Chain Migration.

From 1789 to 1808 the United States had a policy of unrestricted immigration; from 1808 to the 1920s the United States had a policy of unrestricted immigration for people of European origins; and from the 1920s to the 1960s the United States had a policy of restricted immigration that favored people from Northwestern Europe.[1]  These changes reflected struggles between economic necessity and national identity.

In 1960, 70 percent of immigrants came from Europe.[2]  Early in 1964, in a little noticed part of his campaign for a “Great Society,” President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed that “a nation that was built by immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission “What can you do for our country?’  But we should not be asking ‘In what country were you born?’”  The election of a liberal Congress in November 1964 opened the flood-gates for a host of long-stalled reforms.[3]

A new immigration law compromised between the traditional policy that prioritized immigration from northwestern Europe and a new policy that prioritized candidates with skills and education needed by the United States.  Conservatives chose family re-unification as the device for defending the traditional sources of immigration.  The new “Immigration and Nationality Act” of 1965 capped annual immigration at about a million people and assigned about 80 percent of the slots to ‘family reunification” candidates, but only about 20 percent to “needed” candidates.  Moreover, eligible family members shifted from spouse and small children to add adult children, brothers and sisters, and parents.

What looked to be a resounding victory for conservatives turned out to be something else entirely.  While the Irish and Italians continued to migrate in droves from desperately broken societies, the rest of Europe dried up as a major source of migration to America.  Britain, France, and Germany were both short of labor themselves and building “social” states that offered steadily rising standards of living for most people.  Eastern Europe lay within the Soviet empire, from which few could escape.  As a result, the large share of family reunification slots increasingly flowed toward the previous minority sources of Asia, Latin America, and Africa.  By 2010, 90 percent of immigrants were from non-European sources.

Is there anything wrong with this approach?  From the economic point of view, there is—at least in some eyes and some ways.  On the one hand, traditionally, most immigrants came to America as young people seeking economic opportunity and political freedom.  They found a hard and demanding land that gave nothing away and insisted that immigrants assimilate to an “Anglo-Saxon” culture.  America ended up with lots of adaptable strivers.  An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) study has reported that skill-based immigrants are more likely to be younger, better educated, more fluent in English, and quicker to get work than are the family-based immigrants.  Thus, American immigration policy misses the opportunity to fully enrich the country’s human capital.  On the other hand, a battle over limiting or reducing immigration is counter-productive for a country that is short of skilled labor and likely to suffer slower economic growth as a result.

So there is a case for immigration reform.  However, it should involve shifting (even reversing) the distribution of slots between “family” and “skill” immigrants.  Of course, even this solution dodges the question of whether the United States should be aggressively recruiting from countries with a dim future—like Taiwan.

[1] From 1808 the involuntary immigration of African slaves was restricted; from the 1880s Asian immigration to the West Coast was restricted; and from 1924 the immigration of people from southern and eastern Europe was restricted.

[2] Greg Ip, “Kinship Emerges as Immigration Flashpoint,” WSJ, 18 January 2018; Tom Gjelten, “The Curious History of ‘Chain Migration’,” WSJ, 20-21 January 2018

[3] See: Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”  Greg Ip argues that Jonson saw immigrants as deserving the same right to equal treatment without regard to race that he wished to insure for American citizens.

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