A Primer on Immigration

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Immigration is a highly emotional issue and these days discussions about it on Capitol Hill and in the media are increasingly frenzied. That’s because almost everyone in America has a personal experience with immigration in our families and in our everyday lives. We are a nation of immigrants, after all.

That makes it hard to get beyond the personal and understand the bigger picture. But we need to understand the basics of immigration in order to debate in a civil manner the nuances and details of changing immigration law.

Even the phrase “nation of immigrants” — famously coined by John F. Kennedy (then a senator) in 1958 — is confused. What do we mean by it? Some people think it means we are uniquely a nation of immigrants. Many believe that America has always welcomed migrants and their extended families, who dream of becoming American citizens. Many people think that the poem on the Statue of Liberty welcoming “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” always has been and always will define American immigration policy.

All those assumptions belie the reality of U.S. immigration history and the basics of immigration itself. Here is a primer on immigration as I’ve come to understand it over the past 10 years, as a credentialed, non-advocate congressional journalist covering immigration reform and politics.

First, immigration is different than migration. Only humans immigrate. It is about national borders and citizenship.

Immigration is also a paradox. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” But no one has the human or the civil right to settle in and become a citizen of another country just because he or she wants to. Every sovereign nation-state has the sole right and duty to choose who can immigrate and under what conditions, and how immigrants can become citizens.

Every nation-state then has the right to decide how immigration decisions are be enforced, including through removal. National immigration decisions are rendered through immigration laws. Every country in the world has them. Deportation is a law enforcement measure, not a crime against humanity.

The Founding Fathers had mixed feelings about immigrants from countries other than England. For the first century of our history, towns and states mainly determined which immigrants were welcomed to settle in their communities. We didn’t have national immigration laws until 1882. In 1923, Congress passed our first comprehensive immigration law; the second was passed in 1965. Over the years, various temporary work and student visas were established to supplement permanent residency permits, prioritizing extended family unification.

Visas specifying legal immigrants began after 1923. Until 1965, work ableness was the essential criterion for immigrants: disabled people and those with chronic diseases were not allowed through Ellis Island even if they were family members.

The Constitution gives Congress the right of naturalization, but there were no stated requirements for citizenship. It was state officials who managed administered the oath of citizenship until about 1900.

In understanding the essential right that national governments have to decide who can immigrate to their countries, it may be helpful to think of a popular immigrant destination like the U.S. as a highly desirable college. Tens of thousands of people are qualified and want to get in. But the college can only take a certain number to maintain its standards. So the college administration establishes admission policies, which change over time. Anyone can apply, but the college chooses. No one is entitled to entry.

If an applicant isn’t accepted or doesn’t apply, he or she can’t storm the dorms, take the classes and demand a degree. And the institution can forcefully evict those who don’t follow the rules.

So is it with immigration. Would-be immigrants apply and the nation-state gets to choose, based on its “admissions policies,” established by Congress.

A successful nation of immigrants has to balance the interests of the nation with the interests of the immigrants. That’s the beginning of the immigration debate.

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