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Historical Perspective on Immigration

University Professor Alan Kraut of AU’s Department of History, a non-resident fellow of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., specializes in U.S. immigration and ethnic history. He has written, coauthored, or coedited eight books on immigration. Kraut also chairs the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island History Advisory Committee, is a consultant to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, is past president of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and is president of the Organization of American Historians.

On April 5, he joined historians Tyler Anbinder of George Washington University and Mae N. Ngai of Columbia University at a congressional briefing, “Historical Perspectives on Congress and Immigration Policy.” Here he discusses his views on pending historic immigration reform.

What was the purpose of your recent congressional briefing?

We were briefing the aides, the people who are doing the actual writing of the laws. I was discussing the period between 1870 and 1924, when there was major immigration legislation. The idea was to let congressional aides know that they should not ignore history, that they should not neglect the history of immigration and the history of immigration legislation when they craft the new comprehensive law, which they are in the process of doing.

So what do you think is going to happen with immigration legislation?

I think something is going to get passed. It may not make everybody happy. It may still leave loopholes, and there may be problems involved with the legislation. But the country is at a point right now where a lot of interests are being hurt by the current system. I was at a conference of businessmen from the Midwest a few weeks ago, and these guys are very pro-immigration because they can’t find the engineers, the high-tech people that they need to hire. And so they’re seeking to do that through immigration. American universities are simply not producing enough high-tech people to feed the industry. In an earlier era, industrialists were also pro-immigration, largely because they wanted a massive source of cheap labor to fuel American industry. So this relationship between American industry and labor is nothing new.

You pointed out in your presentation that the states were once centrally involved in immigration issues.

Yes, early on, in the period before the Civil War, they were the dominant players. Even in the 1870s, when the Congress begins to pass legislation, Washington does not have the bureaucratic mechanism to enforce federal laws, and so state offices are doing it. It isn’t until 1892 that we begin to see a federal bureaucracy emerge that’s capable of handling the task. When we look at a place like Ellis Island, we’re looking at an immigration depot that’s staffed by uniformed officers of the Immigration Service and of the U.S. Marine Hospital Service. This is the single biggest bureaucratic task ever tackled by the government of the United States except for when we armed ourselves for Civil War in the 1860s. We didn’t have a federal bureaucracy, but we had to build one in part to deal with this issue.

You mentioned regional differences in attitudes on immigration. One of the examples from the past was limits on Japanese immigration.

This was in 1907, and Teddy Roosevelt was working the gentlemen’s agreement, as it was called at the time, to keep Japanese workers out of the United States. They wanted to make it difficult for the Japanese to own land in the United States, which was what the state of California was doing to try to keep peace with the Japanese nation, and in return for that they wanted to see a diminution of the number of workers coming to the United States from Japan. Hawaii had already been acquired by the United States, and the Hawaii fruit and sugar interests didn’t want a reduction of labor. They wanted workers to come and work at lower wages. So Hawaii had to be exempted from the agreement to keep the growers happy.

We’re on the verge of historic legislation. Why has it taken so long to get to this point?

There are so many interests involved. One of the biggest sticking points, on both sides, is the issue of the undocumented or unauthorized immigrants. This is a problem that largely developed since 1965. Prior to 1965, the legislation of the 1920s was very restrictive. The Western Hemisphere, the Americas, though, were exempt. So we had Mexican immigrants, Central American immigrants, going back and forth across our borders routinely. One of the things the ’65 act did was to impose quotas, restrictions on countries within the hemisphere as well as those outside the hemisphere. The notion was, what’s fair is fair. But as my colleague Mae Ngai wondered in one of her comments, how can it be that a country like Belgium and a country like Mexico have the same quota. That makes no sense, but that is in fact the reality.

So how do we address the problem that many immigrants came to this country illegally?

Do you fine them? Do you send them back? If sending them back means putting them on a line that might get them here in 40 years [before they’re eligible to return], is that the humane thing to do? What do you do with families whose children are born here and therefore have birthright citizenship? The parents don’t have legal standing. Do you take somebody who’s barely getting by as a yard worker, somebody who’s cleaning yards in Bethesda, do you fine this person? How much money do you think they have to pay that fine? And what will you do to them if they can’t afford to pay the fine?

One of the ideas I floated, in the Huffington Post, around the time that Mr. Obama visited the campus (on July 1, 2010), was public service. In fact, when we have non-violent offenders, we often give them public service. And from my point of view, public service brings people closer to the community rather than driving them away from the community. So you take that Pakistani doctor and you say, “Give us some hours in a clinic. That’s your public service.” You say to the carpenter, “Come out on Saturday morning and help fix the school playground and help do some repairs in the local schools.”

How can we make it easier for immigrants to integrate into the country?

The United States of America has had immigration policy, but unlike other societies we have never had immigrant policy. Some countries require that you immediately learn the language when you go there, and they put you in a situation paid for by the state where you learn the language quickly. You may even get job training or retraining. They take care of health needs; they see that the kids are in the school where they’re supposed to be; and so on. We have never done any of that at the national level. We tell people “you should learn English,” but we don’t provide the bankrolling of that process; we leave it to the states. We hope that the churches and voluntary associations will help out. But we don’t have a systematic policy of what we should do for people to make them fit into our system in a way that’s good for them and good for us. And it’s high time, many of us think, that the federal government should consider doing that, especially with respect to language because language is so important in terms of the kind of opportunities that it opens up.