"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
The issues surrounding immigration reform are complex and require a historical context as well as an examination of the impact of various proposals.
In order to understand immigration reform in the United States, it is necessary to put aside some of the myths that surround the issue. While most are familiar with the famous poem by Emma Lazarus and believe that this was the major principle behind immigration policy utilized by the government of the U.S., the historical reality is far different. In reality, a nation starved for a population to occupy its vast lands had no immigration policy at all until after the Civil War. In 1882 Congress passed the first immigrations laws which focused on outright barring or significantly restricting people who were identified as undesirable. Those most notably banned at this time were the Chinese and all Asians were omitted from “quotas of immigrants” from their native countries.
From this point on, the nature of the undesirables varied with the times, but the general tendency was to accept those from the Western hemisphere, particularly Ireland and Great Britain with few limitations. In 1921, the open doors became more narrow as the Western hemisphere was limited primarily to Western Europe. The quotas for 1925-27 allowed a total of 1200 immigrants from the entire continent of Africa, including Egypt. At the same time over 62,000 were allowed in from Great Britain and Ireland. In 1933, German immigration was reduced to 10% of its normal quota in order to prevent extensive Jewish immigration to America to avoid prosecution by the Nazis.
This data significantly refutes the common image of the “open door” to the poor and huddled masses, particularly if they were from Asia, Africa, or “less desirable” European nations. Instead it suggests that historical immigration policy was driven by two factors – current social attitudes and the economic needs of the country.
Virtually every nation in the world adjusts its immigration policies based on the needs of its economic system. As additional labor is needed, borders are opened and when there are more people than jobs, then borders tend to be closed. This is a harsh reality and few elected officials in any country are going to be seen to be opening up the job market to outsiders when natural born citizens are unemployed in significant numbers.
In addition, the characteristics of the possible immigrants must be examined in the context of productivity vs impact on the nation’s social support systems. If prospective immigrants are going to contribute more to the economy then they will drain from it then they are usually welcome. In the current reform debate many studies have been referenced, most of which are in conflict or fail to consider the total scope of the issue which involves (1) the economic cost/ benefit of current illegal immigration, (2) the economic cost/benefit of amnesty for those already here, and (3) the economic cost/benefit of closing the borders to further illegal immigration
What cannot be ignored is the added value of family unification, both an economic and humanitarian issue. The Immigration Policy Center, in a report “The Immigration Stimulus: The Economic Benefits of a Legalization Program” consistently found that legalizing undocumented immigrants allowed them to qualify for better jobs with higher salaries. With family unification this added income would remain in the United States as declared taxable income and consumer spending as opposed to being exported in the form of remittances to family members in other countries.
A major issue confronting congress and the American people is that of what is to be done about those immigrants who are already here illegally. There is much division on the issue in which some claim that the U.S. cannot economically absorb this many new citizens into the safety net welfare structure, while others express concern about breaking apart families who may have born children in the U. S., who are legal citizens, while the parents may not be. Too much appears to be placed on the “illegality” of the immigrants. In reality the government for years has turned a blind eye to the massive illegal immigration into this country, following a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy unofficially. By underfunding and under manning border security the process was condoned by the government and the lack of enforcement and punishment of those who employed illegal workers provides a defacto approval of the process. If there was no work and no benefit to being here, there would have been far fewer crossing the border so it is not only the immigrants who must bear this stigma. The influx of cheap labor did not become a serious issue until terrorist concerns after 9/11 and the recent recession which put many natural citizens out of work.
Enforcing current or future immigration policies is a major concern for many. The current emphasis on border security, while popular, remains unrealistic when it comes to a nation with 12,383 miles of shoreline and two borders with other countries that often are in desolate areas difficult to reach. More emphasis needs to be placed on rapid identification of those who enter illegally or over-stay permits for legal entry. Tied to this identification is vigorous investigation and prosecution of those who employ undocumented individuals.
Laws can’t be selectively enforced and have a legal system remain effective. There have been many well stated objections to illegal immigration from those who have followed the complex process of legal immigration. Why, they legitimately ask, should those who break the law and enter the country illegally receive the same protection and benefits as those who followed the legal and correct process?
1. Provide a “Pathway to Citizenship” for those currently in the United States without legal documentation and who have no criminal records. This pathway should include:
A. Completion of training to be eligible for a median wage occupation
B. Completion of functional workplace English literacy training
C. A time limit to complete the pathway based on age and experience.
2. Develop a system to combat future illegal immigration which includes
A. Increased border security
B. Vigorous prosecution of those who harbor or employ illegal immigrants who have not voluntarily entered the legal Pathway to Citizenship program
C. Enhanced use of technology to identify those who are not legally documented.
3. Expand immigration opportunities for skilled workers in high-demand occupations.
The Democratic Party has long been identified with efforts to promote diversity and broaden immigration policies to make Emma Lazarus’s poem a reality for the United States rather than a myth. Only recently has the Republican Party chosen to even consider such policies as it recognizes the political expediency of such a move in order to survive. The majority of the recommendations provided above are contained in the current legislation currently before the Senate and we urge all to participate in a bipartisan effort to pass this legislation regardless of the motivation behind the support.