Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden was trying to give respectability to today’s illegal immigrants by proclaiming his own ancestors to have been illegal immigrants, too, when they fled the Irish potato famine of the 1840’s. Trouble is, the Vice President’s claims are simply not true.
We all need to pay more attention to immigration history as it colors the perpetual debate over legal and illegal immigration. For the first century of the American republic, there were no limits on immigration. Anyone from anywhere in the world was free to come here. Indeed, our labor needs were so great that people who didn’t want to come here were forced to come here against their will in grotesquely cruel circumstances in the first half of our first century.
The first legal restriction on immigration to the U.S. was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It excluded only Chinese immigrants, initially for 10 years, but was renewed regularly until made permanent in 1904. The earliest challenges to the power of Congress to regulate immigration were to the Chinese Exclusion Act. When the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act, it ratified the vast power of Congress to regulate immigration even to the point of discriminating on the basis of race and national origin.
With Congressional power over immigration now clear, Congress turned its attention after World War I to limiting immigration from Europe. The First Quota Law went into effect in 1921 setting immigration quotas by countries of origin based on the existing U.S. population determined by the census of 1910. The base year for setting national origin quotas was later moved to the 1890 census in order to reduce the quotas for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
The system of quotas became overlaid with another system of preferences specifying which kinds of immigrants had first claim to the limited number of immigration visas available. Chinese exclusion was repealed in 1943, though exclusion of other immigrants from Asia continued until 1952. Quotas based on national origin were nominally repealed in 1965, though an overall numerical limitation on annual immigration and the system of preferences remain.
At the root of the current debate over immigration policy is the question of whether immigration to the U.S. should be unlimited, as it was in our first century, or whether we should enforce a numerical limit on immigration every year, as is required by current laws enacted by Congress. Our reluctance to clearly choose between those two choices, unlimited or limited immigration, is why our immigration system seems so messed up.
We recognize the problem of unlimited immigration, but we are reluctant to enforce our limits on immigration by vigorously trying to deport immigration law violators. The Obama administration keeps looking for a third way. How about this: We keep the legal limits on the books, but we don’t enforce them. We practice prosecutorial discretion to avoid deporting illegal entrants. And whenever illegal immigrants reach a large number, we throw up our hands, say there’s nothing we can do, and grant everyone amnesty. But don’t call that unlimited immigration! We don’t want that!
Vice President Biden’s claim of having illegal immigrant ancestors is typical of misinformation being spread by the Obama administration to cause confusion about our immigration choices, and to justify the latest proposed immigration amnesty.