Roger Daniels: Bush's New Immigration Policy Is as Unlikely to Succeed as Those in the Past

Roundup: Historians' Take

Roger Daniels, emeritus professor of history at the University of Cincinnati and author of Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Feb. 2, 2004):

President Bush heralded his recent proposal for sweeping reform of American immigration policy as"a new temporary-worker program." Indeed, in his State of the Union address, he went out of the way to distance himself from previous immigration programs."I oppose amnesty," he insisted -- while carefully avoiding any discussion of past"amnesties." Historians who study immigration history know better: The president's plan actually mimics a long line of past policies. Some perspective seems called for if we are going to have informed debate about immigration.

The president laid down four basic goals for immigration policy: to help control the borders; to serve the nation's economic needs; to avoid giving"unfair rewards" to illegal immigrants in the citizenship process; and, most crucially, to"provide incentives for temporary foreign workers to return permanently to their home countries after their period of work in the United States has expired." Like most of its predecessors, the president's plan was drawn up with the needs of Southwestern agricultural interests and other low-wage sectors in mind.

The ideal of the retractable immigrant worker is an old one, covering often elastic definitions of who is worthy of admission, when, and why. For example, Hubert Howe Bancroft, the pioneering historian of California and a confirmed racist, explained bluntly in his 1912 memoirs that Westerners want Mexicans"for our low-grade work and when it is finished we want [them] to go home and stay there until we want [them] again." Ninety-two years later, not much has changed....

The quota acts of 1921 and 1924 virtually eliminated immigration from East and South Asia and greatly limited European immigration, but placed no numerical limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere -- in major part at the insistence of Western growers. One often unnoted aspect of the 1924 act, the requirement of a visa for entry as an immigrant, however, gave the government a way to limit legal Mexican immigration of people who wished to stay.

In 1924, Congress also created the Border Patrol. As today, lawmakers thought of the Mexican border as a line that could be defended, but ignored the reality that it was, and is, a collection of binational communities, interdependent economic units within which thousands of people cross the border daily in each direction to work, shop, and play. Then, as now, control of our borders was an illusive, and ill-understood, goal....

Thus, rather than a new departure, George W. Bush's proposal is fully consonant with much past immigration policy. As we listen to the debate in Congress in coming months, it would behoove us to remember this: In general, that policy promised what it failed to deliver, and delivered, in many instances, the opposite.


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