To the editor: Immigration is extremely important in a country where almost everyone is either an immigrant or a descendant of immigrants. I came here to study as a teenager, fell in love with this country, obtained a PhD and became a citizen in 1963. America also opened its doors to many members of my family escaping the terrors of Cuba’s Communist Party.
I consider myself very lucky and privileged to be a citizen of what is the best country in the world even with its faults. But I am troubled by our failure to create a comprehensive, coordinated and consistent immigration system. The “system” as we know it is the result of various laws -- often passed in response to public sentiment about particular nationalities or races -- with fractured oversight authority.
From the 1920s to the 1960s each nationality was assigned a quota based on its representation in past U.S. Census figures. That served to continue a European majority. The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 replaced that system, basing immigration rights on various categories, such as relatives of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, those with skill considered useful to the U.S., and refugees fleeing violence. Although various “caps” applied, within five years immigration from Asian countries, especially from those destroyed by war like Vietnam and Cambodia, had quadrupled. In the first three decades under the 1965 law, more than 18 million legal immigrants entered the U.S., triple the number admitted during the preceding 30 years. By the end of the 20th century, the ethnic composition of the American population had greatly changed, triggering a wave of anti-immigration feeling among groups losing prominence and power.
This situation is exacerbated by uncertainty over exactly who is “in charge” of our immigration laws. The Supreme Court says the primary power lies in Congress, not the courts. Yet enforcement of immigration laws remains the responsibility of the executive branch as part of its duty to protect national security. Congress has even explicitly given the president unilateral power to exclude certain groups (8 U.S. Code § 1182(f)). As recent events showed, this split of authority between Congress and the president can easily produce conflicts that courts must resolve.
Something so important to Americans, and to those wishing to become Americans, should not be left to whims and this uncertain tangle of laws and rules and court decisions. We really need to do better.
Shaftsbury, June 13