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Legal or Illegal

Legal or Illegal

A raft with seven Cuban defectors is sighted by Brothers to the Rescue pilots in the Straits of Florida, September 8, 1993.

Until the early 20th century, the door to the United States was open to everyone, except the Chinese. But 8.8 million immigrants arrived between 1901 and 1910, leading to anti-immigrant sentiment. In the 1920’s, Congress passed the National Origins Act creating a quota system based on national origins and meant to stop especially southern and eastern European immigrants, who were alleged to be racially inferior.

Legal or Illegal

Illegal Mexican immigrants, among them a woman carrying a baby, are boarding a plane in Los Angeles, Calif., as they are being deported back to their native Mexico, 1976.

Only minor changes to immigration law were made for the next four decades. But the civil rights movement of the early 1960’s put in focus the racist aspects of the National Origins Act. A complete overhaul of immigration law followed in 1965 when the quota system was ended and family reunification and needed skills were designated as the basis for entry. This 1965 legislation led to an enormous expansion of legal immigration from Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

Since the 1970’s, illegal immigration has also increased dramatically. Mexicans – historically employed for low wages during good times and then forced to return to Mexico when opposition to their presence grew – are the largest undocumented immigrant group. Legal and illegal immigration since 1965 has changed the United States, spurring a social and political conflict about who can and should be an American.

Immigrants have long come to the United States seeking economic opportunity or fleeing persecution. The question remains: who should come and how many. The contrast in U.S. policy toward Haitians and Cubans is striking.Cubans fled an anti-American dictatorship and were given refugee status when they arrived, while Haitians, who also fled dictatorship and chaos, were more likely to be repatriated or imprisoned. Despite walls and seemingly insuperable obstacles, immigrants will continue to flee the terrible conditions in their home countries and take their chances in the United States. The debate will also continue about United States policy regarding immigration.