00. ISBN: 9780814758427. Paper $22.00. ISBN: 9780814758434.

Reviewed by Karen A. Woodrow-Lafield, Maryland Population Research Center, University of Maryland College Park. Email: WoodrowLafield [at]


This well-written and insightful book provides an interesting synthesis on the content and patterns of Congressional debate in the making of immigration policies. Newton examines how the official rhetoric about immigration reforms holds a set of narrative types matching policy options associated with images or social constructions of groups to whom reform measures would accordingly direct either rewards or punishments. Many social scientists, professionals, and practitioners have become knowledgeable of many aspects of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA or IIRAIRA), and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (also known as the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, PRWORA, or PREWORA). Newton contributes to understanding immigration reform in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, what these laws involve, how these laws were made, and why immigration reform continues to be on the agenda. Despite considerable attention from policymakers, there is an accumulation of perceived and real inadequacies, failures, and brokenness, along with unanticipated consequences.

The published record from the Congressional floor serves as a database for Newton’s systematic discourse analysis, as she extracts specific narratives of the IRCA and the IIRIRA debates and contrasts the “causal stories” of 1984-1986 and 1994-1996. The “immigration problem” was defined as the focus of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) (1978-1981), because policymakers had not anticipated the considerable volume and heterogeneity of post-1970 legal immigration. This corresponded with the 1965 changes to the Immigration and Nationality Act which led to more Asian migration, but European flows were already lessening as Latin Americans were dominating U.S. immigration. With minimal statistical infrastructure for discerning quantity, dynamics, and consequences of immigration, U.S. policymakers have grappled with difficulties in shaping immigration policies and responding to demands of the public and interest groups, especially in regard to problems of illegal immigration.

Noting that IRCA passage was exceptional given the recessionary period of the early 1980s and both historical patterns and contemporary public opinion toward policies of immigration-restriction, Newton portrays IIRIRA as extending and expanding upon IRCA enforcement provisions and PRWORA restrictions on [*796] benefits for immigrants and defining both legal and illegal immigration as problematic from a fiscal cost standpoint. The IRCA was meant to solve the illegal immigration problem through provisions for granting legal temporary status for long-term residents and certain agricultural workers with capability for adjusting to lawful permanent residence, intensifying border enforcement, and imposing sanctions to promote employer responsibilities. It was only after enacting IRCA that Congress would seek to improve the legal immigration system and respond through the Immigration Act of 1990 (IA1990) to various demands for increased legal immigration of workers, family members, and others.

The specific narratives and counter-narratives that Newton finds woven in the IRCA debates were the Government-Off-Our-Backs Narrative, the Family Farmer Narrative along with the Corrupt Agriculturists Counter-Narrative, the Anti-Discrimination Narrative (two versions), and the Undeserving Illegal Narrative along with the Deserving Illegal Counter-Narrative. For each, she details the target group, narrative portrayal, target-group construction, narrative policy solutions, and anticipated policy tools based on Schneider and Ingram’s theory on social construction of target populations (1993, 1997). For both IRCA and IIRIRA, she notes the actual immigration policy tools conformed closely to theories based on social construction of the target groups, some coercive, some punitive, and some rewarding. The causal story that Newton finds for 1984-1986 is the classic “push-pull” immigration story in which illegal immigrants are pushed from home to abroad for jobs for which U.S. employers are seeking migrant workers, i.e, a systematic theme for immigration dynamics. Newton finds that the IRCA policy outcomes were not straightforwardly correlated with political power and public images of target populations, as predicted by Schneider and Ingram. Instead, legislators successfully challenged public images that were not fixed and created social constructions as they chose to argue for certain treatments for members of target groups and for including others beyond that group. For example, the Family Farmer Narrative allowed for emphasizing that others, such as food processors and truckers, would benefit from agricultural worker provisions. There were both neutral and contentious constructions and IRCA deemed as deserving those who had worked in seasonal agricultural services for only 1-3 years. Although the agricultural worker provisions were primarily supported by agribusiness, after IRCA, Mexican migrant workers became evident in even very rural Midwestern areas with inadequate local labor force pools.

For new and old scholars of immigration, Newton’s discussion of the early 1990s contexts will be interesting, as she sets forth passage of California’s Proposition 187 and implications for federal policy design based on an ideology of the undeserving. IIRIRA was a reversal of the climate underlying IRCA and the IA1990. In reaction to conservative ideology about the role of government, IIRIRA focused on both illegal immigration and requiring responsibility for family members for the support of sponsored legal immigrants. Beyond IIRIRA itself, immigrant access to federal aid [*797] programs was reinstated shortly thereafter and again in 2002. Newton found several narratives in the IIRIRA debates: the Zero-Sum Narrative, the Pathologies of Federalism Narrative, the Criminal Alien Narrative, the Lawless Border Narrative, and, again, the Government-Off-Our-Backs Narrative, but her analysis indicated only one true counter-narrative, the Cure-Is-Worse-Than-The-Disease Counter-Narrative. Mentioning critiques of border deterrence measures as futile, she gives the causal story for 1994-1996 as portraying illegal immigrants as taking advantage of a border that was not adequately enforced in order to seek jobs and benefits in the United States. Curiously, social scientists were already finding that migrants were altering behavior by staying longer to avoid crossing the border due to intensified enforcement (Massey 1998; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002; Mexico-U.S. Binational Migration Study 1998). Following this shift and increased labor demand, the unauthorized population increased dramatically during the late 1990s (Bean, et al. 2001).

The book draws nicely upon core reports of the bipartisan Commission on Immigration Reform (1993-1998) and the report of the National Academy of Sciences panel on the Demographic and Economic Effects of Immigration (1996-1998), with sponsorship by the CIR, but findings and recommendations of the Mexico-United States Binational Migration Study (1995-1997), also CIR-sponsored, are omitted. The CIR was chartered to study illegal immigration, but its mission was amended to include legal and illegal immigration. Its work was simultaneous with Congressional debate leading to IIRIRA, and there were detailed briefings to Congressional staff (Gimpel and Edwards 1998). CIR recommendations against restricting legal immigrants’ access to welfare benefits would not be followed. Newton states “lawmakers actually did the opposite of what was recommended: they cut off benefits to legal immigrants (including many classes of refugees), and they did not wait for functional evaluation of existing border initiatives before calling for their expansion.” (pp. 62-63) Nor did Congress take action on CIR recommendations to reduce yearly immigration levels and give higher priority to spouses, minor children, and parents, and eliminate nonnuclear preference categories, to create an electronic eligibility verification system through computerized registry of Social Security numbers, to emphasize enculturation and naturalization of immigrants, and to make admission of parents contingent upon a legally enforceable affidavit of support.

IIRIRA did establish pilot programs for employer verification, including the Basic Pilot that became the national voluntary program in 2003 known as E-Verify. Reading Newton’s sections about the employment verification debate is enlightening. Along lines of the “Cure Is Worse than the Disease,” one legislator used the phrase “camel’s nose under the tent” to express concerns that such a program might evolve into police state tactics threatening individual privacy. Evaluations also flagged the problems of false positives, infringing on due process and the right to work, and prevalence of identity fraud. There was eventually action on CIR recommendations to increase the efficiency and integrity of the naturalization process and to emphasize [*798] the importance of substantive understanding of the basic concepts of civic participation. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) introduced the new naturalization test in 2008 with goals of standardization, fairness, civic learning and patriotism. I note here a small mistake (p. 172) that implied the DHS as encompassing the Departments of State and Justice.

As a demographer of undocumented migration and legal immigration, I am intrigued by this analysis of official immigration discourse. My perspective is that research guides policy formulation to some degree, and that sounder policy-making would follow from sharpening this link and from more research about unauthorized migration and populations, propensities to naturalize, immigration multipliers, propensities to return migrate, and demographic and economic impacts of immigration in the long run. An unofficial, illegal, unauthorized, or illicit population has long been resident, and IRCA provisions under which three million unauthorized aliens were legalized over 1988-1991 proved to be only a temporary solution because illegal migration persisted. Many others later became or may yet become IRCA beneficiaries due to outcomes of class-action lawsuits over application eligibility. We are reminded by Newton’s quotations that several legislators viewed the legalization program as a one-time thing, and, in extending legal status, some legislators were reasonably well informed in their discussions of numbers of unauthorized aliens, numbers who might receive legal status under IRCA provisions, and subsequent family reunification and impact on U.S. population growth (pp. 87-88). Congress seemed to recognize statistical needs, mandating various reports (on legalization, employer sanctions and border enforcement) and “a recurring ‘immigration impact’ report” that was to serve as foundation for the formation of immigration policy” (Gordon 2002). Recent debates on immigration reform also included considerations of long-run impacts (Lowell and Bump 2006). I am concerned that Newton’s discussion of unauthorized estimates might lead a reader (or legislator) to too easily accept existing unauthorized estimates and to misinterpret the methodology. Current estimates are not any better in quality than ones made in the 1980s and 1990s by government and other demographers, and the unauthorized population could turn out to be higher, as found for 1980 and 2000, or lower, than now estimated. Simplifying, two sets of aggregate population statistics are compared, that is, foreign-born population and legal foreign-born population, to derive residual unauthorized population statistics. Although unauthorized residents are included in the census, there is not an unauthorized count from the census as Newton implies (p. 151), which is a crucial point because some scholars and advocates argue for basing apportionment on legal residents only.

The control and abatement of unauthorized immigration may be perceived by some as an “intractable social policy issue” (p. 39), based on proven inadequacy of past policies, but others perceive the value of blended policies on trade, migration, and border enforcement to address the specific and unique relationship of the U.S. first with [*799] Mexico, the primary origin of U.S. unauthorized migrants, and possibly with other nations. Many experts explicitly attribute unauthorized migration from Mexico to U.S. failure to even consider structural adjustment subsidies, social harmonization policies, and provisions for labor mobility and immigration reform in shaping the 1994 NAFTA agreements (Massey 2009; Massey, Durand, and Malone 2002). With “migration as a non-starter in NAFTA discussion” (Newton, p. 152), this U.S. strategy of emphasizing border enforcement with only partial economic integration, both legal and illegal immigration from Mexico accelerated after NAFTA, and a disadvantaged population has resulted from unilateral militarization of the US- Mexico border (Massey 2004).

Newton considers race and national origin in the immigration discourse. Which individuals are deserving of an immigrant visa for lawful permanent residence, and which individuals are undeserving of such admission or of receiving public benefits toward assisting with settlement and economic wellbeing? Although Mexicans outnumber Chinese, Filipinos, and Indians, those groups are sizable, and these governments, their ethnic organizations, and individuals are concerned with many of the same issues as in the case of Mexico. Newton notes the limits of a policy discourse racialized on Mexican origin and with a social construction of the “Mexican Other” as “Permanent Foreigner.” Defining Mexicans residing in the United States involves a maze of circularity, ambiguity, and invisibility (Bean et al. 2001), but the Mexican presence is unmistakable. Politicians have also defined non-Mexicans (Haitians, Guatemalans, Iraqis) as “problem” groups. Mexican immigrants have been stigmatized and disadvantaged in contemporary immigration policy, and Mexicans would benefit considerably from another legalization or regularization program, as they did from IRCA provisions.

Contrary to what would be expected from Schneider and Ingram’s theory that newly legalized immigrants benefiting from IRCA would then possess “deservedness,” the IIRIRA meant they were still undeserving until they became naturalized citizens. An unprecedented era of naturalization commenced just as IIRIRA passed, leading to remarkably high levels of citizenship. Micro-level explanations of economic motivation and the family reunification incentive are relevant, but the massive mobilization toward citizenship also occurred for achieving political incorporation in response to IIRIRA’s emphasis on citizens as deserving.

In the wake of IRCA and IIRIRA with its reversal of meaning of legal immigrant status, not surprisingly, many organizations, both restriction-oriented and immigrant advocacy-oriented, emerged, adding to existing organizations and think tanks and becoming highly engaged in efforts to influence the politics of immigration reform. Newton’s work may be helpful in resolving the tussle between symbolic or myth-based arguments and using science for public policy toward maximizing the public good. In one sense, organizations might promote more balanced treatment of different immigrant groups, as opposed to [*800] strategies playing to emotions and fears about immigrants.

Is Newton’s assessment of discourse on immigration and immigrants helpful in gauging the chances of comprehensive immigration reform during the next year or the next decade, possibly including due process protections and alteration of unpopular aspects of a deportation-driven enforcement system? I think she provides some pieces to the puzzle of the immigration reform debate and hints at the broader matrix. Americans value due process and they have realized that deportation orders may affect friends, neighbors, and U.S. born citizens. Many experts are convinced comprehensive immigration reform is needed and varying levels of consensus are found as to such specific measures as legalization or status regularization for some of the 11-12 million unauthorized migrants currently present, establishing a temporary worker program, providing for employer capability in hiring legal workers, and border controls (Massey 2007; Mangan 2008). Much evidence indicates costly, technological enforcement strategies, e.g., the Secure Border Initiative (GAO 2009), will not stop unauthorized migration without broader North American economic integration (Massey 2009).

One hopes Newton continues her focus on immigration politics because this book is worthy reading for faculty, students, practitioners, and researchers from law and political science, sociology, social work, government, public and international affairs, and public administration. At a minimum, I think readers will surely find this book enlightening and appreciate its depth, logic, and detail, but I suspect most will regard the book as an outstanding addition to their library. As Americans, immigrants and natives, we can find affirmation in the embracing of citizenship by millions over 1997-2008 despite the episode of punitive policy that IIRIRA represented.

Bean, Frank D., Rodolfo Corona, Rodolfo Tuirán, Karen A. Woodrow-Lafield, and Jennifer Van Hook. 2001. “Circular, Invisible, and Ambiguous Migrants: Components of Difference in Estimates of the Number of Unauthorized Mexican Migrants in the United States.” DEMOGRAPHY 38(3): 411-22.

Gimpel, James G. and James R. Edwards, Jr. 1998. THE CONGRESSIONAL POLITICS OF IMMIGRATION REFORM. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Gordon, Linda W. 2002. “The Potential and Limitations of Reporting to Congress: The Triennial Report on Immigration,” 2002 PROCEEDINGS OF THE AMERICAN STATISTICAL ASSOCIATION, Section on Government Statistics [CD-ROM], Alexandria, VA: American Statistical Association: 1209-15.

Lowell, B. Lindsay, and Micah Bump. 2006. PROJECTING IMMIGRANT VISAS: REPORT ON AN EXPERTS MEETING. Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University. October. [*801]

Mangan, Katharine. 2008. “Immigration: A Campaign Primer.” THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, March 21. B10.

Massey, Douglas S. 1998. “March of Folly: U.S. Immigration Policy After NAFTA.” AMERICAN PROSPECT 37 (12): 22-33.

Massey, Douglas S. 2004. Review of WHO ARE WE? THE CHALLENGES TO AMERICA’S NATIONAL IDENTITY, by Samuel P. Huntington. POPULATION AND DEVELOPMENT REVIEW 30 (3): 543-548.

Massey, Douglas S. 2007. “When Less is More: Border Enforcement and Undocumented Migration.” Testimony before the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law. Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives, April 20.

Massey, Douglas S. 2009. “A Better Way to End Unauthorized Immigration,”, January 10.

Massey, Douglas S., Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone. 2002. BEYOND SMOKE AND MIRRORS: MEXICAN IMMIGRATION IN AN ERA OF ECONOMIC INTEGRATION. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Mexico-U.S. Binational Study on Migration. 1997. BINATIONAL STUDY ON MIGRATION BETWEEN MEXICO & THE UNITED STATES. U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform and Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Mexico, printed in Mexico.

Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1997. POLICY DESIGN FOR DEMOCRACY. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Schneider, Anne, and Helen Ingram. 1993. “Social Construction of Target Populations: Implications for Politics and Policy.” AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 87 ( 2): 334-47.

U.S. Government Accountability Office. 2009. SECURE BORDER INITIATIVE: TECHNOLOGY DEPLOYMENT DELAYS PERSIST AND THE IMPACT OF BORDER FENCING HAS NOT BEEN ASSESSED. GAO-09-896. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. September.

© Copyright 2009 by the author, Karen A. Woodrow-Lafield.