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A Look At The Record:
The Facts Behind the Current Controversy Over Immigration
December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
Beginning with the 1882 law, the government gradually developed a policy of restricted immigration. For the first time, Congress established strict standards of admissibility. As we have seen, Chinese immigrants were barred outright; so were convicts, “lunatics,” and persons likely to become public charges. In 1891 the list was extended to include polygamists, persons with “loathsome or contagious diseases,” and contract laborers. Twelve years later anarchists and prostitutes were denied entry. In 1907 the Japanese, like the Chinese, were barred simply because of their race. In 1917 Congress required a literacy test for every immigrant. Any person over sixteen who could not read at least thirty words in English or some other language was to be sent home. By the end of World War I immigration law defined nearly one hundred separate conditions that might make an alien excludable.
In vetoing an earlier literacy bill in 1915, Woodrow Wilson wrote that the nation had, in the past, “generously kept our doors open to all,” excepting those who were clearly unfit by reason of disease or criminal record or the like. Now, he said, Congress was proposing “to turn away from tests of character and of quality and impose tests which exclude and restrict.” Was this, he asked, “the conscious … desire of the American people?”
Within six years he had his answer. In 1921 Congress passed the first of the quota laws, which would dominate immigration policy for the next generation—all designed to reduce the immigrant flow from Southern and Eastern Europe and to prohibit entirely immigration from Asia. The last of these, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, passed over the veto of President Truman, added a provision empowering the Immigration Service to screen all applicants for signs of “subversive behavior.”
Current policy is contained in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. There already had been erosion of the quota system through various postwar measures allowing the entry of certain national groups, as in the Displaced Persons directives signed by President Truman in successive years from 1945 to 1952. Moreover, the role America had assumed as “leader of the free world” stood in sharp contrast to the exclusionary policies embodied in immigration law.
The Hart-Celler Act retained an annual quota as necessary to orderly growth but removed the artificial—and often biased—criteria of past admissions practices in favor of broadly based standards that gave all nationalities equal access on a first-come, first-served basis. Extra-quota status was extended to certain classes of immigrants (among them, immediate relatives of naturalized citizens and persons with special technical skills). Other reforms made it easier for the President to admit refugees, as in the Cuban exodus in 1981.
Now more than a decade old, the Hart-Celler Act has changed the face of the immigrant population, three-fourths of whom in recent years have been Asiatics or Latin Americans. Its liberalized provisions for nonquota entry have led to a steady increase in the number of aliens seeking permanent residence and of refugees requesting asylum. From 1978 to 1980 nearly 2,000,000 legal immigrants entered the country, pushing the immigration rate above 2.8 per thousand U.S. population for the first time in half a century. In addition, upward of 1,000,000 aliens illegally crossed the nation’s borders. Responding to public alarm over that sudden surge of immigrants, President Reagan and some members of Congress argued that existing policies were out of control and that the Hart-Celler Act needed revision.
In mid-March, 1981, Senator Walter D. Huddleston of Kentucky introduced a comprehensive reform bill that would limit total immigration to 350,000 aliens a year, eliminate all special-status admissions above that ceiling, and restrict the entry of refugees by forcing the President to admit them under the annual quota or to borrow against future quotas. The Huddleston bill, jointly sponsored by eight other senators, also called for civil and criminal penalties for employers who hire illegal aliens and proposed tripling the size of the Border Patrol to 6,000 officers.
By midsummer, the Reagan administration offered further legislation to deal with illegal border-crossers. Arguing that “no free and prosperous nation can by itself accommodate all those who seek a better life,” Mr. Reagan asked Congress to consider three specific measures: a law to prohibit the hiring of illegal aliens (punishable by a civil fine of up to $1,000 for each person so hired); the granting of legal status to the several million illegal aliens already residing here (provided they had entered the United States before January 1, 1980); and the creation of a “guest worker” program whereby 100,000 Mexicans would be admitted over two years to take jobs for which domestic labor was unavailable or in short supply.
As in earlier periods of high unemployment and economic distress, the lines are again drawn between those who argue for sharply reduced quotas and those who invoke the past as evidence that the nation must continue to accept responsibility for the oppressed from other lands. And once again Congress and the President must strike a delicate balance between them.