It is fascinating that foreign policy, defense, healthcare, tax reform, government gridlock, human rights, the national debt or even violence and terrorism issues have taken a back seat to the topic of immigration in this election. Our country has always had fears and concerns surrounding immigration, no doubt going back to when Native Americans saw Spanish and British ships off their shores.
Throughout our history we’ve passed laws and regulations as to who can and cannot legally enter our nation, but let’s begin this discussion with the passage of the 1921 Emergency National Quota law, which limited the number of immigrants entering the U.S. each year to 350,000 and capped immigration to three percent of that nationality already in America, based on the 1910 census. Laws were tweaked in the intervening years, but the landmark legislation that changed immigration was the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated the nationality quotas.
The 1965 act, initially billed as only a minor change in policy, had far-reaching consequences. It removed restrictions to Asians and Africans, inspired partly by the civil rights movement. It gave preference to northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern Europeans. Immediate relatives and immigrants possessing special skills like ministers, foreign medical graduates, researchers and professors, among others, were exempted from any quotas or limitations. Faced with a burgeoning number of Hispanic and Latin American immigrants (some 47 percent of all immigrations) the law imposed immigration quotas on Latin America. Stymied by the ability to enter legally, floods of people did so illegally. According to the 2011 census projections, the non-Hispanic white population decreased from 75 percent in 1990 to 63 percent.
Immigration has become an emotionally charged campaign issue. Concerns and, to a lesser extent fears, are real and reflect poorly on a government that has ineptly dealt with the problem. Building a wall between our country and Mexico is a manifestation of the frustration many citizens feel, even though the project is prohibitively expensive and not likely to solve the overall immigration problem. Similarly, the proposal to deport hundreds of thousands is both prohibitively expensive and would be a logistical nightmare.
Repercussions from this lack of a well-defined and realistic immigration policy are being felt throughout, most especially in states like North Carolina, that experience a huge influx of both legal and undocumented immigrations. It is placing incredible strains on schools, social services, healthcare agencies and public infrastructure, creating work overloads and budget shortfalls at state and local levels.
Immigration is a federal problem. Congress has been either unwilling or unable to find solutions that will assure that we admit people needed in high-tech and even manual laborers while also providing reasonable, measurable and controllable access to our country.
We can and we must demand solutions that keep our doors open without being unduly burdensome to those already here. We can be both humanitarians and responsible realists.
With the exception of those Native Americans we are all immigrants and thankful to be so. Let us remember the plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of NC Spin.