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Roger Daniels: An Old New Immigration Policy, Flaws and All

[Roger Daniels is an emeritus professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. His most recent book, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882, was published in 2004 by Hill and Wang.]

NOTE: The following essay was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2004.--Editors

President Bush heralded his recent proposal for sweeping reform of American immigration policy as "a new temporary-worker program." Indeed, in his State of the Union address, he went out of the way to distance himself from previous immigration programs. "I oppose amnesty," he insisted -- while carefully avoiding any discussion of past "amnesties." Historians who study immigration history know better: The president's plan actually mimics a long line of past policies. Some perspective seems called for if we are going to have informed debate about immigration.

The president laid down four basic goals for immigration policy: to help control the borders; to serve the nation's economic needs; to avoid giving "unfair rewards" to illegal immigrants in the citizenship process; and, most crucially, to "provide incentives for temporary foreign workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired." Like most of its predecessors, the president's plan was drawn up with the needs of Southwestern agricultural interests and other low-wage sectors in mind.

The ideal of the retractable immigrant worker is an old one, covering often elastic definitions of who is worthy of admission, when, and why. For example, Hubert Howe Bancroft, the pioneering historian of California and a confirmed racist, explained bluntly in his 1912 memoirs that Westerners want Mexicans "for our low-grade work and when it is finished we want [them] to go home and stay there until we want [them] again." Ninety-two years later, not much has changed.

During World War I, the federal government, facing labor shortages, authorized "the admission and return of otherwise inadmissible aliens applying for temporary admission." The program brought in some 250,000 Mexicans, who were registered and photographed. Perhaps an equal number came informally. Loose as the arrangements were, some officials wished them even less formal. Among the regulations Herbert C. Hoover, then war-food administrator, wanted lifted in 1918, for example, was one that called for two photographs of each immigrant. Part of Hoover's stated rationale was that "the Mexican has a primitive suspicion of the camera."

Those Mexicans worked chiefly on farms but also on railroads, in mines, and in manufacturing plants. Some went as far north as Chicago and were among the pioneers of the now substantial Mexican American community there. We don't know how many such "temporary" workers returned to Mexico, but it is clear that large numbers did stay in the United States and that others, who returned "home," also came back. Retractibility could not always be depended upon.

The quota acts of 1921 and 1924 virtually eliminated immigration from East and South Asia and greatly limited European immigration, but placed no numerical limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere -- in major part at the insistence of Western growers. One often unnoted aspect of the 1924 act, the requirement of a visa for entry as an immigrant, however, gave the government a way to limit legal Mexican immigration of people who wished to stay.

In 1924, Congress also created the Border Patrol. As today, lawmakers thought of the Mexican border as a line that could be defended, but ignored the reality that it was, and is, a collection of binational communities, interdependent economic units within which thousands of people cross the border daily in each direction to work, shop, and play. Then, as now, control of our borders was an illusive, and ill-understood, goal.

That Mexican immigrants had become some 11 percent of legal immigrants in the 1920s did not go unnoticed. Both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations reduced legal immigration from Mexico by fiat rather than statute. In new instructions to American consuls in 1930, the State Department made it clear why: "If the consular officer believes that the applicant may probably be a public charge at any time, even during a considerable period subsequent to his arrival, he must refuse the visa."

Once the Great Depression had set in, the Hoover administration silently assented to "voluntary" programs to send workers back to Mexico. Sponsored by states, counties, and even corporations, those programs often ignored workers' immigration status and in some cases their citizenship. Years later, a Mexican American worker remembered being told by a steel-company official in northern Indiana that his family would starve on the $7 or $8 per payday he made. But, the official added, "You have an alternative ... go to Mexico. We have a train available."

During World War II, the Bracero Program again brought Mexicans north. Beginning in 1942, temporary agricultural workers were recruited with the approval of Mexico City and with guarantees about wages and working conditions (which would not be strictly enforced). In 1943, Congress extended the program to cover West Indians and Bahamians, who toiled largely in Eastern agriculture. Some 225,000 agricultural workers were imported during the war years, nearly three-quarters from Mexico. A separate wartime Bracero Program provided about 50,000 maintenance workers for Western railroads. As in World War I, perhaps as many came without being officially in the program. Unlike the World War I program, however, the Bracero Program continued until 1964 and officially imported nearly five million temporary agricultural workers, more than four million of them from Mexico. Although many came more than once, surely millions of individuals were involved. After the end of the program in 1964, special authorization to import agricultural workers could be obtained from the Labor Department.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, illegal-immigrant agricultural workers, many of whom had been initially imported under a government program, continued to do much of the agricultural harvest not just in the Southwest, but throughout the country. After years of Congressional stalemates and the appointment of two presidential commissions, Congress finally passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Signing it, President Reagan predicted: "Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people -- American citizenship." The act, of course, did no such thing, but it did refresh the supply of agricultural labor spectacularly.

The legislation is complicated, but one aspect is crucial to evaluating President Bush's current plan. Although popularly called "amnesty," a provision in the statute spoke of "adjustment of status," a phrase normally used to describe the process by which an alien legally in the United States changes from one status to another. Most politicians, then and now, seem to believe that "amnesty" smacks of weakness and permissiveness. But it was an amnesty: The 1986 law provided ways for persons here illegally to gain a legal status and begin the process toward citizenship.

There had been two such processes in the past. "Registry" began in 1929. It provided that anyone who had resided in the United States continuously since January 1, 1921, and was of good moral character, could adjust to permanent resident-alien status and thus be eligible for citizenship. The cut-off date now stands at January 1, 1972. The second, and more limited, process was the so-called Chinese Confession Program, which operated between the late 1950s and early 1970s. Illegal Chinese residents who had entered fraudulently might be able to regularize their status if they confessed and implicated other family members who had used the same fraudulent process. More than 10,000 persons confessed, implicating thousands of relatives, many of whom were deported. The justification for this nonstatutory program was national security: It seems that most of those expelled were leftists who supported Red China.

Over all, the 1986 law provided for two kinds of amnesty. The original program was aimed at illegal aliens who had been in the United States continuously since January 1, 1982. Some 1.7 million persons were legalized under this program, which did not increase the supply of agricultural labor. Legislators who catered to Southwestern agricultural interests insisted, for the price of their votes, on amnesty for "special agricultural workers" who had worked in American agriculture for as much as 90 days between May 1983 and May 1986. Qualification did not require continuous residence, allowing many workers to go back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Described as a minor add-on -- the Congressional Budget Office had guessed that 250,000 people would apply the provision eventually led to the acceptance of some 1.3 million, making a total of three million immigrants who were granted amnesty under the 1986 law.

Since 1986, there have been no new programs involving permanent changes of status for persons illegally in this country, but the Immigration Act of 1990 created "temporary protected status," which provides short-term renewable immunity from deportation for persons of a given nationality, if conditions in their homeland pose a danger to personal safety. Every president since 1990 -- that is, both Bushes and Clinton -- has renewed and extended that provision. It is more of a stay of execution than an amnesty, but it still permits hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and continue to work.

Thus, rather than a new departure, George W. Bush's proposal is fully consonant with much past immigration policy. As we listen to the debate in Congress in coming months, it would behoove us to remember this: In general, that policy promised what it failed to deliver, and delivered, in many instances, the opposite of what its advocates promised.
Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education