And on the seventh day, the Lord created the American immigration system.
The above quote is not actually a quote, and can’t be attributed to anybody. It is also probably sacrilegious. However, the American immigration system and legal code are often treated this way by opponents of undocumented immigrants and immigration reform. It is important to understand that the system was not divinely given, but was created by people.
There have been a number of immigration laws passed throughout the history of the United States, beginning in 1790. Unfortunately, we will not be able to fully explore all of this legislation in this space (although a list and summary of these laws can be found on a fact sheet at this link). This post will be concerned with three pieces of legislation that have significantly shaped the current immigration system: the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, the 1924 National Origins Quota Act (aka the Johnson-Reed Act), and the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (aka the Hart-Cellar Act).
The 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 National Origins Quota Act
A significant amount of time could be spent exploring these two bills separately; however, I believe that it is best to look at these bills in conjunction because of the similarities between them. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act was the first piece of legislation in the United States that attempted to regulate immigration based on a quota system. Previous legislation had limited immigration from certain countries or excluded other groups of people (criminals, the “insane,” “idiots” or the illiterate), but this was the first bill to fully affect every person trying to immigrate to the United States. Quotas were set up based on a 3% rate of the number of people from any country present in the U.S. as recorded by the 1910 census. (So, hypothetically, if 10,000 people recorded by the 1910 census had been born in England, 300 people from England would be allowed to immigrate to the U.S. every year after 1921.)
The Emergency Quota Act had only been meant to serve as a one-year fix, but served as law until the passage of the 1924 National Origins Quota Act. This second bill was built on the foundations of the 1921 bill, but restricted immigration quotas even further. The percentage dropped from 3% to 2%, calculated based on the 1890 census. This change was made in an attempt to limit southern and eastern European immigration. Both the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts were passed in part due to fear that southern and eastern Europeans would depress wages, impact political power, and that they were unable overall to assimilate to American culture. The change from the use of the 1910 census to the use of the 1890 census was seen as discriminatory to southern and eastern Europeans because the majority of the immigration of these groups to the U.S. had not begun until after 1890, meaning that a smaller percentage of people would be allowed into the country than reflected the actual population, while northern and western European immigration numbers would remain largely un-impacted.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act
This bill, signed into law 50 years ago this week (Oct. 3), created the immigration system we see today. The quota system created by the 1921 and 1924 Quota Acts was abolished, and was replaced by flat caps based on hemispheres and countries. Total immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere was capped at 170,000 people, and Western Hemisphere immigration was capped at 120,000 people. Additionally, each country was capped at 20,000 people. This meant that total immigration was capped at 290,000 people annually, with no more than 20,000 people being accepted from any one country.
The new system was designed and intended to be more open to the world as a whole, opening immigration to areas that had been excluded or severely limited under the previous system. The new system was also meant to reflect certain American values; while people with certain levels of intelligence and “valuable skills” were and are given preference, family reunification serves as a primary determining factor in granting citizenship. Currently, first preference is given to unmarried children of U.S. citizens, with different direct family relationships and job skills filling out the preference list for citizenship. U.S. citizens over the age of 21 are also able to petition for citizenship of their parents.
It is important to note that, while some amendments have been made to this bill, the cap limits are essentially the same. The limited number of people allowed to apply for citizenship has created incredibly long waiting lists, with countries like Mexico and the Philippines processing applications that were submitted in the early to mid-1990s (essentially, a 20-year long line).
I realize that most people do not geek out while reading about old pieces of legislation, and may have just skimmed down to this section. I do believe, though, that it is important to understand the history of how the system came to be for several reasons. First, understanding the system can help us understand how our ancestors came to the U.S. My great-grandpa Wilhelm Beck didn’t have to worry about any immigration limitations because there were no limitations on European immigration in 1908. Asking why immigrants today can’t go through the immigration system just like my great-grandpa did doesn’t make sense because the systems are not the same.
Second, understanding the history can help us understand why legislation was created in certain forms. We can see that some legislation was discriminatorily passed out of fear of certain immigrant populations. We can also understand that a system created 50 years ago may not meet the needs of the country today.
Finally, it is important to understand that laws that are passed are created by people. The United States is a representative democracy; representatives work for the people of the country, and those of us who are citizens have a say in the political process. Legislation is not divine; it can be changed based on the country’s needs, and should ethically represent the values of the people.
This is the second posting in a series on immigration. Subscribe, like on Facebook, and follow on Twitter for more updates.