Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.


How did Americans screw up immigration?

Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

Immigration in American politics is like bad weather for farmers. For as long as old-timers can remember, it has been one cataclysm after another, imposed unjustly by the forces of heaven on God-loving Americans. Skeptics see that the trouble remains because it has not been sincerely examined in the public sphere; no one is trying to reach its crux. Politicians rush with ad hoc solutions at every turn — doing whatever it takes to win the next election.

Why do we have problems with immigration?

No one asks that vital question even though everyone should. About 10 million Americans, and maybe more — no one knows for sure — are undocumented immigrants. It is about 3% of the population, the highest among the developed nations. Before even asking what the cause is, politicians offer solutions. The former president pushed for building the wall. The current administration works on influencing people in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico that they should not come here. Surprisingly, both approaches arrive from the same questionable supposition: Foreigners seeking to sneak into the country illegally are the problem.

Besides blaming others for our problem, American citizens hold an unexpressed assumption that the government of the United States knows accurately how many immigrants we should admit and what conditions they need to meet to get in. No one questions that. The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, proposed last year but now stalled in Congress, also adheres to that concept. The planned changes are in the technicalities. It appears that Americans think that we have the right immigration policy. If so, why does it not work?

About half of Americans are eager to accept the spending of billions of dollars for building and guarding the border wall. Another half advocate for sending money to Latin America to discourage immigration and for helping those who, undeterred, still cross the border illegally. We have little control over foreigners who wish to come, but we have full control over the rules of admission. Instead of throwing money into dissuading potential migrants, we could find a better policy that would be a cheaper and simpler solution.

There is no mention of new ideas in public conversations about immigration. No one dares to say aloud that the very concept of our immigration policy might be its core problem. The lack of creativity in seeking different immigration rules is appalling. No one has the curiosity to check how others do it. 

What shaped American immigration policy?

Professor Katherine Benton-Cohen wrote a book claiming that the Dillingham Commission invented our immigration problem. Besides historians, very few Americans know that, in 1907, Congress commissioned a study of immigration. It was the only systematic study of immigration ever done by the United States government. A Vermont senator, William P. Dillingham, led it, delivering the final 41-volume report in 1911.

The commission found what many knew without it: Mostly poor and illiterate immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, including many Jews, were portrayed as undesirable candidates to join American society. As a result, beginning in 1917, immigration restrictions started, ending up with the Immigration Act of 1924, which at its core, is still the basic concept of our immigration policy. It boils down to the federal administration claiming the wisdom of knowing how many immigrants the nation needs, who they should be, and granting itself the exclusivity to process these admissions.

How did it work before?

The Dillingham Report gives us an inside view of how the practically untamed immigration from Europe worked. The bookings at the ships transporting the immigrants tell that one was returning for every three persons entering. Also, some were coming for the second or third time. We do not have complete long-term data for all trans-Atlantic travel, but the examples show that most of those arriving were migrants, not immigrants. They were opportunity seekers.

Their minimum expectation was to earn enough to pay for the trip back home if America did not work for them. Many declared an intention to settle, but they left when obstacles mounted up. However, the intended return to the home country never happened if their fortune was good.

To use today’s terms, the masses of poor immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were guest workers. With the ease of coming and going, migrants made their decisions precisely as the founders of the republic intended; they took advantage of the liberty to pursue happiness. In that spontaneous activity, a self-regulating mechanism emerged. Those who found a good job and learned the language were more likely to succeed; they brought their families and settled. Others were prone to return home.

It worked great for everybody. Of many pursuing short-term work, predominantly, only the most productive settled.

Why did it change?

Without being stated explicitly, America was for WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants; the French from Louisiana and the Midwest were expected to blend in. Blacks did not count as they were enslaved; Native Americans were confined to the reservations; others were marginal. With prosperity, that changed.

Catholic Irish came en masse during the potato famine in the 1840s. Slavery ended in 1865. Chinese immigrants competed for jobs in railroad construction. In the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, most immigrants came from the more backward Eastern and Southern Europe. Suddenly, whole New York and Chicago neighborhoods buzzed with foreign languages and customs. It was the end of America they had known for already settled Americans. Alarmed, they asked the government for help.

The first-ever federal immigration law banned immigration from China in 1882. This purely racist rule lasted until 1965. The conclusions of the Dillingham Commission indicated that the unfettered immigration of others needed to be curbed as well. But other factors also contributed to practically closing up immigration in 1924.

The United States entered the 20th century as an emerging economic power. Americans were getting wealthier, but not uniformly. John D. Rockefeller and others in his class did not receive good press. Industrial workers felt threatened by immigrants willing to work harder for less, as they still feel today. They calculated that with fewer immigrants, they could squeeze more from Rockefeller and the like. That populist view helped to block immigration in 1924 and still plays a part in upholding our current immigration policy.

Impressed by the progress in science and industry, the intellectual elite watched the social reforms implemented by Bismarck in Germany. The concepts of national health insurance and old-age pensions did not get as much traction as ideas for perfecting American society by eliminating alcoholism and protecting society from undesirable people. Prohibition, implemented in 1920, addressed alcoholism. Eugenics, popularized as science, played a big role in shaping immigration policy.

According to eugenics, traits in people’s behavior are genetic. For example, Dillingham researchers went to Chicago and found that many Polish male immigrants were alcoholics who did not support their families. That observation sprung an obvious conclusion that Poles were not good prospects as potential Americans. The same scholars observed low foreheads in some Italians, which was taken as obvious evidence of mental retardation. In New York, they found clusters of Jewish communities wholly isolated from mainstream America. These same researchers raised concerns that Jewish students and academics already constituted a significant minority at Ivy League universities. In the “science” of eugenics, the inferiority of Jews did not need proof; hence, regardless of whether they stayed in Brooklyn or went to Yale, it was considered bad for America.

That kind of “science” is behind the immigration policy we have. Today, no one would repeat the same about Italians, Jews, or Poles, but the same kind of rationale echoes in what Donald Trump and his followers say about Latinos.

Immigration is not allowed

What should a foreigner who intends to immigrate legally to the United States do? Which form should that person fill out, and which United States agency takes those applications? Most Americans do not know that a form like that does not exist and there is no place to submit it. The logic of our immigration policy is that, in principle, immigration is not allowed. As it is absurd, there are gazillions of exceptions, allowing about a million foreigners per year to get a green card. (It was about 30% fewer during the last two years because of COVID-19.)

Getting a permanent residency is a tedious process. It is also expensive because it is almost impossible to do it without hiring a lawyer. In this reality, the most cost-effective immigration procedure is to overstay a tourist visa or cross the border “without inspection,” the legal term for sneaking in illegally. This way, a migrant can become a resident instantly and hope to legalize it later. About half of green card recipients are so-called status adjustments, meaning people already living in the United States. The government does not disclose how many of them were in the country illegally.

Knowing these facts, one can discern that the crowds that are continuously storming the border act rationally in response to the absurdities of our immigration law. That does not need to be explained to immigrants like me, but very few Americans see it that way. I realized that when meeting with people at the American Business Immigration Coalition (ABIC), a group of business leaders advocating for immigration reform. They got involved, irritated by the nonsense of our immigration policy, learning about it during their work or charitable activities. Sadly, as with many other similar initiatives, their voice does not reach the mainstream media.

A century of systematic misinformation about immigration

On immigration, the media on both sides of our political divide accept the populist doctrine that we cannot let in everyone who would like to do so. Americans, divided otherwise, seem to agree that the more immigrants we receive, the fewer the jobs there will be for them. An impartial look at how immigration worked before the federal government became involved disproves that fear. Science contradicts it too. Professor David Card studied the immense influx of Cuban immigrants to Miami during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He found out that it was a business boost for the region. Last year, he got the Nobel Prize for his research.

Professor Joel S. Fetzer continued that work. In his book “Open Borders and International Migration Policy: The Effects of Unrestricted Immigration in the United States, France, and Ireland,” besides the Mariel boatlift, he analyzed a similar case in Marseille in 1962 and the extensive labor movement within the European Union in the years 2004-2006. In all instances, doomsayers turned out wrong; an abrupt incursion of migrants revitalized business activities, benefiting the natives.

From the American perspective, the recent huge labor movement within the European Union is telling. In 2004, seven former Soviet Bloc nations joined the European Union, including a relatively large Poland. A few million of their residents went to work in the Western European countries in the subsequent two years. Initially, only Ireland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom allowed unrestricted entry. More than one million workers arrived in the United Kingdom. Despite worries, the locals did not lose their jobs. Thanks to guest laborers, many firms expanded, generating new jobs.

At the same time, migrants boosted the population of Ireland by 5%. Those forecasting a disaster were proven wrong again. Migrant workers contributed to the “boom, which was in fact, the longest recorded period of continuous growth in the Irish economic history.” From the book by Fetzer, I am citing James Wickham, a Dublin-based scholar of the Irish labor market.

Why does no one suggest doing the same in the United States?

It is about time to ask our politicians about the merits of telling businesses how many foreign workers they can hire. In Canada, it works the other way around; companies report their needs, and the government admits as many immigrants as needed to match that. There is no ongoing drama about immigration in Canada. Illegal immigration is marginal. But, in Canada, foreign-born residents are 21% of the population, while in the United States, including illegal immigrants, they are only 14%.

Immigration can be an opportunity instead of a burden

The economies of the United States and Canada are similar. The 7% difference in the population of immigrants begs the question of whether we can rejuvenate our economy by bringing in more immigrants. After all, Ireland had a boom with a hasty influx of guest workers amounting to 5% of the population. With the current population of the United States at 330 million, 7% is 23 million, and 5% is about 16.5 million. It is at least worth looking at whether a drastically increased immigration could give a much-needed jolt to the American economy.  

It would mean ending the current immigration policy and recreating a modern version of the guest worker system from before 1921. In that approach, a foreigner finding a job in the United States should be able to come and work. After some time — five years sounds reasonable — that person should qualify for permanent resident status, opening a venue for citizenship. The vetting would be not by federal bureaucrats but by the aspirant’s ability to join American society. The government would block the entry by people with a criminal record or who pose security risks.

Looking at the opinion polls, some might say Americans would never approve of that kind of solution. It is true. But Americans recognize, as well, that whatever has been done so far does not work. We can find a better immigration policy by engaging the public. To accomplish that, one needs to bring to the mainstream some fringe ideas like the ones in this essay. Let readers and other writers examine those concepts and criticize them in public. It is about time to have a sincere, candid conversation. We all will understand the problem better and be more proficient in selecting the solution.

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