Immigration: Why Trump wants to change the act that led to decades of unintended consequences

At the heart of White House Senior Policy Adviser Stephen Miller’s heated exchange with a reporter over proposed changes to U.S. immigration policy is a decades-old act of Congress that had consequences its framers claimed they never intended.

The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act changed the way America accepts immigrants from a quota system where they were chosen based on their race and ancestry to one that focused especially on uniting families.

In the White House press briefing on Wednesday, Miller said, “we're proposing to limit family- based migration to spouses and minor children and establishing a new entry system that’s points based.”

“I’m delighted to see it,” said Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). “The RAISE Act is an attempt to rebalance the portion of skilled versus family in the immigration flow.” On Wednesday, Trump endorsed the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act, first introduced last February.

After CNN’s Jim Acosta asked whether the U.S. is “just going to bring in people from Britain,” Miller said the question shows a “cosmopolitan bias to a shocking degree … the notion this bill is racist is insulting. The foreign-born population has quadrupled since 1970.”

Far from a return to the old ways, the White House said the proposed policy changes under the RAISE Act are intended to correct a system that was filled with broken promises and falsehoods from its start, with unintended economic and cultural consequences.

As he signed the 1965 act into law, President Lyndon Baines Johnson said it was not a “revolutionary bill. It does not affect the lives of millions. It will not restructure the shape of our daily lives.”

The unanticipated result was one of the most massive influxes of immigrants in the nation’s history. More than 38 million legal immigrants have come to America since the law’s passage fifty years ago, more than triple the number admitted during the previous 50 years.

“And the new immigrants were more likely to stay, rather than return home at the time, than those who came in the early 1900s,” said a report by the right-leaning CIS.

During congressional debate in 1964, some Democrats complained the act would change the racial complexion of the land. “It shifts the mainstream of immigration from western and northern Europe, the principal source of our present population, to Africa, Asia, and the Orient,” said Rep. Ovie Fisher, D-Texas.

But then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk echoed the president when he said he did not see signs of a “world situation where everybody is just straining to move to the United States.”

LBJ argued the changes would favor immigrants with skills, regardless of race or ancestry. “A nation that was built by immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: ‘What can you do for our country?’” he said, “But we should not be asking: ‘In what country were you born?’”

According to reporting at the time, Asian immigrants were virtually banned from the United States due to both domestic and foreign policies beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882. Japan still barred immigration to the U.S. in 1965, 20 years after the end of World War II.

Southern Europeans had problems of their own with existing policies. “An Italian-American couldn’t squeeze his father into Italy’s small quota,” said a report in the American Legion Magazine in 1966, “but could ponder the fact that if he were only an English-American he could bring over his mother, father, sister, friend, cousins and six servants.”

If an American hospital wanted a noted Turkish brain surgeon, according to the report, Turkey’s small quota would “put him on a waiting list for years. Were he only born in Germany he might come next week.”

While LBJ emphasized the bill’s provisions for skilled workers, what actually happened, according to historians, is those very provisions got watered down to overcome skepticism by the Democratic party’s Scotch-Irish industrial worker base.

Rep. Michael Feighan, an Ohio Democrat, managed to change the priority, according to Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio and author of “A Nation of Nations: America’s Great Immigration Story.”

Gjelten wrote in the left-leaning Atlantic magazine that Feighan’s changes gave “visa preferences instead to foreigners who were seeking to join their families in the United States.”

Feighan sold the idea to his constituents by claiming the family-unification preference would favor immigration from northern Europe.

“There will not be, comparatively, many Asians or Africans entering this country,” said Rep. Emanuel Cellar a New York Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, “Since the people of Africa and Asia have very few relatives here, comparatively few could immigrate from those countries because they have no family ties in the U.S."

"The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants,” said Senate immigration subcommittee Chairman Ted Kennedy, D-Mass. “It will not upset the ethnic mix of our society. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.”

“I don’t think Ted Kennedy was lying,” Krikorian told Fox News, “It’s just that he was foolish to believe it.”

“Feighan and others were wrong,” Gjelten wrote in Atlantic magazine, “The heightened emphasis on family unification, rather than replicating the existing ethnic structure of the American population, led to the phenomenon of chain migration.”

And that’s where we are today.  A single worker from Africa, Asia or Latin America can sponsor any of his or her relatives, who can in turn sponsor any of theirs.

“Within a few decades, family unification had become the driving force in U.S. immigration, and it favored exactly those nationalities the critics of the 1965 Act had hoped to keep out, because those were the people most determined to move,” said Gjelten in the Atlantic.

Miller said the effect of switching to a “skills-based system and ending chain migration” would, over time, “cut net migration in half, which polling shows is supported by the American people.”

Krikorian does not want to see a return to race-based quotas, and he said that the RAISE Act doesn’t, either. “Getting rid of national origin quotas was actually an admirable goal,” he said.

“This is a major promise (by President Trump) to the American people,” said Miller, “to push for merit-based reform that protects workers, taxpayers, and the economy.”