American Immigration Policy: Forward to the Past

The illegal immigration battle is heating up. (It’s almost as much a topic around the coffee as the far more important issue of who won American Idol and why.) Curiously, this issue was thrust into the national spotlight just when the President’s approval ratings moved into free-fall. Illegal immigration, of course, has always been a hot button issue for conservatives. They love to play the immigration card during election years because, hey, no American likes to think a dirty, stinking immigrant is getting all the benefits of this wonderful country without paying all the prices.

It all reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where the appearance of a single bear in town creates the need for a Bear Patrol. Once the citizens learn their taxes have been raised to pay for the Bear Patrol, the Mayor distracts them from their righteous anger by shifting the blame to immigrants. Soon enough an anti-immigrant proposition is on the ballot and suddenly the most important issue in Springfield is immigration. Ah, how often The Simpsons mirrors real life!

And, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere on Associated Content, it’s much easier to rally support by demonizing the illegal immigrant than by demonizing the real villain in this thing: employers who are getting away with paying sub-minimum wages, nothing even approaching benefits, and no payroll taxes themselves. The brilliant solution to our problem: hey, everybody, let’s build a wall! After all, the wall worked so well in keeping East Germans from escaping to the West, surely it will work in keeping Mexicans out of the US!

But, wait a minute. Aren’t there illegal immigrants in this country from other places besides Mexico? In fact, weren’t there a dozen or so illegal immigrants from the Middle East living and flying freely in this country around 2001? I guess we can’t stop with a wall along the Mexican border. We’ll have to wall up the US completely. Only that won’t work, because then employers will have to start paying minimum wage-itself a sick a joke-to legal Americans. And some of them will even be forced to start paying medical benefits and payroll taxes and all that other stuff they’re getting away with not paying.

Well, at least we rest easy in the knowledge that since immigration restriction has worked so beautifully well in the past, it will certainly work now.

1882-The Chinese Exclusion Act.
This little piece of American-you know, the country that has such a monopoly on democratic ideals borne from the ideal of equality for all that it has decided it must bring democracy to the rest of the world whether it wants it or not-legislation was passed in order to prohibit continuing immigration by residents from China. If you’ve ever watched a Western movie or TV show you might be familiar with why this was a problem. You see, Chinese laborers had decided for themselves that Americans needed a quicker and safer way to get from New York to San Francisco than the old-fashioned covered wagon, so they came here to build something called a railroad system. Of course, there were some Chinese people who simply didn’t possess the strength or stamina necessary to spend countless hours under the blazing western sun driving stakes into the ground, so these people quickly sold lazy Americans on the idea of sending their clothes out to be washed. You can certainly see why their presence here was a problem. Just think: if it wasn’t for Chinese immigrants, you might never have twisted your ankle by tripping over a railroad track, or you might have the pleasure of hand-washing that Merlot stain out of your favorite silk shirt. Damn them Chinese all to hell!

The Chinese Exclusion Act was designed to put a ten year moratorium on immigration from China. (Hey, you know what? Their wall worked!) The hope was that Henry Ford would invent the car several decades earlier than he had planned, but between Aryan Nation meetings with Charles Lindbergh, the poor guy just didn’t have time. So it was decided to go ahead and build the railroads, but to use existing negro labor instead of new Chinese labor since there were already soooo many of those unfortunate Africans here anyway and no way to send them back.

So, of course, we can assume that by 1892 the Chinese Exclusion Act had run its course and was forgotten, right? Well, not so much. In fact, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained in full force until after World War II, and it was only repealed then because the Chinese had had sense enough to fight on our side.

1907-The Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan
Those of you who watch black and white movies may expect this has something to do with keeping Jews out of American hotels. In fact, it was an informal agreement made between the US and Japan. The agreement should fill every American and Japanese citizen with pride that bursts to overflowing. Here’s how the agreement worked: Japan promised not to issue any more passports to its citizens looking to work in the US. In return, the US agreed not to discriminate against students of Japanese heritage who attended school in San Francisco. Ohmigod, are you hearing the lilting strains of America the Beautiful like I am right now? Such a beautiful compromise between both nations. We agree to treat Japanese-Americans like Americans in return for the promise that we don’t to put up with any more of them coming here. If a tear isn’t rolling down your face right now, you should just leave this country!

1921-The Emergency Quota Act
A law that limited the number of annual immigrants to no more than 3% of the number of foreign-born persons of that country in the US, as indicated by the 1910 census. Does that sound just plain weird to you? Where did they come up with the 3%, I wonder. This little beauty came to pass because of the heavy flood of immigrants following the devastation in Europe following World War I. Ah, but there’s more to the story.

1924-Johnson-Reed Act.
You must remember that World War I was just that-A WORLD war. As a result, the displaced weren’t just northern Europeans who shared our values and looks and root language, but also those from southern Europe and eastern Asia. This legislation took a look at all these immigrants, as well as some dubious studies on the superior genetics of those from northern and western Europe-the same studies that were currently be pored over by a little guy named Hitler-and decided that something must be done. As a result, the Emergency Quota Act was changed ever so slightly. In the first place, the number was shifted down to 2% of the number of foreign-born persons of that country. More importantly, though, that number was now going to be based on the preceding census figures, those taken in 1890. How significant was this small alteration? Well, before Johnson-Reed, roughly 200,000 Italians were immigrating into the US every year. And after? About 4,000. Meanwhile, more than three-fourths of all new immigrants after 1924 were of French, British, German or Scandinavian descent.

1929-The National Origins Plan
A plan that made provisions for admitting no more than 153,000 immigrants into the US per year based on a quota system similar to the above policies. It would be based on the 1920 census. There were no restrictions placed on nations in the Western Hemisphere-the greatest doggone hemisphere in the world, in my opinion! Of course, in order to allow for this freedom of entry, someone had to pay. And so, the United States government placed a complete and total prohibition on all immigrants from Asian countries. At least until after WWII, when they received the benefits of the quotas.

1952-McCarran-Walter Act
This little doozy, which received almost as much lip service in Congress as the current immigration debate, permitted no more than 154,000 immigrants to come to the US per year. Again, based on a quota system, tied to the 1920 census. Each Asian country could send up to 100 citizens a year. Each immigrant, however, no matter he came from, had to undergo a careful screening to make sure he wasn’t a subversive threat to the American way of life. In other words, apparently all immigrants had to agree to rat out any of their friends who had attended any meetings at which the name Karl Marx was mentioned; they had to prefer to John Wayne movies to Charlie Chaplin movies, and I think they even had to name at least two baseball players who did not play for the Cincinnati Reds. I could be wrong on that. To give you an idea of just how reprehensible this whole matter was, even Pres. Eisenhower requested that changes be made to it.

1965-Immigration Act
This legislation basically fixed the inherently racist and unfair quota system that had marked immigration policy in the US. It did away with the national origins system, provided for easier immigration from non-Western Hemisphere nations-though I still say the Western Hemisphere is the best doggone hemisphere in the world-and increased the number of overall immigrants allowed.

As you can see, efforts to restrict immigration in the past have the taint of racism to them, so it’s hardly stepping over the line when accusations are made that perhaps the current immigration debate has a racial motivation to it. America has never really been interested in keeping people out; only certain people. The current debate rages today under the guise of containing the problem of illegal immigrants when we all know what that really means, but we’re too afraid to say it: Keeping the Mexicans out! After all, we go out of our way to bend the rules of immigration when we’re talking about a seven foot tall Chinese basketball player, or a three foot tall Cuban kid. We certainly don’t mind slashing a little red tape here and there when it’s for a good cause. Unfortunately for them, however, most Mexican immigrants aren’t professional athletes or cute little anti-Communist propaganda ploys. Simply put, they have nothing to offer this country in the way of entertainment or political hay. And so we just don’t want them here taking all those fabulous jobs away from real naturalized Americans.

Ah, but obviously somebody does desperately want them here. Because here is the crux of the entire illegal immigrant issue: Nobody who make the effort to illegally sneak into this country, risking their very lives, if they don’t expect to receive some kind of benefit. And they don’t benefit if there’s nobody here willing to employ them. It’s time for America to break with its tradition of turning a blind eye to its more sordid aspects. Yes, there is a legal process for immigrating to this country. And that’s admirable. But let’s face the cold, unvarnished truth: we’re willing to bend or break those laws when the person trying to get in is someone we want. You going to sit there and tell me that Yao Ming would be punishing us with his cardboard acting in commercials if he was just a simple Chinese clerk trying to get here? For that matter, would one of the men at the center of the immigration debate-the current Governor of California-even be a US citizen now if he hadn’t been a celebrity when he sought to immigrate here?

The debate on illegal immigrants probably wouldn’t even be taking place if Bush’s poll numbers were still above 50%. The GOP is running scared of losing Congress this fall and they have nothing-NOTHING-to run on: Iraq is a quagmire with no end in sight; Osama Bin-Laden is doing a Nancy Grace-style commentary on the American judicial system; the Federal government, which is totally controlled by Republicans, proved frighteningly incapable of responding to a natural disaster they saw coming, hardly inspiring confidence in how they would handle an unexpected terrorist attack; Bush is spying on everybody in the country and Congress isn’t even asking why; and we’re spending billions fighting a war on terror, having learned nothing from the billions wasted fighting a war on the Mafia, where when one Godfather goes away, there’s always another to take his place. The list goes on and on. The Republicans need something to rally the faithful and the not-so-faithful. Immigration has always been a go-to issue. It’s always been incredibly easy for politicians to use unchecked immigration as a fear tactic; just look at that list above.

Unfortunately, they have either not read their history books, or they willfully choose to ignore what they read. Immigration restriction isn’t going to work because it only attacks the symptom, not the problem itself. The problem is that people have always come to the United States for one simple reason: jobs. If you take away the carrot, the horse won’t trot. If people from another country know there aren’t going to be any jobs waiting for them here unless they enter legally, then you remove the only incentive they’ve got. After all, no immigrant from any developed nation in his right mind would come here for the American health care system. Why leave a country that takes care of that for you to come to a country where a box of Kleenex costs $25.00 just because you’re inside a hospital?

If there had been no railroad to build, there would have been no need for the Chinese Exclusion Act. If there had been no WWI destroying the job market across Europe, there would have been no need for the Emergency Quota Act. Those immigration policies did not attack the problem, but merely a symptom and as a result they were no solution. Building a freaking wall, arming Texans, wasting what few National Guard members that aren’t dying in Iraq? These are the best solutions our elected leaders can come up with?

Write to your Congressman and your Senator today. Tell them that this approach has never worked in the past. Let them know that you know it’s merely a stopgap measure designed to win votes. The only way America will ever deal effectively with its illegal immigration problem is to attack just that: the problem. And the problem is that too many business owners are getting away with paying near-slave wages. Fining those business owners isn’t going to do anything. They’ll just pass the fines onto the consumers or, worse, the workers themselves by paying them even less. There’s only one way to get the message to those who are breaking the law by hiring illegal immigrants.

Serious jail time. If those who employ illegal immigrants knew they’d be facing up to five years sleeping with a new boyfriend named Butch-and I’m not just talking about female employers-they would be much less inclined to take the risk than if they knew they could make up the fine by charging higher prices.

To paraphrase Moe the bartender: “It’s the emigants! I knew it was them. Even when it was the business owners, I knew it was the emigants!”

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