A Brief Look at the History of Immigration Reform

Posted on May 24, 2013

Raleigh Bailey
by Dr. Raleigh Bailey, CNNC Director and Research Fellow

The U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written by refugees and immigrants and their children who sought religious and economic freedom. These documents represented ideals that became cherished around the world. For the first 100 years of U.S. history, there were no immigration laws.

The first immigration law passed by Congress was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. At that time Chinese workers were being recruited in large numbers to do hard labor on the West Coast, building railroads and other large construction projects. However, California land developers did not want the workers to have the right to stay, buy land, and become citizens.

At the same time, our northern and southern borders were essentially porous. Much of what is now Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and California were part of Mexico until the U.S. claimed the lands through wars or treaties. As the Southwest became U.S. territory, the Hispanic populations there came under U.S. rule. In many cases, families were suddenly divided by citizenship and residency requirements, though mutual visitation was ongoing.

With the depression of the 1930s, many family farms were lost. Land was bought up by agribusinesses. Farm labor needs were met by the newly homeless families who had lost their lands. With World War II, when young men were called to the military, agribusiness began to rely on migrant farmworkers from Latin America and the Caribbean. Many workers were brought as contract labor and others came on their own for growing seasons, returning to join their families after the crops were harvested.

Approximately 5 million Mexicans participated in the Bracero program, a labor agreement between the U.S. and Mexico, between 1942 and 1964. The exploitation of these workers is well-documented. After the war and the growing shift toward manufacturing and urbanization, agriculture continued to rely on migrant farmworkers, both those who were documented and recruited by labor contractors and those who simply crossed the border to continue their seasonal work jobs. That system has continued to the present day.

The 1960s brought major changes to the U.S. immigration system. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, a newly conscientious U.S. Congress passed a new law, the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which struck down our Eurocentric bias. Persons from countries around the globe could apply to migrate to the US if they met conditions related to family reunification, U.S. employment needs, or refugee status. The flood of refugees to the U.S. after the Vietnam War led to the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980, which formalized the refugee resettlement process and established a new flow of people seeking freedom and security.

Several years later Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. This legislation was the first time a bill made it unlawful for an employer to hire an undocumented worker, and it created a pathway to citizenship for migrant farmworkers who had a history of work in the U.S. and who had no legal problems other than being unauthorized. It was a significant piece of legislation designed to rectify the fact that the U.S. recruited and depended upon vast numbers of Latin American farmworkers who did not have travel documents in order to sustain our agricultural economy. Many of these people then moved out of the fields and into construction jobs created by our growing economy. New farmworkers, many of them without documents, then came to fill the farm jobs.

In 1994 the U.S. and Mexico passed NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. U.S. agribusinesses were able to sell government-subsidized corn in Mexico at below market prices, destroying the traditional farm economy there. This was further complicated by the Mexican government’s decision to suspend the “ejido” system. Ejidos, written into the Mexican constitution, are communal farm lands shared by families and villagers and passed from generation to generation. The suspension allowed ejido lands to be sold to multinational agribusiness corporations. As a result, more unemployed young men who were strong and brave enough made the dangerous trek to “El Norte.”

In 1996 the U.S. Congress passed two major bills that severely penalized undocumented residents and restricted legal immigrants from using many public services, even if those immigrants worked and paid taxes in the U.S. The Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRRRA) was especially repressive as it required people who had an “unlawful presence” to return to their countries of origin for periods of three to ten years before they could apply to return. This was true even for spouses of American citizens.

Another bill, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) restricted tax-paying legal immigrants from using most public services and imposed major hardships on low-income workers, creating major legal and social snafus. Initially, pregnant immigrant women were denied access to WIC (the food supplement program for low-income pregnant women). Many premature births of high-risk, malnourished babies occurred, dramatically increasing medical costs for families and health providers. The federal government then concluded that immigrant women (documented and undocumented) could get WIC since it was nurturing their U.S.-citizen unborn babies.

In the 2000 census, North Carolina had the fastest-growing Latino population in the U.S. Most of these newcomers were immigrants, many of them undocumented and connected with the farm labor economy of the state. In the 2010 census, the state’s Latino population continued to grow but mostly due to the U.S.-born children of the newcomers from the previous decade. North Carolina has an estimated 150,000 migrant farmworkers annually, mostly from Mexico and other Central American countries. Our state has one of the largest farmworker populations in the U.S. With the tightened border security, many farmworkers now stay all year, unable to return home to see their families for fear they could not make the trek back across the desert. Some start new families here. Many families back home continue to depend on the paychecks of their husbands, sons, and fathers.

Other newcomers come on time-limited visas from around the world as students, business people, or tourists, and then they overstay their visas. Most unauthorized newcomers fall into this category. Others may be green card holders, but if U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not have documentation of their place of residence, their legal permanent residence status is terminated. Populations who come to the U.S. and to North Carolina as refugees regularly petition to bring their family members from their countries of origin. As recently-arrived newcomers, these refugees are typically low-income wage earners. If their families are granted permission to join them, they often come as immigrants but not as refugees, which means that they have no access to most public services. These expanded families struggle to survive because even though they are working they are barred from supplemental assistance available to others.

Economic impact is one of the major issues related to the proposed immigration reform. Most economists are clear that immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, would have a strong positive impact on economic growth. Newcomers are drawn to the U.S. for job opportunities, are mostly young and entrepreneurial in spirit, and will be workers, consumers, and taxpayers. The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress, agrees with this analysis.

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, provides an alternative analysis. The Heritage Foundation posits that providing a path to citizenship for undocumented residents will be a drain on the economy. While they acknowledge that it will be an initial boom to the economy, they project that it will be a drain over a 50-year period. The reasoning of their research analyst is that low-income undocumented workers, Hispanics in particular, have lower IQ’s than U.S.-citizen whites. Therefore, their children will also have lower IQ’s, creating an ongoing pool of low-income and low-IQ U.S.-citizen workers who will need government subsidies. In many circles, the Heritage Foundation analysis is being compared to efforts to defend segregation in the early and mid-twentieth century.

The U.S. is recognized as the world’s premier immigrant nation, historically the champion of freedom, a model of innovation and entrepreneurship, and by far the wealthiest nation. As we struggle to pass immigration reform and reconcile our ambivalence toward the undocumented who sustain our economy, the refugees who are our historic champions of freedom, and the newcomers who are drivers of innovation, the whole world is watching.

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