Periodically, a journalist or policy maker informs us that Americans are panicked about immigration, and suggests that the United States should engineer the demographics of its population through immigration policy. Writing in The Atlantic, for example, David Frum argues that the U.S. should slash legal-immigration levels and restrict family reunification in favor of selecting immigrants based on skills, moves he believes would have positive economic and social consequences.
But in the past, when the government has tried to control demographics with immigration policy, it hasn’t gotten what it wished for.
Consider the country’s response to the wave of immigration in the early 20th century, to which Frum compares our current wave, and which represents the largest episode of mass migration the United States has ever experienced in proportion to its population. People in power thought it was harmful to let so many minimally educated poor, nonwhite immigrants into the country, into American neighborhoods, schools, and eventually even families. So Congress passed the first version of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act.
The act used the 1890 census to create benchmarks for allowing immigration only from countries that had sent early settlers to the United States (primarily England) and for restricting immigration from European nations whose residents were considered racially inferior and had not been part of the country’s original demographics, for example, Italy, Poland, Germany, Scandinavian nations, and even Ireland.
The law was supposed to reestablish a population similar to the settlers—but that’s not what happened. Its authors failed to recognize the consequences of cutting off most immigration, and they therefore omitted provisions to restrict immigration from the Americas. As European immigration plummeted, undocumented immigration from Mexico ticked upward to meet the demand for cheap labor. Brutally exploitive temporary-work provisions, such as the bracero program and the H-2 program to supply sugar-cane farmers with cutters, exacerbated this effect. By 1960, the population of the United States that had been born in Mexico and other Latin American countries had increased to 2.5 times its former size, despite the fact that the total population of foreign-born persons had gone down by 40 percent. Instead of engineering a population of highly educated, northwestern Europeans, the authors of the legislation created new immigrant communities that persist to this day.
By Elizabeth F. Cohen for THE ATLANTIC
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