Immigration Policy Should Reflect the Best of Our Aspirations as a Nation

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Immigration reform is a question of American identity. It is a question of race and it is a question of class, it is a reflection of what we want to look like as a nation and what values we want to embrace in the future.

The Blueprint for Immigration Reform presented by members of both parties in the Senate last Monday proposes granting documentation to the almost 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States so long as it is accompanied by measures to finally secure the border. Although there will be partisan squabbles on both sides of what securing the border means, or whether—as both President Obama and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have suggested—any undocumented immigrants who gained legal status under the legislation should “be required to go to the back of the line,” the bigger question at hand is, in the future, who do we want to immigrate to the United States?

Current dialogue surrounding who we should let into our country has begun to focus on educated or wealthy immigrants. A parallel immigration bill also proposed in the Senate has explicitly tried to double visas for this particular class of immigrants. Although there is a strong case for encouraging economically independent individuals to immigrate to the United States, we should be wary of crafting reactive and exclusionary policy that pays little attention to the history of our immigration system and its role in shaping American identity.

For more than 100 years, our country had no numerical visa quotas. This changed in 1882, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred almost all Chinese immigration and naturalization. In 1921, Congress enacted the first quotas based on the racist conclusions of the Dillingham Commission Report, limiting admission of immigrants to a fixed percentage of the foreign-born from each country who were already in the United States as of 1910. This system favored those of British descent and discriminated against Southern and Eastern Europeans. Finally, these quotas were abolished in 1965 with the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act under President Lyndon Johnson. The act abolished the national origins formula in favor of our current visa system that is based off of employment and relatives currently residing in the United States.

For better or worse, our immigration policies reflect our aspirations as a country. Exclusionary policies have reflected desires for racial purity, economic protectionism and a desire to preserve the status quo. Although by no means perfect, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act marked a shift that paralleled the ideals of  the Civil Rights Movement. Its passage signaled aspirations towards an egalitarian ideal—a belief in hard work, unified families and diversity.

The decision we now face when we consider comprehensive immigration reform is fundamentally a question of American identity. By setting parameters for visas we are establishing a vision for what the United States should be.

Our immigration policy should learn from the lessons of the past while laying a roadmap for our future. We should strive for immigration policy that is not only economically beneficial but also equitable and adaptable. The reforms we adopt should demonstrate our desire for diversity and allow immigrants from around the world to become U.S. citizens in a reasonable amount of time. They should reflect our belief in upward mobility and the pursuit of a better life by permitting immigrants of all economic backgrounds to enter the United States.

Practically, this means that we should consider solutions that address immigration reform as a long-term project instead of reactive fixes like building a border wall or granting blanket amnesty. If done correctly, the immigration reforms being considered this year could strengthen both the economic and social fabric of the United States for decades to come. This kind of reform requires us to be aware and critical of our own history. If we only look at the project of immigration reform as means to deal with our current economic conditions we risk repeating the mistakes of the past and limiting our possibilities for the future. We’re better than that. These reforms are not simply a referendum on our nation’s immigration policy; they are an opportunity to show what we aspire to be.




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