The ancestors of most Americans of European descent immigrated to the United States without any legal restrictions on immigration. Had the same legal restrictions on immigration existed then that exist today, many would have been considered illegal immigrants. There was no “line” to stand in (however ill defined) and no excessive paperwork to complete like I experienced when I went through the immigration process between 2000 and 2014.
The laws restricting immigration to the United States today have a distinctly racist origin. The reasoning behind them was historically driven by a wrong-headed Eugenic ideology that imagined humanity to be separated into different biological “races” (an idea since refuted by genetic research) of which some (i.e., Northern Europeans) were viewed as superior to all others. For example, the Page Act of 1875, the first true Immigration law in the United States, restricted Asian immigration. Its stated purpose was to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.” But the gates to European immigrants remained wide open and legally unrestricted.
At the height of the Eugenic movement’s rhetoric about the supposed ‘racial purity’ of the gene pool, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 first introduced numerical limits on immigration based on national origin. It limited immigration from any country to 3% of that group’s residents already living in the United States as of the 1910 US Census. This formula favored immigration from Northern Europe over that from Southern, Eastern Europe, or any non-European origin. The Immigration Act of 1924 rendered the temporary measures of the Emergency Quota Act permanent, reduced the quota to 2% from each country, and used as a baseline of comparison the US Census of 1890 rather than that of 1910. The express purpose of these changes was to further reduce Southern and Eastern European immigration compared to that from Northern Europe. It severely restricted the immigration of Africans and Jews, and banned immigration of Arabs and Asians.
The Eugenic ideology underlying these legal restrictions remained virulent until the Eugenic movement took its most extreme form in Nazi Germany with the Holocaust, the organized mass murder of approximately six million Jews in Europe between 1941 and 1945. Despite its origin in the same ideology, the Immigration Act of 1924 remained in effect until 1965. Attempts to reform the racist nature of the Act were made by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which replaced the fixed national quotas with a preference system based on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with US citizens. However, it was true to the xenophobic spirit of the original law by introducing an absolute annual limit on immigration and using country-of-origin quotas to determine the percentage of visas for each nationality. The reformed law led to a relative increase in non-European immigration and it was further reformed by the Immigration Act of 1990 which raised the limit on immigration by 40% and introduced the diversity visa lottery the purpose of which was to increase immigration from countries that were underrepresented in the United States. This lottery program was a serious departure from the racist origin of immigration legislation in the United States. But the idea of upper limits on immigration remains a hold-over from the Eugenic era and they have created an artificial crime: Illegal immigration. The lower the quotas the more common the “crime,” whereby the “crime” consists in an individual’s desire to freely choose where they want to live, work, pay taxes, and vote.
It is true that most countries in the world have immigration laws far stricter than those of the United States. However, for most countries this does not create a double standard. They have not been built by immigrants, they don’t symbolize their openness to immigrants with a Statue of Liberty, and they don’t advertise themselves as “a nation of immigrants.” So what can the United States do to end illegal immigration consistent with its history and mission?
Simple, it can abolish the laws restricting it.
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