Immigration: Over 200 Years Of Laws


Immigration, a hot issue in some states, is a debate that has gone on since the founding of the nation, and before the Congress and President address another law, perhaps it’s time to quickly review of the ups and downs of the previous efforts.

Let’s start with the Constitution. The score here is one right, and one wrong. The founders got it right when they made immigration a federal issue, by delegating to the Congress the power over naturalization and citizenship (Art. 1, Sec 8). It would have been a mistake if every state had been permitted to write their own laws.

The founders, however, got the idea of citizenship wrong, when they counted only 3/5ths of the slaves, and initially limited immigration to free white persons (1790).

Congress got it right, by requiring immigrants to live in the U.S. for 5 years before citizenship (1795). They then got it wrong, when they extended the residency requirement to 14 years (1798), but then corrected that error by returning to 5 years (1802).

The Congress got it right in the mid-1800s, when they ignored the Protestant-Americans of the Know Nothing Party, who wanted to exclude Irish immigrants, because they were Catholic.

After the Civil War, the people got it right, as they ratified the 14th Amendment that made all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. citizens of the U.S., and the state where they reside. Citizenship by birth, regardless of parental nationality, was the right thing to do.

The Congress got it wrong when they passed several laws that excluded Chinese and other Asians based on race (1875-92).

Congress got it right when they required some knowledge of the English language, as a condition of citizenship (1906). An English reading test also seemed reasonable (1917). Learning the common language, and some civics, is not too much to ask of a citizen.

Congress got it wrong after WWI, when they closed the door to newcomers, by establishing quotas that limited immigration to small numbers, based on the nationalities of those already in the U.S. (1921-24). Ironically, the Republican exclusion of cheap foreign labor helped Democrats and organized labor, by giving existing workers plenty of jobs, and greater bargaining power.

America got it right again after WWII, when millions of homeless and orphaned “displaced persons” were received from Europe.

Congress got it wrong in the McCarthy Era (1952) as they deported suspected subversives, and kept blacklisted people out of the U.S., like future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

Congress got it right in 1965, when they abolished the 1924 nationality quotas, and focused instead on the work skills of immigrants, regardless of their country of origin.

Congress got it right in 1986, as they enacted sanctions against employers who were hiring illegal immigrants, but got it wrong when they gave amnesty to three million illegal aliens, as this had the effect of encouraging even more to enter the U.S. illegally.

Congress got it right in 1990, when they increased the annual number of legal immigrants, from 500,000 to 700,000.

Congress got it right in 1996, when welfare and immigration reform made illegal immigrants ineligible for most forms of federal assistance, including many types of Social Security.

From this immigration history, we have learned that these laws must be written at the federal level, and not by state governments. They should never reject people on the basis of race or religion. They should allow those with useful work skills to enter, as the U.S. needs a steady flow of immigrants to insure a gradual rise in population. They need to cap the annual number of immigrants, so existing unemployed citizens do not have to compete against too much cheap labor. They need to enforce employer sanctions, and destroy the underground economy, so all contribute to the income tax and Social Security. They need to establish an immigration policy that requires newcomers to read and write English, know the basics of civics, and pay their fair share into the system.

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