remembering immigration reforms

Michelle Bachman’s comments this week about immigration incensed many people, including many Asian Americans. Angry Asian Man wrote about it. ThinkProgress posted about it. The Washington Post wrote about it. While I don’t agree with Bachmann’s statements, these responses themselves cite an immigration history that is as nostalgic, albeit with a different political outlook, as hers.

That Bachmann, Rick Perry, and other prominent Republican politicians appear — and may actually be — inept, uninformed, and poorly-spoken does not mean what they say can be dismissed. Call me a cynic, but would Bachmann even know about the immigration reform of the 60s much less to bring it up, if someone hadn’t prepared a script for her that tried to anticipate its response?

Her statements locate an American immigration system that in her view, worked “very, very well,” until liberals in the mid-60s enacted changes to the subsequent detriment of American society. The responses I noted took Bachmann’s comments as harkening back to the “national origins” quota system instituted in the 1920s, which was eliminated in the 1965 act she was criticizing. While they are not wrong in these details, they seem unaware of changes in the immigration system between the 1920s and 60s and miss the political and rhetorical significance of Bachmann’s statements.

While a quota system based on national and geographic origin remained in place between the 1920s and 1960s,[1] the United States made several important changes to its immigration laws in the years between, including repeal of Chinese exclusion in 1943 and passage of the McCarran-Walter Act in 1952.

Overlooked because of the 1965 act’s subsequent and significant changes to the quota system, the 1952 act was nevertheless significant. A product of its Cold War context, it was also complex and complicated in its intention and purpose. An overhaul of the various statutes and institutions governing immigration, it also addressed those laws’ piecemeal policies concerning naturalization, establishing for the first time in the United States’ history the idea that all immigrants regardless of race, sex, and origin could become citizens of the United States—so long as they had entered the country legally. The act also established standards for moral character and proper standing that, among other consequences, underwrote a blacklist of persons barred from entering the United States, many for their political beliefs and sympathies.

Its particular mixture of symbolic principle and actual practice also make the 1952 act rhetorically and historically useful today. Bachmann’s comments elaborating why the pre-1960s immigration system worked “very very well” clearly draw from its character clauses. The act’s separation of race from national origin, moreover, allow her to claim its declared anti-racial position while at the same time it leaves open possible discussion about the ethnic basis of American society and how they might be reflected in different nations’ immigration quotas.

What she does not mention or address are criticisms of the 1952 act, then and now, that argued that national origin quotas for immigration maintained racial and ethnic prejudices in actual practice and to continued effect. President Truman vetoed the act for that very reason, only to have Congress override it, and many proponents of the changes enacted in 1965 were similarly motivated.

At the same time, her critics who view the 1965 act more favorably see it as more progressive than it was intended to be. Supporters of its changes, including Senator Ted Kennedy, went to great pains to offer reassurances that the ethnic and racial make-up of the United States would not change. Its proposed quota system was meant to be as symbolic as the 1952 act’s changes to citizenship and not intended to have significant actual effect, despite subsequent history to the contrary.

For Bachmann’s critics to invoke increased Asian American immigration since the 1960s as validation of the 1965 act, particularly without also understanding the 1952 act, is not only nostalgic, but ironic. The history of Asian Americans, as a racial category, has always involved immigration and naturalization. Although largely symbolic, the McCarran-Walter Act was nevertheless significant to many Asian Americans. Its various sections pertaining to naturalization allowed, for the first time, Japanese American immigrants, many who had lived and worked in the United States for decades, a path to citizenship—recall that one-third of 120,000 Japanese American internees were immigrants “ineligible for citizenship.” Similarly they established conditions that, in effect, overturned the 1922 Cable Act, which had stripped citizenship from Americans who married “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”

[1] The 1924 Act revised the system established in an early 1921 Act and some of the 1965 revisions didn’t take effect until 1968.

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