The Blessings of Immigration

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


Photo by Elias Castillo on Unsplash


Immigration and naturalization are integral to the existence of the United States. Our founding fathers were immigrants who enshrined the immigration process in the United States Constitution by permitting Congress the ability "to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization," which Congress took swift advantage of by passing the Naturalization Act of 1790 [1]. The Naturalization Act of 1790 was the first in an endless stream of policies designed to regulate the naturalization of foreigners in accordance with the needs of the United States Federal Government at any given time. Immigration policy changed wildly from 1790 until the turn of the twentieth century, but after World War I, the entire framework for immigration was altered with the aim of restriction in mind; this increase in restrictions was and is an excellent case study by which we can diagnose problems with immigration at large in relation to their impact on aiding developing nations and their people.


One of the most drastic pieces of immigration legislation to come after World War I was so powerful that it set a precedent for almost every immigration act enacted after it until 1952. The Johnson-Reed Act, more commonly known as “the quota system”, was enacted in 1924 and built upon the Immigration Act of 1917 – the act responsible for preventing millions of potential Asian immigrants from coming to the shores of the United States after WWI [2]. The Johnson-Reed Act created a system under which only two percent of any given country's citizens were allowed to immigrate. Even though many people including Woodrow Wilson, who vetoed the act prior to 1924, vehemently opposed the restrictive reform, the Johnson-Reed Act was passed. Immigration and naturalization was no longer afforded to those on the basis of need. Immigration was something that, in the eyes of both political parties, needed to be limited; because to Congress, immigration was a national security risk. The Office of the Historian notes that "the quota system was so well-established that no one questioned whether to maintain it, but rather discussed how to adjust it” [3]. The quota system persisted and was amended multiple times to include more rigorous testing and evaluation of potential citizens, further limiting the feasibility of immigration for everyone.


Immigration to the United States rapidly declined until a framework readjustment was proposed in 1952. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) effectively ended the quota system when enacted in 1965 [4]. The INA did not limit the number of citizens allowed to immigrate by quotas from each country but, instead, restricted the overall number of visas awarded to prospective foreign nationals. By allocating 675,000 visas across multiple categories annually, immigration increased [5]. While it took nearly half a century to see immigration numbers exceed those before 1924, immigration and naturalization both steadily rose in the second half of the twentieth century [6].


Both the Johnson-Reed Act and the INA quickly gained acceptance within the government and were heavily modified after their respective enactments. Adjunct to both of these frameworks were a slew of limitations and bans including, but not limited to, the Asiatic Barred Zone, a list of Asian countries – excluding Japan and the formerly occupied Philippines – from which the United States would not accept immigrants, those suspected of far left-leaning political affiliations were banned from travel by the Anarchist Exclusion Act, and Communist political parties already registered within the USA became heavily investigated and discouraged with the introduction of the Subversive Activities Control Act. The reasoning of race, political affiliation, religion, and their relation to a possible national security threat were used to justify most exclusion acts throughout much of the U.S. history of immigration. The impact of these bans and justifications have not faded, rather, continue to exist in the form of Executive Order 13769, more commonly known as the Muslim Ban, and the constant inhumane detention of immigrants by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) on the United States' southern border [7]. It is clear, given the history of immigration policy, that the United States Federal Government places value on certain groups of immigrants at any given time based on factors of race and economic productivity, and models immigration policy to fulfill the needs and desires of the country, as opposed to listening to the pleas of those desperately seeking refuge. The blessings of immigration are reaped by the United States government and economy.


The blessings of immigration are reaped by the United States government and economy


Despite its storied history, it is evident that U.S. immigration laws were not created with the intention of serving as a policy to help those who are most in need. Even under the current system, the INA, which is the most expansive immigration policy to date, is systemically ill-equipped to handle the problems of immigrants coming to the United States. Immigrants have historically moved to the United States in search of economic opportunity in hopes of ending their own poverty. While immigration does lift those who successfully naturalize out of poverty, the volume of immigrants that the United States annually takes in pales in comparison to the number of people who live in and are born into extreme poverty every year. While an average of one million immigrants reach the shores of the United States every year, there are roughly 734 million people globally who live in extreme poverty, and adjusting for births over deaths, an additional 80,000,000 children are born into poverty annually [8]. No immigration policy enacted by the United States or even a coalition of nations can handle enough immigrants to make a significant dent in solving global poverty, industrialization, or global development. Immigration has risen from an average of 250,000 immigrants in 1965 to over 1,000,000 per year as of 2005. The burden of proof that would support immigration as a framework that helps mitigate or combat poverty would lie in the increased development of nations from which immigrants leave behind, which is not the case. The Legatum Prosperity Index is an organization tasked with creating a report in which "the world can assess their strengths and weaknesses in order to determine the economic and strategic choices that need to be made to further build inclusive societies, open economies, and empowered people to drive greater levels of prosperity" [9]. Their key findings state that overall countries are improving across every measure they record, however this growth is disproportionate, creating a wider gap between the most and least developed nations. From the Legatum Index's findings, it is reasonable to conclude that the countries improving rapidly are those that receive more immigrants than they lose, and countries that see little to no immigration make menial national development.


Is there a solution to the problem of immigration as it relates to benefiting the global community? Many people have tried, with most attempts involving the creation of a non-governmental organization (NGO) [10]. While NGOs are common aids to humanitarian and economic issues across the globe, there is great reason to believe that they don't work. NGOs often do not get the chance to see prolonged success or see continued success because the viability and life of an NGO is similar to that of a venture capitalist opportunity, which see some of the highest failure rates among all businesses [11]. Often, these organizations are created by people residing in a developed nation who are so far removed from the issues they attempt to solve, and, in consequence, they do not understand the complexity of the issues they attempt to tackle and thus have a great potential to worsen or complicate the situation further [12]. Furthermore, where venture capital startups may fail, there is minimal harm as there is no population whose lives partially depend on the goods and services of a given startup. This is not the case, however, with NGOs, as when they fail, they leave behind not only a sinkhole of investor funds, but also a community of people that were supposed to be helped. What is the solution, then, if something as widely accepted as NGOs often has no lasting meaningful impacts on the communities they are supposed to serve and might never fully address the problems they attempt to solve? Recently, direct investment into community-grown organizations have filled the void that immigration has left behind that NGOs cannot fill. Despite the rhetoric of governments and non-government organizations that suggests they are making meaningful strides to solve some of the worlds toughest issues, the blessings of immigration are bestowed to the lucky few who immigrate and to the countries which they move to, like the United States: not the overwhelming majority of people and nations they leave behind.

[1] “H. R. 40, Naturalization Bill, March 4, 1790,” U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, accessed September 2020, https://www.visitthecapitol.gov/exhibitions/artifact/h-r-40-naturalization-bill-march-4-1790.


[2] “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act),” U.S. Department of State (U.S. Department of State), accessed September 2020, https://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/immigration-act; “Immigration Act of 1917 (Barred Zone Act),” Immigration History, February 1, 2020, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/1917-barred-zone-act/.


[3] U.S. Department of State (U.S. Department of State), accessed October 1, 2020, https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/time/id/87718.htm.


[4] “Immigration and Nationality Act,” USCIS, July 10, 2019, https://www.uscis.gov/laws-and-policy/legislation/immigration-and-nationality-act.


[5] “How the United States Immigration System Works,” American Immigration Council, March 5, 2020, https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/how-united-states-immigration-system-works.


[6] “U.S. Immigrant Population and Share over Time, 1850-Present,” migrationpolicy.org, February 13, 2020, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/programs/data-hub/charts/immigrant-population-over-time.


[7] “Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” The White House (The United States Government), accessed September 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-protecting-nation-foreign-terrorist-entry-united-states-2/.


[8] “Table 1. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2018,” Department of Homeland Security, January 6, 2020, https://www.dhs.gov/immigration-statistics/yearbook/2018/table1; Max Roser and Esteban Ortiz-Ospina, “Global Extreme Poverty,” Our World in Data, May 25, 2013, https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty.


[9] “2019 Key Findings: Global Prosperity Hits Highest Ever Level,” Legatum Prosperity Index 2019, November 25, 2019, https://www.prosperity.com/feed/2019-key-findings-global-prosperity-improving.


[10] “NGOs, the UN and APA,” American Psychological Association (American Psychological Association), accessed September 2020, https://www.apa.org/international/united-nations/publications.


[11] Robert S. Kaplan and Allen S. Grossman, “The Emerging Capital Market for Nonprofits,” Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2014, https://hbr.org/2010/10/the-emerging-capital-market-for-nonprofits; S. Akbar Zaidi, “NGO Failure and the Need to Bring Back the State,” Wiley Online Library (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, May 5, 1999), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/(SICI)1099-1328(199903/04)11:2<259::AID-JID573>3.0.CO;2-N.


[12] David Weedmark, “NGOs vs. Nonprofits,” Small Business - Chron.com (Chron.com, February 5, 2019), https://smallbusiness.chron.com/ngos-vs-nonprofits-65685.html.