Immigration: The Lessons of History

Immigration: The Lessons of History

The country of immigrants has long tried to put restrictions on newcomers to keep the nation’s culture from changing. Now the focus is the economy.

In 2007, a bipartisan proposal failed in the Senate in June. The biggest sticking point was what to do about the illegal immigrants already in the country, estimated at 12 million. The bill would have allowed most of those people the ability to become citizens, which anti-immigrant forces called "amnesty" for those who have broken American laws.

A crackdown on undocumented workers ensued, with an increase in workplace raids in the past several years by Immigration and Customs Enforcement of the Department of Homeland Security. The drive has concentrated on labor-intensive industries, such as cleaning and maintenance and meat processing, and involved some high-profile work-site raids with arrests of hundreds of workers. Immigrant advocacy groups have staged protests and filed lawsuits, calling these measures discriminatory and inhumane.

History offers lessons for the present. For nearly 150 years, the U.S. was truly a country of immigrants, letting in almost everyone who wanted to build a future here. In the 1920s, the U.S. passed several laws restricting the number of new arrivals, and for decades afterward, an explicit goal was to make sure that immigrants didn’t change the culture of the country. That never worked. Whether they were Irish or Italian, Russian or Chinese, the newcomers always ended up changing the country, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The debate about today's immigrants is less about culture than it is about the economy. Amid the deepest recession since the Great Depression, a policy debate has emerged about whether immigrants hurt or help the economy, and which classes of immigrants should be given priority. President Barack Obama says he wants to see another proposal for comprehensive immigration reform by later this year.