Originally published by VOX
Every workable immigration policy from the 1986 amnesty to Obama’s DACA plan has had one thing in common: They were attempts to adapt policy to the reality of migration.
Trump’s hardline immigration proposals all push in the opposite direction: They try to mold reality to fit policy.
Which is why, if history is any guide, these proposals are doomed to fail.
Trump is hardly the first to struggle to enact a hardline immigration policy. Trump wants to end the diversity lottery (which brings in immigrants from countries that rarely supply them), fund part of the border wall, and slash legal immigration. He has important precursors. In the 1920s, restrictionists put into place America’s first comprehensive immigration policy, motivated in large part by a set of racial theories that placed white Europeans from Northern and Western Europe on the highest rung of a eugenicist ladder.
They developed a set of strict national quotas that overwhelmingly favored immigrants from those areas while sharply curtailing opportunities for migrants from other regions. Germany could send more than 50,000 immigrants a year, Great Britain 34,000, and Ireland more than 28,000. But Russia was limited to only 2,200, and the entire continent of Africa was allowed a mere 1,200. Immigration from Asia was entirely barred.
Yet reality intruded even into this rigidly racialist set of policies. Despite deeply rooted anti-Mexican and anti-Latino racism, the racist quotas set in 1924 made an exception for the Western Hemisphere.
Any man born in an independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, from Canada to the southernmost tip of South America, could migrate along with his wife and underage children. That exemption came about thanks to the influence of the agriculture lobby. Southwestern farmers argued that they could not function without the labor of migrants from Latin America.
And so, while ideology demanded restriction, reality required openness.
The 1920s-era restrictions changed as the world took note of American hypocrisy
Ideologies changed over the 40 years of the quota system and ideas about who should be allowed to migrate shifted. World War II and the Cold War each created incentives to end the ban on Asian immigration, if in a token way. For instance, Chinese immigration, barred since the 1880s, resumed in 1943, though only 105 entry visas were issued per year. This served both as a nod to alliances and an attempt to convince the world that the US was not fundamentally racist.
But that was a difficult fiction to maintain while the quota system existed. The combined pressures of the civil rights movement at home, which elevated the cause of racial equality, and the Cold War, which heightened the need for at least the outward appearance of equality, inspired a massive rewrite of immigration law.
The result was the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, the basics of which continue to structure our immigration system and shape our debates. The new law did away with the national-origins quota and favored family reunification and high-skilled migrants (though only if they had specific job offers or worked in a profession deemed scarce by the Labor Department). Crucially, the law also capped immigration from the Western Hemisphere for the first time, fundamentally redefining America’s southern border.
The law also embodied a new set of commitments to fairness. Upon the abolition of the old quota system, President Lyndon B. Johnson said it had “violated the basic principle of American democracy — the principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man.” The new immigration regime restored that principle, knocking down “the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.”
It was a nice idea, and the aspirations Johnson voiced were commendable. But by the 1980s, the practical flaws inherent in the new immigration regime were starting to show.
The 1965 immigration law created fresh problems, finally confronted in the 1980s
The law’s new rules for the Western Hemisphere created a difficult new situation for migrants from Mexico, who were used to a cyclical migration pattern tied to the growing cycle. Over time, increased policing of the border spurred migrants to become long-term or permanent immigrants, often without official documentation. They brought with them young children or gave birth to children — US citizens — after arriving. They found employment, built lives, and integrated into communities first in border states and then across the country.
The presence of these undocumented immigrants, vital to the social and economic life of the United States, emerged as one of the many unintended consequences of the new immigration law. By the 1980s, some 5 million undocumented immigrants — some from the Western Hemisphere, many others from Europe, Asia, and Africa who had overstayed their visas — lived in the United States, caught in a shadow world of unauthorized residency.
At another key turning point, both parties opted to be immigration realists
Legislators had two options: a hardline approach or a realist one. A hardline “solution” — raids followed by the detention and deportation of millions of immigrants — would have destroyed lives, devastated American communities, and punched a hole in the economy.
Congress instead worked toward a flexible solution that recognized the lived realities of immigrants as well as their importance to the economy (while strengthening border security and, for the first time, fining employers for hiring undocumented immigrants).
The fix was far from perfect. By cracking down on the ability of employers to hire undocumented migrants, the bill ensured the continuation of an unstable gray-market labor economy, with the concomitant ever-present fear of crackdowns.
The Temporary Protected Status designation, created to aid refugees, likewise created new realities on the ground that politicians had to consider, forcing them to set aside rigid ideologies. Created in 1990 as a path to aid people who were in the US when their home countries were afflicted by war or natural disasters, TPS in its very name stressed the temporariness of the designation. But wars, natural disasters, and famines create chaos lasting much longer than the six to 18 months of protection offered by TPS.
Time and again migrants have seen their TPS status renewed, to the point where migrants have been in the United States for years, building lives and families in this country. In truth, there is little temporary about TPS, whether the people affected are victims of the 2010 Haitian earthquake or refugees from the Sudanese civil war. Some Sudanese have been in the US under TPS status for more than a decade.
There is no simple answer to this. Ripping people from their communities and sending them to a country they haven’t seen in more than a decade seems cruel. Creating a path to residency or citizenship is a complicated endeavor, and building a national consensus for any of those policies now appears impossible.
One policy now seen as idealistic began as blatant ethnic favoritism
The diversity visa, which Trump and his allies have been attacking, is yet another example of a policy shaped not just by ideology but by realities on the ground. Opening up immigration to countries that historically send few people to the US is a reasonable, even noble idea, in the abstract. But “diversity” was hardly the initial goal. As the historian Carly Goodman recounts, the provision was first developed to allow a route to citizenship mainly for Irish immigrants.
By the late 1980s, tens of thousands of Irish had fled poverty in their home country and were living without authorization in the United States, leading to a drive to “legalize the Irish.” These were not relatives of US citizens, nor had they come under the rules laid down in 1965.
Policy had to respond to the reality of this population. But to avoid the perception that the law was a giveaway to the Irish, legislators framed it as an issue of “diversity,” adding countries that sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous five years.
Making the case for more Irish immigration was a political winner, and the diversity visa lottery program became a mainstay of US policy, offering a way in for 50,000 immigrants who didn’t qualify under the employment or family reunification standards. But while the visa was devised to aid Irish immigrants, it also ended up helping African immigrants, and others who indeed had been underrepresented. The push-and-pull of pragmatism and idealism had a beneficial final result.
Immigration policy is inherently difficult because it is the locus for a collision of national values, economic calculations, and the lived experience of millions of people and their families. Policymaking is made more difficult when the issue is clouded with false claims and fear-mongering, as it is when Trump ties immigrants to crime, although the rates of crime among immigrants are lower than among native-born Americans.
But the fundamental lie underpinning all the Trump proposals is the notion that there is a simple, permanent plan that can cut through the messy reality and “fix” immigration — and that anything short of such a solution amounts failure or a betrayal. The idea that the 1986 immigration act would forever sort out the tangle of undocumented migrants was always a fallacy; it was never going to comprehensively resolve complexities of immigration flows in the Western Hemisphere.
Immigration will always be a fluid, complicated issue that will need regular updating to account for economic conditions, unintended consequences, and shifting national values.
That is why it is imperative for Republicans to move away from apocalyptic narratives and hardline solutions, and for Americans to accept that, when it comes to immigration policy, there is no single perfect solution — only efforts to adapt and adjust the rules in humane and thoughtful ways.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
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