As Congress considers sweeping changes to immigration law, nearly all the debate has centered on the problem of illegal immigration. Little discussed are the many concerns of legal immigrants, the estimated 3 million to 4 million who are, as it's so often been put --"already standing in line."
The current system of legal immigration dates to 1965. It marked a radical break with previous policy and has led to profound demographic changes in America. But that's not how the law was seen when it was passed -- at the height of the civil rights movement, at a time when ideals of freedom, democracy and equality had seized the nation. Against this backdrop, the manner in which the United States decided which foreigners could and could not enter the country had become an increasing embarrassment.
An Argument Based on Egalitarianism
"The law was just unbelievable in its clarity of racism," says Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University. "It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterraneans, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians."
By the 1960s, Greeks, Poles, Portuguese and Italians were complaining that immigration quotas discriminated against them in favor of Western Europeans. The Democratic Party took up their cause, led by President John F. Kennedy. In a June 1963 speech to the American Committee on Italian Migration, Kennedy called the system of quotas in place back then " nearly intolerable."
After Kennedy's assassination, Congress passed, and President Lyndon Johnson, signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act. It leveled the immigration playing field, giving a nearly equal shot to newcomers from every corner of the world. The ceremony was held at the foot of the symbolically powerful Statue of Liberty. Yet President Johnson tried to downplay the law's significance.
"This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions," Johnson said at the signing ceremony. "It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives or add importantly to either our wealth or our power."
Looking back, Johnson's statement is remarkable because it proved so wrong. Why? Sociologist Klineberg says the government's newfound sense of egalitarianism only went so far. The central purpose of the new immigration law was to reunite families.
Klineberg notes that in debating an overhaul of immigration policy in the 1960s, many in Congress had argued that little would change because the measure gave preference to relatives of immigrants already in America. Another provision gave preference to professionals with skills in short supply in the United States.
"Congress was saying in its debates, 'We need to open the door for some more British doctors, some more German engineers,'" Klineberg says. "It never occurred to anyone, literally, that there were going to be African doctors, Indian engineers, Chinese computer programmers who'd be able, for the first time in the 20th century, to immigrate to America."
Predictions Based on Ignorance?
In fact, expert after expert testified before Congress that little would change. Secretary of State Dean Rusk repeatedly stressed that the number of new immigrants coming to the United States was not expected to skyrocket. What was really at stake, Rusk argued, was the principle of a more open immigration policy.
When asked about the number of people from India who would want to immigrate to the United States, Rusk told the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration and Naturalization: "The present estimate, based upon the best information we can get, is that there might be, say, 8,000 immigrants from India in the next five years. In other words, I don't think we have a particular picture of a world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the Unites States."
Historian Otis Graham, professor emeritus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, says that when he first started studying the 1965 immigration law, he assumed that politicians at the time had lied about the law's potential consequences in order to get it passed. But he says he has since changed his mind.
"In the research of my students, and in the research I've been able to do," Graham says, "so many lobbyists that followed this issue, so many labor-union executives that followed this issue, so many church people -- so many of those involved said the same thing. So you find ignorance three-feet deep. Maybe ignorance is the answer."
Karen Narasaki, who heads the Asian American Justice Center, finds the 1965 immigration overhaul all the more extraordinary because there's evidence it was not popular with the public.
"It was not what people were marching in the streets over in the 1960s," she says. "It was really a group of political elites who were trying to look into the future. And again, it was the issue of, 'Are we going to be true to what we say our values are?'"
In 1965, the political elite on Capitol Hill may not have predicted a mass increase in immigration. But Marian Smith, the historian for Customs and Immigration Services, showed me a small agency booklet from 1966 that certainly did. It explains how each provision in the new law would lead to a rapid increase in applications and a big jump in workload -- more and more so as word trickled out to those newly eligible to come. Smith says a lifetime of immigration backlogs had built up among America's foreign-born minorities. These immigrants would petition for relatives to come to the United States, and those relatives in turn would petition for other family members. Demand from post-colonial countries in Asia and Africa, she notes, jumped after World War II.
The Families Factor
The influx of refugees and of millions of illegal immigrants over the last several decades have certainly contributed to the United States' profound demographic transformation. But the chief driver of this change remains the system of family-based immigration put in place in 1965. Over time, in a process critics call "chain migration," entire families have re-established themselves in the United States. Historian Otis Graham thinks the policy has been a terrible mistake.
"Family reunification puts the decision of who comes to America in the hands of foreigners," Graham says. "Those decisions are out of the hand of the Congress -- they just set up a formula and its kinship. Frankly, it could be called nepotism."
In fact, President Kennedy's original proposal made skills-based immigration the priority. But Graham says a broad lobby pushed for the greater emphasis on families. It included churches, ethnic groups whose members had family in the old country, and the AFL-CIO. Graham says the union worried about competition from too many highly skilled newcomers.
But the Asian American Justice Center's Narasaki thinks the family focus makes sense. She notes that in the Asian community, extended families often function as a close-knit unit. Parents will help raise children, while siblings will pool their money to buy homes and businesses together and to help finance college for the younger generation.
"A family is very important not just to the social and emotional well-being, but also to the economic well-being of these communities," she says.
At a recent naturalization ceremony, 32 immigrants gathered for their oath of citizenship in the ornate rotunda of Washington's National Archives. Of them, three were from Western Europe. The rest were overwhelmingly from Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Later, at a basement reception, the new citizens posed for pictures, holding tiny American flags and a gift bag that included a refrigerator magnet of the U.S. Constitution and an AT&T prepaid calling card. One older woman, dressed in her Sunday best, with a broad-brimmed hat, introduced herself as Hannah Ndubuisi. She is from Nigeria, and her name means "life is first." Ndubisi was sponsored by her U.S. citizen son, Samuel.
"Everybody in the world -- I don't know if you know this -- wants to come to the United States of America," she says. "All you need to do is go to the embassy, any embassy, and see long, long lines of people who want to come here."
In fact, Ndubisi has a long line of relatives still in Nigeria who'd love to come. It's the same with another brand-new citizen at the reception, Emad Ali from Sudan.
"I have my parents, I have sisters, I have brothers," Ali says. "I'm going to apply for them to come here soon -- definitely. I hope they will be here soon."
It may not be soon at all, though. The immigration system set up specifically to reunite families is so overwhelmed with applicants, that relatives who wait their turn must endure being divided for years.