Monday, February 05, 2007

Immigration Reform, 1917

And you thought immigration reform was a new topic...

On this date in 1917, with a majority of more than two-thirds, Congress overrode President Wilson's veto and passed the Immigration Act, which required a literacy test for immigrants and barred Asiatic laborers, except for those from countries with special treaties or agreements with the United States, such as the Philippines. Advocates of immigration reform had petitioned the U.S. government as early as 1894 to legislate that immigrants be required to demonstrate literacy in some language before being accepted, hoping to limit the number of lower-class immigrants flooding in from Southern and Eastern Europe. Congress passed a literacy bill in 1897, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. In early 1917, with America's entrance into World War I three months away, xenophobia was at a new high, and the bill restricting immigration was passed over President Wilson's veto.

This provides an interesting historical perspective on the immigration issue. In 1917, the immigrants everyone worried most about were Eastern Europeans and Asians - not Hispanics or Africans. Then as now, the concern was with the potential effect on the US economy and society of large numbers of undereducated immigrants. But a critical difference between 1917 and today is that in 1917, the Immigration Act sought to limit legal immigration; today, we look for ways to keep out people who simply ignore the law and flood illegally into the country in search of work and social benefits.

My paternal grandparents came to the US from Hungary - legally - in the early years of the last century, and I brought my wife to the US from Germany - legally - nearly 25 years ago. While the US is a nation built by immigrants, it's also a nation of laws. When we pick and choose which laws we will obey based on abstract concepts of perceived social and economic justice, we lose one of the things that sets us apart from the rest of the of the reasons, in fact, that so many people try to come here, legally or illegally.

After all, how many people do you see risking arrest and deportation to break into social paradises like Mexico, or Saudi Arabia, or Bangladesh? I think you get the point.

I haven't fulminated about illegal immigration in this space for a while, but today seemed like a good day, given the anniversary of the 1917 Immigration Act. While that legislation was ill-conceived and probably could never get through Congress today, in 1917 it seemed like a good idea. Immigration reform is still desperately needed, and it's too bad we'll likely never see comprehensive legislation: the conservatives only want punitive measures, the liberals only want to follow their ideas of social responsibility, and no one is willing to compromise. If you read back far enough in this blog, you can find my proposal for a comprehensive reform of our immigration policy. I sent it to my senators, my representative, and the White House...and received very nice form letters telling me how seriously each recipient took the problem and how hard they're working to solve it.

And it doesn't take a lot of effort to see how far that's gone.

Have a good day. Support legal immigration - it's what made this country the envy of the world.

More thoughts tomorrow.


No comments: