Immigration: 200 Years of Law


Although immigration is once again being debated, it’s an issue that’s been discussed on and off since the founding of our nation. Before Congress and the President pass another bill, perhaps it’s time to review the federal laws previously enacted.

Let’s start with the U.S. Constitution. The score here is one right and one wrong. The Founders got it right when they delegated to Congress the power over Naturalization and Citizenship and thereby federalized the issue (Art I, Sec. 8). It would have been a mistake if they had allowed each state to write their own laws.

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

Congress got it right as they required immigrants to first reside in the U.S. for five years before they could become citizens (1795). They got it wrong by extending residency to fourteen years (1798), but then corrected the error, by returning to five (1802).

Congress got it right in the mid-1800s, when they ignored the Know Nothing Party and their Protestant members, who wanted Irish immigrants excluded, simply because they were Catholic.

America got it right after the Civil War when the 14th Amendment made all persons born or naturalized here, Citizens of the U.S. and of the state where they resided. Citizenship by birth, regardless of the nationality of their parents, was the right thing to do.

Congress got it wrong as they passed laws that excluded Chinese and other Asians based on nothing more than race (1875-92)

Congress got it right when they made some knowledge of the English language a condition of citizenship (1906). There is nothing wrong with requiring English reading tests (1917). Some civics is also not too much to ask from someone who wants to become a U.S. Citizen.

Congress got it wrong after WWI when they limited entry of newcomers to small numbers, by establishing quotas based on the nationalities of those already in the U.S. (1921-24). Ironically, the exclusion of foreigners, willing to work for low wages, helped organized labor in the U.S., by giving American citizens more job opportunities and greater bargaining power during the roaring 20s.

America got it right after WWII, when millions of homeless and orphaned displaced persons were taken in from war-torn Europe.

Congress got it wrong in the McCarthy Era (1950s) as suspected subversives were deported, and blacklisted people, like future Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, were kept out.

Congress got it right in 1965 when they abolished the nationality quotas established in 1924, and started focusing instead on immigrant work skills, regardless of country of origin.

Congress got it right in 1986, as they imposed sanctions against employers who hired illegal immigrants. But they got it wrong by giving amnesty to three million illegal-aliens, as this had the unintended effect of encouraging even more to enter unlawfully.

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 immigrants here illegally ineligible for most forms of federal assistance, including many types of Social Security.

We’ve learned from history the federal government, and not the states, have exclusive jurisdiction over immigration policies. These laws should not reject people on the basis of race or religion. Immigration policies must properly require newcomers to learn civics and to read and write English. People with useful skills should be allowed to enter the work force, as the U.S. needs a steady flow to insure a gradual rise in population. Caps on the annual flow are needed, however, so unemployed American citizens are able to find jobs, and not be displaced by excessive foreign labor, willing to work for less. Employer sanctions must be enforced, so everyone pays into the Social Security System. The underground economy must be destroyed to end cash payments under the table, so everyone contributes income taxes.

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