Send Me your Rich and Talented

Donna R. Gabaccia
Director, Immigration History Research Center

In the past weeks, I’ve fielded almost a dozen inquiries from journalists pondering what the impact of a proposed skills-based point system would be on the current immigration “crisis.? Can historical perspective help us to answer their question?

Americans still celebrate the openness of the United States to impoverished and hard-working migrants--but only when they think about the past. How many times have we read the lines of Emma Lazarus’s poem—now affixed to the Statue of Liberty—with its famous lines about “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free??

A quick look at American attitudes toward poor foreigners in the 1880s and 1890s suggest a far less welcoming stance. Those likely to “become a public charge? (e.g. need charity or assistance from local or county poor relief) have been excluded from the United States since 1875. Relatively few were actually excluded (and of those, the majority were women) because then—as now—foreigners in the U.S. were more likely to work than were natives. But a century ago, even a willingness to work was seen as a problem, as it also sometimes is today.

Then, as now, many Americans were convinced that ignorant, uneducated, low-skilled immigrants were about to destroy American democracy. They feared the “pauperization? of the country. They assumed that foreigners would take away their jobs. A century ago, the American Federation of Labor consistently advocated immigration restriction so that newcomers, with their pasta- and rice-based diets, would not undermine the living standards of meat-eating American men.

Hostility to low-skilled workers was central to U.S. immigration policy a century ago. The 1882 law that is usually called the “Chinese exclusion act? did not exclude all Chinese on the basis of their race. On the contrary, it excluded only Chinese laborers. Merchants, ministers, and students from China continued to enter the U.S., although they were scarcely welcomed once they arrived. In 1885, the U.S. Congress excluded all contract laborers—anyone who had been promised a job in the U.S. prior to entry. This created a challenging bind for foreigners. They had to prove they would never need charity but they also could not admit that a job—as often promised by a friend or relative as by a labor contractor or padrone--awaited them. In 1917, the U.S. closed the door to immigrants who could not read and write, even if they came (as many did) from countries with no public schools. The poorly educated were poor citizenship material, Americans argued.

In other words, skills-based migration is not exactly a new idea. Since 1953, the U.S. has parceled out visas for kinship-based and employment-based immigration. Employment-based immigration to the U.S. already privileges the highly-skilled and educated. According to the website of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (see: the following groups are candidates for employment-based immigration as priority workers—

“Foreign nationals of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics?; “Foreign national that are outstanding professors or researchers;? “Foreign nationals that are managers and executives subject to international transfer to the United States.?

Of high priority also are “Foreign nationals of exceptional ability in the sciences, arts or business,? “Foreign nationals that are advanced degree professionals? and “Qualified alien physicians who will practice medicine in an area of the U.S. which is underserved.?

It is not skills-based admission but the move to allot relatively fewer visas to kinship-based visas toward visas and relatively more to a skills-based “points system? that is the most important change currently under discussion in Washington. For two intelligent examinations of the impact of this change on various groups of current migrants to the U.S., see: and

Lurking behind our celebration of the “up-by-our-bootstraps? poor immigrants of a century ago is a long and continuing history of hostility to poor or semi-skilled migrants. And the U.S. is not alone in this hostility. Apparently no country in the world today wants “huddled masses yearning to breathe.?

The problem for all these countries, including the U.S., is that they still need them. With unemployment at roughly 4.5 percent, the U.S. today has what economists consider “full employment.? In 1904, the U.S. government has made its projections: 20 million new workers will be needed in the next ten years:
Among the twenty occupations projected for the largest numerical increases, ten are so-called “blue? or “pink? collar semi-skilled workers, as this Department of Labor chart clearly reveals:


With full employment, a declining birthrate, and an aging native-born population, it is unlikely that native-born Americans will fill all those semi-skilled and unskilled jobs.

And the foreigners who might be willing and eager to take them? For them, there will be temporary work visas or illegal entry into the U.S. Here too, history helps provide perspective. From 1942-1963 the U.S. acknowledged its need for blue collar workers, and actively recruited Mexicans with temporary work visas. It was called the bracero program. Illegality—a minor problem before 1940—immediately increased. Foreign workers over-stayed their visas to continue to do the jobs that their employers wanted them to do. And illegality then sky-rocketed after the bracero program ended because the 1965 reform of immigration imposed a cap on the number of visas for Mexicans and allotted those visas to those with skills much like those still operational today.

Maybe its time to take down that plaque on the Statue of Liberty? Alternatively, Americans might stop celebrating the mythologized workers of the past—who weren’t wanted then, either--while pretending that today’s economy and today’s blue and pink collar workers are less needed or less capable than yesterday’s. As for an immigration policy that acknowledged the continued need for “the huddled masses?? That’s a question that Congress and the American people seem unwilling even to ask.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Cynthia Herring published on June 22, 2007 11:52 AM.

Immigrants and Education: A View from the Garden on Mother’s Day was the previous entry in this blog.

Refugees, Asylees, Parolees, and the Others: Who Decides? is the next entry in this blog.

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