There has been a great deal of talk here in the United States regarding immigration for decades despite Donald Trump’s claim that he introduced the topic when he decided to run for President. What few citizens truly understand is the changing nature of immigration rules and patterns over time and the efforts to improve policies to meet the most current needs of the country. The discussions of immigration reform tend to center on false rhetoric and emotions rather than facts and the law.
For almost one hundred years the borders of the United States were essentially wide open. Whoever wanted to come needed no permission to either enter the country or to stay. At the turn of the nineteenth century low cost steamship travel made it easier for immigrants to reach American shores from across the Atlantic. My own grandparents boarded boats in Bremen, Germany to reach Galveston, Texas from their native land in the far north of the Austro-Hungarian empire around nineteen twelve and thirteen. In 1882, the Congress had passed the first immigration law ever. It banned people from China from entering the country as immigrants but access of other groups of people was virtually unfettered until 1917, when a new law created a long list of undesirables who would no longer be welcome in our country including those from Japan, India, Middle Eastern countries, as well as Europeans over the age of sixteen who were not literate. My own grandmother would have been barred from coming here had her journey not occurred earlier for she never learned to read or write.
The biggest change in the immigration laws came in 1921 and 1924 when the government set quotas for the very first time. The number of people being allowed to enter the country from each foreign nation would be based on calculations of two percent of those from the various ethnicities and locales who had been in the United States as of 1890. Of course the quotas greatly restricted the so called less desirables from central and southern Europe and favored those from northern Europe who were generally thought to be more productive. Interestingly there were still no restrictions on immigration from Mexico and South America at this time. The lack of roads and modern transportation methods generally kept the numbers from south of United States’ borders to a minimum and so lawmakers paid little attention to them.
The immigrations laws remained relatively unchanged until 1943, when the old dictum denying entrance to people from China was finally repealed. Then in 1965, the quota laws based on percentages of people here in 1890, were replaced with a new system that made legal entrance to the United States more equitable to all countries. It also placed limitations on immigration from Mexico and South America for the first time in our nation’s history. This law imposed complicated rules regarding which relatives, occupations, and refugees were allowed to come to the United States. Over time the rules became even more convoluted.
Since 1965, there have been seven amnesties granted to legalize immigrants who came to the country illegally. The most sweeping one occurred during the Reagan administration when 2.7 million people were granted immunity from prosecution. The last act of amnesty took place in 2000, and covered 900,000 people. Since that time the numbers of undocumented immigrants has grown to an estimated eleven million people. Attempts to agree upon immigration reform have been futile. Most recently a bipartisan group of Congressmen known as “the Gang of Eight” devised a seemingly workable plan that passed in the Senate but never came up for a vote in the House. One of the architects of that bill was Senator Marco Rubio who is running for the Republican nomination for the Presidency. He has been criticized for failure to include measures to seal the borders and stop the continuous flow of people from south of our country. President Obama has used executive privilege in a temporary attempt to allow those who are here illegally to feel less threatened with deportation.
Now the nation is engaged in a heated discussion of how to deal with its immigration problems. Mostly there has been rhetoric and little constructive or rational action. Those ignorant of the history of immigration and the present day laws choose conflicting sides that both have grave difficulties for enforcement. Donald Trump ridiculously boasts that he will build a wall and charge Mexico for its cost. He maintains that he will send all eleven million illegals back to the places from whence they came and he will also declare that children born in the United States whose parents are undocumented will no longer automatically be citizens, regardless of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution which clearly states that they are. His so called plans are costly beyond imagination and totally unenforceable, not to mention inhumane. I can’t imagine sending an adult who was born here and grew up here back to a land that he or she has never known. The ridiculousness of his ideas might ultimately lead to questions regarding who really is a citizen of the United States.
We need to resurrect aspects of the plan from “the Gang of Eight” and tweak it as our lawmakers see fit. It was a good set of ideas that provided the eleven million humans living in the shadows with a means of coming out into the open. Nothing was automatic for them. They were going to have to get in line along with those who have entered our country legally. They would have been required to register and pay fines and taxes or risk being deported. Theirs would have been a kind of rehabilitation program that would have required them to make amends for coming here illegally. The plan was not just blanket amnesty as some have implied. It was a humane and realistic look at both the needs of the people who have come here seeking better lives for their children and those of our country. It seems to me that all that is really needed for immigration reform is to use this plan as a blueprint and to find ways of more equitably enforcing laws in the future.
We like to think of ourselves as a compassionate and generous nation. It is understandable that there are limits to how much we may do for the rest of the world but of late many among us have sounded far too angry and unwilling to accept Jeb Bush’s very true assessment that most of those who have come here illegally have done so out of love for their families. In my work in education over the years I have found this to be absolutely true. Just as my grandparents left behind everything and everyone that they had ever known in search of freedom and opportunity, today’s immigrants are also simply looking for better lives. Perhaps they were wrong to do so without the blessing of legality but desperation often forces people to do things that would otherwise never occur to them.
Within any group there will be the so called bad people that Donald Trump keeps insisting are a significant proportion of those who are illegal. They are far fewer than his exaggerated claims and repatriating them to their homelands can be written into the reform laws. Nobody would argue that they need to go. As for the rest I would like to think that they should have as much opportunity as my grandparents did over a hundred years ago. While my immigrant ancestors were not always treated with the most regard when they first came here, I think that it is safe to say that their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren and great great grandchildren have become model citizens of these United States of America. Our contributions to the good of the country have been enormous and it all happened in a very short span of time. I have seen similar trends among those whose parents came here without legal documents. They are just as legitimately part of who we are as Americans as anyone. They came here out of love and it is incumbent on us to help them, not hurt them. Surely there is someone with enough courage and leadership capability to find workable solutions rather than insulting arguments. It’s time to set politics aside.
By the way, the amazing members of “the Gang of Eight” who are the only ones who have seriously attempted to work together to provide logical immigration reform are:
Michael Bennet (D)
Chuck Schumer (D)
Bob Menendez (D)
Dick Durbin (D)
John McCain (R)
Lindsey Graham (R)
Marco Rubio (R)
Jeff Flake (R)
“The policies envisioned by the Senators included the following provisions:
- A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the United States contingent on certain border security and visa tracking improvements. The plan provides for permanent residence for undocumented immigrants only after legal immigrants waiting for a current priority date receive their permanent residence status and a different citizenship path for agricultural workers through an agricultural worker program.
- Business immigration system reforms, focusing on reducing current visa backlogs and fast tracking permanent residence for U.S. university immigrant graduates with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math.
- An expanded and improved employment verification system for all employers to confirm employee work authorization.
- Improved work visa options for low-skilled workers including an agricultural worker program.” — Wikipedia