On Politics: History of laws affecting immigration
December 7, 2017
In my last column, I traced the history of diversity and immigration policies in the United States from its beginning to modern times. Today, I will review the history of laws affecting immigration and suggest how Republicans might approach the subject.
The prospect of land that could be acquired free under U.S. homestead laws attracted settlers from the beginning. In 1849, California gold attracted a lot of people from a lot of nations and we looked to China for hard workers.
In 1862, the transcontinental railroad brought more Chinese to the west and Irish to the east to lay the track. In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified granting citizenship to former slaves as well as anyone else "born or naturalized in the United States."
As the U.S. became more diverse, Congress enacted laws banning immigration of ethnicities thought to be too numerous. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.
In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act banned immigration of Arabs, Asians and Africans; it also limited immigration of south Europeans and Jews; immigration from northern Europe was unaffected. Lawmakers unabashedly admitted such laws were "to preserve American racial homogeneity."
However, America's thirst for cheap labor continued unabated. With Chinese immigrants banned, the Bracero Program was started in 1917 so that Mexican workers could pick crops when our young men went to fight in France. It was reinstated in 1942, and remained in effect until 1964.
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By the mid-1980s, there were about 3 million Latinos in the U.S. illegally. It was staunch conservative Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming who became the principal sponsor of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.
Simpson believed: "Anybody who's here illegally is going to be abused in some way, either financially or physically. They have no rights." And he had a powerful ally: then-President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan was from California and had a spot in his heart for Latinos, legal or illegal. In the 1984 presidential debate with Walter Mondale Reagan said: "I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally."
So, it was that Simpson guided his 1986 immigration reform bill through Congress and to President Reagan's office for signature.
The measure provided for enhanced border security, strict sanctions on employers who hired illegal aliens and amnesty for any immigrant who entered the country before 1982. Although 2.9 million illegal aliens became citizens under the "Reagan Amnesty" law it is generally considered to have been a failure.
Those who could not qualify for amnesty did not leave the U.S. but went underground; there was widespread fraud in documentation produced to prove qualification under the act; no consideration was given to the families who were still outside the U.S.; the border security aspect of the measure got watered down and the employer sanction provisions were stripped from the bill before passage.
Thirty years later there are an estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. It's not hard to see the attraction of Donald Trump's "build a wall" stump speech. What to do?
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) has introduced a bill called Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy ("RAISE"), which would reorient our system to favor immigrants who have the most to contribute to the U.S. It relies on a skills-based point system similar to Canada's and Australia's.
Applicants' scores would be based on education, age, job salary, investment ability, English language skills plus any extraordinary achievements. The measure would admit spouses and unmarried minor children but end family "chain migration." Per country caps would end, and the annual maximum would be 50,000 qualified immigrants.
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates. He has served on the Washoe County and Nevada GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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