There has been considerable media attention for this year’s 50th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965. That bill, among other things, shifted our immigration quotas away from favoring Europeans to one that, in theory, would create a much more diverse pool of immigrants in the US. Instead of an immigration law that overwhelmingly favored northern and western Europeans, green cards would be distributed based on family ties and skills and be spread across the world with no more than 7% going to any one particular country.
The idea of the legislation was to undue the terrible 1924 National Origins Act which set a limit on how many people could be admitted from one country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890. Why 1890? Because that’s the year the great migration of Italians and Jews to the United States began. The 1924 act was squarely aimed at stopping immigration from those two communities as well as keeping out Poles, Czechs, Slavs and other immigrants who were deemed at the time to be changing the country from the America that the majority in the country knew.
Both of these acts have had terrible and presumably unintended consequences. The 1924 Act came nine years before Hitler came to power. The law was the primary reason why America accepted virtually no Jews trying to flee the Holocaust when America already had one of the world’s largest Jewish communities. The United States might not have saved all of the Jews killed by the Nazis, but certainly the 1924 law was the major reason we did not save many more than we did. And the rest of the world saw the US’ closed doors as a signal they could close their own. Unfortunately, in my own family these policies prevented dozens of family members from joining relatives in the US and the majority of those not here before the war were murdered. It was not until after World War II, and in a direct response to the Holocaust, that the US created its asylum and refugee program which, though not perfect, functions far better than the system we had before.
But we didn’t actually scrap the National Origins formula until the 1965 Act and it was done to respond to the shortcomings of the 1924 system of quotas. Unfortunately, the drafters of the bill didn’t envision a time where a new group of nationalities – Chinese, Indians, Mexicans and Filipinos – would be suffering the same way Jews and Italians did in the years after 1924. Today, members of these nationalities wait years longer than those from other countries simply because of the place where they are born. India gets the same allocation as Luxembourg. Mexico gets the same allocation of green cards as Monaco. The system is fundamentally unfair and quotas based on national origin need to end all together.
Fortunately, more attention is coming back to the need to finally break our ties with the legacies of the national origin quota system. I recommend two articles published in the last few days by friends of mine. Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy has written an article in Forbes entitled “Increase Labor Mobility and End Per Country Limits for High-Skilled Immigrants” which as its name implies, focuses on the employment quotas. And David Bier has written an article in The Hill entitled “Why does the US discriminate against immigrants from big countries?” The articles come as more pressure is coming to finally move legislation that would undo the quotas. HR 213, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) and Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) would scrap the quotas and create a more fair immigration system. The bill hasn’t moved so far this year in Congress, but I am aware of behind the scenes efforts to try and get some action. It’s still a long shot, but very much worth the effort.
Of course, we need to revisit other quotas as well. The family and employment-based green card system created in the 1965 Act set strict limits on the amount of immigration in a variety of categories. Those family and employment-based preferences were last revised in 1990 and reflect American priorities of a quarter century ago. We are a bigger country with a more globalized economy and we need to expand the quotas, recapture unused green card numbers wasted in prior years, end the application of the quotas to spouses and children and grant those waiting in green card lines the ability to work for the employer of their choice after they’ve demonstrated that they are filling jobs Americans are not available and qualified to do.
Some high skilled immigrants have grown so desperate because of the long lines that they’re calling for reductions in the entry of new foreign workers. Essentially, our immigration pitted one group of immigrants against another. It’s beneath us as a country that seeks to be an example to the world of how to do immigration “the right way” to have the system we do. While Congressman Ryan has pledged he will not move comprehensive immigration reform, we can still make some fixes that are short of correcting everything that’s wrong. Passing HR 213 and looking at broader skilled worker legislation is sorely needed and shouldn’t wait anymore.