a brief history of immigration -- 5/13/19

Today's selection -- from If We Can Keep It by Michael Tomasky. The U.S. restricted immigration with the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. Then in 1942, facing the manpower shortages of World War II, the Roosevelt administration and the Mexican government created the "bracero" program that allowed seasonal workers to come to the U.S. to harvest crops and then return. The number of workers reached as high as 400,000 in a single year. The program was ended in 1964, but it created networks and relationships that were the underpinnings of illegal immigration that followed:

"[After World War II, some realized] that if the United States truly wanted to be the proverbial beacon of free­dom to the people of the developing world, it probably should open its doors more widely to the people of said world. There was a collective guilt among elites about the Holocaust, and America's failure in the 1930s to take in more Jews. ... President Kennedy proposed comprehensive immigration reform in 1963. He did not live to pass it, but Johnson, with his custom­ary zeal and mastery of the legislative process, took up the cause. And in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act (INA) was passed by overwhelming -- and again, bipartisan -- margins: The Senate passed it 76-18, with Democrats voting aye by 52-14 and Republicans by 24-3; it sailed through the House 318-95, with roughly three-quarters of Demo­crats and four-fifths of Republicans in support.

"There was no controversy. There had been no great outcry for the bill. No marches, no demonstrations, no acts of civil disobedience. Either pro or con. 'It is a very minor issue,' said the lobbyist for the Ameri­can Jewish Committee at the time. Liberal groups supported it -- the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action, a major player at the time, and others -- but there was no great hue and cry. Indeed, if anything the opposite: A Harris poll in May 1965 found the public opposed to easing immigration restrictions by a margin of 58 to 24 percent. But they weren't so against it that they were moved to any big public act. Also, after the act's passage, Gallup found 70 percent say­ing they favored the new law.  Seesawing numbers like these indicate a classic case of the public not knowing much, not giving the matter much thought, seeing Congress do something, and thinking, especially in those days of far greater trust in government, 'Oh well, okay, they must know what they're doing.'

"Few things as big as a major congressional overhaul of law can be put down to the efforts of one person, but if ever a case could be constructed along those lines, it can be made with respect to Congressman Emanuel Celler's efforts on immigration. Celler, a jewish Brooklynite who grew up with his father's whiskey tank in his basement and who remains one of the longest-serving House members in history, was a freshman when Johnson-­Reed passed, and it incensed him. He swore then that someday he'd have the power to undo it. He laid the paving stones in 1947, when he was the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee -- during a reorganiza­tion of the House, he got immigration moved from the jurisdiction of the Labor and Commerce Committee to his own. The move, writes Margaret Sands Orchowski in her study of the 1965 act, 'made the focus of immi­gration law one of justice --family unification and antidiscrimination­ -- instead of about work, jobs, and labor development of the country.' So finally, forty-one years later, Celler, with a big assist on the Senate side from Ted Kennedy, managed to run his steamroller over the old law.

"Kennedy made a famous (or infamous, depending on one's point of view) assurance at the time that the law would not change the ethnic mix of the country. We'll leave to the side for present purposes the debate over whether he was being dishonest or naive. But of course it did change the ethnic mix, chiefly through the family reunification provision, which allowed legal immigrants to petition to bring in not just spouses and chil­dren, but parents, adult siblings, some cousins. But again, as with 1924, the change was not dramatic and immediate. In the five years before the law's passage, the number of new legal permanent residents in the United States per year was about 222,000; in the five years after the law, it went up, but only to about 360,000 per year.

Mexican workers await legal employment in the United States, 1954.

"The civil-rights and feminist revolutions happened quickly and dra­matically; but if they were volcanic explosions, the immigration revolu­tion was the lava rolling slowly down the hill, unfolding over a much longer period of time. The 1970s brought the advent of many new arrivals from Southeast Asia, as the Vietnam War ended, and a slow but steady increase in immigration from Mexico and Central America.

"These were legal immigrants and refugees. But around the same time, illegal immigration started to increase. The roots of illegal immi­gration are several, including first of all the vast wage disparity between the United States and the countries people were (and are) fleeing. Politi­cal strife -- indeed, terror -- in Central America and southern Mexico has been another factor. But according to Doris Meissner, who headed the Immigration and Naturalization Service for eight years under Bill Clin­ton, the deep roots were to be found in the networks created under the bracero program, and the always lax enforcement of U.S. laws governing employers' practices. She wrote in 2004:

'. . . the lasting effect of the bracero program has been that it spawned and institutionalized networks and labor market rela­tionships between Mexico and the United States. These ties con­tinued and became the foundation for today's illegal migration from Mexico. Thus, ending the agreement as a legal matter did not alter the migration behavior that had been established over the course of more than 20 years; the migrant flows simply adapted to new conditions.'

"In 1982, the Supreme Court decided, in Plyler v. Doe, by a narrow 5-4 margin that had conservative Lewis Powell joining the Court's four liberals, that children of what were then uncontroversially called ille­gal immigrants were entitled to the same education as native-born chil­dren (they were people 'in any ordinary sense of the term,' the majority held). In 1986, Congress passed a new immigration law to deal with these undocumented arrivals, in part by granting legal status ('amnesty,' in other words) to all who'd arrived illegally before 1982 provided they pay a fine and back taxes and admit guilt. Yes, 1986 -- which means Ron­ald Reagan signed it. We weren't yet divided on immigration in those days that just barely, and not coincidentally, preceded the rise of right­wing talk radio. Three million undocumented aliens became legal in a matter of about three years. In exchange, sanctions were toughened (allegedly, anyway) on employers of undocumented workers. The roll­call votes, looked at from today's vantage of strict party-line votes, are interesting. It passed both houses comfortably -- 230-166 in the House, 69-30 in the Senate -- but the ideological divisions were striking. Latinos and Ted Kennedy-style liberals were against it because of the sanctions, while most conservative members opposed the amnesty. Senate Repub­licans supported the bill 41-11, but House Republicans opposed it, 62- 105 (although 'Gingrich, Newton' voted yea!). Right there, in that 105 number, we see the seeds of what became by 2016 thousands of people chanting 'Build the wall!'

"It wasn't until the early 1990s -- concurrent with the dawn of the broader culture war and the maturation of ethnic identity movements and a nascent but growing academic literature on multiculturalism -- ­that immigration became a first-rank issue. Mind you, the broader pub­lic never supported liberal immigration flows. Gallup keeps data going back to 1965, asking respondents whether they supported immigration that was increased, decreased, or at current levels. In 1965, those num­bers respectively were: 7 percent, 33 percent, and 39 percent. In 1972, 'decreased' passed 'current levels.' By the mid-eighties, 'decrease' held a solid lead. Then in the early 1990s the backlash kicked into gear: 65 percent supported a decrease, 27 percent said keep the status quo, and just 6 percent said increase. And then we saw California's Proposition 187, which prohibited illegal entrants from accessing many of the state's social services (the voters passed it 59-41 percent), and other concrete manifestations of the backlash.

"So again, a controversy that hadn't even existed in 1965 became, in this case not five but twenty and twenty-five years later, a stick of dyna­mite."

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Michael Tomasky


If We Can Keep It: How The Republic Collapsed and How It Might Be Saved


Liveright Publishing, a division of W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2019 by Michael Tomasky


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