By Douglas McGill 6.2.02

The most fundamental social change wrought by 9/11 may be that it has finally helped to create a political climate favorable to a long-overdue revamping of our nation’s immigration laws.  

The principles of inclusion and opportunity, so deeply embedded in the American psyche, are also touchstones of our laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination in schools, businesses, and federally-funded programs and thus set a precedent for legally-mandated inclusiveness that subsequently spread to many other areas, including immigration.    

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Amendment reversed 40 years of highly restrictive immigration policy. The legislation threw open the doors to millions of new immigrants to the U.S. from Asia and South America, where quotas had previously severely restricted immigrant arrivals.  

The civil rights-inspired wave of mass immigration drove the foreign-born population of the United States to its present level of about 27 million, the highest number in U.S. history. Roughly a quarter are illegal aliens. Immigrants represent about 10 percent of the total U.S. population, the highest percentage in 70 years. About 1.2 million new immigrants, legal and illegal, arrive in the United States each year, giving immigrants a growth rate six and a half times higher than the native-born population.  

System Stress

For several decades, this growing immigrant population has severely stressed American institutions and tested America’s sense of itself as a “land of immigrants” and as the world’s “city upon a hill.” Schools, hospitals, and courtrooms have been stretched to provide bilingual services; social service agencies for immigrants vie for tax dollars that could be spent on U.S. citizens; immigrant housing and crime issues are debated.  

Despite theses stresses, the numbers of immigrants entering  the U.S. has climbed to historic levels. Partly this is the result of government inertia; partly it's due to American corporate interests, which lobby strongly for mass immigration because it offers a source of cheap labor; and partly it's due to loopholes in immigration law – such as the well-meaning but disastrous “family reunification” bias -- which allow millions to enter.

Historically, U.S. immigration policy has rarely changed direction decisively; but when it does, it sets a new course for decades. A mass immigration policy leads to the predictable problems and resentments, which simmer for decades, finally leading to a backlash in policy. Prior to the 1965 watershed, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1927, which set hard and low quotas on  immigrant arrivals into the U.S., was just such a turning point.

Alien Blood

In some ways, the period of the 1920s was similar to our own. The U.S. population had swelled for decades, as a result of open immigration policies, with settlers from the world over. Yet each new wave of immigration resulted in a racist (or “nativist”) backlash against the newest group of settlers – against Catholics (who clashed with the mainly Protestant original settlers) in the middle 1800s; against the Chinese in the late 1800s; and against the Japanese in the early 1900s.

These “nativist” movements argued for a more restrictive national immigration policy. Finally, in 1927, partially catalyzed by the rise of psuedo-scientific schemes such as “eugenics,” these separate movements coalesced in the Johnson-Reed Act, which established quotas to preserve America’s “racial” composition.  

“Our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood,” wrote Rep. Albert Johnson, the bill’s main sponsor. “The day of unalloyed welcome to all peoples, the day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races, has definitely ended.” 

Golden Door

In truth, there were good reasons in 1927 to begin to restrict immigration into the United States. Frequent and sometimes violent clashes between immigrant groups, and the discriminatory nativist movements, were important signs that millions of non-English speaking immigrants were not meshing, assimilating, and internalizing their new American identities.

The tragedy of it was that the restrictions, when they came, were justified in racist instead of practical and morally-neutral terms. Adopting racial purity as an exclusionist rationale resulted, in turn, in hardened discriminatory practice in other realms of American life. And it made it almost impossible, in the years before and during World War II, to make America the haven it should have been for thousands of refugees from Hitler’s Third Reich.

We face a similar situation today. The dangers of our present open immigration policy are now tragically obvious. As a result, the historical tide is turning towards a more restrictive national immigration policy. That’s welcome and overdue. The trick will be in the language we use to tell ourselves why, for now, we are closing the “golden door” to more immigrants than before.


Copyright @ 2002 The McGill Report