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April 11, 2006

Immigration Policy History

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

In my amateurish way, I started nosing around the subject of immigration history some years ago. It hooked me. I had one of those lights-clicking-on moments: My god, this is really something!

Duh, of course. Still, I'm often surprised by how many otherwise well-informed people seem completely unfamiliar with immigration history (and immigration policy) as a topic. They seem to take our current mess as a given, and as inevitable. This is just the way things have to be, they think. There is nothing that can be done.

They may be familiar with the changes wrought by Vietnam, by the Civil Rights era, by the Great Society initiatives, perhaps even by the GI Bill -- events and movements that played big roles in shaping present-day America. But they often know nothing about the Hart-Celler Immigration Bill of 1965: nothing about its impact, or even its existence. (They could also afford to be a little more aware of the importance of the 1956 Highway Act, IMHO...)

Where immigration policy -- and, because of it, the size and makeup of our population -- is concerned, the pre-1965 U.S. was a different place than it is now. In the years since, we have become something very different than what we once were: more populous than we'd otherwise be, and with a dramatically different ethnic makeup.

Before 1965, immigration averaged around 300,000 people per year. For the entire decade of the 1930s, immigration totaled about 500,000. These days, legal immigration averages around a million people a year, and estimates for illegal immigration range from a half a million to over a million. The 1990s represent the era of the highest immigration numbers ever in American history; the U.S. currently takes about half of all emigrants in the world. Largely as a consquence of Hart-Celler, we're likely to hit a population of 400 million people by 2050. 100 million of them will be of Hispanic descent.

Whether or not you think these are desirable developments, the nation-changing impact of Hart-Celler becomes hard to dispute once you take a look at the facts. Previous standards and requirements were thrown out and replaced by '60s-ish ideals and goals. Did anyone really anticipate what would ensue? A few examples of bad law gone awry:

  • "Family reunification" as a basis for policy must have sounded warm and cuddly to many ears -- but in practice it has become a way for extended families to keep reeling in more and more members.
  • One of the explicit goals of the act was to stop favoring one country or region over another. (Pre-1965 immigration policy favored immigrants from Europe.) Fair was finally going to be fair. Yet today nearly half of immigrants are from Latin America. What's fair about that?
  • In 1965, Ted Kennedy, Mr. Trustworthy himself and a sponsor of the 1965 immigration act, said, "No immigrant visa will be issued to a person who is likely to become a public charge." Reality check: Today, more than 20% of immigrants receive public assistance.

The books on the topic that I have found most helpful are Thomas Sowell's "Ethnic America," and Peter Brimelow's "Alien Nation." (P-o-v alert: Brimelow, who edits the Vdare website, is a stinging polemicist with a knack for antagonizing both lefties and sentimentalists. FWIW, I found his book trustworthy and fair. Brimelow reviews his reviewers here.) Both are enjoyable, hyper-informative, and eye-opening reads.

Of course, a much easier, cheaper, and faster way to brush up is to websurf. Here's a quick look back at the 1965 act; here's another. With his usual flair, Peter Brimelow rehearses the numbers here. Together these three pieces probably total less than 5000 words. That's a lot of cultural-history you can get cozy with in a very short time.



UPDATE: Steve Burton speculates about at how our recent immigration binge will eventually affect California. Key phrase: "Historically unprecedented." Key reading tip: Amy Chua's "World on Fire."

UPDATE 2: Did you know that it's much harder for a U.S. citizen to settle in Mexico than it is for a Mexican to settle in the U.S.? Allan Wall explains . Glenn Reynolds asks why this should be so.

posted by Michael at April 11, 2006


Awfully short historical perspective you have here. The '65 bill you mention was a reaction to the quota laws passed in '24 and '29, which sharply restricted immigration for the first time in U.S. history.

At its peak, in the early 1900's to WWI, Ellis Island processed about a million immigrants a year, at a time when the total U.S. population was 75 million. And during the potato famine, historians estimate that about 10 million Irish emigrated to the U.S. within a decade - at a time when the population was under 30 million.

Looked at from a broader perspective, the period from the twenties to the sixties was actually an anomoly in the the history of our country in terms of immigrant flow. And looked at as a percentage of population over the entire course of our country's history, immigration today - legal and illegal - is still on the lower end of things.

Posted by: Amy on April 11, 2006 5:31 PM

Amy, I'm familiar enough with the numbers and facts to expand the focus even wider. Back up far enough and you'll find that immigration rates prior to the very high rates of 1880-1920 were often quite low. For nearly 50 years after the Revolution, for instance, there was almost no immigration at all.

I think the biggest mistake people make (not you) is to think that there is one "right" immigration policy. It should be wide open forever! It should be shut down forever! Etc. The history of our immigrations suggests a very different process. We go through periods when very few people arrive, and we go through periods when quite a large number arrive. It's a process that seems to resemble eating and digestion. We take some in, we pause to incorporate them, we move on to something different, then we adjust again. For myself, I wouldn't argue that we should never have immigration. I would argue that, given the huge binge we've been on since 1970, the time has come to leave the table and get on with the "digesting" part of the process. What I'd really like to argue, though, is that the topic is very important and deserves open and unembarassed discussion, so many thanks for pitching in.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2006 5:44 PM

BTW, interesting the way these cycles tend to go in 40-50 year stretches, isn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 11, 2006 6:11 PM

We also have to focus on the quality of immigrants. If we only let in Oxford-educated Mexicans or Nigerians, we'd still have the cultural diversity, bla bla bla, but none of the bad stuff like workman's wages driven down, skyrocketing rents, gangs taking over high schools, and so on.

That's why lots of the earlier immigration was fine, even if high: Asians and Ashkenazi Jews didn't cause any trouble and were smarter & more productive than natives. Italians, Greeks, Germans, etc. -- same direction but lesser magnitude. Only real trouble-makers were the Irish & NYC-area Italians.

My mother's (non-Italian) family is from the Ohio Valley, near where Dean Martin was from, and there was no mafia or suchlike there. Still, over the generations, the troublemaking Europeans shaped up & are now like other Europeans, whereas lower-tier blacks & Latinos who've been here for several generations still lag far behind Europeans.

Posted by: Agnostic on April 11, 2006 6:19 PM

So far, in at least the brief opening post in this thread, the following issues seem to be "on the table":

a) the sheer number of immigrants (and the ability of the U.S. to assimilate a certain volume of immigrants within a certain time span);

b) the ideal criteria for legal immigrants (e.g., work skills, political asylum, re-unification of relatives, etc.);

c) the mix of immigrants in terms of country of origin (and whether or not there should be some sort of quota system to assure a diversity of immigrants).

In addition, however, I think there are a number of other issues that also affect, directly or indirectly, the debate (and people's feelings) about immigration:

1) The importance of controlling the country's borders in an age of terrorism.

2) The establishment of a system that encourages lawful behavior.

3) The place of immigration in an era of welfare entitlements.

4) Bi-lingualism/multi-lingualism vs. English as the country's official language.

5) Multi-culturalism -- whose customs shall prevail?;

6) Voting rights -- who should be entitled to vote?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 11, 2006 7:05 PM

P.S. -- I forgot to mention another issue that may also be affecting the immigration debate:

7) What does it actually mean to be a citizen? Should a country, especially one with heavy immigration, allow for dual-citizenships -- as, I believe, the U.S. now does?

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 11, 2006 9:18 PM

In the debate about what a Hispanic-majority society under American-style government would look like, I wonder why no one mentions Puerto Rico? Or is that obvious? Factoid: The Puerto Rico government website has no English language option.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on April 14, 2006 10:30 AM

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