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

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."