Humans have been in the migrating business since the dawn of time, both from a religious and scientific perspective. Archeological finds, DNA analysis and more recently, written records, confirm this.
Migration, emigration and immigration are fundamentally the by-product of the ‘push and pull’ of a subject’s natural, social, economic and political environment. The weather, natural resources of the land, religion, culture, wealth, skin color, conquest, governance and a myriad of other factors, all play, whether individually or in concert, a major role in precipitating migration, emigration and immigration. In almost all instances, the ‘push’ from the original location, and the subsequent ‘pull’ from the final destination, will involve a significant percentage of the original community.
It is no different for our country. All of us, even the Native Americans (but that’s another story altogether), are here because our ancestors took a gamble. They braved the forces of nature, the threats of the wild, the malice of their fellow men, and made the journey to land of plenty, where the storied streets are paved with gold, just so their children can have a better future. Of course, there have also been plenty of occasions where people were brought into the country against their will, or those that chose to come to avoid persecution. In fact, all of these reasons were evident in the Mayflower that voyaged across the Atlantic in 1620 with the Pilgrims of Plymouth. A perusal at our nation’s ancestral demographic data will illustrate the point even better.
Immigration has proven to be the fuel that powered the nation’s growth, be it from the expertise, wealth or labor it brought in. It has also created the dynamic multiculturalism that pervades our daily way of life in modern America, and in the process, enriching the country’s traditions, art, music and food. The birth of the American identity, a fluid and mythical concept, are inherently intertwined with the manner of its birth as a nation, and its people.
The government recognized this fact from day one, as typified with this speech made by our nation’s first President and Commander of the Revolutionary Army, George Washington.
However, they were cognizant of the fact that like everything else, all that glitters is not always gold, and treated the issue of immigration with the cautious deliberation it demands. Our national immigration policies are reactionary in nature. It has been tailored, refined and rewritten over the past two centuries in direct response to the shifting socioeconomic, political and demographical factors prevalent at the time, and as a result, it created five notable periods of major immigration movement into the country.
The first period was between 1882-1920, where immigration restrictions were enacted officially for the first time in the nation’s history. Prior to that, the government left the issue in the hands of the private enterprises, confident that the ebb and flow of demand for human capital will automatically police the immigration flow. However, for reasons that were seemingly dictated more out of fear than anything else, the people from a long list of nations were denied the right to emigrate, which at one point almost excluded everyone from outside of Europe.
The second period (1921 - 1942), saw to the implementation of the most restrictive immigration regulations in American history and as a result, a very significant reduction in immigration flow into the country. During the period, a fix quota system was used to limit the numbers of immigrants from outside of 'modern Europe'. Matters were not helped by the destructive after-effects of the Great Depression.
The third period (1943-1965) heralded the arrival of a more liberal immigration policy for the country. Both Franklin Delano Roosevelt (32nd President, 1933–1945), and Harry Truman (33rd President, 1945–1953), engineered the repeal of laws that were designed to prohibit immigration from a majority of Asian nations. However, it was a shallow victory as the small quotas proved to be an ineffective incentive, and the victory became a merely a symbolic one.
The next period (1965 – 1985) saw the country returning to its open-armed immigration policy. The demands from the manufacturing sector and the post-WWII goodwill contributed to Congress’ change of heart. It saw to the arrival of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and perhaps for the first time, major legal immigration from African nations. Interestingly, most of the fundamentals of the immigration policy enacted during the period remain in place to this day. The most interesting aspect of these new policies probably lies in the fact that the citizens of ‘old Europe’ no longer had a privileged, and at times, automatic right, to emigrate here.
The final period (1986-now) saw to a change in focus away from legal immigration and toward illegal immigration. With the increasing number of illegal aliens in the country, most of them for economic reasons, the government began to enact deterrent legislation aimed at both the illegal aliens and their employers. Initiatives were also taken to tackle the growing menace of organized border crossings through the U.S.-Mexico border, which introduced the element of crime into the mix.
However, the parallel amnesty offered to illegal aliens and over-stayers, coupled with enhanced border securities, did not work as well as planned. The stringent border controls proved to be a disincentive for illegal workers to leave, as they feared the prospect of no longer being able to reenter the country.
In a February 2010 report by the Homeland Security, it was stated that there are approximately 10.8 million illegal aliens in the country, and unlike previous years, they are dispersed all over the country, making enforcement more difficult. The partisan nature of Congress which has only heightened over the past few decades, has prevented the introduction of any new immigration policies and legislation that many contend are critically needed to get a handle of the problem.
Positions Supporting Immigration
Officially, the United States allows four types of immigration:
(i) Reuniting legal immigrants/permanent residents with their families
(ii) Sourcing workers with specific skillsets to fulfill local needs
(iii) Providing asylum for refugees or people facing persecution
(iv) Promoting national diversity by bringing in immigrants from countries with historically low immigrant numbers.
However, there is nothing altruistic behind the American government’s, or any other for that matter, decision to open their borders to foreigners. Immigration has never been about kindness, spreading the wealth or saving those persecuted in their own homeland. Immigration is, first and foremost, leveraging the human capital requirements of a growing economy. It offers our growing industries with the workers and expertise needed to maintain the momentum of growth. It also maintains the competitive edge of our industries through innovation transfers, stabile and lower wages, a hungry workforce and in some cases, it fulfills the gaping requirement of a sector (those ordinarily shunned by the locals).
Additionally, immigration is also an excellent long-term demographic shaping and recovery tool. It lowers the average national age of the population (immigrants are almost always in the younger age bracket), maintains national birthrates and population growth (lower income and middle class immigrant families traditionally have higher birthrates). Some may consider this as trivial, but the Japanese and ‘Old Europe’ are probably now kicking themselves for not taking this seriously enough in their future planning even as late as the 90s. As it is now, the Japanese are starting to feel the pinch, while Europe will be facing a variation of the same crisis in several decades.
“Population aging in Europe is occurring because of the interaction of four demographic developments. First, fertility rates in all EU countries are, and are projected to remain, below the natural population replacement rate. Second, the recent decline in fertility rates followed the postwar baby boom, and the impending retirement of these cohorts will lead to a transitory increase (albeit lasting several decades) in the old-age dependency ratio. Third, life expectancy at birth, having increased by eight years since 1960, is projected to rise by a further six years for males and five years for females by 2050, with most gains resulting from longer life spans. Fourth, large net migration inflows are projected up to 2050: although cumulating to close to 40 million people, they will not offset low fertility and growing life expectancy.
"Indeed, according to official projections, between 2004 and 2050, the number of young persons in the EU (aged 0–14) will drop by 18 percent. The working-age population (15–64) will fall by 48 million, or 16 percent, whereas the elderly population aged 65+ will rise sharply, by 58 million (or 77 percent), and the fastest-growing segment of the population will be the very old (aged 80+).”
IMF Finance and Development Magazine, September 2006, Volume 43, Number 3 (Giuseppe Carone and Declan Costello)
Positions Opposing Immigration
It needs to be said: for all the benefits of immigration, it also poses an inherent danger and the ever-present threat of dismantling the social construct of a nation. Additionally, aside from the standard playbook reasons which we will touch on momentarily, the tragedy of 9/11 and other terror attacks has actually made many of us, in varying degrees, afraid, and the taint of xenophobia has inevitably reared its incredibly ugly head.
This is an oversimplification, a charge that we fully agree with. But the fact is, in the years since 9/11, there are noticeable reversals of our social growth, in our ability accept and assimilate different cultures into our own. Where a dastar worn by a Sikh used to be a unique talking point in the 90s, it is now viewed with suspicion. A pious Muslim taxi driver performing his prayers by the park under the cool shade of a tree on a sunny day use to draw our admiration. Now, this will more likely precipitate whispers and finger pointing. A bearded Hindu man is routinely labeled as a trained jihadi. As a nation, we are suffering from a collective post-traumatic stress disorder, and we are afraid. We shouldn’t feel guilty about this, but neither should we base our every future decision around it. Simply put, we must learn to set this fear aside, and argue the issue of immigration using a rational approach.
One of the primary concerns behind any immigration policy is the displacement of opportunities for local workers and the secondary economic effects, not least in the drop of average wages and fringe benefits. The influx of a foreign workforce realigns old standards and practices, negates existing leverages and draws new lines across the sand on existing employee-employer relationships. The process is not always instantaneous, but as sure as the sun will rise, it is a certainty.
There is also the issue of immigrant integration into a society. Too few, and they run the risks of being absorbed or repulsed by their host community. Too many, and the host community is open to the risks of being unraveled and reshaped. The United States, for all of its open-arms policy to foreign talents, lack a structured and coherent integration process. Moreover, with no support infrastructure at a local level to assist immigrant integration processes, everything is left to chance, and once again, reactionary. This approach is especially flawed when dealing with a massive, single area influx, which will strain the healthcare, education and other prevailing public and social infrastructure.
Now, this is even before we include illegal immigration into the mix, which will see the aforementioned risks being augmented many times over. With over ten million illegal immigrants in the country (the number varies depending on who you ask, but the error margin is about a million in either direction), accounting for a third of the foreign workforce, the figures are cause for great concern. This is especially true in border towns, where the lack strategic, legal and enforcement support from the federal and state governments give rise to a siege mentality among the populace there.
The situation is further exacerbated when criminal elements insert themselves into the situation, introducing drugs, human trafficking and cross border violence into the already volatile mix. Words like ‘invasion’ are being bandied with increasing regularity, and coupled with the constant threat of terrorism, there is a fear that vigilantism by over exuberant members of the border communities might find popular support, especially (and worryingly) from less reputable section of these communities (remember the Minuteman vigilante group and their eventual transformation into common robbers?). Putting all that aside, the deaths of immigrants looking for work in the country alone ought to raise questions about existing U.S. immigration policies, and facilitate the reengineering of these legislations.
Managing the national immigration agenda is probably one of the most underrated, yet critical, aspects of any presidency. An equilibrium between competing forces has to be attained in order to leverage immigration towards the country’s advantage. The demands of the business, public, and international sectors must be carefully weighed, and policies require careful consideration to fulfill current, as well as future exigencies, while diligently preserving the nation’s well-being. The John Adams-led Federalist administration paid the price for mismanaging the issue and was unceremoniously driven out of office by the electorate as a consequence of the 1798 Alien and Sedition Act.
Since then, there have been repeated attempts by administration after administration to develop an effective national immigration policy. However, all the legislations are reactive in nature, and heavily influenced by prevailing public sentiments and short term socioeconomic interests, which resulted in the introduction of an unending array of legislations, with a fair sprinkling of commissions, international agreements and repeals thrown in. We have compiled below a legislative timeline featuring some of the most far-reaching and historically significant judicial developments since independence.
1781 | Articles of Confederation [replaced by the U.S Constitution in 1788]
Immigration falls under the purview of individual states, who in general, adopted an open arm policy to immigrants from Western Europe.
1788 | U.S. Constitution
Immigration is still under the jurisdiction individual states.
1790 | Alien Naturalization Act
Immigration and naturalization are allowed to free white persons of good moral character who have been in the country for a minimum of two years. The act was tailored not only to address foreign naturalization, but also to exclude Native Americans from the process (the ‘non-citizen’ argument was designed to facilitate confiscation of their land by the federal government).
1798 | Alien and Sedition Acts
Act to Establish A Uniform Rule of Naturalization
Residency requirement for naturalization was increased from five to fourteen years.
Act Concerning Aliens
Act Respecting Alien Enemies
Act for the Punishment of Certain Crimes against the United States
The Act was in response to the 1798 Quasi War between the United States and France. It confers the president with discretionary powers to either imprison or deport aliens and/or naturalized citizens suspected of being a threat to the country.
1800 | U.S. Constitution, Article I, Section 9.
The passing of the British’s 1807 Slave Trade Act (Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade) saw to Congress declaring that all slave immigration as illegal, by virtue of Article I, Section 9, of the U.S. Constitution.
1802 | The Naturalization Law of 1802
Amendment of the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798; residency requirement for naturalization was reduced from fourteen to five years.
1848 | Treaty of Guadalupe
The treaty confers American citizenship to 80,000 Mexicans residing in areas* conquered by the United States in the American-Mexican War of 1846-48.
*Areas: California, Nevada, New Mexico; a majority of Colorado, Utah and Arizona; parcels of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, and Wyoming.
1862 | Homestead Act
The Act bestows the federal government the authority to redistribute land to settlers for a nominal sum (between 13 cents to $1.25 per acre) to spur development in outlying regions of the country, as well as an incentive to attract immigrants that the nation sorely needed then. Settlers were each accorded 160 acres of unclaimed federal land, with several loose and rarely regulated provisions attached. 1.7 million settlers and 270 million acres later, the whole demographic profile of American society changed as immigrants from West and Central Europe, and the Scandinavia, took full advantage of the Act.
1864 | Thirteenth Amendment
"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."
The abolishment of slavery presented African-American forced-immigrants that were already in the country the opportunity to seek citizenship.
The Act, designed to increase the flow of migrant laborers to the country after the disruption of the Civil War, saw to the creation of the position of Commissioner of Immigration to facilitate the objective. In addition, migrant laborers, upon qualifying for permanent residency, will also be exempted from compulsory military service.
1868 | Burlingame-Seward Treaty
Article V of the treaty, signed by Congressman William H. Seward and Anson Burlingame (Envoy Extrordinary and Minister Plentipotentiary to China) for the Americans, and High Envoys and Ministers of the Emperor of China, Chih Kang and Sun Chia Ku for the Chinese, stipulates that both countries
“recognize the inherent and inalienable right of man to change his home and allegiance, and also the mutual advantage of the free migration and emigration of their citizens and subjects respectively from the one country to the other, for purposes of curiosity, of trade, or as permanent residents…. They consequently agree to pass laws making it a penal offence for a citizen of the United States or Chinese subjects to take Chinese subjects … without their free and voluntary consent respectively.”
The Act was designed to encourage and increase the flow of migrant laborers from China. It did not last long, however, and was repealed in 1880.
1868 | Fourteenth Amendment
“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
The Amendment essentially ensures that every person born in the country qualifies for citizenship. The Amendment was challenged several times, but the Supreme Court, in the landmark 1898 case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, upheld the Amendment and the rights of citizenship by jus soli.
1870 | Naturalization Act of 1870
The Act expunged the free white persons provision from the 1790 Alien Naturalization Act and extended naturalization laws for persons of African or other descent.
1875 | Page Act 1882 | Chinese Exclusion Act
The Page Act of 1875 and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act attempts to deal with the problem of Chinese immigrant workforce. They were initially brought in by local business owners beginning in the 1850s using "coolie- labor" contracts. However, triads from mainland China usurped the role of American agents and became the primary source of Chinese laborers, and even extended their supply to include women for prostitution. The costs of employing these laborers increased significantly, raising the ire of business owners, and also, social and religious bodies (for entirely different reasons, of course). Congress was lobbied hard, and despite opposition from the administration, imposed restrictive legislations against Chinese immigrants.
1882 | Immigration Act
Federal authorities were officially tasked with the processing of all immigration related applications. Further, an administrative tax of 50 cents for each immigrant arriving in the country was introduced to purportedly offset the cost of maintaining immigration-related agencies and its staff. The Act also placed restrictions against immigrations of “convicts (except those convicted of political offenses), lunatics, idiots”.
The amended Act saw to the establishment of the Bureau of Immigration under the authority of the Treasury Department. It also stipulates that all immigrants must subject themselves to questioning and inspection by agents of the Bureau at the port of entry. They are required to supply their personal information as well as their reasons for visiting, after which, they must undergo a medical examination. Additionally, persons “whose ticket or passage is paid for with the money of another or who assisted by others to come” are prohibited from entering the country.
Note: Polygamists immigrants were forbidden from entering the country under the Act.
1900 | Organic Act of 1900
The Act was passed two years after the annexation of Hawaii, and it conferred American citizenship to all Hawaiians.
1911 | United States Immigration Commission (Dillingham Commission)
The commission was established to address the growing concerns over the long-term effects of immigration to the country.
“A majority of the commission favor the reading and writing test as the most feasible single method of restricting undesirable immigration”, as well as “concluding that new immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe pose a grave threat to American culture and society and it should be restricted”.
1917 | Immigration Act of 1917 (Asiatic Barred Zone Act)
The Act increased the immigrant entry tax to $8 per person, a substantial sum during the time. Additionally, an expanded list of undesirables prohibited from entering the country was included, namely, “… idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons not comprehended within any of the foregoing excluded classes who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living; persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists, or persons who practice polygamy or believe in or advocate the practice of polygamy; anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States… aliens over sixteen years of age, physically capable of reading, who cannot read the English language, or some other language or dialect, including Hebrew or Yiddish… Any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia…”
1921 | Emergency Quota Act
Sixty-Seventh Congress, Session I, Ch.8, 1921
In essence, the Act curtails immigration from any given country to 3% of the country’s total workforce currently in the United States.
1924 | Immigration Act (Johnson–Reed Act)
Immigration fell under the joint-purview of the State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Additionally, all visitors to the country must obtain a visa from their country of origin prior to visiting.
National Origins Act
Revised the quota administered under the 1921 Emergency Quota Act. Immigration from any country is now capped at 2% of the country’s total naturalized citizens currently residing in the United States based on figures from the 1890 Census.
Asian Exclusion Act (43 Statutes-at-Large 153)
Prohibits the immigration of people from East Asia and the Indian subcontinent
1924 | Labor Appropriation Act of 1924
Instituted the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol
1952 | Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran–Walter Act)
The annual quota is further revised to “one-sixth of 1 per centum of the number of inhabitants in the continental United States in 1920”.
In addition, an automatic exclusion list was included, which featured, among others, aliens who are feeble-minded, insane, possessing a psychopathic personality, drug addicts, alcoholics, TB patients, professional beggars, polygamists and prostitutes.
1965 | Immigration and Nationality Act (Hart-Celler Act)
The Act ended discrimination on the basis of nationality and race, and instead, placed skill sets, ‘immediate relatives’, artistic excellence and political/religious persecution as the new defining immigration criteria. The Act also abolished all direct restrictions on East Asia immigration. However, an annual immigration limit is imposed; 120,000 from the Western hemisphere and 170,000 from the Eastern.
1986 | Immigration Reform and Control Act (Simpson-Mazzoli Act)
The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act is the most comprehensive piece of immigration legislation in American history. Its coverage extends to almost every facet of existing immigration laws. The Act offered amnesty to illegal aliens and the opportunity for them to obtain legal working status for those who have been gainfully employed in the country since January 1, 1982 (additional stipulations apply). The Act, sometimes derisively called the Immigration Amnesty Act, eventually facilitated the amnesty of 2.8 million illegal aliens.
1990 | Immigration Act of 1990
The notable changes introduced by the Act included an increase of the annual immigration quota (to 700,000), the Diversity Visa Lottery Program and removing sexual preferences from its exclusion list.
1996 | Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
The Act easily trumps the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act in terms of its breadth, coverage and complexity. However, it does not contain any significant new legislative addition and is essentially a bureaucrat’s wet dream. It details enhancements and SOP’s of administrative, regulatory and enforcement activities for affected branches of the federal government.
2006 | Secure Fence Act
The Act confers the Department of Homeland Security with the authority to assume operational control of the land and maritime borders of the United States and Mexico. It also authorizes the construction of a 700 miles long physical barrier along selected border locations, aimed at curtailing attempts to enter the country illegally.
Those who have been gainfully employed in the country since January 1, 1982 (additional stipulations apply). The Act, sometimes derisively called the Immigration Amnesty Act, eventually facilitated the amnesty of 2.8 million illegal aliens.