Immigration policy is a major item on today's political agenda, and in fact immigration policy was part of this country's agenda even before it gained nationhood. One of the complaints the colonists had against King George, according to the Declaration of Independence, was, "He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither" – or, in other words, he kept the size of the population small by striking down the colonists' attempts to attract new immigrants from Europe. Almost as soon as the United States came into existence, the various states enacted laws designed to attract newcomers, and the federal government adopted policies affecting the number of people who could be transported on ships and where they could land.

That is why Prof. Zolberg entitled his voluminous history of immigration policy, which was presented at a discussion organized by the Division of U.S. Studies and the Migration Policy Institute, A Nation by Design. From the earliest days, as Zolberg and Congressman Morrison explained, this country has seen its national interest as inextricably intertwined with its immigration policies. The question of who will be good for the United States, and in what numbers, has run throughout American history.

The first immigration "crisis" the country faced came in the 1830s and 1840s, when large numbers of Catholics arrived from Ireland, Belgium and the Netherlands. The United States had to redefine itself in order to accept Catholics as citizens, Zolberg said, and this was the beginning of a recurring theme. Immigrants different from those who had arrived in the past were initially viewed as possessing a genetic inheritance that made them incapable of citizenship. In later years, the same would apply to such other groups as Jews and Asians. And yet, in a parallel recurring theme, the United States was encouraging foreign governments to let their people emigrate, so that this country could receive the endless supply of cheap labor on which it thrived. The result, according to Zolberg, has been an endless stretching of the boundaries of American identity.

Zolberg noted the irony, given today's immigration debate, that the early twentieth century laws excluding Asian immigrants – the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s, the Immigration Act of 1917 (Asian Indians), the Immigration Act of 1924 (Japanese), the 1923 Tydings-McDuffie Act (Filipinos) – led the federal government to encourage Mexican immigration as an alternative labor force. During the Depression of the 1930s, when millions of Americans were out of work, large numbers of Mexicans – the figure may have been as high as 2,000,000 – were forcibly removed from this country. Shortly thereafter, as World War II increased the nation's need for labor, the bracero program that admitted Mexican agricultural workers on a temporary basis was instituted. Zolberg views the current U.S. administration as stimulating Mexican immigration by pushing liberal economic policies in Mexico that have, for example, ended protections for small farmers. The result has been the uprooting of large sections of the rural population, which has moved initially into Mexican industrial areas and then into this country.

The Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which ended "national origin" quotas and opened the door for family reunification, increased the numbers of immigrants permitted to enter the United States and drew a far more diverse immigrant population. The Immigrant Reform and Control Act of 1986 created an amnesty program for some immigrants, denied welfare benefits to undocumented immigrants and put in place what proved to be a thoroughly ineffective program of criminal sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers.

Today, Zolberg observed, it is once again liberal Democrats and business interests who argue for more generous immigration policies and what he described as nativists who take the other side of the issue. This time, however, much of organized labor is allied with business. While unions opposed immigration in the past, fearing the competition of cheap labor, labor now believes that legalization of the estimated 11,000,000 undocumented workers in the United States will embolden them to demand fair wages and thereby help raise the standard of living for all workers. As Morrison commented, the story throughout this nation's history has been one of discrimination against the foreign "other" being overcome – not because of any liberalization of attitudes, but because of the demands of capitalism. The entrepreneurs have repeatedly won the policy battle. That history, the panelists suggested, may give us a glimpse into the future.

Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129