Immigration in America: A (short) History and Some Guiding Principles

Immigration is perhaps the most divisive issue facing America today.  It has dominated the political discourse over the past year, and will do so again in 2018. Over the next few posts, I’m going to explore the issue.  In this first piece, I’m going to start with a review of America’s immigration history and some guiding principles.  In the next, I’ll outline the current state of the immigration debate, evaluate specific policy proposals and make recommendations for policy-makers.

A Quick Tour of America’s Immigration History

While a detailed review of America’s immigration experience is not possible in a blog post, a quick review will help set the stage for the current debate:

  • Until 1921, immigration in America was essentially unrestricted.
  • From then until 1965, immigration was capped on a yearly basis and based on the country of origin of current American citizens (thereby advantaging immigrants from Western Europe).
  • In 1965, Congress eliminated the overall cap on on immigration and the country of origin quotas.  The law permitted unlimited immigration for the immediate family of U.S. citizens.  For other potential immigrants, an overall cap was set at 290,000 per year.  Family ties and (to a much lesser extent) skills drove eligibility.   The net result was “chain migration” whereby family members could bring in their

    A Naturalization Ceremony

    extended family, and they in turn could bring in their families.

  • While the sponsors of the legislation believed that the 1965 law would not be a fundamental change, they were wrong.  After 1965, immigration levels went up significantly and most immigrants were no longer from Western Europe, but from Mexico and South America.
  • From 1942 until 1965, Congress also authorized a guest worker program.
  • With the end of the guest worker program, and a lack of border enforcement, illegal immigrants began to enter into the United States in significant number.  As of 1986, around 3 million illegal immigrants were in the United States.
  • In 1986, Congress provided amnesty to these illegal immigrants.  It also took (ineffectual) steps to enforce the border and penalize employers who hired illegal immigrants.
  • Beginning in 1948, the U.S. also began to admit refugees into America based on political persecution or other dire circumstances.  Since 1980, the U.S. has resettled over 3 million refugees.
  • In 1990, the overall limit on immigration was raised to 700,000; unlimited family migration continued.  The 1990 Act also introduced a “diversity visa” program designed to let 50,000 immigrants per year into the U.S. (via a lottery) from countries with relatively low numbers of people in the United States.
  • Current estimates are that 11 million immigrants are in the United States illegally.

With this history in mind, I’d like to introduce three principles to guide our discussion.

Guiding Principle 1:   A Christian perspective requires respect for immigrants, but not a policy outcome

At the Shire, we find it useful to look to the Bible for guidance.  A review of the Bible reveals two important perspectives on immigration.  First, the Bible clearly states that we should treat immigrants as image bearers of God, worthy of our respect and care.  Second, the Bible does not mandate, in fact does not mention, any particular immigration policy that a nation or voter should favor.  Let’s explore both points.

The biblical mandate regarding the treatment of immigrants by individuals is clear and consistent.  In Leviticus 19, God gives Moses laws for the people of Israel.  Verses 33 andEscape from Egypt 34 state that “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”  In Deuteronomy, Zechariah and many other places in the Bible, God explicitly curses those who oppress or fail to do justice to the foreign born.  

While the Bible is clear on how we are to treat the immigrant, it contains no recommendations as to immigration policy.   Each instance of  migration in the Old and New Testament is unique.   There are many cases where immigration is regulated — for example, in many cases, cities had walls and gates that were able to regulate the entry and exit of foreigners.  But, there is no discussion on the proper policy of how to do so.

These two perspectives are an important backdrop for considering any immigration policy.  We have an obligation to care for and support immigrants, whatever their circumstance.  Policymakers have the same personal obligation, and should certainly act with compassion in all they do, but they will need to look elsewhere for specific policy advice.

Guiding Principle 2:  America is a nation of immigrants 

It is a cliché, but America is a nation of immigrants.  Almost all of our ancestors came from somewhere else; for many of us, that past is within living memory.  One of my grandmothers, for instance, emigrated in the 1940’s (from England), and two of my great grandparents in the 1910’s (from Belarus).

Immigration is built into the very fabric of America.  The varied ethnicities, cultures and languages that immigrants bring to this country do not undermine America’s culture because America is fundamentally organized around the ideas embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  It is our shared commitment to these

Ellis Island

Main Immigration building at Ellis Island

ideas, and not ethnicity, that binds us as a people.  Out of those ideas a unique and strong American cultural identity has built over the centuries.  New immigrants come to America and are transformed by this cultural identity and America’s democratic ideals.  In turn, each succeeding wave of immigrants brings their language, customs and culture that further shape America.

E pluribus unum (“Out of many one”), an early motto of the United States, sums it up well — we are a nation of many different nations and cultures that are bound together by a shared vision of freedom and republican democracy.

Guiding Principle 3:  Meaningful borders and the rule of law are of critical importance

While America is no doubt a nation of immigrants, America is also a nation founded on the rule of law and, like any nation, has the right to grant or restrict entry into the country as it sees fit.  People who enter America illegally are, to state the obvious, breaking the law.  While illegal immigration is driven by many factors (which I will explore in more detail in my next post), a bedrock principle must be that borders will be enforced and the rule of law respected.

Summing Up

America is a unique nation.  Unlike almost all other countries, it is not built upon an ethnicity or longstanding geographic identity.  Instead, America was founded on ideas and principles, along with the labor and ingenuity of immigrants.  As America acquired its own culture, and became the most prosperous country in the history of the world, the question of how to manage and limit immigration arose.  America’s initial answer was to limit immigration to people like the Americans already in the country.  America’s next and current (perhaps unintentional) solution was to permit a somewhat haphazard process of immigration to take place based upon family ties.  America also permitted millions of immigrants to enter the country illegally; around 11 million currently.

In my view, neither approach is satisfying or consistent with America’s values and interests.  We can do much better; in our next post, we’ll examine current reform proposals and make recommendations for a better immigration system.

Add your comments below if you have thoughts or ideas to share!








  1 comment for “Immigration in America: A (short) History and Some Guiding Principles

  1. Anonymous
    December 31, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    Good overview – it is a knotty question on how to proceed. Given that there appear to be many who wish harm to our country we need to proceed w caution tempered w compassion. Children should not be separated from their parents, those coming in need to have skills to contribute & a willingness to asssimilate – including learning the predominant language of our country. Look forward to the next installment


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