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A LEGACY OF THE UNFORESEEN / Trying to limit the flow of newcomers has often led to surprises

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau

May 7, 2006

2006-05-07 Washington -- Many of the most radical changes in the origins and numbers of America's vast flow of immigrants were unintentionally set in motion, experts say, by politicians who expected an entirely different result.

As for the complex immigration overhaul now before Congress, they say history's lesson from a century of immigration reform is: Fasten your seat belts.

Unlike goods that move across borders, immigrants are people. An estimated 12 million are living illegally in the United States now. Another 1 million gain legal residence each year. Millions more are expected to seek entry in coming decades. No one can accurately predict how they might respond to the harsh border crackdown offered by the House or the Senate's plan to offer a path to citizenship for those here illegally and a guest worker program for new arrivals.

"Human behavior has often defied the best-laid plans," said Daniel Tichenor, an immigration expert at Rutgers University.

The past is seldom consulted during today's debates, but previous attempts at reform provide a roadmap of how quickly things can go off course.

It was a freshly minted young Massachusetts senator named Edward Kennedy who 40 years ago, in what he called "my maiden effort in the Senate," managed the landmark Immigration Act of 1965 -- at the time a minor coda to the Civil Rights Act. Today, Kennedy is the lead Democratic sponsor of the Senate's bipartisan bill.

The 1965 act eliminated the national origins quotas of the 1920s that favored northern Europe. It established visa preferences, still in place today, based on family unification and labor skills. It imposed the first numeric limits on Latin American immigration. And it forever changed the face of the United States.

"Arguments against the bill were chiefly based on unsubstantiated fears that the bill would greatly increase annual immigration" and permit "excessive entry" of Asians and Africans, Kennedy wrote in 1966. The administration declared that "immigration will not be predominantly from Asia and Africa ... indeed very few people from certain areas could even pay the cost of tickets to come here."

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Act of 1965 -- considered at the time a minor coda to the Civil Rights Act.

New migrants were expected to come from Italy, Greece and elsewhere in southern and eastern Europe that had been restricted by the national origins quotas, in addition to the British, Germans and Scandinavians who had dominated the quotas. Members of Congress asserted that hordes from other, darker continents would be unable to use family unification because they had no relatives in the United States.

Oddly, the national origins quotas had ignored Mexico, leaving the Southern border all but open before 1965. By blocking southern and eastern Europeans, the quotas allowed Mexican laborers -- and black farmers migrating from the South -- to fill their shoes.

Lawmakers considered Mexicans, unlike Poles or Italians, to be "returnable," Tichenor said. "If you want to look at the very early origins of illegal immigration as an issue in America, there it is."

"This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill," President Lyndon Johnson said on Liberty Island, Oct. 3, 1965. "It does not affect the lives of millions."

Within five years, Asian immigration had quadrupled. The first new entrants came through occupational visas, then brought their families, beginning unanticipated network migrations, said New York University historian David Reimers. Within a decade, the proportion of European to Asian and Latin American immigrants had reversed.

"The way we teach students is we say, in general, the unintended consequences of immigration reforms are more important than the intended consequences," said Philip Martin, a farm immigration expert at UC Davis.

Two decades later, on Nov. 7, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed another major immigration reform. It was intended to stop illegal immigration, then seen as a burgeoning problem, by providing a one-time amnesty and banning employers from knowingly hiring illegal workers.

"Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people, American citizenship," Reagan said.

Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., a chief sponsor of the bill, predicted employers would voluntarily comply with the new sanctions.

Employer sanctions quickly collapsed under widespread document fraud. Enforcement, never vigorous, has dropped to negligible levels.

"People following it at the time knew that employer sanctions would be a joke without secure means of identification," said Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College. "Everyone was sort of holding their nose, blocking their eyes, doing the best that could get cobbled together."

Many experts believe that the current pattern of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America was a consequence of the 1986 law's border tightening -- followed by a tougher crackdown in 1996 that built fences in San Diego and El Paso.

Tougher borders, fewer returns

"The perverse effect has been to dramatically lower return migration out of the country," said Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton University sociologist and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, a longitudinal survey of more than 18,000 migrants, the largest of its kind. "So we've transformed what was before 1986 a circular flow of workers into an increasingly settled population of families. We have actually accelerated the rate of undocumented population growth in the United States and shifted it from a relatively less costly population of male workers into a much more costly population of families."

The problem, he said, is that by making border crossing "very risky and unpleasant and increasingly expensive, you prolong the length of the trips, you reduce the probability of return migration, and you make it more likely that migrants ... just hunker down and stay."

Luis Gomez of Honduras travels on a cargo train to border city of Nuevo Laredo CARLOS BARRIA

The rate of migration from Mexico has actually stayed constant for the last two decades, Massey found. But the rate of return has fallen by half, from 50 percent to 25 percent.

Ever since Ben Franklin expressed alarm that growing enclaves of Germans in Pennsylvania showed no signs of learning English, Americans have feared new immigrants and waxed sentimental about the previous stock.

"One lesson from the past is that Americans have tended to celebrate their immigrant past but dread the immigrant present," Tichenor said. "They have often viewed the newest arrivals as menacing or as threats to the national identity or economy. What's intriguing is they've usually made snap judgments in very short time horizons."

Chronicle warned of invasion of bumptious Japanese

U.S. policy has lurched between bouts of expansion and restriction, often accompanied by strong racial animus. Borders were open until the late-1800s, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The 1907 "Gentlemen's Agreement" barred Japanese laborers -- a deal made after the San Francisco school board ordered Japanese children to segregated Chinese schools. The Chronicle warned of an invasion of vagrant Japanese workers it deemed "bumptious, disagreeable and unreliable."

The government conducted mass deportations of Mexicans during the Great Depression and in a program labeled Operation Wetback in 1954, deporting an estimated 1.4 million people in all. Bad economic times, backlashes against new immigrants, or worries about national security often brought new restrictions. The national origins quotas of 1924 and 1928 followed the Great Migration at the turn of the century and the isolationism and fear of Bolshevik influences that followed World War I. Not even the Holocaust moved Congress to ease the restrictions.

Immigration often expanded after wars. The 1954 War Brides Act admitted 100,000 spouses after World War II and the Korean War. After the Vietnam War, more than 1 million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were admitted.

Expansions of immigration were often made over public objection.

"I don't know a single poll going back to the 1930s that's indicated the public wants more immigrants to come in as opposed to fewer," said Reimers, the historian.

Defiance of public opinion a constant

Defiance of public opinion is a striking constant of immigration policy, long fascinating political scientists. Major expansions were often achieved through unorthodox alliances joining business, ethnic groups, free-market think tanks and churches.


Because immigration has often divided both political parties, interest groups wield extraordinary influence in the debates, said Stanford University political scientist Carolyn Wong, author of "Lobbying for Inclusion." Business lobbies wanting more labor visas, and ethnic groups wanting more family visas, often join powerful alliances.

California growers have long been key players. Congress created its first major guest worker plan in 1942, the Bracero ("strong-armed one") program for unskilled Mexicans to relieve temporary labor shortages during World War II. The program lasted 22 years, admitting 4.5 million workers. Rife with abuses, it was dropped around passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Bracero Program encourages cheap farm labor

Many scholars believe the Bracero program laid the groundwork for today's illegal immigration by setting up labor networks in Mexico and distorting the U.S. farm economy. The program was plagued by red tape and graft on both sides of the border, inducing many Mexicans to cross illegally. By providing an ample labor force of often-abused workers, it induced growers to plant high-profit, labor-intensive crops. California growers were able to undercut Southern growers -- producing California's vibrant fruit and vegetable industry which to this day relies on illegal migrants.

Because wages for migrant farm workers hardly rose, those who could leave for better paying jobs in cities fled the farms, requiring a constant flow of workers.

Growers warned that California's canned tomato industry would die and food prices would rise if the Bracero program ended. At its height in 1960, 45,000 farm workers harvested 2.2 million tons of processing tomatoes, said Martin of UC Davis. Six years after the program ended, a new oblong tomato was developed that could be machine harvested. By 1999, just 5,000 farm workers harvested 12 million tons of tomatoes and costs fell 54 percent, Martin found. The United Farm Workers union soon won a wage increase.

"I think they honestly didn't think change could happen near as quickly as it actually happened," Martin said.

Another expansion came in the 1990 immigration reform, including an obscure provision known as the "diversity visa" to fix perceived problems created by the 1965 act, then referred to by some as the "Irish Exclusion Act," according to a study by DePaul University political scientist Anna O. Law.

Sponsored by Kennedy, the diversity visa was to redress the unforeseen problems of the 1965 law that had accidentally restricted immigration from "old seed sources of our heritage." But the diversity visa today admits 50,000 a year and is used heavily by Egyptians, Moroccans, Nigerians and other Africans.

"My own ballpark estimate is that in about 10 years, the country may not be so hysterical about Hispanics and may be more hysterical about Africans," Reimers said.

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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