Immigration Reform: America is an Immigrant Country With an Immigrant Problem

ByErin Carrington Smith

Once again the call for comprehensive immigration reform has hit the forefront of America’s political mind. In the lead up to the November election, President Obama helped sure up the pro-immigration vote by signing an executive order allowing a small portion of illegal immigrants to apply for a two year deferral on deportation and a permit to legally work.  While this is a positive step for those it benefits, it’s an extremely limited and short-term solution to a problem that has plagued America since its founding: How do we deal with immigration?

The phrase “America is a country of immigrants” is thrown around like hot cakes any time the reform debate heats up. It’s true, of course, that our nation was built by a group of immigrants who left home to find a better life and create a better system of government.  Almost as soon as the ink had dried on the Constitution, though, the U.S. government began placing limitations on immigration.

As early as 1798 President John Adams, previously of freedom-fighting fame, signed into law the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts, justifying them based on unrest among non-English immigrants in the wake of the French Revolution. Among them was the Alien Enemies Act that allowed for the detention and deportation of resident aliens from any country with which the U.S. was at war. The law remains on the books today and was used to help justify such things as the internment of the Japanese during World War II.

From then until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, that ended all quotas based on country of birth, the U.S. government enacted law after law to control the number and ethnicity of immigrants arriving on our shores. The most objectionable, perhaps, was the half century worth of bans on Chinese immigration that began with the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These bans were not lifted until 1943, and Congress managed to muster an apology for them this past June.

Following the Chinese bans, the U.S. enacted laws that limited almost every race of people traveling from outside Western Europe. This included Eastern Europeans during the Cold War. As we spoke of the evils of communism, we at once prevented its victims from seeking refuge on our shores. In signing his failed veto of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 that codified those limits, President Truman said this:

"Today, we are "protecting" ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic ... We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries – on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again. ... These are only a few examples of the absurdity, the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of our 1924 law. In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration."

After country-based limitations were removed, immigration increased significantly, doubling between 1965 and 1970 and again between 1970 and 1990. In the place of patently racist limitations, modern immigration legislation created controls based on more innocuous factors such as employment category and family relationships. In the place of country-based quotas, standard annual limitations were imposed. While this system is certainly preferable, the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the U.S. prove that it remains flawed.

While it is not unreasonable for a nation to place limits on the number and nature of individuals entering the country, since its inception, immigration policy in the United States has focused primarily on control and enforcement rather than reality. When Chinese immigration was banned, Japanese immigrants stepped in to fill the jobs and social stratum they left behind (leading to an eventual ban on all Asian immigration). 

We’ve learned little from our past, and continue to operate under the assumption that we can legislatively engineer our population: how many skilled laborers can arrive per year, how many seasonal workers are permitted to enter, how many children of U.S. citizens, siblings of legal permanent residents, fathers of American sons can come here per year.

The years following 9/11 only increased our enforcement-centric immigration policies with laws both specifically targeting countries of concern and more sweeping regulations creating an immensely more complex and time consuming visa process.

If Congress and the president are serious about immigration reform they must escape entirely from our sordid immigration history and seek new and innovative ways to deal with the high immigration demand our country is currently seeing. Some things to consider are:

1. Eliminating or significantly reducing limitations on work-based visas for both high and low skilled workers by working directly with U.S. employers to determine real need and demand.

2. Allowing current illegal immigrants with no criminal record to apply for work permits and attain legal status, thereby allowing them to work above board, travel in and out of the U.S. for seasonal work, and eventually apply for citizenship.

3. Studying family-based immigration data to reshape annual quotas and limitations to fit demand, eliminating up to 20 year wait times many applicants now face.

America is a country of immigrants, often in spite of itself, and our laws should be a reflection and celebration of this fact, not a constant reaction against it.