How the Hart–Celler Act Changed America

How the Hart–Celler Act Changed America

The 1960s effort to end discriminatory quotas sowed the seeds of the political conflicts over immigration that are still with us today.

A naturalization ceremony in New Jersey (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Walls Within: The Politics of Immigration in Modern America
by Sarah R. Coleman
Princeton University Press, 2021, 272 pp.

 

I vividly remember a conversation I had about fifteen years ago with a first-generation Mexican-American student at UCLA. I was stunned when she mentioned that her parents’ favorite U.S. president, hands down, was Ronald Reagan. Before she was born, she explained, her parents had crossed the border without authorization; they then lived as undocumented immigrants for years, until they got amnesty under the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which Reagan signed into law. Later on, they became naturalized U.S. citizens.

Despite their nostalgia for the party of Reagan, by the aughts my student had persuaded her parents to switch their political allegiance to the Democrats. This was a decade before Donald Trump’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric propelled him into the White House, but already the Republican brand was tethered to restrictive immigration policies, especially in California, home to the nation’s largest undocumented population. Agricultural and business interests that depended on a steady supply of low-wage immigrant labor were still influential in the California GOP, but their relatively liberal immigration views were increasingly marginalized by other Republicans riding the wave of popular backlash against “illegal aliens.”

That backlash was fueled by what political scientists Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal have called the “immigrant threat narrative”: blaming the growing immigrant population, especially its undocumented segment, for many of the nation’s social and economic woes. In this view, immigrants were “taking jobs” away from American workers. They were overburdening publicly funded healthcare and social services. And they were contributing to rising crime rates.

As I argued in Dissent in 2019, however, immigrants very rarely “take jobs” from U.S.-born workers; more often, employers transform once-desirable jobs into problematic ones by eliminating unions, cutting pay, or degrading working conditions, leading U.S.-born workers to reject those jobs and immigrants to be hired in their place. The other claims in the immigrant threat narrative are also inconsistent with the available facts. Yet that narrative steadily gained public traction in the late twentieth century, repeatedly articulated by conservative political voices and amplified in mass media outlets like Fox News.

Historian Sarah R. Coleman’s careful study of the dynamics of immigration politics, The Walls Within<...


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