As the Senate is mulling the details of a compromise immigration bill hammered together by the odd couple of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Jon Kyl, and as members of Congress hear from their constituents over the Memorial Day recess, it may be worthwhile to put the issue in historical context. For most of our history, the United States had no restrictions on immigration at all. I am told that my Canadian-born grandfather was a "nickel immigrant": He took the five-cent ferry from Windsor, Ontario, north to Detroit roundabout 1896. This situation resulted from America's strong demand for labor, coupled with its weakness at managing its borders. The government could screen and register immigrants arriving at large ports but couldn't patrol thousands of miles of border.
World War I enlarged and strengthened the federal government, and Congress voted for severe restrictions on immigration in 1921 and 1924. The labor market (and health inspectors) would no longer determine who came here; quotas were imposed on immigration from specific countries to reflect the ethnic composition of the nation in 1890. The apparatus of state was strong enough to enforce these restrictions, and, in any case, there was no market demand for immigrants during the depression of the 1930s and no way for them to come during World War II.
By the time immigration became an issue again, the political impetus for the immigration act of 1965 -- floor-managed by Edward Kennedy -- came from those who expected an influx from Italy, Greece and, if possible, the "captive nations" of Eastern Europe. Few seem to have expected a surge from Latin America or East Asia, although country quotas were applied to immigration from Latin America for the first time.
Why, then, have we had so many Latin immigrants, many of them illegal? Because the apparatus of state has proved weaker than market forces: The old Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the understaffed Border Patrol have been among our least competent federal bureaucracies. And because the family unification provisions of the 1965 act allowed legal immigrants to bring in not just young children but also other relatives ("chain migration"), and because the Fourteenth Amendment makes anyone born in the United States a citizen.