Category Archives: Later, on politics

Immigration Part 2: Establishing Equity

This post is a follow-up to Immigration Part 1: How Did We Get Here? Part 1 covers United States immigration policy and politics prior to 1965. Part 2 examines two decades of immigration legislation between 1978 and 1996 and the recommendations of two blue-ribbon commissions appointed to study and finally resolve immigration issues. Part 3 will consider how 9/11 interrupted and influenced the progress of immigration reform. Part 4 will address more recent legislation and current events and follow the progress toward, and opposition to, comprehensive immigration reform.

As a Senator, John F. Kennedy had embraced reform of the nationality quota system that had been established in the 1920s, and he made immigration an issue in his presidential campaign. Conservative legislators, wanting to restrict the settlement of Mexicans in the U.S., pressed for immigration limits. The political contest resulted in the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (described in more detail in Part 1). The act imposed—for the first time in history—a numerical quota on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States “legally” from countries in the Western Hemisphere, creating a barrier that had not existed before and producing, as a consequence, a new class of “illegal” immigrants.

Over the 40 years preceding 1965, the flow of authorized immigrants averaged 192,000 per year. Authorized immigration in increased after 1965, and averaged 390,000 per year between 1966 and 1978. The annual flow of undocumented immigrants over these years can only be guessed at, but in 1978, the Census Bureau estimated that there were between 3.5 million and 6 million undocumented residents living in the U.S., an estimate considered to be conservative by some experts .

1978-1981: The Select Commission

The Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy was established in 1978 during the Carter administration to study existing laws, policies and procedures governing the admission of immigrants and refugees and to make recommendations for changes in the law. Its findings led to the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990.

The Select Commission favored a system of immigration that would serve the goals of family reunification, economic growth “consistent with the protection of the U.S. labor market,” and cultural diversity “consistent with national unity.” They recommended separating authorized immigration into two channels: immigrants who had family members already in the country and immigrants with no relatives in the U.S. Immediate family members of U.S. citizens would be admitted without numerical restrictions. This preferred and unlimited group of immigrants would include spouses, minor children, parents of adult citizens, and the unmarried sons and daughters and grandparents of adult U.S. citizens. An annual numerical limit of 350,000 would apply to other relatives and to those without relatives in the country. The Select Commission recommended that the limit be increased to 450,000 for the first five years so that “the admission of backlogged applicants can be expedited.”

The Select Commission found that aliens were attracted to the U.S. by employment opportunities. They found that undocumented workers took jobs that would otherwise be held by citizens and that they depressed wages. They warned of the “pernicious” effects on U.S. society that could result from continued large-scale undocumented immigration:

This illegal flow, encouraged by employers who provide jobs, has created an underclass of workers who fear apprehension and deportation. Undocumented/illegal migrants, at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and coyotes who smuggle them across the border, cannot or will not avail themselves of the protection of U.S. laws. Not only do they suffer, but so too does U.S. society.

At the same time, the Select Commission found that legal immigration had a positive effect on the nation’s economy: “Economists agree that immigration has been and continues to be a force for economic growth in the United States and, as a consequence, has a beneficial effect on wages and employment possibilities for most U.S. citizens over time.”

The Select Commission rejected arguments for greatly increasing the flow of immigrants allowed into the country. They found “this is not the time for a large-scale expansion in legal immigration—for resident aliens or temporary workers—because the first order of priority is bringing undocumented/illegal immigration under control, while setting up a rational system for legal immigration.” Their recommendations included revisions of the H-2 visa program to allow entry for temporary agricultural workers, but they did not propose a new temporary worker program to accommodate the flow of undocumented workers or the needs of U.S. employers who offered the jobs that brought these workers into the country.

The Select Commission recommended increased funding for the Border Patrol, noting that “at any given hour no more than 450 Border Patrol agents are directly engaged in activities to stop persons attempting to enter the United States without inspection.” (By 2008, the total number of Border Patrol agents would increase to more than 18,000.) They recommended a substantial increase in the number of border agents, as well as more training of personnel, replacement of sensor systems, and increases in light planes, helicopters and other equipment. These efforts, they believed, would provide a “visible deterrent” to illegal migrants.

The Select Commission recommended legislation that would make it illegal for employers to hire undocumented workers. Although the law would apply to all employers, the Select Commission advised that enforcement should focus on employers having relatively large numbers of employees. In addition, there must be a reliable means for employers to verify employment eligibility.

The Select Commission recommended greater enforcement of existing wage and working standards. They believed that employers would be less likely to hire illegal immigrants if existing wage, hour, safety, antidiscrimination and farm contractor laws were enforced.

The Select Commission found that the existence of a large population of undocumented residents—at that time, ranging up to 6 million by Census Bureau estimates—“should not be tolerated” and that “permitting a large group of persons to live in illegal, second-class status” resulted in enormous costs to society. The Select Commission rejected the idea that deportation could be a viable solution, finding that massive deportation efforts would be “destructive of U.S. liberties, costly, likely to be challenged in the courts and, in the end, ineffective.” The Commissioners believed that a program of legalization was a “realistic response.”

The Select Commission recommended that eligibility for legalization be based on the immigrant’s date of entry into the U.S. and length of “continuous” residency. Specifically, they recommended that “eligibility be limited to undocumented migrants who illegally entered the United States or were in illegal status prior to January 1, 1980, and who, by the date of enactment of legislation, have continuously resided in the United States for a minimum period of time to be set by Congress.” The commissioners rationalized the cut-off date of January 1, 1980, by stating that they did not want to “reward” more recent immigrants who might have come into the U.S. because of public discussion of the “likelihood of a Commission recommendation in favor of legalization.” On the other hand, the commissioners did not recommend an earlier cut-off date “because it would permit the participation of too few undocumented/illegal aliens” and would leave a substantial underclass still in illegal status.

The Select Commission left it up to Congress to decide how many years of continuous residency would be required to establish eligibility for legalization. They noted, however, that a three-year continuous residency requirement would limit eligibility to an estimated 45 percent of the undocumented population. (Based on this estimate, if Congress were to impose a three-year residency requirement, the remaining ineligible “underclass” of undocumented immigrants would amount to 3.3 million people.) Even though undocumented immigrants who entered the country after January 1, 1980, might be “hard-working and otherwise desirable persons,” the Select Commission declared that “they have not established the equity in our society deemed necessary for registration as permanent resident aliens.”

The Select Commission itself referred to its recommended legalization program as “amnesty.” They advised against having a “drawnout mechanism for establishing eligibility.” Instead, they favored a “one-time only period during which applicants for legalization could come forward.” The Select Commission recommended that legalization begin only after more effective and “appropriate” enforcement measures had been instituted.

1986: IRCA

The Select Commission issued its recommendations in February 1981, a month after Ronald Reagan became President and after the Republican Party had taken control of the Senate in the 1980 election. Political debate over the immigration reforms recommended by the Commission eventually resulted in the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

IRCA increased funding for border enforcement. It created the H-2A guest worker program, allowing employers facing labor shortages to sponsor temporary agricultural workers. IRCA imposed sanctions on employers who “knowingly” hired unauthorized migrant workers, but the legislation did not provide adequate funding for the federal agencies responsible for sanctions enforcement. The sanctions as implemented were ineffective. An employer could satisfy the requirement of verifying whether workers were authorized by examining the workers’ documents and deciding that the documents “reasonably appeared” to be genuine.

IRCA granted legal status to two groups of immigrants: unauthorized residents who had been in the U.S. before 1982; and seasonal agricultural workers who had been employed for a minimum of 90 days in the year prior to May, 1986. As a result of IRCA, nearly 2.7 million undocumented immigrants were eventually given permanent resident status.

1990-1996: More of the Same?

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the overall annual cap on authorized immigration to 675,000 (the cap would be 700,000 during 1992-1994). It continued the policy of preference for family reunification, with 480,000 visas reserved each year for family-based immigration. The act increased the number of visas for highly-skilled immigrants. It modified the temporary visa program and revised the grounds for deportation.

The act created a “diversity transition” program that allocated 40,000 immigrant visas in 1992, 1993 and 1994 for immigrants from “adversely affected” countries. At least 40 percent of the “diversity” visas in these years were reserved for “natives of the foreign state the natives of which received the greatest number of visas issued under section 314 of the Immigration Reform and Control Act” (this contorted language masked a special preference created for Ireland). Beginning in 1995, the number of visas for the diversity program was raised to 55,000 per year.

Commission on Immigration Reform

The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Commission on Legal Immigration Reform, which issued three Interim Reports (in 1994, 1995 and 1997) and a Final Report in 1997.

In its first interim report (entitled Restoring Credibility), the Commission recommended the creation of a computerized registry of authorized immigrant workers that would utilize data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Social Security Administration. The registry was opposed by the American Bar Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the United States Catholic Conference, among other groups, for its potential to enable discrimination and threaten civil liberties. Later, a version of the worker verification program was included in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.

Restoring Credibility included a recommendation that access to public benefits should be denied to undocumented immigrants, except in emergency or other compelling circumstances. At the same time, the Commission believed that the social safety net should be maintained for authorized immigrants.

In the second interim report (entitled Setting Priorities), the Commission recommended a reduction in the overall level of authorized immigration (a proposal that received support from President Clinton). They recommended a core admission level of 550,000 people per year. Immigrants having special skills would be limited to 100,000 per year, and 50,000 refugees would be admitted annually, but the majority of authorized immigrants (400,000 per year) would be immigrants having a family relationship with a U.S. citizen or with an authorized permanent resident. The Commission proposed a labor market test for skills-based immigrants, with exemptions for multinational executives and managers, entrepreneurs, ministers and religious workers, and aliens having extraordinary abilities.

The Commission supported Operation Hold the Line, which had been initiated by the INS. The Commission believed that tighter U.S. control over the 2,000-mile border with Mexico was a necessary element of a credible immigration policy. Operation Hold the Line involved increasing the number of border patrol agents and the use of new surveillance equipment and technology. These strategies have forced unauthorized immigrants to cross the border in more remote, rugged and dangerous locations but have not stopped the flow.

Temporary visa holders who overstayed the limits of their visas were another source of unauthorized immigration. In 1996, more than 24 million people entered the country on temporary visas. The Commission recommended an overhaul of the rules for issuance of temporary visas and advised against the creation of a new agricultural guest worker program.

The Commission’s final report (entitled Becoming an American) contained recommendations regarding “americanization” of authorized permanent residents. Among other requirements for naturalization, a permanent resident would have to pass an English language test and a civics test and take an oath of allegiance to the United States.

The Commission proposed restructuring the INS. They recommended that the four principal immigration functions of government be separated. They proposed that a new Bureau of Immigration Enforcement be created within the Department of Justice to handle border management functions as well as investigations, detention and deportation. They proposed that adjudication of immigration benefits, issuance of visas, and naturalization services be handled by the Department of State. The Department of Labor would be in charge of enforcing immigrant-related employment standards, and a new independent review agency would handle appeals of all administrative immigration-related decisions.

1996 Legislation

In 1996, Congress passed comprehensive welfare reform. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed by President Clinton, included provisions restricting aliens’ access to welfare and other public benefits, based on the assumption that the availability of public benefits created an incentive for illegal immigration. In general, the act specified that only “qualified aliens” could be eligible for such benefits. The act defined “qualified aliens” as lawfully admitted permanent residents, refugees or aliens granted asylum in the United States. The law made qualified aliens ineligible for federal programs, including Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps and Supplemental Security Income for a period of five years after their date of entry.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act strengthened border enforcement by doubling the number of border agents and building enhanced physical barriers between the U.S. and Mexico. The act also strengthened interior enforcement through monitoring of arrivals and departures of authorized immigrants. It created a telephone verification program for employers to determine the immigration status of workers. The verification program—then known as the Basic Pilot Program—was launched in 1997 by the INS and the Social Security Administration (SSA). (The program was renamed “E-Verify” in 2007.)

Immigration To Be Continued

This post describes the transition in U.S. immigration policy that occurred after 1980. The immigration debate that began in this era is much the same debate going on today. Finding an effective and achievable resolution to the immigration dysfunction that has been caused, at least in part, by past policy choices remains an unfulfilled promise.

Readers who want to learn more about immigration issues and enactments in the 1980-2000 period may be interested in the following sources, which helped inform this post:

Aristide R. Zolberg, Immigration Control Policy: Law and Implementation (from Waters and Ueda, eds., The New Americans: A Guide to Immigration Since 1965, Harvard University Press, 2007)

U.S. Immigration Policy and the National Interest, The Final Report and Recommendations of the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (1981).

Carlos Ortiz Miranda, United States Commission on Immigration Reform: The Interim and Final Reports, Santa Clara Law Review (1998).

Arthur F. Corwin, The Numbers Game: Estimates of Illegal Aliens in the United States, 1970-1981 (1983).

IRCA Legalization Effects: Lawful Permanent Residence and Naturalization through 2001, Office of Policy and Planning Statistics Division, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (2002)

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Immigration Part 1: How Did We Get Here?

A sculpture commissioned to commemorate the 1876 centennial of the Declaration of Independence, the “Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World” was completed and dedicated in 1886. The statue was a gift of friendship from the people of France. In 1883, for an auction to raise funds to build the pedestal, poet Emma Lazarus wrote the sonnet, “The New Colossus.” The poem, which expresses the ideals of freedom and gives welcome to immigrants, is engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the statue:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Statue of Liberty
(Photo credit: National Park Service Digital Image Archive)

Welcoming Those Like Us

The United States is fundamentally a nation of immigrants. From the time of its conception, the opportunity to freely immigrate helped define America as a country whose character was built on a blend of national backgrounds.

This idealized image of the United States must be tempered by an acknowledgment that the “blend” was assumed to consist mostly of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe. People of African descent were excluded from citizenship. The Constitution famously specified that only three-fifths of the slaves would be counted for purposes of determining Congressional representation in the new democracy. In 1857, the Supreme Court rendered its judgment in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, holding that slaves and persons descended from slaves were not citizens. At a time when there were nearly 4 million slaves in the country, Chief Justice Roger Taney, dismissed the reference in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” by stating “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.” A decade later, the Thirteenth Amendment (1865) and the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) would overturn Dred Scott by abolishing slavery.

The population of the United States was 3.9 million at the time of the first census in 1790. By 1820, the population had grown to 9.6 million. Between 1820 and 1910, 27.9 million immigrants arrived in the United States, with 92 percent of them coming from Europe. Large numbers of immigrants came from the United Kingdom (7.7 million), the German Empire (5.3 million), Austria-Hungary (3.1 million), Italy (3.0 million), the Russian Empire (2.3 million) and Sweden (1.0 million). Toward the end of this period, increasing numbers of immigrants were coming from countries in southern and eastern Europe, making up 70 percent of the immigrants in the 1900s.

Restriction of immigration as a national policy began to emerge in 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act halted immigration from China and barred the Chinese from becoming citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act was a political response to the belief by many native-born Americans on the West Coast that Chinese workers were the cause of rising unemployment and declining wages and the perception that the Chinese were racially inferior.

The Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Alien Exclusion Act) prohibited immigration from India, Indochina, Afghanistan, Arabia, the East Indies and several other countries within the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” The act imposed a literacy test for all immigrants older than 16. The real purpose of the literacy test was to reduce the number of immigrants from southern and eastern European countries, which had higher rates of illiteracy than countries in northern and western Europe.

Congress passed the act, overriding a veto by President Woodrow Wilson. In a letter to Congress transmitting his veto message, Wilson rejected the literacy test on principle:

In most of the provisions of the bill I should be very glad to concur, but I can not rid myself of the conviction that the literacy test constitutes a radical change in the policy of the Nation which is not justified in principle. It is not a test of character, of quality, or of personal fitness, but would operate in most cases merely as a penalty for lack of opportunity in the country from which the alien seeking admission came. The opportunity to gain an education is in many cases one of the chief opportunities sought by the immigrant in coming to the United States, and our experience in the past has not been that the illiterate immigrant is as such an undesirable immigrant. Tests of quality and of purpose can not be objected to on principle, but tests of opportunity surely may be.

The Alien Exclusion Act followed the tide of a political movement known as “Americanization.” The movement sought to “assimilate” immigrants by instructing them about American ways. Educational programs promoted through public institutions, schools, businesses and volunteer organizations (such as the YMCA) focused on teaching English, American history and government. Business interests (notably the Ford Motor Company) endorsed Americanization programs as a means to increase productivity and loyalty among immigrant workers and to counterbalance the appeal of unions.

Barring the Door – Nationality Quotas

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and the end of World War I, the Red Scare began to take hold of the public psyche in the United States. Political agitation by socialist activists fueled a general fear of communist-inspired revolution in America. In this atmosphere of suspicion and threat, labor union activity in pursuit of better working conditions was suspect and condemned as “un-American.” The fear of anarchist plots led many to believe that recent immigrants from Eastern Europe were behind the spread of Bolshevism and “subversive” activities in the land.

In 1920, a bill was introduced in the House to suspend immigration for fourteen months “for the Protection of Citizens of the United States.” The bill passed in the House by a wide margin, but the Senate rejected total suspension of immigration. Instead, the Senate proposed a quota system to restrict immigration. The Senate bill, later endorsed by the House, imposed a nationality quota equal to 3 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of each nationality residing in the United States at the time of the 1910 census. Calculated on that basis, the quotas favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe and allowed fewer immigrants from countries in Southern and Eastern Europe.

President Wilson vetoed the legislation in 1920. After Wilson left office, the new President, Republican Warren G. Harding, called Congress to a special session to pass the bill again, and Harding signed the bill in 1921. Immigration, which had amounted to approximately 805,000 people in 1920, dropped to 309,000 in 1922. The bill, known as the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, applied only to immigrants from Europe. The law placed no limitation on immigration from countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Act) tightened the policy of restricting immigration by reducing the nationality quota from 3 percent to 2 percent and by applying the quota to the 1890 census, rather than the 1910 census. Because most immigrants from southern and eastern European countries had arrived after 1890, the 1924 act reduced the number of new immigrants allowed from those countries.

Another provision of the 1924 act excluded “aliens ineligible to citizenship”—a provision targeted at immigrants from Japan, who were considered racially incapable of assimilation into American society.

Like the earlier “emergency” measure of 1921, the permanent quota system imposed by the 1924 act did not apply to immigration from Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Keeping the door open for an unlimited supply of immigrant workers from Mexico was a political accommodation of business interests concerned that restriction of immigration could result in labor shortages.

The 1924 act further provided that, beginning in 1927, immigration would be limited to 150,000 people per year, with a quota calculated on the nationality of all inhabitants of the continental United States in 1920. “Nationality,” however, excluded immigrants from the Western Hemisphere or their descendants, aliens ineligible for citizenship (namely, the Chinese and Japanese) or their descendants, descendants of slave immigrants and descendants of “American aborigines.” The minimum annual quota for any country would be 100 (China and Japan excluded). The act instituted the requirement that all immigrants had to apply for and obtain an entry visa from the U.S. consul in their country of origin.

Tracing the national origin of the whole population was a difficult task, and it was not completed until 1929. As historian Mai Ngai has observed, the process was mired in political and racial considerations:

In other words, to the extent that the “inhabitants in continental United States in 1920” constituted a legal representation of the American nation, the law excised all nonwhite, non-European peoples from that vision, erasing them from the American nationality. The practical consequence of those erasures is clear enough. In 1920 African Americans accounted for approximately 9 percent of the total United States population. Had they been included in the base population governing the quotas, the African nations from which they originated would have received 9 percent of the total immigration quota, resulting in 13,000 fewer slots for the European nations.

Faced with a potential shortage of farmworkers as World War II approached, the United States and Mexico created the Bracero Program in 1942 to recruit Mexican men to come to the United States as temporary contract workers. By the time the program ended in 1964, more than 4.6 million Mexicans had entered the U.S. under temporary contracts (this number includes individuals who entered more than once). The contracts required that the workers be given transportation from the worker’s place of recruitment to the place of work (paid for by the U.S. Government), a minimum wage equal to U.S. domestic farm laborers, and decent housing to live in while they were working. Nevertheless, working conditions for migrant workers in the U.S. were deplorable. Because the Bracero Program was restricted to male workers with farming experience, thousands of unemployed Mexican workers were not eligible. Many ineligible workers crossed the border anyway and found willing employers in the U.S. By 1948, there were an estimated 70,000 “undocumented” workers in the U.S. The number grew to 1.5 million by 1952.

From Quotas to Preferences

In 1952, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act). This law continued the restrictive quota policy of the 1924 act and imposed a limit to the number of immigrants admitted from each country, capped at one-sixth of one percent of the persons of that nationality who had been living in the United States in 1920. Under this formula immigrants from northern and western European countries received 85 percent of the 154,277 visas available annually. As with the 1924 law, the nationality quota did not apply to Mexico and other countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Although the 1952 act eliminated the exclusion of Asians, it allotted a quota of only 100 immigrants for each Asian nation. The Asian quotas were based on race–not nationality—which extended the policy of discrimination against immigration from Asian countries even as outright exclusion was lifted.

The act created immigration preferences. For example, the first preference was given to immigrants with valuable skills. The second preference was for parents of U.S. citizens. Spouses and children of resident aliens had third preference, and other relatives were fourth. The act focused on excluding certain classes of undesirable immigrants—including anyone having any association with communism, reflecting the politics of the early Cold War period.

The Immigration and Nationality Act became law over a veto by President Harry S Truman. In his veto message, Truman said that the bill was “a step backward not a step forward” in the reform of immigration policy. He urged an end to racial or national barriers to naturalization. He criticized the continuation of a quota system based on national origins, which, he said, was “based upon assumptions at variance with our American ideals…long since out of date and more than ever unrealistic in the face of present world conditions.” Although he did not oppose quotas, he believed that a quota based on national origin was “insulting to large numbers of our finest citizens, irritating to our allies abroad, and foreign to our purposes and ideals.” The nationality quota was, in his view, a discriminatory policy unworthy of American ideals and traditions:

It violates the great political doctrine of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” It denies the humanitarian creed inscribed beneath the Statue of Liberty proclaiming to all nations, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

As Truman observed in a statement that is equally applicable today: “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.”

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the Hart-Cellar Act) ended the policy of limiting immigration based on national origin. The act, instead, established a system of seven levels of preference (described below). The law imposed annual quota of 170,000 visas per year for immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and (for the first time) imposed a quota of 120,000 per year for immigrants from countries in the Western Hemisphere. A per-country quota of 20,000 was imposed on countries in Eastern Europe, and in 1976 this per-country limit was extended to countries in the Western Hemisphere. The immediate family members of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children and parents) were authorized to immigrate without numerical limit.

The Civil Rights movement in the United States, which stood for the ideals of racial equality, provided political support for immigration reform and the elimination of nationality quotas that discriminated against Asians, Africans, and people from Southern and Eastern Europe. Likewise, Cold War politics pushed immigration policy into the arena of the propaganda war in which the United States promoted itself as the defender of freedom in the world. Restriction of immigration based on racially-biased nationality quotas was inconsistent with the advertised image of America that was a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

The preference categories under the 1965 act favored family reunification. The first priority was for unmarried children of U.S. citizens. The second preference was for spouses and unmarried children of resident aliens. Professionals or people who possessed exceptional ability in arts or sciences and who intended to work for American employers received third preference. Married children of U.S. citizens received the fourth preference. The fifth preference was for noncitizen sisters and brothers of U.S. citizens, and sixth preference was for skilled and unskilled workers coming to take jobs for which American workers were in short supply. The seventh preference was for political refugees.

Immigration has increased since the provisions of the 1965 act came into effect in 1968. In the decade of the 60s, there were 3,321,677 legal immigrants. Legal immigration has accelerated in the decades since (Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2013, Table 1):

1960 to 1969 3,213,749
1970 to 1979 4,248,203
1980 to 1989 6,244,379
1990 to 1999 9,775,398
2000 to 2009 10,299,430

In recent years, the greatest number of immigrants from a single country has come from Mexico. From 1970 through 2009, there have been 6,092,388 legal Mexican immigrants, which is 20 percent of the total number of immigrants during that period.

An unintended consequence of the 1965 act was the rise of “illegal” immigration from Mexico and other Latin American nations. Prior to the 1965 act, there had been no quota on immigration from Mexico and other Western Hemisphere countries. The act imposed annual numerical limits on immigration as well as the preference system for obtaining a visa. Under the preference system, unskilled workers who lacked a family relationship to either a U.S. citizen or a resident alien were near the bottom of the preference hierarchy. The visa application process, time-consuming and often unsuccessful, was ill-suited and impractical for low-skilled laborers in search of seasonal employment in the U.S. In effect, then, the 1965 act created a legal obstacle to immigration where none had existed before. For Mexican laborers seeking the better wages that could be found in the U.S., even the Bracero Program was unavailable as a means of legal access after its termination in 1964. The lack of jobs in their home country drove many workers to cross the border without a visa, even at the risk of deportation, and, in the U.S., employers were ready to hire them.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Immigration Statistics defines “unauthorized residents” as foreign-born non-citizens who are not legal residents. It is estimated that some two million to four million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in 1980. After reaching a peak of 11.8 million in 2007, the estimated population of unauthorized residents was 11.5 million as of January 2011. The majority of the unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. as of 2011 entered the country before 2005, and 55 percent entered the country between 1995 and 2004. Immigrants from five Latin American countries (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador) totaled 8,570,000 people, or 74% of the total number of unauthorized residents. Immigrants from Mexico (6,800,000) greatly outnumbered immigrants from any other country and accounted for 59% of the total number of unauthorized residents in 2011. Unauthorized immigrants have come from other countries as well, including 310,000 from the Philippines, 260,000 from India, 230,000 from Korea and 210,000 from China.

In response to rising levels of unauthorized immigration, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986. This act increased border enforcement and imposed sanctions on employers who knowingly hired unauthorized immigrants. The act granted legal status to unauthorized residents who had lived in the U.S. for at least five years. Under the legalization program, 2.7 million previously unauthorized residents attained the legal right to remain in the country. The 1986 act, however, failed to address unauthorized residents who had been in the country for less than five years or who would later arrive in the U.S. In addition, employers continued to hire unauthorized immigrants in large numbers, because the employer sanctions called for in the 1986 legislation were weakly enforced.

Immigration To Be Continued

This post describes the historical context for U.S. immigration policy. It sets the stage for a further examination of the elements of the current immigration debate to be addressed in future posts. The summary of immigration history presented here may have oversimplified or even omitted important facts (and I encourage comments–click on the “Leave a comment” link below), but even this summary exceeds the word-count that many blog readers will consider tolerable.

Readers who want to learn more about the roots of U.S. immigration policy may be interested in the following sources, which helped inform this post:

Immigration in the United States: New Economic, Social, Political Landscapes with Legislative Reform on the Horizon — An analysis by Faye Hipsman and Doris Meissner of the Migration Policy Institute.

Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project – A project of the Pew Research Center that seeks to improve public understanding of the diverse Hispanic population in the United States and to chronicle Latinos’ growing impact on the nation.

The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) – Part of a series of essays, “Milestones in the History of U.S. Foreign Relations,” published by the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian.

“America Would Lose Its Soul”: the Immigration Restriction Debate, 1920-1924 – A Master’s thesis by Vilja Lehtinen, Department of History, University of Helsinki.

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    In her recent book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal, Aviva Chomsky explains how the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act “essentially created illegal immigration.” To justify punitive attitudes toward immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, many conservative voices today proclaim loudly that the “rule of law” must be upheld,…
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    This post is a follow-up to Immigration Part 1: How Did We Get Here? Part 1 covers United States immigration policy and politics prior to 1965. Part 2 examines two decades of immigration legislation between 1978 and 1996 and the recommendations of two blue-ribbon commissions appointed to study and finally…