Why is it so hard to reach any reasonable compromise on the immigration issue? It is because the faults of our immigration policy are about a hundred years old, and most of us are accustomed to accepting them as unquestioned wisdom. The first comprehensive immigration law in the U.S., the Immigration Act of 1924, bears the sins of the times, which had barely been openly explained and duly criticized.
Before 1924, we had mostly unfettered immigration; only Europeans were allowed to immigrate. That immigration was completely different from what we experience now. It was a free movement of people back and forth in search of jobs and new opportunities; for every three immigrants arriving, one left. Every time immigrants started coming from a new region, the most adventurous individuals arrived first to scout the opportunities. Families arrived later. Despite what they declared at the entry point, if they were not fortunate here, they returned to their homeland, knowing that they could come back later.
Before 1890, most immigrants were coming from England, Ireland, Germany, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands. Gradually, these countries could not provide as many immigrants as the U.S. needed. As a result, after 1890, most new immigrants were Jews, Poles, and others from Eastern Europe, as well as Italians from Southern Europe. Culturally, they were far apart from Western Europeans, not only ethnically but also because that they were coming from backward regions; they were poor and mostly illiterate. They settled largely in American cities, forming ethnic enclaves where English was barely spoken and where life was completely different than on the main street. Many Americans were seriously concerned that these new immigrants would never assimilate and that they would destroy American society.
These fears need to be seen in the context of times when many scientists believed that racially, some people might be superior to others. That doubtful science fueled anti-immigration sentiment at the beginning of the 20th century; as for many Americans, it appeared obvious that those new waves of immigrants were inferior and not worthy to be accepted into American society. This intention of stopping the influx of immigrants considered racially undesirable was reflected in the Immigration Act of 1924. The government bureaucrats were put in charge of shaping the ethnic composition of the nation.
Parallel, similar to today, immigrants before 1924, mostly low-skill laborers, were willing to work for less than Americans. Likewise, today, Americans do not understand that low-skill labor expands the economy and, as such, creates better-paid jobs that mostly only Americans can take. By cutting off the inflow of cheap immigrant labor, The Immigration Act of 1924 assigned to the government bureaucrats the task of protecting lazy Americans from the competition of industrious immigrants.
Again, we have to see this approach in the context of the beginning of the 20th century. Those were times when socialistic ideas were gaining recognition. The Soviet Union had a promising start, and even many of its critics, disapproving of drastic methods, saw some value in socialism as a concept.
In capitalism, as it was understood by the Founding Fathers, society functions best when all people are given equal opportunities to pursue their individual interests, when the government has no agenda in implementing any political programs, and when it is limited to protecting individuals’ freedom of enterprise. In opposition, socialists see a lot of chaos, inefficiency, and injustice in those unregulated actions of individuals, and they believe that we need a government to form lofty political goals and that it is justifiable to limit the freedoms of some individuals in order to implement those policies.
Those socialistic concepts gained popularity at the beginning of the 20th century. Prohibition voted in 1920, is the best example of Americans misguided by illusions that the government, by its central planning and forceful implementation of lofty-sounding ideas, can shape the nation. The Immigration Act of 1924 was another example of Americans lured into a trap of delusions that socialism might work.
Before 1924, immigration was a part of the economy; when it was up, more immigrants arrived and stayed; when it was down, fewer arrived and fewer stayed. Since 1924, immigration has become a political issue separated from the economy. Later, immigration laws even strengthened that separation from the economy. Particularly, in 1965, the concept of family-sponsored immigration was introduced, turning the right to immigrate to the U.S. into a gift that a wealthy nation has been giving to a very lucky few among the poor of the world.
Every time the government applies abstract policies to the economy, it distorts the market, and the black market appears. In this case, it is illegal immigration. The nation faced it big time in 1986, but no one asked how it occurred in the first place. Illusions that socialism might work could be understood in 1924, but in 1986, the Soviet Union was on the brink of bankruptcy; President Reagan called it “the evil empire.” Somehow, no one in the entire U.S. could see that our immigration policy was not working because it was built on the same socialistic concepts that led to the evils and failure of the Soviet system. So, instead of reversing the policy, in 1986, Americans decided to continue with even greater determination on what did not work so far. More money was thrown into border protection. American employers were required to verify the immigration status of new hires.
For the first 210 years of the Republic, Americans were free to hire whomever they pleased, regardless of whether this person came from across the street, the ocean, or the Rio Grande. This freedom was taken away in 1986, and this law could and should be challenged as unconstitutional. With the 1986 immigration law, every employer in America was turned into an unpaid government official obligated to execute the law, which the government could not enforce itself.
The immigration law of 1986 meant an even more decisive departure from the fundamental American values of freedom of individual and small government and expansion of government intrusion into Americans’ economy and individual lives. It is as pure socialism as it could be. Socialism did not work anywhere before and has not worked when applied here. As a result, our immigration crisis is even more profound now than it was ever before.
Still, in immigration debates, as we have presently, the voices explaining the very reasons for our immigration mess are barely heard. According to a recent poll, about 55% of Americans want even fewer immigrants than we have now. Similarly, as one hundred years ago, blindfolded by xenophobia, they fall again into a trap of socialism.
Looking at one hundred years of Americans’ confusion on immigration, only one conclusion comes to mind, that nonsense, even if supported by the majority of Americans, even if voted in by both chambers of Congress, even if signed into law by the President – it is still nonsense only.
This essay is an abbreviated version of a lecture: “Why do we have such a big immigration mess?” delivered on October 2, 2013 at the Heartland Institute, in Chicago.