According to Prchal, "As the nineteenth century became the twentieth, the United States experienced an unprecedented surge in immigration. Some 3.8 million Italians, 3.4 million Slavs, and 1.8 million Russian and Eastern European Jews -- along with still more from other ethnic groups -- entered the country between 1899 and 1924" (at 189). These enormous numbers of newcomers to the country concerned those who were already here, particularly most native-born Americans; however, the ethnic composition of these new arrivals was the source of even greater concern for many: "Unlike the so-called 'old immigrants,' Prchal says, "who had come from the northern and western regions of Europe (and continued to do so in declining percentages), the majority of these 'new immigrants' were arriving from southern and eastern Europe. The descendants of the earlier immigrant groups often perceived the Italians, Slavs, Jews, and others entering the country as belonging to races that were different from and inferior to their own" (Id. At 190).
Increasingly heated debates concerning how the United States should resolve this perceived threat of cultural deterioration coalesced into four schools of thought:
one advocated immigration restriction; one called for all immigrants to put aside their ethnic distinctiveness and assimilate into the dominant culture; another viewed the process as being a merging of the best traits of the world's peoples to create an ever-evolving, cosmopolitan American race in the national melting pot; a final camp emerged that introduced the radical concept of what has come to be known as "cultural pluralism," what Prchal terms "a vision of a heterogeneous country where ethnic difference is respected rather than erased" (Id.).
The efforts to place more strict controls on mass immigration in the 1920s attempted to do more than merely reduce the number of new immigrants; initiatives at this time also included specific social objectives affecting the nation's racial and ethnic composition (in fact, the popular name for the Immigration Act of 1924 was the "National Origins Act" because of this focus) (Briggs at 5). Following the progressive reforms of the 1960s, though, there were some shifts in the national policy concerning which categories of immigrants would benefit the national interests. For example, the Immigration Act of 1965 contained provisions for using immigration policy as a means of meeting the economic needs of the nation that had been introduced in 1952 by the Immigration and Nationality Act.
On the one hand, the 1965 legislation provided new opportunities for the admission of some immigrants who already possessed skills and who had work experiences that were needed in the nation's labor market; however, on the other hand, these provisions of the Immigration Act of 1965 remained a secondary objective and only small numbers of immigrants were admitted for this purpose. Nevertheless, the 1965 act represented the first time since immigration had become a subject of regulation that a formal route was available for certain refugees to be admitted on the basis of humanitarian concerns (Briggs at 6). At this time, the criteria for being classified as a refugee continued to be restricted only to those persons faced with persecution from nations to which U.S. foreign policy was opposed (such as those living in Communist-dominated nations) rather than those who were confronted with persecution in their native lands per se. As a result, even this aspect of the 1965 legislation is regarded as being targeted primarily to satisfy political priorities (Id.).
The 1965 act was also important for what it did not do: "Specifically, it failed to specify any effective measures to enhance the enforcement of its new provisions. Its supporters did not foresee the imminent explosion of illegal immigration that quickly ensued in the years after its passage" (Id.). While the Immigration Act of 1965 did provide for a modest increase in legal immigration, its passage also represented the beginning of the "fourth wave" of mass immigration shown in Figure 1 below. The increase in the level of immigration resulted, at least in part, because the Act's provisions provided for such an outcome but primarily due to the fact that the statute failed to establish enforcement procedures, a situation that invited an enormous amount of abuse that was virtually ignored by policymakers for years (Briggs at 7).
After almost a decade-and-a-half following the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1965, though, it became painfully obvious to even the most liberal-minded politician that immigration policy was not working and immigration reform was placed on the national political agenda once again. In 1978, Briggs reports that the Congress established the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP) which was created to study the effects of what had happened since 1965, and to develop recommendations for changes.
The commission was comprised of 16 members and was headed by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh (at the time, president of Notre Dame University and former chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and appointed by then-President Carter). The commission released its comprehensive report and recommendations in 1981; in their report, the commission stated that immigration was "out of control"; that the nation must accept "the reality of limitations"; and that "a cautious approach" should be used in developing the design of any reform initiatives. Following the release of the SCIRP report, the Congress passed three major immigration statutes: 1) the Refugee Act of 1980, 2) the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and the "capstone of the statutes," the Immigration Act of 1990 (Briggs at 7).
As can be seen in Figure 1 below, the U.S. has indeed experienced some wide swings in the rates of immigration over the years, and the Immigration Act of 1990 came hard on the heels of a major wave of immigration. During the 1960s, for example, approximately 3.3 million legal immigrants came to the United States and this total increased slightly to almost 4.5 million in the 1970s. By the 1980s, though, the admission of legal immigrants to the United States increase to more than 7.3 million, an amount that has been previously exceeded only by the almost 8.8 million legal immigrants who were admitted to the United States between the years 1901 and 1910 (Delaet at 77).
Figure 1. Legal Immigration to the United States: 1821-1990 [Source: Delaet at 78].
The steady rise in the number of legal immigrants to the United States since the 1960s has resulted in some profound shifts in popular opinion about the need for more stringent immigration controls. The results of a 1965 Gallup poll indicated that just one-third of the American public supported reductions in legal immigration at that time; by sharp contrast, though, a 1977 Gallup poll showed that 42% of those Americans surveyed believed legal immigration should be reduced.
This increased opposition to the growing numbers of legal immigrants continued to grow in subsequent years; for instance, a 1990 Roper poll found that 75% of the respondents believed that legal immigration should not be increased, and almost 50% indicated that legal immigration should even be reduced (Delaet at 76). As was the case with illegal immigration, public concern over rising numbers of legal immigrants has been further adversely affected by the perception that these immigrants cost the American public an enormous amount of taxpayer resources that would be better spent elsewhere.
These attitudes were, of course, further exacerbated following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Today, public opinion polls indicate that a majority of Americans believe that immigrants continue to displace U.S. workers, burden social welfare systems, and threaten American culture. According to this author, "Since the 1980s, then, public opinion polls generally have indicated that, at the very least, a majority of the U.S. public favors stabilizing current legal immigration levels, and significant numbers of Americans prefer a reduction in legal immigration to this country. In response to public demands for the reform of legal immigration policy, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1990" (Id. At 77-8).
Just as complex problems demand complex solutions, special immigration circumstances require special solutions. "That's certainly the case when a child or young adult from another country is determined, typically by a U.S. court, to have no means of support. With that in mind, Congress created a special immigrant category for juveniles in 1990" (Visas for Juveniles in Special Situations at 1). The Immigration Act of 1990 established the category of special immigrant juvenile:
Sec. 153. Special Immigrant Status for Certain Aliens Declared Dependent on a Juvenile Court (Juvenile Special Immigrants):
J) an immigrant i) who has been declared dependent on a juvenile court located in the United States and has been deemed eligible by that court for long-term foster care, and ii) for whom it has been determined in administrative or judicial proceedings that it would not be in the alien's best interest to be returned to the alien's or parent's previous country of nationality or country of last habitual residence; except that no…