A Brief History of Immigration

Governor Christine Gregoire, of Washington State, in connection with a letter to the federal government requesting reimbursment for immigration costs similar to a demand now being made by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers pursuant to H.B. 1014 passed in the special session, was not quite right when she “said the U.S. Constitution gives the federal government responsibility for keeping illegal immigrants from entering the country.”  The Constitution gives the federal government the right to pass laws respecting immigration and nationality, but does not require the federal government to do so. 

Congress did not choose to significantly limit immigration from Latin America until 1965.  This largely forgotten piece of modern history provides a backdrop to the immigration debate in Colorado and nationally.
  The current large numbers of Latin American immigrants who do not have legal status in the United States is, as much as anything, simply a product of legislation failing to keep up with the economic reality on the ground.


In 1965 Congress passed a law:

placing a ceiling on Western Hemisphere immigration (120,000) for the first time. However, neither the preference categories nor the 20,000 per-country limit were applied to the Western Hemisphere.

Prior to 1965, “illegal immigration” from Latin America was limited to people with criminal records, prostitutes, communists, etc.

Until 1875, almost a century after the country was founded, the United States had no laws restricting immigration of any kind

Regular land border controls did not begin until 1891. 

Comprehensive limitations on immigration in the United States were imposed in 1924, but those limitations did not restrict Latin American immigration. 

The first law addressing Latin American immigration in the United States, which was passed to encourage Latin American farm workers to come to the U.S. to help short handed farmers during World War II was passed in 1943.  A similar law was passed in 1944.  This became the Mexican Bracero program in 1949, and was significantly amended in 1951.  The Bracero program remained in force until 1964.

Latin American immigration was not included in the comprehensive immigration quotas that had applied to countries outside the Western Hemisphere since 1924 until 1965.  Per country limits on immigration from Latin America similar to those imposed on the rest of the world, which had the effect, when enacted of disproportionatley limiting Mexican immigration, were not enacted until 1976.

A decade after Mexican immigration was limited by the 1976 law, in 1986, during the Reagan Administration, Congress passed a law granting legal residency status to everyone who had been in the United States since at least 1982.

Two decades have elapsed since the 1986, the longest period in the history of the United States which has not had either relatively unrestricted immigration from Mexico, or an amnesty. 

Not surprisingly, in 2006, President Bush, like all policy makers before him, has called to deal with the large number of immigrants who do not have legal status by permitting most of them to obtain legal status, rather than by ordering mass deportations.  According to the President’s “fact sheet” (emphasis added):

A Temporary Worker Program . . .  Would Create A Legal Path For Foreign Workers To Enter Our Country In An Orderly Way, For A Limited Period Of Time. This program would match willing foreign workers with willing American employers for jobs Americans are not doing. Every worker who applies for the program would be required to pass criminal background checks, and temporary workers must return to their home country at the conclusion of their stay.

A Temporary Worker Program Would Meet The Needs Of Our Economy, Ease The Financial Burden On State And Local Governments, And Add To Our Security. A temporary worker program would give honest immigrants a way to provide for their families while respecting the law, would replace illegal workers with lawful taxpayers, and would enable us to make certain we know who is in our country and why they are here. . . .

. . . Deporting Every Illegal Immigrant Is Neither Wise Nor Realistic. There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation.

. . . . Illegal Immigrants Who Want To Stay Should Have To Pay A Meaningful Penalty For Breaking The Law, Pay Their Taxes, Learn English, And Work In A Job For A Number Of Years. The President also believes that there are differences between an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record. Those who meet our conditions should be able to apply for citizenship but approval will not be automatic, and they will have to wait in line behind those who played by the rules and followed the law.

In short, President Bush’s plan incorporates most of the elements of the Mexican Bracero program in place until 1964, and President Reagan’s 1986 amnesty program, albeit with more hoops for prospective immigrants seeking legalization to jump through so that it can be distinguished from outright unqualified amnesty.

The ultimate result, of course, will depend on Congress which is holding hearings on the topic this summer.

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Andrew Oh-Willeke

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