Immigration Reform

The United States desperately needs immigration reform

By: Aiden Pinsker – 2023 Summer Intern

This past year I competed in the National History Day competition where I created a website detailing the story of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Celler’s (D-NY) 40-year fight for immigration reform.

Throughout most of America’s earlier history, the country had relatively open borders. However, a wave of isolationism swept through the country in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Congressman Celler first came to Washington D.C. right as the discriminatory Immigration Act of 1924 was passed. The bill targeted Eastern Europeans, among other groups, because they were deemed “undesirable.” Celler immediately became one of the loudest opponents of the bill. His tireless efforts over the next several decades and strong leadership led to our country’s immigration system being reformed by the Immigration Act of 1965.

Celler showed an immense amount of resilience in his fight for reform. His efforts, along with countless others, should be celebrated. However, we are doing him a great disservice by continuing to use the immigration policy he helped pass in 1965.

The bill proved very hard to pass in Congress. Celler had to make a lot of compromises. One compromise, that has affected the country greatly, was that preference would be given to immigrants reuniting with family already in the United States. Anti-immigrant lawmakers believed this section of the bill would keep the country’s ethnic makeup practically the same because they believed that the family reunification clause would favor Northern Europeans instead of others.

They were greatly mistaken because many of the northern Europeans were already in the United States, or they just didn’t want to come to the country. However, other ethnic groups did take advantage of the family reunification clause and further diversified America.

Since the bill was passed, there has been a large increase in immigrants from the Americas and Asia and a large decrease in European immigrants.

But the Immigration Act of 1965 was meant to be more of a symbolic end to America’s history of discrimination rather than a policy.

Celler’s immigration system had a lot of unintended consequences that led to America becoming a more diverse nation. The world has changed a lot since 1965 yet our immigration policies have little changed.

Serious efforts have been made for reform. In 2013, there was a major bipartisan push by the “Gang of Eight” for a complete overhaul of the immigration system. Top Republican and Democrat leaders came together in support of reform.

The group proposed increased border security while also providing a pathway for millions of undocumented immigrants to become legal residents. The bill passed the Senate but died in the House.

Today, there is a major border crisis. Both political sides are calling for change in many different ways

In 2022 alone, border authorities encountered around 2 million migrants. The immigrants that got across the border were left wondering what to do now.

In May of this year, images went viral of migrants sleeping on the streets of El Paso, Texas. Shelters in this Texas town were overwhelmed by the number of people, and they couldn’t take them all in.

Some pointed to the pictures are an example of why immigration reform is needed, and others pointed to this as a reason why immigration needed to be tightened. Regardless, it is obvious that change is needed.

This need for change is why Celler’s story is such an important lesson to learn from. It took Celler’s rock-solid leadership and unbending resilience to enact reform. Any time there was great change in the course of history it was due to strong leadership.

Leadership is where it all starts. The “Gang of Eight” was a group of the most powerful politicians in Washington, and yet even they could not reform immigration. The scariest thought is that this happened in 2013 when the country was not nearly as polarized as it is today.

Does that mean all hope should be lost? Will immigration reform ever happen? These questions are ones that Emanuel Celler never asked. He got frustrated at his failed attempts, but he never gave up. After 40 years he achieved his long wish of immigration reform. I can almost guarantee that he would have fought for another 40 years if it meant completing his mission.

Today, we are faced with quite a similar situation as Emanuel Celler was in 1924. I don’t think anyone knows what the solution will be, and many probably don’t even know where to start. Yet, the key to any reform always leads back to leadership, and great leaders know how to compromise. Celler made many compromises to pass the Immigration Act. The Gang of Eight tried to compromise, but they weren’t successful.

Whatever group of lawmakers (it will have to be more than one) become the next Emanuel Celler, they will need to be understanding. They will need to seek their opponent’s concerns and address them head-on. The next immigration act will not happen by accident. It will happen because of people embodying the spirit of the great Congressman Celler.

Aiden Pinsker wrote this opinion piece while interning for the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg and PA Media Group. It was published here.