-By Eva Garcia-Mendoza, Esq. & Tyler Morgan, Esq.
Donald Trump brought the subject of “illegal” immigration front and
center during his campaign and it has remained there since he took office. Trump repeatedly stated that a wall will be built on the United States’ southern border and Mexico will pay for it. In the current national dialogue, it’s often heard, “My ancestors came here legally, they [the current immigrants] should do the same.” However, in most cases this statement is entirely inaccurate for the reasons set forth below.
U.S. Immigration History
From the inception of our nation until the late 1800s, the United States had an open door to immigrants with some regulations imposed only by individual states. In other words, people were able to enter and remain here without filing any formal paperwork. It wasn’t until the gold rush of the mid 1800s, and the influx of Asian immigrants, that Americans developed negative sentiment towards immigrants. This negative sentiment continued through history and arguably still remains strong today. The U.S. has a long history of tightening immigration laws and a brief summary of the many immigration acts imposed by the government only shows the historical significance of this anti-immigration sentiment on our federal government.
By 1882, The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted providing for the exclusion of persons from China. It should be noted, only thirteen years prior to this act, the nation’s first Transcontinental Railway was completed with enormous contributions from then Asian worker-immigrants now facing exclusion. This exclusion of Chinese people continued through further acts by the federal government until Dec 17, 1943, when Congress repealed all exclusion acts leaving a quota system in its place.
Following the Chinese Exclusion act came another measure on immigration in the same year– The Immigration Act of 1882. This was the first general federal immigration law and included a head tax of $0.50 and forbid convicts, lunatics, idiots and persons unable to care for themselves without becoming a public charge from entering the United States.
When Congress felt it necessary to pass responsibility onto the federal government to enforce immigration policy, the Immigration Act of 1891 was passed and established the Bureau of Immigration. This act further restricted immigration and provided for medical and general inspection, and excluded people who had contagious diseases from entering the United States. Also excluded were persons who had previously committed crimes involving moral turpitude, and who were either paupers or polygamists. By 1903, in response to President William McKinley’s assassination, federal law was changed to exclude from the United States epileptics, insane persons, professional beggars, and anarchists. Shortly thereafter, in 1907, the federal government established additional grounds of exclusion including: feeble-minded persons, unaccompanied children, persons with tuberculosis, and persons with a physical or mental defect that might affect their ability to earn a living. Also added was a deportation ground for persons who engaged in prostitution within four years of entering the United States.
Following WWI, a Quota Act was enacted in 1921 in response to post war fears that southern and eastern Europeans would inundate the United States. The federal government sharply reduced immigration to 350,000 admissions per year and immigration from southern and eastern Europe was especially hard hit, as the law intended. The annual quota for these regions was 155,000 admissions, far below the previous annual average of 783,000.
The quota tightened in 1924 by further reducing the number of southern and eastern European immigrants allowed to enter the United States annually to below 25,000. Through these quotas set forth in the early 1920s, “restrictionists” had effectively won their battle to close America’s gates.
Fast forward to 1952, Nevada’s U.S. Senator Pat McCarran co-sponsored the McCarran – Walter Act which established the basic structure of current U.S. immigration law. Opponents of this Act expressed concern that the restrictive quota system heavily favored immigration from Northern and Western Europe and therefore created resentment against the United States in other parts of the world. Opponents also felt the law created the sense that Americans thought people from Eastern Europe were less desirable and those from Asia were just plainly inferior to those of European descent. However, the group led by Senator McCarran expressed concerns that the United States could face communist infiltration through immigration and that unassimilated aliens could threaten the foundations of American life. Those in Senator McCarran’s camp argued that limited and selective immigration was the best way to ensure the preservation of national security and national interests. Economic factors were secondary to America’s Cold War concerns in the debate over immigration. The Act gave 85% of the 154,277 visas available annually to persons of Northern and Western European lineage. Before the passage of this law, residents of only three countries–Ireland, Germany and England were entitled to nearly 70% of the visas available to enter the United States.
Countries in the Western Hemisphere were not included in the quota system. Thus, persons from North, Central, and South America were exempt from the quotas and were allowed to enter unimpeded unless they were disqualified due to health, economic or criminal grounds. These quotas were eventually adjusted by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, but by 1978, Congress eliminated the hemispheric quotas system and established a worldwide quota of 270,000 visas per year.
Between 1965 and 2000, 4.3 million immigrants to the United States came from Mexico. Today, immigration to the United States is dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America with immigrants from all of Europe accounting for only 10% of recent arrivals.
The Reality of “Get In Line and Enter Legally”
If it were only so simple. You often hear people say something in line with, “my ancestors came here legally and became citizens so why can’t the ones today do the same?” Or, you may hear the famous, “get in the back of the line if you want to enter.” Well, simply put, there is no line. In fact, with the quotas now in place for immigrants trying to enter the country, most have to remain undocumented for years, even decades, before they can officially become legally documented citizens. Point is, when our ancestors were arrived, they were neither legal nor illegal immigrants– they were just immigrants. They came in the same way and for the same reason current immigrants do: by crossing a border and seeking a better life for themselves and their family.
The references to “illegal” or “undocumented” solely refer to that fact that the immigrants do not have federal identification for their status in the country. That does not necessarily mean the federal government does not know they have entered the border. In fact, states and the federal government have been collecting taxes on them for years. According to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, “illegal” immigrants contribute billions of dollars in state and local taxes each year. And as far as social security is concerned, illegal immigrants and their employers contribute to roughly $12 billion in social security taxes each year based on estimates from the Social Security Administration. Most important to note is that when many of these immigrants pay for social security, they do so knowing they may never get the benefit of drawing from the system because of their status.
So, when it comes to immigration and building walls to keep everyone out, just consider what is being shut out–hard working families, like those who built our railroads and agriculture industry, who often pay taxes (billions) and come to this great country in search of a better and peaceful life.
Eva Garcia Mendoza began her legal work in 1975 as the first official court interpreter in the State of Nevada. She graduated from the University of San Diego and has practiced law for more than 35 years. She founded the Nevada Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in the late 1980s and has served as its Chapter Chair on two occasions. She also practices in the field of general litigation and personal injury law.
The Firm, P.C. is a boutique Las Vegas law firm founded by Preston Rezaee, Esq. Preston Rezaee is also the founder and Editor in Chief of Vegas Legal Magazine.