The Politics of Immigration

Immigration has been a source of political discord since the beginning of our republic – despite the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. As early as the late 1700s, immigration was the subject of legislative action. The very first Congress passed The Naturalization Act of 1790 which read: “That any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen …” Congress subsequently extended the waiting period from two to five years in 1795, and to fourteen years in 1798.

The History and Technology Museum in Washington, DC displays a chart that outlines the long legislative history of limits placed on the immigration of various groups: convicts and prostitutes (1875); idiots, lunatics, and persons requiring public care (1882); Chinese (1882-1943); gangs of cheap contract laborers (1885); immigrants with dangerous contagious diseases, paupers, and polygamists (1891); epileptics, insane persons, beggars, and anarchists (1903); the feeble-minded, children under 16 unaccompanied by parents, and immigrants unable to support themselves because of physical or mental defects (1907); immigrants from most of Asia, and adults unable to read and write in English (1917). Legislation since that time set quotas for immigrants by nationality, required registration, and established preferences for certain groups of immigrants, such as those with relatives already here, and workers with skills needed in the US.

Flash forward to the discussion today and we see the results of more than two centuries of progress. Citizenship is no longer limited by race, sex, or creed. Today, naturalization and enforcement of our immigration laws are the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security. However, we again see states and localities attempting to assert jurisdiction over immigration. Although Federal government responsibility for immigration was established by the Supreme Court in 1875, the recent law enacted in Arizona would empower state and local law enforcement officials in Arizona to check the immigration documents of any person they suspect is in the country illegally.

One has to ask how this law could possibly be carried out without some sort of racial profiling. Opponents of the law will undoubtedly argue in federal court that the state law should be overturned consistent with the 1875 Supreme Court ruling. Law enforcement officials across the US seem split – some arguing that this new authority will make it easier to take criminals who are non-citizens into custody, even when they can’t prove that any other crime has been committed. Others seem to be focusing on the concern that investigative leads will dry up if members of immigrant communities are afraid to report crimes or provide information about the identities of suspects.

And we are not even hearing in recent days about the impacts of illegal immigration on our national and local economies. Are illegals a drain on federal, state, and local budgets? Do illegals take jobs from Americans, depress American wages, or are they an important supply of labor for local industries such as construction and farming? President Obama clearly had it right when he pointed out that state action like that which has taken place in Arizona is a natural consequence of the lack of federal leadership on this important national issue. National immigration reform needs to be mindful of state and local impacts. Real solutions are needed and the time for action is now.

Jonathan Cykman, Basic PLUS Author

About cykman

Jon Cykman works in Washington, DC as a consultant, and is long-time student of American Politics. He started out handing out campaign materials for Hubert Humphrey during the campaign of 1968, and later went on to earn a B.A. in Political Science from the State University of New York, College at Purchase in 1978, and an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in 1980. Jon retired from Federal Service after 31 years of service, and lives with his family in Catonsville, MD.
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8 Responses to The Politics of Immigration

  1. immigration says:

    Cool stuff, but the posts don’t display properly on my iPad, perhaps you could check that out. Thanks, anyway.

  2. People are already playing the race card about the new Arizona law, but how is it racist? Almost all illegal migrants are from Mexico, in particular in Arizona. It only makes sense that they check Mexicans. I doubt they will be checking just any old Mexican, they’re going to be stopping the ones looking for casual jobs on the street, etc.

  3. When Shakira stated “that I am pretty much undocumented” is absolutely ridiculous. She came to our country with documents. When entering into the United States legitimately you must show your passport, which Shakira certainly did. By challenging Arpaio to come and get her because she left her passport at her 5 star hotel clearly indicates Shakira does not understand the Arizona Senate Bill 1070. By Shakria not carrying her passport or identification does not mean she will be arrested. One must engage in illegal activity to be arrested and asked for identification, which most likely Shakira will not be engaging in illegal activity. For someone to rally other individuals without fully understanding the SB 1070 is irresponsible. People (including Shakira) need to take the time to fully understand the law before grand standing to an audience who expects her to be informed. Shakira should respect the United State’s freedom of speech and should be fully educated on the law before leading an emotional charged crowd. This law is not new, it is enforcing what is already in place by the Federal Government. It is a Federal crime to be an illegal alien thus the term “illegal alien.” Crime has become an increasing problem in Arizona. The law is designed to punish criminals for being criminals not for being illegal immigrants. Which all members of our community should embrace. If the Federal Government would take illegal immigration seriously there could be alternatives for this law. But the Federal Government ignored Arizona’s immigration problem and decided they could not rely on the Federal Government for help. Arizona’s actions are directed against the members of the immigrant community that are criminals. Anyone, citizen or non-citizen, should agree that the increased violence around our boarders needs to be addressed. Immigrants and citizens need to work together to reduce crime. Shame on you Shakria for further inflaming a passionate subject that should be addressed rationally. Shame on you everyone else for not educating yourself on the SB 1070. For those of you that want to be educated you can read the full law here

    • joncykman says:

      Arizona Citizen – I very much agree with your comment that something needs to be done about violence, drugs and guns along our southwest border. The part of the new Arizona law that gives many a reason for concern is in the first bullet of the fact sheet you have linked to your comment:

      “Provisions of Arizona S.B. 1070
      1. Requires a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.”

      What constitutes “any legitimate contact”? And how should it be established that a “reasonable suspicion exists”?

      Let’s hope the Congress decides to do its job, and fix our broken immigration system and our broken border.

  4. Steven Gallanter says:

    Defending the rights of illegal immigrants is tantamount to defending the right of companies to pay less than minimum wage.

    • joncykman says:

      I don’t think anyone here is defending the right of companies to exploit illegal immigrants. Federal law provides the context for finding, detaining, and removing illegal immigrants. My personal belief is that we need to make it easier for American companies to hire non-citizens legally — and that includes paying them a living wage. I’ve talked with a lot of business people in the construction trades and a few farmers over the years who would welcome the chance to hire anyone they could find to do the work they need done.

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