How the History of American Immigration Policy Led to Washington’s Impasse Now. A Guest Blog by John Broesamle.

John Broesamle is Emeritus Professor of History at California State University, Northridge. His books on American politics and society include Reform and Reaction in Twentieth Century American Politics, Twelve Great Clashes that Shaped Modern America: From Geronimo to George W. Bush (with Anthony Arthur), and, most recently, How American Presidents Succeed and Why They Fail: From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama.


Few subjects seem less amenable to reasonable dialogue right now than immigration reform. For the Democratic left as much as the Trump base, it is a dividing line symbolized by The Wall. The two sides even disagree over language: Is the proper term “chain migration” or “family reunification”? “Dreamers” or “illegals”? On February 7, Nancy Pelosi, the House Democratic leader, spent a record eight continuous hours addressing her colleagues about these young migrants. A week earlier, President Trump had declared in his State of the Union Address that “Americans are dreamers, too.” Yet the immigration debate reveals something deeper than the gulf between the parties, or rhetoric versus reality. For the past century and a half, American immigration policy has represented the legislative embodiment of irrationality and unexpected consequences. Our history has led us to the present impasse.

Democrats widely charge that the President is a racist pursuing an immigration policy of “white is right,” in the words of the respected liberal columnist Eugene Robinson. The historical fact is that immigration restriction policy up until the 1960s was indeed racist. One of the first major pieces of immigration legislation ever passed, and the very first to ban an ethnic group from entry, was formally titled the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882). In 1924, Japanese found themselves barred as “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” Meantime, pressure had mounted to limit the “new immigration”–immigration that had surged beginning in the 1880s from southern and eastern Europe. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Greeks, and Italians were fast eclipsing traditional flows from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia. A widespread notion had set in that southern and eastern Europeans simply did not measure up to northwestern ones. In 1921 and 1924, the country adopted immigration laws intended to drastically curtail this new flow. Under the 1924 act, 85 percent of immigration slots were awarded to northwestern Europe. A 1929 revision focused even greater preference specifically on the British Isles.

The immigration legislation of 1924–which embodied the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act–passed the House by 323-71 and the Senate by 69-9 before being signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge. Immigration restriction, then, was substantially bipartisan. Labor had never favored open immigration, seeing it as flooding labor markets and driving down wages. For the same reason, business had traditionally pressed to keep the door wide open; but after World War I, the business community became anxious about eastern and southern European radicals (Communists, anarchists) gliding in past the State of Liberty.

The immigration legislation of the 1920s had its desired effect. Immigration, notably from eastern and southern Europe, plummeted. Later on, this disastrously affected eastern European Jews trying to flee the Holocaust as refugees.

Something else happened as well. The Democratic Party eagerly swept new immigrants and their children into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition, which dominated American politics from the early 1930s through the 1960s. A great many immigrants cast their very first ballot for FDR. One of the reasons his old-family social peers reviled Roosevelt as “a traitor to his class” was precisely this fact. He helped legitimize millions of newcomers and their descendants as “real” Americans. World War II went a long way toward completing the job. You did not take particular concern over whether the guy in the foxhole with you had a surname that ended in o or i.

Since the Democratic Party had wholeheartedly become the party of the new immigration, it was unsurprising that Democrats introduced the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Adopted in between the landmark civil rights laws of the Lyndon Johnson era, the act was conceived as one more civil rights measure–designed to quash the discriminatory immigration statutes adopted during the 1920s. Not only did this seem the right thing to do, it also ended the embarrassment of running a biased immigration program at a time when America was searching for third world allies against the Soviet Union.

The 1965 act explicitly provided for what (depending on one’s personal predilection) we today call “family reunification” or “chain migration.” This happened purely as a political fluke. The original intent of immigration reform had been to end discrimination while at the same time giving preference to immigrants with skills needed by the American economy. That changed thanks to one man. The new head of the House Immigration Subcommittee was Michael Feighan, an Ohio Democrat. Previously obscure throughout his twenty-six years on the Hill–distinguished for being undistinguished–Feighan was temperamental and unpredictable. Eventually, pressure from the Johnson White House, together with anxieties about reelection from his heavily-immigrant Ohio district, bent Feighan in the direction of grudgingly supporting immigration reform, but with a condition. Feighan insisted on assigning top priority to “uniting families of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens.” He likewise insisted that reunification take preference over skills. Conservatives liked the idea, and the White House swallowed it so as to move the legislation forward.

Demographic projections from South and Central America, including Mexico, meantime led members of Congress to worry that the U.S. was about to be flooded with immigrants from these places, arriving in search of work. Very reluctantly, the Johnson Administration agreed to a cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere of 120,000 visas per year. (Previously, immigration from anywhere in the hemisphere had been practically unimpeded.)

That accomplished, the final 1965 immigration act set aside three-quarters of all visas for family reunification, but just a fifth for people with desirable skills.

Congress, which had not intended to alter longstanding annual immigration rates, and which fully expected that Europeans would continue to preponderate, came in for a shock. Even before the act took effect in 1968, overall numbers began to jump, with 80 percent of the increase coming from China, Hong Kong, India, and the Philippines. By the end of the 1970s, annual immigration had doubled. During the 1980s, the flow of newcomers set an all-time record. Determined to do the right thing, the Johnson White House had utterly misconstrued the consequences. Congressional lawmakers, who actually expected migration from Asia and Latin America to decline, saw the very opposite occur. Of all the major immigration sources on the planet, the only ones to see a drop—and a drastic one at that –were northwestern Europe and Canada. Had Congress foreseen the consequences of the 1965 legislation, no reason whatever exists to believe it would ever have passed. If demography is destiny, Congressman Feighan had wrought what the historian Steven M. Gillon has termed “a demographic revolution in America.”

The Democratic Party has historically cast itself as the party of outs who want in, which is literally the case with immigration. The party, particularly its left wing, perceives immigration as an opportunity to welcome the stranger, and takes pride in ethnic diversification. Millions of Democrats’ great-grandparents passed through Ellis Island, which has become in the minds of many a hallowed rite epitomized by Emma Lazarus’s famous sonnet. Then too, the policy of welcoming the newcomer has paid huge political dividends. California’s flip to a reliably blue state stems from Proposition 187 of 1994, an attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, backed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, that offended immigrant voters.

While the GOP of today is split over immigration, Donald Trump’s hostile takeover has cast the party’s dominant image as distinctly chilly toward newcomers. We hear the far right raising the fraught term “replacement population,” as in, “I don’t want people from other places supplanting me and the place my family came from.” But America has a constant, unfolding history of population “replacement.” During the nineteenth century, Americans of English stock worried about being replaced by anybody else. Irish worried about Italians, and Scandinavians about other Scandinavians. Today these antagonisms seem rather bizarre, especially if–as I did recently–you visit the American military cemetery at Normandy. The new immigration of a century ago is abundantly represented by the names on the headstones there.

Were the country to focus clearheadedly on its best interests, it would take a much more clinical and farsighted view of immigration, as other countries do. Projecting forward, for instance, the Pew Research Center has calculated that immigrants will account for 88 percent of American population growth over the next half-century. That would raise the U.S. population from 327 million to 441 million by 2065. Without immigration, population would grow by only about 14 million. Is that added 114 million a benefit to the American people? Environmentalists certainly think not. This is a question subject to rational consideration–but not in the present political atmosphere.

Nor is it easy to look dispassionately at the very real issue of social cohesion in connection with immigration. This country is not Western Europe; we have historically shown a far greater capacity to absorb immigrants than those societies. Still, the situation in Germany just now should give us pause. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel made the decision in 2015 to take in a million asylum-seekers, the one utterly predictable consequence was that it would roil German (and therefore European) politics. It did more than that. The Alternative for Germany party soared, putting the extreme right in Parliament for the first time since the Second World War. With Alternative for Germany now suddenly the country’s leading opposition party, Merkel has wound up struggling for months to form a government. The reaction against immigration in the U.S. is a slower avalanche of the same variety. Even historically immigrant-friendly countries, which the U.S. has been through most of its history, have trouble adjusting to sudden radical demographic change.

Donald Trump’s uncontrollable impulse to lash out has drastically impeded any kind of rational debate over such issues as population size and social cohesion by inspiring charges that he is a racist. Eugene Robinson’s “white is right” allegation epitomizes the reason why Democrats have become so leery of negotiating immigration with the administration. Hundreds of thousands of Dreamers are perceived as hostages to an immigration policy that is pernicious, evil.

Is the idea of a more rational, bipartisan approach to immigration a pipe dream, then? Such an approach has long been elusive, to be sure, and Trump has drastically complicated things. Still, one holds out hope. In 1988, disappointed by the limited results of immigration reform during the Reagan era, two of the most impressive leaders of the Senate, archetypes of their respective political philosophies, took their own stab at immigration reform. These were the Wyoming conservative Republican Alan Simpson and the Massachusetts liberal Democrat Edward Kennedy. They wanted to return to the emphasis on labor skills which predated the Feighan revolution in immigration policy. In doing that, the Kennedy-Simpson proposal would have capped immigration at 590,000 per year and limited slots for brothers and sisters. “America will open its doors again to those who no longer have immediate family ties in the United States,” Kennedy proclaimed. In the end, the Simpson-Kennedy gambit led to very little. Still, it reminds us that people of differing views, but goodwill and an ability to compromise, may yet be able to locate a way out of the great immigration impasse.

11 thoughts on “How the History of American Immigration Policy Led to Washington’s Impasse Now. A Guest Blog by John Broesamle.

  • It is refreshing to see a coherent, informed, unbiased, and historical analysis of this issue. It should be required reading for all Americans, starting first with the President. I applaud the idea that the Blog host forward it along for broader dissemination.

  • Dear Professor Broesamie,

    Thank you for your very informative and thoughtful essay.

    I am not an historian but a lawyer. I agree that some reform of our immigration laws is needed. But the purpose of such reform should not be to curtail either family reunification or population growth. We must never forget that ours is a nation of immigrants and that it woulld cease to be a dynamic and prosperous country without its diversity.

    I would also like to praise Angela Merkel for her magnanimous and enlightened policy regarding Syrian refugees. We are talking about families who have had their villages bombed and loved ones killed, people who have been uprooted from their country. Only a trickle of these desperate people have been welcomed by our country, and that is nothing to be proud of.

    The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust, recognizes the dignity of all members of the human family and the obligation that all nation states owe their neighbors, particulary the least fortunate among us.

    Merkel took a giant step to redeem Germany from the horrorible stain of Nazi rule, and the murder of over six million Jews, by opening its borders to Syrian refugees and endeavoring to eqip them to lead peaceful and productive lives.

    I just don’t think we can use job skills or education as a touchstone for immigration. Family reunification is extremely important. More fundementallly, how can we say that prosperous and successful people should receive preferential treatment under our immigration system? Hasn’t the major purpose of immigration throughout our history been to give people the opportunity for self-improvement and upward mobility? Who built our transcontinental railroads?
    Manned our police departments? Worked in our steel mills and auto plants? Designed many of our most beautiful Capitol buildings?

    Who were the so-called captains of industry? Dale Carnegie from Scottland was one of them. He had nothing when he came to our shores. How about JFK’s grandfather? – an Irish immigrant who started out in America as a bartender. My grandfather, who came to America around 1900 with his widowed mother from czarist Russia; immediately went to work in a factory when he was 7 years old; and eventuaaly became a successful milliner and hat factory owner?

    Intelligent reform yes. But it must be consistent with our values as set forth in our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. We must always practice freedom by accepting new waves of immigrants from every country on earth and affording them the same opportunities to get ahead that were enjoyed by our ancestors.

    Social cohesion comes about through shared values and revered institutions, not ethnicity, national origin, race, gender,
    income or past accomplishment.

    Our current population is aging, It is essential to our future prosperity that we welcome foreign students and young people to our society. The real challenge is to incentivize work, provide job training and eduction so that the new arrivals become successful citizens who enhance the American experience for all of us.

  • This was a most informative paper on the history of immigration policy in the country and perhaps more important the effects of such policies. Many thanks to you, Doug, and the author of the editorial for publishing it.

  • The following comment from Phil Caruthers was rejected for some technical reason I do not understand. With apologies to Phil:

    Great paper on immigration history! Not only did I learn much about the history of immigration, but I also learned much about John Broesamle, whom I know as a great guy but did not know about his impressive academic credentials.
    I am not hopeful that this Congress and administration can put together an immigration policy that is good overall for the US. There seems to be way too much emphasis on exclusion and fear than on the idea that the country can benefit from inclusion of immigrants.
    There is another element to immigration that I have not heard mentioned in the current discussion. In 1942-1964, there was a successful “guest worker” program, called the Bracero program, that allowed (primarily) Mexican workers come to the US for a limited time to work in the agricultural industry – cotton, citrus, vegetables, fruits, etc. This addressed a labor shortage problem that the industry had at the time, and I think still has today. It is hard work that not everybody is willing to do at any price. Without such labor, our produce costs would be uncomfortably higher.

  • Thank you, John and Doug for an enlightening and readable white paper on America’s immigration policies. My biggest takeaway from the piece is that “Immigration” is a very granular subject. Not an either or situation as it is generally portrayed by politicians and the media.Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the partisan media and politicians would put aside their bickering and offer unbiased information like John has given us so people could better judge the options and possible consequences of proposed immigratrion policy? If pigs could fly?

  • Doug, this is such a well-written and enlightening piece that I urge you to submit it to the L.A. Times ( for their consideration. It deserves to be read by many, many more.
    On another note, and as you may have read by now, the article ‘The refugee stimulus’ in today’s Times addresses the issue you raise in passing: the degree to which refugees contribute to, or subtract from, the national economy. The author’s commentary weighs heavily on the side of positive contribution. But, near the end of this piece, the author writes “…it’s curious that people still believe they (immigrants) are a drain on the economy.” I don’t find it curious at all. One party has made it a constant theme to denigrate and demonize the value of immigrants to this country – its principal spokesperson resides in the Oval Office, and its media bullhorn (Fox News) floods the airwaves with anti-immigrant tripe. All this while an immigrant from South Africa thrills us with a spectacularly successful launch and return of a heavy lifter – proof positive for those who wish to acknowledge it that immigrants have much to offer.
    On a further note, I find it rather sad that immigrants – and immigration policy – must be vindicated on grounds of ‘economic’ value. I seriously doubt that any of us native-born citizens would bring children into this world on such terms; nor would we accept gladly any affirmation of our own worth in terms of ‘the economy’. I certainly don’t read any such valuation of one’s humanity in the writings of our Founding Fathers, nor in the scriptures which most of America purports to honor and learn from and obey.

  • Excellent overview. I certainly share your hope, and others, that a bi-partisan compromise can prevail. In 1863, my grandfather arrived in the US from Stettin in Prussia escaping a rise in anti-semitism. I am proud to say that my immediate and extended family have left that heritage behind and become high achieving American citizens.

  • VERY grateful for this concise history of our American immigration quagmire. Also grateful it only mentioned our President in passing. I, too, am hopeful that a few ‘people of good faith can disagree’ and somehow recover the fine skill of compromise and negotiation that our country so desperately needs. Immigration is a huge, complex problem. But good minds and hearts can find a path forward, as Simpson and Kennedy did all those years ago.

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