By Ernest van den Haag

Originally published in National Review, September 21, 1965.

Original Introduction: Our immigration laws should indeed be changed, says the author, but not as now proposed by the Congress. Mr. van den Haag favors tighter control.

Passage by the lower house of Congress of a comprehensive new immigration bill was hailed as "a triumph of justice" by the President and, with his enthusiastic backing, it seems the bill has an excellent chance of enactment. The present law can certainly stand improvement. But the bill supported by the President is clearly a move in the wrong direction, sure to make matters worse.

The Quota System
The present immigration statute—the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952—synthesized the numerous regulations that had been passed piecemeal since 1789. A few of the most glaring inequities and inconsistencies were removed: some Asian immigrants previously ineligible became eligible for citizenship: quotas were given to some nations that previously had none. And discretion (vested largely in the State Department) with regard to non-quota immigrants was increased.

But the basic policy of the permanent Immigration Act of 1924 was retained. Each nation was granted a quota of immigrants equal to 2 per cent of its former nationals and their descendants in the American population. The 1924 law was based on the census of 1890. Modifications were enacted in 1929: the 1890 census figures were replaced with data derived from the 1920 census; "national origins" (birth place) rather than "nationality" (citizenship) became the basis for the classification of immigrants; minimum quotas of 100 immigrants were established and a few changes were made.

The McCarran-Walter Act did not substantially change the system as streamlined in 1929. It retained quota-free immigration from the Western Hemisphere and systematized quota-exempt immigration of special categories of people, such as political refugees and persons with needed skills. Although the immigration ceiling is 158,000 per year, non-quota immigration has nearly doubled that figure in the years since the law was enacted.

The objections to the 1952 statute are largely based on the allegation that the quota system originally enacted in the twenties is "racist" and therefore wrong and shameful. Quotas favor the English (65,361 immigrants permitted per year) the German (25,814) and the Irish (17,756). They restrict immigration from other nations rather severely. Thus only 5,666 persons of Italian origin are allowed per year.

Yet, the "racist" label, though given credence by many fanciful scholars, does not fit. The quotas were never intended to be proportionate to size of the nationalities of origin; nor to reflect the inclination of the various nationalities to come to the States. The quotas are based on the ethnic proportions of the population in 1920 and this basis is hardly "racist."

From a strictly "racist" viewpoint, an English quota twice as large as a the German quota would not make sense; nor does it make sense that quotas for the Netherlands(3,136), Sweden (3,295), Denmark (1,175) should be so much smaller than the quota for Poland (6,488), and disproportionate to that of Czechoslovakia (3,859). The system is obviously not "racist" in the Nazi sense; or in any intelligible sense. Many of the arguments advanced for the quota system may have been vaguely "racial" in a pre-Nazi sense: and so, undoubtedly, were some of the underlying motives. But the system itself is not; one need not believe in racial inferiority or superiority to justify it. If one does, one cannot justify it.

The 1952 act codified a view shared quite generally in the past: not to allow immigration to change the national or ethnic composition of the American population. To achieve this, the quota of immigrants from each nation had to be made proportional to the number of nationals in the American population.

I cannot see anything unfair or unreasonable in such a decision. It may or may not be based on a feeling or belief that some ethnic groups within the population are more valuable than others. Practically all ethnic groups think that much of themselves—although for obvious reasons, minority groups express such feelings less openly than majority groups. But one need not believe that one's own ethnic group, or any ethnic group, is superior to others (or more likely to make good citizens) in order to wish one's country to continue to be made up of the same ethnic strains in the same proportions as before.

And, conversely, the wish not to see one's country overrun by groups one regards as alien need not be based on feelings of superiority or "racism." Patriotism is not racism.

The wish to preserve one's identity and the identity of one's nation requires no justification—and no belief in superiority—any more than the wish to have one's own children, and to continue one's family through them need be justified or rationalized by a belief that they are superior to the children of others, or more fit, or better in business. One identifies with one's family because it is one's family—not because they are better people than others. For no other reason one identifies with one's national group more than with others. Else there would be no nations.

The feeling needs no justification anymore than one's love and preference for oneself and one's own does. That the feeling has often been rationalized in rather foolish terms is as true as it is irrelevant. Even if I think silly your belief that your mother, or girlfriend, is the greatest thing God ever made, I do not condemn your feeling about them. It needs no justification.

Patriotism is not racism.

Now, does a nation have the moral right to select new members—other than those born into it—according to its feelings? I see no reason not to grant this right; indeed, every nation has always exercised it. What then could be more natural for the American people than to use the method of selection embodied in the quota system?

It may be argued that ethnic origin

  1. has little to do with ability, behavior, or achievement and
  2. that these, and only these, are what matter.

Perhaps the first part of the proposition is true. But the second part is as arbitrary a value judgment as the opposite contention would be. One does not love one's children or parents because of their behavior, ability or achievement—but often despite them. One loves them because one feels them to be part of oneself —more than people to whom one is not related, however much greater their achievement, however much better their behavior.

There is no merit then in the contention that the quota system is "racist," or somehow morally wrong. Individuals, and groups no less, are entitled to have preferences for other individuals or groups; these need not be based on more than the feeling of preference itself. To be sure, once people are admitted and become residents of their new country, they should be treated without irrelevant discrimination, in matters other than personal or social relationships (when, by definition, nothing is relevant but preference). But I can discover no moral reason for preventing a nation from selecting new residents according to preference.

But let that go. There are more important things in practical terms. Compare the number of quota immigrants the present law actually admits with the number the proposed bill would admit. The McCarran-Walter Act had the effect of reducing quota immigration below the ceiling allowable of 158,000. The English, for instance, did not utilize their large quota. Inasmuch as the quota is not transferable to other nations, the result was fewer immigrants. Indeed, despite all the hue and cry about ethnic selection, the main effect of the present quota system is to reduce total quota immigration below its formal ceiling, The ethnic selection did not work, because as a matter of fact no more Englishmen actually immigrated than, say, Italians.

The bill backed by LBJ would open our doors to 20,000 immigrants from each nation. The effect would be to increase total immigration greatly; its proponents say to 350,000 per year. (Total immigration in the last few years has averaged less than 300,000 per year.) This estimate is probably low because relatives of citizens would not be counted in the 20,000 limit per nation; political refugees are likely to be admitted—and for good reason—apart from the 20,000 limit; and the bill proposes in the next three years to allow the large backlog of approved but not yet admitted quota immigrants to enter the United States in addition to the 20,000 to be admitted yearly from each nation.

In short, the bill will greatly increase immigration—far more than proponents tell us. Assume that immigration increases only to 350,000 per annum, as proponents of the bill tell us it will. Is that good?

I don't think so. On the contrary, the time has come for the United States to consider itself settled territory—just like Germany, or Italy or Ireland—and to stop encouraging immigration altogether. I should still favor allowing relatives of citizens to enter; or political refugees, and people with needed skills, or, indeed, occasionally people who for any reasonable reason want to become Americans—just as some Americans become naturalized French citizens. But I see no more reason for us to encourage immigration or invite it than there is for the Italians, the Irish, or the Germans to do so.

I would like to see the McCarran-Walter Act changed so as to reduce all existing quotas by 75 per cent.

This would be the simplest way of reducing immigration. Now, as mentioned before, I do not regard our present immigration policy as "racist" nor can I see any acceptable moral argument against our right to be selective, ethnically or otherwise. However, I also see no reason to exercise this right as we have. I like Italians no less than Englishmen. And most people today no longer have the preferences that led to the establishment of the original quotas. Further, if we reduce total immigration as I propose to do, quota equalization is not likely to affect the ethnic composition of our population in any but the most negligible way.

Thus I would not oppose a change in the law so as to grant the same number of immigrants to each nation—provided that the total of immigrants not exceed 40,000 per year, in addition to the special categories mentioned before; future immigration should be limited almost exclusively to these special categories.

Legislation Obsolescent
Let me explain why I think such a policy correct. In all its many aspects, our traditional immigration policy was based on the simple fact that this continent was underpopulated and would use more people to advantage. This is no longer the case. Not only has our population increased rapidly—in great part as the result of our highly successful immigration policies —but our present rate of natural increase—the highest in any industrial nation—is such that additional immigration is no longer needed and, indeed, becoming disadvantageous.

If we continue to permit the immigration of relatives of people with needed skills, of refugees, and, for obvious reasons, of people who have already been promised admittance, altogether an estimated 200,000 persons per year, we will have plenty. Occasional residence and naturalization of other foreigners should not be prohibited altogether. But neither should it be invited. At present, residence is granted and even citizenship, if (given the quota) there is no actual disqualification such as a criminal record. I should—with the exceptions noted above—make residence and citizenship a privilege to be granted only upon positive proof of the desirability of the new resident or citizen in terms of the nation's needs.

What about the overpopulated countries? I do not feel it our duty to solve their problems. But, whatever policy we pursue, in practical terms it will not affect their problems anyway. The Italian overpopulation problem is not solved even if we permit 20,000 Italian immigrants (rather than 5,666) a year, as proposed in the bill before Congress. It can be solved only if the Italians in Italy decide to solve it.

There are undoubtedly some countries that can benefit from further immigration. To name a few, Canada, Argentina and Brazil are in this situation.

We are not; more specifically, we are no longer. Thus we should pass legislation to decrease not to increase immigration, and ultimately to reduce it to an insignificant number.

Circumstances change. Legislation should take account of them. I know of no economist who would regard this country as underpopulated. Most economists fear that we are rapidly becoming overpopulated [or at least crowded], even without immigration.

Under the circumstances, the legislation before Congress is obsolete even before being enacted. It should be replaced by legislation more in accordance with our actual situation.