The Problem With the Immigration Problem

What's behind the belief that immigrants harm our society?

  • Immigration has not hurt our country; in fact, economists who have studied this question have found that immigration has been responsible in large part for American prosperity and vibrancy.
    Photo by Flickr/Jamie Lantzy

In 1911, two Cornell University professors, Jeremiah Whipple Jenks and William Jett Lauck, published The Immigration Problem, which laid out an argument for immigration restriction. The professors were involved with Senator William P. Dillingham’s four-year Immigration Commission, which published its results in a 42-volume study that was and continues to be the most exhaustive treatment of immigration. The Dillingham Commission concluded that unrestricted immigration was a problem and proposed limitations on southern and eastern Europeans that would later be enshrined in the first legislation to establish quotas on immigration in the 1920s.

Well before the professors published their book, immigration to the United States had been thought of as a problem that needed to be solved. Politicians, journalists, and white trade unionists first singled out Chinese laborers as particularly dangerous due to their hard work, thrift, and perceived unassimilability. In 1882, Chinese laborers became the first ethnic group to be excluded from entering the country. Prostitutes and Chinese contract laborers had already been excluded by previous legislation.

Over the course of the next 30 years, laws blocked entry to all Asian laborers, in addition to “illiterates,” convicts, prostitutes, and those with contagious diseases. By the 1920s politicians had formed a general consensus that migration had to be controlled and severely limited to protect the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots of the country and sustain economic prosperity. Although such explicitly racist arguments have waned somewhat since the 1960s, the notion that immigration weighs down the economy remains prevalent. The idea that certain ethnic groups are unassimilable looms behind many of the anti-immigrant arguments.


Ever since immigration restriction began, there has been an uneasy balance between the hopes of nativists to stop migration and the desires of businesses for cheap labor. The 1920s nation-based quotas were designed to keep out southern and eastern Europeans and nonwhites to maintain the prevalence of white northern Europeans in the country. The farm lobby, dependent upon cheap migrant labor, demanded and obtained an exemption for immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, which meant that Mexicans were not subject to the quotas. Nonetheless, Mexicans could be excluded based on their likelihood of becoming public charges, or based on the results of illiteracy and medical tests. Millions were deported during the 1930s and 1950s in waves of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigration legislation had racial discrimination encoded in its DNA from the start.

Fifty years ago the United States passed landmark immigration legislation that dropped the nation-based and racially discriminatory quotas, but the ideas that migration should be limited and that immigrants should be chosen for their skills, education level, and family connections were further enshrined as foundational principles of any sound immigration policy. Since 1965, immigration laws have privileged family reunification, skilled workers, and wealthy migrants over poor and unskilled laborers with no family links in the United States. These preferences have become so ingrained in our consciousness that few people question their legitimacy or efficacy.

9/25/2015 8:35:33 AM

I agree completely with the author's position on the core issue but I think Professor Young should stick to his strength which, I assume, is history rather thank making random observations to support his point. Of course, I could be wrong; maybe there are a lot of immigrant roofers in Qatar smoking weed.

Facebook Instagram Twitter