Immigration: our No. 1 problem

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It’s been 50 years since Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration Act of 1965 into law. In that time, the law has accomplished two things: First, it ended the offensive and discriminatory national origins quota system, as intended. Second, it has radically transformed America and will change the country even more radically over the next half century, an outcome that was not intended.

Since President Johnson put pen to paper at the foot of the Statue of Liberty on Oct. 3, 1965, the law has resulted in the arrival of 59 million immigrants. The foreign born population of the country has grown to 45 million and our population has exploded to about 324 million people – 72 million more than it would have been if not for the 1965 Act. In the process, the social, cultural and demographic composition of the country has also been dramatically altered in a way that is rapidly making the country unrecognizable to the people who wrote the law.

Perhaps the most astounding thing about the 1965 Immigration Act, which still serves as the basis of our immigration system, is that it has no identifiable public interest objective. Unlike all other public policies, which have clear and self-evident public interest goals, our immigration policy has none. It is hard to find a single national interest that is being advanced by our current immigration system.

What public good is served by an immigration policy that is expected to account directly for an additional 103 million people – 88 percent of all population growth – by 2065?

What national interest is served by a policy that admits the vast majority of legal immigrants without regard to their education or jobs skills, and has resulted in more than half of immigrant-headed households accessing our social welfare system?

Other than making some of us feel enlightened, what public interest will be served by a policy that turns the country into a hodgepodge of unassimilated ethnic groups? Despite all of the fashionable paeans to multiculturalism, cultural clashes are a source of deadly strife in many places around the world and there is little reason to expect they will not produce the same results here.

The incontrovertible evidence that the 1965 Act has been a failure can be found in the loud and persistent calls from all quarters for comprehensive immigration reform. (You don’t comprehensively overhaul a policy that’s working!) The problem is that all recent efforts to implement comprehensive reform amount to taking the current policy and making it bigger, as though doing so would somehow make it better.

The dirty little secret about immigration reform is that the policy can’t be fixed until we, as a nation, decide what it is want to accomplish with it. The 1965 Act defined what we didn’t want, i.e. a policy that overtly discriminated for and against certain people based on where they came from. It’s great failing is that it never defined how immigration fits into the larger societal objectives of making the United States a more sustainable, prosperous and cohesive nation.

Before we blindly continue down the path we’ve been on for the past 50 years we need to spell out some commonsense goals for immigration in the 21st century that are broadly supported by the American people:

— Immigration admissions should be set at levels that are consistent with national goals to rein in runaway population growth and confront already formidable resource and environmental challenges.

— Immigration admissions should be set at levels that are consistent with national goals to assimilate newcomers into the economic, cultural and linguistic mainstream.

— Immigrants should be selected based on an objective assessment of their likelihood to succeed economically and to compliment, not compete with our existing labor force.

Theodore White, one of the foremost chroniclers of the era that produced the Immigration Act of 1965 characterized that law as “probably the most thoughtless of the many acts of the Great Society,” lamenting that what ensued was “a stampede, almost an invasion.”

White wrote that assessment in 1982, 17 years after that law went into effect. We have now had a thoughtless immigration policy for a half century. It is long past due that we replace it with a thoughtful one designed to serve some compelling national interest.

Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).  Contact him at: [email protected].