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Beyond National Origins: The Development of Modern Immigration Policymaking, 1948-1968

  • Author(s): Wolgin, Philip Eric
  • Advisor(s): Hollinger, David A
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the development of the modern system of immigration policy. In doing so I shift the lens of analysis from singular strands of legislation to the most enduring facet of postwar reform: the three major categories of permanent immigrant admissions - family reunion, labor-market, and refugee - enshrined in the Hart-Celler Act of 1965. Hart-Celler ended the race-based national origins quota system which had governed immigrant admissions since the 1920s, and implemented a new preference system that allotted just under three quarters of all visas to family reunification, with the remainder for labor migrants and refugees. I ask why policymakers created a system so heavily weighted toward family reunification and how they decided who qualified for each admissions preference. The idea of using these specific categories, and of allotting the lion's share of visas to family, marked a revolutionary break from the past. Far from being primordial or pre-ordained, the shape of the preferences emerged from two decades of political struggle.

Examining the development of these categories of admission within one overarching admissions structure allows me to detail the long history of policy development. Using a range of archival sources, including the under-utilized State Department records, I follow political and legal processes as they emerged and intertwined from multiple venues, including the executive branch, federal bureaucracies, congress, and civil society groups. My research shows that more than any other factor - more than the will of powerful individuals; of the sausage-making legislative process; or the shape of political coalitions and public opinion - what mattered most for the development of the preference categories, and thus for immigration policymaking itself, was a series of successful short-sighted defenses of older policies and unsuccessful reform efforts. These early attempts at defense and reform in the late-1940s to early-1960s did not answer the key question of immigration policy in the postwar era: how to regulate admissions without the use of the race-based quotas. But, over the course of two decades, they set in motion a positive feedback cycle that, once full-scale legislative reform was possible with the Hart-Celler Act, pushed policymakers to implement a heavily family-reunification based system. Critically, this feedback loop functioned largely below the radar, constraining policymaking in a manner overlooked even by those officials most intimately connected with immigration reform.

While other pieces of legislation, such as the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 and the Immigration Act of 1990, have made cosmetic changes to the admissions regime, for example raising the numbers of people admissible each year, the foundations of the system - the three categories and emphasis on family reunification - remain the same. These three preferences, above any other facet of policymaking, have shaped the modern immigration regime, with all of its trials and tribulations, including long backlogs in the family preference categories, large numbers of undocumented immigrants, and a disconnect between labor-market needs and available visas. Though many of the constrictions on policymaking from the postwar era emerged from the peculiar history of the national origins quotas, I conclude that the lessons about policy defense and failed reform are applicable to contemporary immigration policymaking.

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