The National Debate on Immigration

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once said, “The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It’s all been done before, and will be again.” In the pattern of global history, this theory often holds true: any situation or problem of modern-day will have a counterpart in the pages of antiquity. During the height of the Roman Empire, the area it controlled became so vast that its borders could not be guarded effectively; it became impossible to control who crossed in and out. Between 100-200 C.E. immigration and expansion became so damaging to Rome that the emperor of the time, Publius Aelius Hadrian began the construction of a great wall to surround the borders of the empire, preventing undesirables from entering and those inside from leaving. Today, America like the Romans before us considers building a great wall, or otherwise stopping the flow of immigration into the United States. In the past few years, the U.S. has experienced internal conflict over how many immigrants should be allowed to cross the border, what type of people are permitted to immigrate, and in what capacity they are allowed to reside there.

The polarization of opinion is often extreme, with some blaming immigrants for national problems and calling for immigration to be severely limited to address them. But history and theory can teach us that simply constraining immigration to almost none will do nothing but worsen the issues America faces today. Although the influx of immigrants entering America has stretched our national capacity to integrate new citizens, no challenge or risk presented by increased immigration outweighs the economic and cultural benefits that it provides to our society. America, as we know it today, was founded in 1776 by English, Scotish, and Welsh Protestant immigrants. Sailing from Europe to the Americas seeking religious freedom, economic opportunity, and a better life. As noted in the article “Immigrant Rights” from Civil Rights in America, this colonial period saw few restrictions placed on immigration. Beginning in the 1840s more than 5 million immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia joined them, drawn to the U.S. by the labor shortages created by the Civil War. In the decades following the turn of the 20th century nearly nine million people immigrated to America looking to escape government oppression and poverty from southern, central, and eastern Europe. Many of all these immigrants had little money, education, or English when they arrived and so were forced into the slums large cities, living in overcrowded tenements ridden with crime and disease.

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Many of these newcomers, encountered widespread hostility from the largely Christian, Western European population. It is during this time that the first true stirrings of the nationalist movement that influences current immigration policy began. Groups like the American Protective Association called for limits on immigration for Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, who they thought unable to integrate into preexisting American culture. But the first government measure significantly limiting immigration was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Drawn by the economic opportunities of the railroads and the gold rush, 40,000 Chinese workers settled on the West Coast during the 1850s. However, the 1870 economic depression increased competition for work between Chinese and white workers leading to a rise of racist sentiments. To counter this rising tension Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years, prevented Chinses immigrants from naturalizing, and made the deportation of illegal Chinese aliens mandatory. Moving into the 20th century isolationist ides became popular leading to a national immigration policy which excluded potential immigrants on the basis of undesirable qualities like a criminal record, mental illness, and illiteracy.

The race-based exclusionary policies expanded from the Chinese Exclusion Act culminated in a 1917 ban on immigrants from most of Asia, which was not truly lifted until 1952. Then in 1924, Congress passed the first permanent numerical restriction on immigration in the form of the National Origins Act. This law placed a cap of 150,000 European immigrants per year but also allowed for the admission of immigrants based on the proportion of the proportion of immigrants from their home nation according to the census of 1890. Because the 1890 census had much smaller numbers of immigrants not from Western Europe than the predicted numbers for the future, this provision shows to an attempt ensure that future immigrants would be mostly from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. This quota system was not dismantled until 1965. From the 1960s to the 2010s however, a new more inclusionary policy emerged. In 1965 Congress enacted amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 replacing the national-origins quota system with simply a limit of 20,000 immigrants per country not in the Western Hemisphere.

However, it also limited immigration from the Western Hemisphere, most notably Mexico. This restriction greatly increased illegal immigration from Mexico and Latin America into the U.S. During the 1980s the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 expanded the number of refugees annually accepted as well as broadening the definition of the term refugee beyond those fleeing from Communist countries, such as Cuba and Vietnam, and granted them specific social and medical services. Alongside the 1965 act, the Refugee Act dramatically increased immigration from non-European countries. Advancing towards current policy, the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which addressed illegal immigration, has been one of the most important immigration laws of the century. This law heightened penalties for employers who knowingly hired illegal immigrants, but also allowed millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States to become naturalized. Finally, the Immigration Act of 1990, in an effort to balance exclusionary and inclusionary forces significantly liberalized policy by raising total admissions 40%, but also reserved many of these immigrant slots for highly skilled immigrants. Immigration in the 1980s reached almost ten million, setting a new record, which was exceeded in the 1990s, partly as a result of the 1990 Immigration Act. In the past decade, immigration law has remained relatively inclusionary.

Most notably under President Barack Obama the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, helped prevent the deportation of people who were brought to the United States as children by parents who either entered the country illegally. But in the last 3 years the Trump administration has acted in accordance with rising anti-immigration sentiments and began increasing the severity of reactions to illegal immigration. In addition to promoting the building of a wall along the U.S., Mexico border President Donald Trump rescinded DACA and placed a temporary immigration ban on certain Muslim majority countries in response to the rise of Islamic terrorism, though critics cite the fact that the ban does not apply to nations with which Trump’s company has business deals with as evidence that the ban is of a racial rather than security nature.

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The National Debate on Immigration. (2022, Jan 10). Retrieved from