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The current debate over immigration focuses on human tragedies: Haitians deported to a country where there is no future for them, immigrants who were brought here as children, now being sent back to countries where there is no past for them. On the other side, President Trump and his supporters emphasize the need to control illegal immigration. Trump, of course, is fixated on the Wall. He’s reliably reported to have asked why we should be admitting people from “shithole” countries like Haiti, El Salvador, or the entire continent of Africa, instead of those from countries like Norway.

comprehensive immigration law

In this nation of immigrants, however, we will do well to remember our history. From the earliest colonial times until little less than a century ago, there were virtually no restrictions on immigration except the need to pass a cursory health exam at Ellis Island, and not being a known wanted criminal. It was during this long period that the ancestors of most of today’s white population immigrated. First it was the English and Scots-Irish, and the Germans who came before Germany was even a single country. My Peeler ancestor was named Bühler, and came from Alsace in the 1700s.

Our African American population are largely descended from involuntary immigrants who were brought here as slaves, beginning almost at the very beginning of English colonization.

Then came the Irish, then the Italians, then in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a massive wave from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. The majority of our current Jewish population has its ancestry in this wave. Much of the population of the Pennsylvania anthracite region immigrated in this period, and you can still see the incredible variety in the many different churches and social clubs in places like Shamokin. My grandmother was brought as a child from Lebanon during this period. She wasn’t asked if she wanted to come, but she never wanted to go back.

The first comprehensive immigration law set quotas by national origin, intended to return the ethnic mix of the country to something like what it had been about the time of the Civil War.

With each wave, there was grumbling that we were letting in the wrong kinds of people. Before the Civil War, there was even an anti-immigrant party (the American, or “Know-Nothing”) that nearly elected a president and had a large bloc in Congress. On the West Coast, there were attempts to block Chinese, Japanese, and any other Asians, who weren’t “white.” In the East, each successive wave was accused of threatening the essential character of America. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants saw the Irish that way. The Irish, having become Americans, questioned Italians.

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Finally, in the 1920s, the forces in favor of restricting immigration prevailed. The first comprehensive immigration law set quotas by national origin, intended to return the ethnic mix of the country to something like what it had been about the time of the Civil War. That approach prevailed until the 1960s, and the proportion of the population that was foreign-born declined significantly.

The new immigration law adopted in the 1960s did away with national-origin quotas, and replaced them with other criteria, such as education, sponsorship by current US residents, or having a job waiting. To everyone’s surprise, immigration from Mexico, Latin American and the Caribbean took off. Immigration from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Korea, and other countries also increased. And more and more immigration was unauthorized, as it was in the old days. This new immigration had a visible effect on the ethnic mix of the country, even in rural regions. America was becoming increasingly multicultural.

The resulting anti-immigration reaction mirrors the 1920s: a worry that immigration from such regions is fundamentally changing the American population and culture—and taking jobs. Republicans, as in the 1920s, have been trying to restrict immigration, and today lean almost exclusively on native-born whites. Democrats, on the other hand, have benefited from Latino and Asian electoral support, and they correspondingly resist efforts to limit immigration.

The GOP has the upper hand right now because it controls both the presidency and congress, but in the longer term they will lose as the percentage of voters either born abroad or descended from the foreign-born is projected to increase. So the Republicans are trying now, while they have the chance, to tighten the screws on immigration.

john peeler

But it is too late. The America of the 1950s is not coming back.

John Peeler