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Looking Backward for Insight on Immigration Reform

October 3, 2013 in Economics

By Alex Nowrasteh

Alex Nowrasteh

Forty-eight years ago, President Lyndon Johnson (D) signed the Immigration Act of 1965, the most comprehensive immigration reform in generations. Now, decades later, Congress is contemplating another serious immigration reform that would legalize millions of unauthorized immigrants and allow for increased legal immigration going forward. It is often said that we should learn from history, and immigration reform is no exception. A look back at the 1965 Act can inform today’s debate.

The 1965 Act was hailed by many as a major reform that partially reopened immigration. From 1790 to 1921, with the exception of the shameful Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the U.S. had mostly free immigration. Immigrants getting off the boat at East and West coast immigrant processing centers like Ellis Island were allowed to enter upon passing health and criminal inspections.

Ships full of immigrants bearing Italians, Jews, Russians and Poles did not sail up to American beaches and disgorge their human cargo in the hope that they would evade a Border Patrol (which did not exist until 1924). Because so many could come legally, unauthorized immigration was rare.

That ended in the early twentieth century with the Progressive Era’s emphasis on protecting labor unions. Beginning temporarily in 1921, and then permanently in 1924, new national origin quotas limited immigration to countries from Northern and Western Europe, whose immigrants were more skilled and less likely to join unions.

On the 48th anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1965, let’s hope Congress has learned from that mistake and recognizes the benefits of increased legal immigration.”

Worse, those laws were also inspired by the Progressive eugenics movement at the time. Northern and Western European immigrants were welcome because they were thought to be genetically superior. Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and others were either barred outright or heavily restricted because of their supposed genetic inferiority.

That sounds ridiculous today, but ninety years ago it was very serious. In fact, a commission established by Congress in 1907, the Dillingham Commission, confirmed that supposed inferiority. Based on poor statistical methodology and absurd reasoning, it claimed that 67 percent of Polish Jewish students and 64 percent of Southern Italians students were “retarded.” According to the report, Italian, Jewish, Eastern European, and Asian immigrants were so inferior that their assimilation into American culture would be impossible.

The national origin quotas that cropped up in the 1920s were not fully repealed until the Immigration …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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