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I am writing this in the midst of the furor of the immigration ban instituted by President Trump in early February. Before this column was published, the courts spoke on that issue and put a “hold” on President Trump’s ban. It is likely this case will make its way to the Supreme Court. However, whatever the resolution of this situation it is obvious that our immigration policies require major remediation.
A bit of history is in order. In the first half of the 20th century the way our immigration policy was written was patently discriminatory. The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted immigration on the basis of national origin: specifically, those from Africa and Asia had difficulty entering the country while those from Europe were given preference. John F. Kennedy was a major critic of this policy calling it “racist and prejudiced, not at all in keeping with our principles and values.” Senator Ted Kennedy said, “If we change this policy to consider all locations of national origin as equal it would have little effect on the racial and ethnic makeup of our country.” A new policy was signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson and it created major changes in how immigrants were allowed into the country.
President Kennedy was right about the prejudice that was innate in the 1924 law. Senator Ted Kennedy was wrong because the change in the law that occurred in 1968 significantly altered a number of key aspects of our society including where immigrants came from, why they were allowed into the country and where they settled after they arrived. Our inner cities, always enclaves of ethnic groups, became more so. National groups such as the Mexican and Central American immigrants became voting blocks in key areas of our country. In short, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 changed America. The new law was much less prejudiced and that was good but, as my grandmother used to say, it “threw out the baby with the bath water.”
Two major changes in the law caused major problems. First, with the new law in 1968, being a family member of a citizen or green card holder in the U.S. became a major criteria for entry. Second, the provision in the 1924 law that gave preference to professionals and individuals with special skills was dropped. In short, our emphasis became “family” instead of adding to the U.S. economic engine which had been a key criteria prior to the passage of the new law.
Because immigration increased dramatically from Africa, Asia, South and Central America — parts of the world with limited educational opportunities — we increased the lower economic classes in the country exponentially while not improving our economic capability. This put a strain on schools, the welfare system, health services, etc. It did not improve our ability to compete in the world marketplace.
So, how do we recreate the economic stimulus of immigration while not sliding back into the provisions of discrimination that dominated our immigration policies in the first half of the 20th century? It is a tough question.
Anne Geyer, a newspaper columnist and observer of the American dynamic for more than fifty years, counseled our Washington D.C. leadership in a recent column. She said, “We need to think about what kind of country we want; what foreign cultures can best enrich ours; and how our laws and institutions can best accommodate newcomers, without America losing its own, unique soul.”
There is a saying that rings true at this juncture of history here in America. The original quotation came from no less an international genius than Mahatma Gandhi. He said, “We have to not only do the right thing, we have to do it the right way.” Amen and Amen.
— Dr. Mark L. Hopkins writes for More Content Now and Scripps Newspapers. He is past president of colleges and universities in four states and currently serves as executive director of a higher-education consulting service. You will find Hopkins’ latest book, “Journey to Gettysburg,” on Amazon.com. Contact him at presnet@presnet.net.