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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Immigration Policy in the United States

This is the second in a series of posts about Immigration (see also my reaction to the Day without Immigrants, my exploration of Immigration Policy Impacts on Children and Families, and my post on Xenophobia in US Politics).  I was inspired by the protest on February 16th, 2017 A Day Without Immigrants to do some further research into Immigration in the United States.  What I learned was too much information and opinion to put into a single blog post, so I have separated it out into a mini-series of four posts.  My past college professors will probably laugh at this particular post because it so very clearly speaks to my “researchy” nature.  Most all of my projects and interests turn into research papers, books, or a project of some sort. This post will focus on the history of Immigration Policy in the United States.

As I do anytime I am seeking a summary time line of historical information about a topic, I turn to Wikipedia.  Of course we are all vaguely familiar with immigration in the United States in the early settlement and colonization days of the 1600s-1700s (which Wikipedia gives a great summary of here), but what was the beginning of Immigration law and policy? And how has that policy formed modern American opinion about Immigration?

The U.S. has had an Immigration reporting system since 1819, but US Civil Liberties.Org suggests that the first piece of immigration legislation was actually the Civil Rights Act of 1866.  While this Act was primarily meant to protect previous slaves after the Civil War, it “declared that people born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power are entitled to be citizens” which marked the first time a Birth Right to Citizenship was legally mentioned in U.S. Policy. Another important fact to note here is that Birth Right Citizenship, having been included in the Civil Rights Act, is now seen as a Civil Rights issue.  Civil Rights issues are specifically related to rights that protect against discrimination. 

Just two years later an amendment to the U.S. Constitution reinforced this policy (American History).  The 14th Amendment gave  equal protection and rights not only to former slaves but also to ANYONE BORN in the United States, whom would be given “equal protection of the laws.”  In brief, this meant that any child born on U.S. soil would be, upon their birth, a U.S. Citizen with all the rights and privileges thereof (more on this topic in my 3rd in the Immigration mini-series: Immigrant and Undocumented Families and Children).  Shortly after, many U.S. States began passing individual immigration laws until that ability was taken away by the Supreme Court ruling in 1875 that stated that “immigration was a federal responsibility” thereby taking it out of the individual State’s hands (Wikipedia).



The 1850s to early 1890s saw an increase in the movement towards exclusionary immigration policy and was supported by the 1882 Immigration Act (which was later revised in the 1891 Immigration Act) that established that certain individuals were unfit to become Americans.  What was specifically important about the Immigration Act was that it signified the first true policy in U.S. History to EXCLUDE specific people from immigrating to the Unites States.  This marks a huge shift from main stream U.S. thought from “everyone is welcome” to “only certain people are welcome”.  The availability of the American Dream was thereby narrowed to people of only certain national origins (Wikipedia).

Over the next 30 years the U.S. went through waves of immigration with the majority of immigrants coming from Central Europe (roughly 2 million), Sweden/Norway (roughly 1.5 million), and Lebanon/Syria (This is the time when my ancestors immigrated into the United States, see my post A Day without Immigrants).  With such large numbers of Immigrants seeking refuge in the United States fleeing the expanding Nazi rule and various other conflicts in Europe, Congress passed a literacy requirement in 1917 to reduce the inflow of working-class and low-skilled immigrants.  This again further limited the scope of people who were welcome to immigrate into the United States (Wikipedia).

Immigrants from Southern Europe and Russia were further restricted in the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. These two pieces of legislation included restrictions on the number of immigrants who could enter the US from specific countries and completely restricted immigration from Asian countries.  In the 1940s a series of immigration acts allowed foreign born wives and fiances of military members and persons displaced from WWII to immigrate to the United States.  During this time over 1 million people immigrated to the US from Germany, the UK, Canada, Mexico, and Italy.  In 1953, The Refugee Relief Act expanded refugee immigration to non-Europeans (Wikipedia).

Ironically, very little legislation up to this point restricted immigration from the Western Hemisphere.  Immigrants from Mexico, the Caribbean, and most of Central America could often move much more freely across borders.  It wasn’t until the 1950s with the onset of Operation Wetback  that the U.S. (in cooperation with Mexico) began to really focus on the regulation of Mexican immigration.  This was largely a rebound response to a 6,000% increase in the number of immigrants who entered the United States from Mexico during the 1940s and early 1950s.  Interestingly, as it relates to our current political situation, the 1950s also saw a shift in political party power.  Harry Truman, a moderate Democrat who took over after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, left office in 1953 and was replaced by Dwight D. Eisenhower, a and Republican 5-star general.  What one president saw as an economic positive for our country, the next president saw as a potential for disaster.

It’s important to note here that there was a large increase in undocumented Mexican immigration happening while U.S. policy makers were busy responding to the effects of WWII on economy in the 1940s and 50s.  The U.S. began a massive industrial manufacturing push that left many farms desperate for low-cost labor.  In 1942, the U.S. and Mexico (under the direction of FDR) had created a joint labor program meant to bring more Mexican laborers into the U.S. to fill labor positions left from American citizen movement into industrial jobs (LOC.Gov).  

This labor program not only brought legal immigrants into the U.S. it also brought with it many thousands of undocumented laborers eagerly seeking American work. While there were certainly problems with the sheer numbers of undocumented immigrants crossing the U.S. boarder from Mexico, the cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. to encourage legal immigration of capable Mexican labor to help keep the American farm system running is to be commended. Without that influx of laborers American farming could very well have seen massive deterioration.  Of course, there were various (and often terrible) problems with using low-wage immigrant labor in farms, but that is a topic for a future post.


In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed that granted amnesty to roughly 3,000,000 illegal immigrants in the United States.  Most of those immigrants were from Mexico (Wikipedia).  A rather interesting detail about this act and the amnesty that was provided to undocumented immigrants is that the President at the time was Ronald Reagan (with vice president George H. Bush), the president whom many most closely compare President Trump to.  This represents a HUGE shift in Republican thought about Immigration.  Reagan’s had an inclusionary immigration policy.  This reform gave many undocumented immigrants access to a path in which they could become American citizens, which would allow them to legally obtain jobs and pay taxes, thereby including them access to the American Dream. Reagan saw this program as an opportunity to increase the tax base and avoid spending more capital on deportation (which had been a huge investment since large scale deportations started during Operation Wetback).

In 2001, due to threats from terrorist organizations, President George W. Bush supported the USA Patriot Act (US History Timeline), which again shifted the focus of Immigration Policy to exclusionary.  While many of the exclusions in the Patriot Act were extended in 2011 by President Barack Obama (Wikipedia), the Act expired in 2015 and was replaced the following day in the 2015 Freedom Act (Wikipedia). Similar to Reagan granting Amnesty to roughly 3 million undocumented Immigrants in 1886, President Obama used an Executive Order that would potentially protect up to half (around 11 million) undocumented Immigrants and focused his efforts on deportation of criminals instead of families.  Obama's Executive Order aimed at protecting the undocumented parents of children who are legal U.S. Birth Right Citizens (more on this topic in my 3rd in the Immigration mini-series: Immigrant and Undocumented Families and Children).  

Our immigration policy since the 1850s has been largely reactionary and exclusionary, with one president making concessions and the next “tightening the belt” so-to-speak.  Reagan, a Republican President, moved away from this reactionary policy by giving amnesty to many immigrants and offering them a path to citizenship (which now is considered a largely Democratic Party idea).  President George W. Bush again moved towards a reactionary Immigration by excluding immigrants from some countries as a reaction to the 9-11 Terrorist Attacks.  Obama took an interestingly mixed approach which restricted immigration for some and provided inclusion for others. 

How does this relate to parenting? I’m not sure.  But the history of policy and how it was derived (especially around immigration from Mexico) helps us understand why the current politics around Immigration are so tensely wound.  I will delve more closely into how Immigration affects our parenting and our children in my next post on Immigration: Immigrant and Undocumented Families and Children.  Perhaps it’s time again for a Republican administration to implement Immigration Policy that isn’t reactionary, but inclusionary? Or perhaps President Trump could take a mixed approach and provide shelter for some immigrants but restrict others?  Your RESPECTFUL thoughts and comments are appreciated.

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