July 27, 2018

Background / John F. Fink

The United States has not been as welcoming as we think

John F. FinkImmigration into the United States has become one of the biggest issues facing our country. It is also a deeply divisive issue.

Throughout our history, we have prided ourselves on welcoming immigrants. The country of France recognized our willingness to welcome the stranger when it gave us the Statue of Liberty in 1886. It’s famous for having, in its museum, the sonnet “The New Colossus,” written by Emma Lazarus in 1883. The sonnet contains the words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

The unfortunate truth, though, is that the United States has not always been as welcoming as we like to think. In fact, at times it has been undeniably racist in deciding who is permitted in.

Immigration was no problem for most of our ancestors, including mine. The Finks, Hartmans, Nolls and other ancestors arrived from Germany in the early 1800s. Even after Ellis Island started screening immigrants in 1900, they only had to appear to be in good health and have at least $18 with them to get started in this country.

The first anti-immigration law, passed in 1875, was definitely discriminatory and racist. It prohibited Asian women from entering the country. Then the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. The Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited immigration from Asia, except for the Philippines and Japan.

The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was certainly discriminatory, trying to keep our population as Caucasian as possible. It used a quota system, limiting immigration to 2 percent of the number of foreign-born people of each nationality present at the time of the 1890 census. It was favorable toward western Europeans and unfavorable toward the southern and eastern Europeans, most of whom were Catholics, who comprised most of those who wanted to come.

By 1965, during the civil rights era, the quota system was seen as racist and was abolished. That changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. as more people from Asia and Latin America began to immigrate. The country went from 9.7 million immigrants in 1960 to 43.7 million in 2016, and 89 percent of them were non-Europeans.

The 1965 law did cap the number of people who could enter, though. There are five family-based categories capped at 480,000, and five employment-based categories capped at 140,000. There’s an annual cap of 170,000 for those from the Eastern Hemisphere, and 120,000 for those from the Western Hemisphere.

Since 1976, there’s been a limit of 20,000 for immigrants from a single country. That quota for Latin American countries is filled quickly, and people from those countries must wait for years to enter legally. That’s why there is so much illegal immigration.

Illegal immigration was also fueled by the termination of the Bracero program in 1964, the year before the 1965 law was passed. Since 1942, the Bracero program had permitted businesses to recruit temporary agricultural workers from Mexico. The workers continued to come, but then illegally.

Congress has been unable to pass further major immigration legislation since 1965, although the Immigration Act of 1990 admitted a greater number of highly skilled and educated immigrants. There have been attempts at immigration legislation, including in 2006, 2013 and this year. There are enough Republican members of Congress, mainly the 31 members of the House of Representative who are members of the Freedom Caucus, who are intent on preventing more people from Latin America from entering the country.

Besides immigrants, the U.S. grants asylum for refugees. Asylum applicants must establish that they fear persecution in their home countries on account of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or particular social group, and that the government is unable to control the persecution. The president sets the number of refugees to be admitted each year. The ceiling for fiscal year 2018 is 45,000.

Catholics must be concerned about immigration because we believe in the dignity of every human being, and that includes immigrants and refugees. We also must give preference to the poor, and that includes most, but certainly not all, of those trying to come into our country. We must do more to have just immigration laws.

(John F. Fink is editor emeritus of The Criterion.)

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