Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > 150 Years of "Zero-Sum Thinking" on Immigration

May 26, 2023

150 Years of "Zero-Sum Thinking" on Immigration

tags: history,immigration,Biden,Trump,pandemic,skipped history,title 42

Last week Title 42, a Trump-era policy that has limited immigration for the last three years, expired. Still, the Biden administration warned people arriving at the border that “the border is not open” and anyone arriving there would be “presumed ineligible for asylum.” In conversation, Dr. Carly Goodman revealed the 150-year-old history behind the US government’s restrictionist stance.

Specifically, Dr. Goodman explored this history through the lens of the Diversity Lottery. Not by coincidence, Dr. Goodman is the author of Dreamland: America’s Immigration Lottery in an Age of Restriction. She’s also a Senior Editor of Made by History at the Washington Post, which provides fantastic daily commentary from the nation’s leading historians.

A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below.

Ben: Dr. Goodman, thank you so much for being here.

CG: Thank you, Ben. 

Ben: Today I'd like to explore the history of the Diversity Visa as part of a broader exploration of US immigration history writ large.

Before we go back in time, could you please just give a quick overview of what the lottery is? 

CG: Sure. The Diversity Visa Lottery has been part of our immigration policies and laws since the Immigration Act of 1990. It's an annual lottery, open to almost every country. People from eligible countries can put their names in to register for the lottery, and if they are selected, they can then apply to become lawful permanent residents of the US. 

The first lottery was held in June of 1994, and it remains one of the very few pathways to legal status in the US. It's restrictive in some sense—you still have to apply for the visa and fit qualifications like having a high school diploma or its equivalent—but also much more expansive than many parts of our immigration system.

Ben: I think that’s a good segue into exploring the system's restrictive nature, beginning in the 1870s. What were the first immigration restrictions, imposed at that time?

CG: I’ll mention that my colleague, historian Hidetaka Hirota, has written about state-level restrictions prior to the imposition of federal immigration controls.

However, when the US federal government started to think about imposing regulations on immigration, it began by excluding almost all Chinese immigrants in the 1880s, who were seen as competing for work and land in the American West. This set an enduring pattern wherein immigration would be racialized.

Ben: The next big evolution in immigration policy occurred in the 1920s. What happened then?

CG: This time period is really relevant to the rise of the Diversity Lotter later on.

In the early 20th century, eugenicists looked around at growing numbers of immigrants from Europe—Italians, Poles, Jews (including my ancestors), for example—and they really didn't like how the American nation (as they perceived it) was changing.

So, officials came up with national origins quotas that imposed severe numerical restrictions on the entry of people they deemed undesirable, especially southern and eastern Europeans (as well as Asians), who were seen as almost a contagion on the nation.

The national origins quotas were explicitly eugenic in nature, and they remained in place from 1924 until a major immigration reform in 1965 finally dismantled them. The Immigration Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, instead emphasized family ties as one of the main ways to legally migrate.

Ben: You write that the shift toward family ties wasn’t purely altruistic.

CG: No, in some ways it was a compromise meant to mollify bigots who hoped that prioritizing family ties would lead to primarily white family members joining their relatives in the States.

Ben: Related, you quote the famous (but problematic) historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. who worried that the arrival of different immigrant groups in the US might “shift the balance from unum to pluribus.”

To continue speaking in Latin, did Schlesinger’s ad nauseating fear come to fruition?

CG: Well, in addition to creating the family ties route to becoming citizens, Hart Celler imposed the first numerical restrictions on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. There’d long been migration from Latin America, both because the US destabilized many countries there, leading people to leave, and because of the need for workers here.

After 1965, Latin Americans who’d been coming to the US were still coming, but now they ran up against numerical limits. As historian May Ngai discusses in her work, Hart Celler thus created the problem of undocumented immigration. Some would say that's one of the most important legacies of the act. 

Ben: Moving into the 80s, how did the Irish defy the growing conceptions of illegal immigration, and what reforms did they push for?

CG: There's a long, storied history of Irish immigration to the US. For example, I live in Philadelphia, and we have a vibrant Irish-American community here.

Ben: The Philly cheese steak is famously an Irish creation.

CG: Um, it's closer to Italian.

Ben: ...right.

CG: Anyway, that sense of heritage was foremost on Irish immigrants' minds in the 80s. They felt the injustice of having to leave Ireland amid an economic crisis, just as their grandparents had, but encountered the added injustice of restrictions on their access to the US. Many Irish people came as visitors and overstayed their visas to try and find work. They were undocumented and white, contrary to the more racially motivated stereotypes of people without legal status that burgeoned in the 70s.

Congress, meanwhile, had been working on passing immigration reform. In 1986, legislators passed bipartisan reform that combined new enforcement measures with a couple of legalization programs to help people gain status and a path to citizenship.

Most of the Irish hadn’t arrived in time to qualify for the legalization, so members of the Irish communities in major cities got together to try to get legislation passed that would help them out. Basically, they identified the Immigration Act of 1965 as their problem, which reduced the number of visas available to them under the laws from the 1920s.

But it wasn’t cool to say, let’s bring back the eugenicist quotas that privilege white people. Instead, congresspeople close with the Irish community—Brian Donnelly and John Kerry from Massachusetts, for example—began asking, what if we could create pathways for countries that get very few visas these days? Countries like, oh, I don't know... how about Ireland?

There were all kinds of proposals for how to do this, but they came up with a lottery because it was the cheapest way to administer it. They opened it up to all countries in the world that had sent fewer than 50,000 immigrants to the US in the previous five years.

That’s how the Diversity Lottery began.

Ben: And surprisingly, African countries, long ignored or excluded in US immigration policy, maybe benefitted the most from the Irish-led reform, is that right?

CG: Exactly. The lottery began in 1994. The following year, 6.5 million entries from around the world vied for just 55,000 visas. 

I first learned about the lottery by speaking with people in places like Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon. It seemed to foster a sense of admiration for the US and for its openness and diversity. In some ways, the lottery format, relying on chance, disrupted people's perception that they were being turned away from the US because of their African passports and a racist system.

Ben: At the same time, you point out that when a person from an African country was lucky enough to win the lottery, they then encountered racism in the US. It’s like: you pack your bags, ready to embark on new life, and then you have to face all of the US' own baggage.

CG: Yep, and the lottery aside, the 90s turned out to be a time of more immigration restriction, not less. Levels of nativism reached points not seen since the early 20th century, and politicians on state and federal levels began to see what anti-immigrant demagoguery could do for them. Even policymakers who were supposed pro-immigration, like Bill Clinton, were relying on and expanding a growing system of immigrant detention.

After 9/11, restrictions only intensified. Under George Bush, the government began to view immigration as a threat. More and more money was put into border militarization and enforcement. 

Ben: Bringing us into the present day, you talk about how Obama and then Biden effectively maintained continuity with the past in terms of restrictive immigration procedures. Biden of course struck down Trump's African and Muslim travel bans, but he's also kept in place lots of Trump’s policies at the border.

How do you view the lottery within this still-restrictive context?

CG: Well, there’ve been efforts to dismantle the lottery over the last 20 years, and a lot of critics’ arguments are really built around zero-sum thinking; around the idea that this was a weird policy created for the Irish, and we’re already pretty diverse, so can’t we use the visas for something better?

But, that’s zero-sum thinking. As it turns out, we could just create more visas for more people. This leads to one of the central points I’m trying to make: Since the 1870s, we’ve had a restrictionist, gatekeeping system, but it’s possible to widen access if we want to. 

The thing preventing us, as it’s always been, is racism. When Donald Trump called for the lottery to be replaced with a system that would be based on what he calls “merit,” he meant white people (which he clarified). Policymakers know that any reform to end the lottery would diminish the number of visas available to Africans and limit one of their few legal pathways to coming to the US.

So, I study the lottery because it’s a part of our immigration system that we really never hear about, and it just works. It's operated fine for thirty years. I don't want to say that the lottery is a good thing for the people who feel that they have no choice but to enter, but I know that more inclusion and more access serve our communities in so many ways, despite our government’s best attempts to limit migration for the last 150 years.

Ben: A good concluding note. I might suggest that your book be called Dreamland: A Little More Pluribus, A Little Less Unum.

CG: Ha!

Ben: Thank you so much for your time today, Dr. Goodman. This has been a pleasure.

CG: Thank you for having me.

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