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Let’s Learn From America’s Immigration Mistakes of the Past

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

No way around the border tragedy: Separating small children from their parents is bad. We can pray that the result will be a humane policy not only along the Rio Grande but for some nonviolent offenders throughout the country: Why not ankle bracelets rather than incarceration?

June also brought some sensational examples of press bias. A purportedly current photo of children in a holding facility was an AP pic from the Obama era. A mega-tweeted photo of a boy in a border cage actually came from a Dallas pretend-detention demonstration. Topping them all was the photo of a crying 2-year-old Time used on its cover -- but she wasn’t separated from her mom, who had momentarily set her down. It was 11 p.m., and the little girl was tired and thirsty.

As many have said, journalism is the first draft of history -- and journalists would serve readers and viewers better by conveying some history rather than jerking tears with misleading photos. For example, have you read that every four decades -- 1882, 1924, 1965 -- the United States made a big mistake concerning immigration? Do you know we had a chance to get things right in 1986, but swung and missed on strike four -- so now we have a colossal mess where anything we do creates collateral damage?

President Chester Arthur in 1882 signed into law the Chinese Exclusion Act. West Coast workers who said competition from China lowered their wages successfully pushed for suspension of all Chinese immigration for 10 years: In 1892 Congress renewed the Act for another decade, and in 1902 made it permanent. Congress also made Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship: It stayed that way until 1943.

Blatantly racist, yes. Christian ministers such as the wonderfully named George F. Pentecost attacked the ban, saying “the annual admission of 100,000 into this country would be a good thing. ... The Chinese are thoroughly good workers.” He also said opportunities for evangelism would increase as immigrants had contact with “some real Christian people in America.”

Congress showed bigotry again in 1924: That year’s Immigration Act restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country to 2 percent of the number of people from that land who had lived in the United States in 1890, before the big influx from Italy and Eastern Europe. The number of admitted Italians dropped from 210,000 annually during the first 14 years of the century to a maximum of 4,000 per year. Tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews who would have come were left in Nazi clutches. Most of them died in concentration camps.

By the 1960s, the 1924 Act’s clear biases were “nearly intolerable,” in the words of President John F. Kennedy. Congress could have made America a haven for immigrants fleeing persecution, but liberal church groups pushed for an emphasis on “family reunification.” The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended up creating “chain migration” preferences for family members of previous immigrants.

In the 1970s, happily, we opened our doors to Vietnamese escaping Communism. In 1986 Congress sped up its every-four-decades timetable by passing the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which became known as “the Reagan Amnesty.” Through that measure 3 million immigrants moved from illegal to legal status. (Included in that number were Nicaraguans escaping Marxist Daniel Ortega’s power grab in 1979.) Tough border and hiring restrictions were supposed to reduce future illegality, but enforcement lagged.

Over the last four decades attempts to pass a major bill have failed. Congress in 2011 and 2012 passed resolutions expressing regret for the Chinese Exclusion Act 130 years earlier, but did not do anything regarding today’s problems. And so we were left with Barack Obama’s DACA executive order in 2012, and the backlash against it that helped elect Donald Trump four years later.

Some current proposals would once again privilege chain migration, help the U.S. skim the college graduates of poor countries, or admit those who want to live in a rich land rather than a poor one. But at a time when radical Muslims murder Christians, Daniel Ortega again kills his critics, and Honduran gangs breathe death, the world needs a place that will accept refugees running for their lives and eager to work amid freedom and security. That should be the U.S. priority. That should be us.

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