Historians Discuss Immigration Reform on Capitol Hill

Yesterday, a short distance from the AHA offices, supporters of immigration reform marched on the National Mall, as a bipartisan group of eight senators continue deliberations that have been alternately described as “stuck,” “close,” “virtually complete,” or “about to get serious.” The senators will likely reveal their plan for comprehensive immigration reform, if there is one, today.

In response to the flurry of activity on this previously languishing issue, the National History Center, a project of the American Historical Association, sponsored a congressional briefing in the Rayburn House Office Building last Friday. These briefings offer congressional staff and members a historical perspective on issues of current interest. The historians who present at these briefings avoid making recommendations to Congress, but discuss previous paths taken and their outcomes.

Tyler Anbinder, professor of history at George Washington University, started the session by covering the nation’s experience with immigrants leading up to the Civil War. One of the most compelling of his points, from the perspective of today’s debates, was how political parties struggled with immigrants’ political power, and nativist fears of that power. Anbinder also noted how Irish immigrants in antebellum America, contrary to popular belief, had substantial savings. Like immigrants from many other periods, they lived in undesirable neighborhoods and wore tattered clothes in order to boost their savings accounts. Few of them were actually destitute or dependent on handouts. Anbinder’s 2012 article for the Journal of American History provides more on this topic.

Alan Kraut, university professor at American University, noted that for over 100 years, the United States did not have a federal immigration policy—the regulation of immigrants was left almost entirely to the states. It was ultimately fear of a wave of Chinese immigration that brought the federal government into the field with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Exclusion of certain groups has been the primary function of federal legislation through the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which established a quota system that favored northern Europeans above all others. In a bow to business interests, however, immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were exempt, allowing Mexican and Latin American labor to freely flow across the southern border.

Mae Ngai, Lung Family Professor of Asian American Studies and professor of history at Columbia University, concluded the session by dissecting the federal legislation that undid the Johnson-Reed Act. The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 was, she noted, “very much a piece of the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965” in promoting a more equal consideration of who could immigrate, but it had significant unintended consequences. The result has been that each country is limited to little more than 20,000 immigrants per year, regardless of population. This has resulted, Ngai noted, in a situation where four nations—Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines—fill their allotment every year while others never do. Ngai has written compelling articles on the irrationality of this system, including a recent op-ed in the New York Times.

Video of the complete session is available on the AHA’s YouTube channel, and more information on upcoming National History Center activities can be found at nationalhistorycenter.org.

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