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Every 40 years

Let’s learn from America’s immigration mistakes of the past

Every 40 years

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

No way around the border tragedy: Separating small children from their parents is bad. We can pray that the result will be a humane policy not only along the Rio Grande but for some nonviolent offenders throughout the country: Why not ankle bracelets rather than incarceration?

June also brought some sensational examples of press bias. A purportedly current photo of children in a holding facility was an AP pic from the Obama era. A mega-tweeted photo of a boy in a border cage actually came from a Dallas pretend-detention demonstration. Topping them all was the photo of a crying 2-year-old Time used on its cover—but she wasn’t separated from her mom, who had momentarily set her down. It was 11 p.m., and the little girl was tired and thirsty.

As many have said, journalism is the first draft of history—and journalists would serve readers and viewers better by conveying some history rather than jerking tears with misleading photos. For example, have you read that every four decades—1882, 1924, 1965—the United States made a big mistake concerning immigration? Do you know we had a chance to get things right in 1986, but swung and missed on strike four—so now we have a colossal mess where anything we do creates collateral damage?

The world needs a place that will accept refugees running for their lives and eager to work.

President Chester Arthur in 1882 signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act. West Coast workers who said competition from China lowered their wages successfully pushed for suspension of all Chinese immigration for 10 years: In 1892 Congress renewed the Act for another decade, and in 1902 made it permanent. Congress also made Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship: It stayed that way until 1943.

Blatantly racist, yes. Christian ministers such as the wonderfully named George F. Pentecost attacked the ban, saying “the annual admission of 100,000 into this country would be a good thing. … The Chinese are thoroughly good workers.” He also said opportunities for evangelism would increase as immigrants had contact with “some real Christian people in America.”

Congress showed bigotry again in 1924: That year’s Immigration Act restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country to 2 percent of the number of people from that land who had lived in the United States in 1890, before the big influx from Italy and Eastern Europe. The number of admitted Italians dropped from 210,000 annually during the first 14 years of the century to a maximum of 4,000 per year. Tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews who would have come were left in Nazi clutches. Most of them died in concentration camps.

By the 1960s, the 1924 Act’s clear biases were “nearly intolerable,” in the words of President John F. Kennedy. Congress could have made America a haven for immigrants fleeing persecution, but liberal church groups pushed for an emphasis on “family reunification.” The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended up creating “chain migration” preferences for family members of previous immigrants.

In the 1970s, happily, we opened our doors to Vietnamese escaping Communism. In 1986 Congress sped up its every-four-decades timetable by passing the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which became known as “the Reagan Amnesty.” Through that measure 3 million immigrants moved from illegal to legal status. (Included in that number were Nicaraguans escaping Marxist Daniel Ortega’s power grab in 1979.) Tough border and hiring restrictions were supposed to reduce future illegality, but enforcement lagged.

Over the last four decades attempts to pass a major bill have failed. Congress in 2011 and 2012 passed resolutions expressing regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act 130 years earlier, but did not do anything regarding today’s problems. And so we were left with Barack Obama’s DACA executive order in 2012, and the backlash against it that helped elect Donald Trump four years later.

Some current proposals would once again privilege chain migration, help the U.S. skim the college graduates of poor countries, or admit those who want to live in a rich land rather than a poor one. But at a time when radical Muslims murder Christians, Daniel Ortega again kills his critics, and Honduran gangs breathe death, the world needs a place that will accept refugees running for their lives and eager to work amid freedom and security. That should be the U.S. priority. That should be us.


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  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sat, 07/07/2018 12:32 am

    Sensible immigration policy prioritizes individual character and removes artificial barriers.  Fear and prejudice produce the worst policies, as shown above.  Alas, fear and prejudice, not sensibility, permeate most contemporary discussion about this topic that I have observed.

  •  Greg Mangrum's picture
    Greg Mangrum
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 12:25 am

    I am all for sensible, compassionate immigration--who isn't?--but why is there never mention of what is good for the natives, the citizens? Why aren't the sovereign people consulted? I rarely hear our elected representatives ask the opinion of the people they work for. I trust the collective wisdom of the American people over the partisan, political posturing of 535 privileged members of Congress. 

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 01:52 pm

    The people who we elect reflect who we are.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 05:55 pm

    Brendan Bossard: then that makes you a Trump supporter and I'm excited as I never heard you state that before. Thank you!

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Mon, 07/09/2018 10:10 pm

    That is quite a leap.  I was responding to a comment that seemed to blame Congress for not listening to us; and my point is that Congress is us.  As is Pres. Trump, and I do not like what I see.

    What I see that I do not like that is relevant to this column is a tendency to lump illegal immigrants into one "criminal" class.  Most are not murderers, and yet lately whenever an illegal immigrant murders a citizen, we hold this incident forth as yet another reason not to allow illegal immigrants into our country.  We also express prejudice against certain immigrants based on country of origin and education or skill set.

    As Christians, we do not like others to lump us in with people who do bad things in God's name, and we do not like people to treat us like lesser human beings because of what we believe.  Yet I see too many Christians treat illegal immigrants in just this way.  That my brethren even consider punishing people who came here illegally as minors especially repulses me.

    That is what I do not like.  They have broken our law, but that is not a good reason to treat them as lesser human beings.  We need to eliminate artificial barriers to legal immigration (the lottery system and educational preferences, for example) and judge each case on its own merits, regardless of country of origin.

  • Just Me 999
    Posted: Tue, 07/10/2018 06:12 am

    Brendan Bossard: This is your exact statement "The people who we elect reflect who we are." Thus it is no extension at all, based on what you said, to say that ALL elected officials represent who we are.

    Your claim that this statement only applies to Congress is not consistent with the phrase you used and therefore illogical. The only logical interpretation is that your original statement was incorrect - the principle of non-contradiction at work.

    If you persist in your use of this statement I'm going to get you a MAGA hat.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Tue, 07/10/2018 01:52 pm

    Heh! Go for it.  I note that you have both misread my response to you, and ignored its substance.  God calls us to better.