How The 1965 Immigration Act Made America A Nation Of Immigrants | KALW

How The 1965 Immigration Act Made America A Nation Of Immigrants

Jan 16, 2019
Originally published on January 17, 2019 9:17 am
Copyright 2019 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. The nation remains gripped by a partial shutdown of the federal government, the longest in our history, over President Trump's demand for funding a border wall. Here's one of the arguments he's made for tighter restrictions on immigration.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We have a country. We have to have borders. We have borders. We have to have laws. We either have a country or we don't. And it's that simple.

DAVIES: Most would agree we need some rules for who gets to enter the country. But what should they be? And what exactly are they now? Today we're going to consider the history of American immigration law and how we got the rules in place today. As you'll hear, an effort to limit immigration of nonwhites to the country in the 1960s backfired and gave us immigration patterns that made us a far more diverse country. Our guest is NPR national desk correspondent Tom Gjelten. He's covered national security issues and wars in Latin America, the Balkans and Iraq and now focuses on faith and religion. He's also reported on immigration and is the author of a 2015 book about immigrants in Fairfax County, Va., called "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story."

Tom Gjelten, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, we always think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants, particularly the waves of migration in the 19th century. But it wasn't always welcomed from just anywhere. What restrictions applied when the first immigration laws went into effect, I guess, the late 18th century?

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Well, actually, the first immigration law, Dave, was 1792. And it limited citizenship in the United States to, quote, "free, white persons." And, in fact, there was - you know, there was this kind of conflict from the beginning among the founders - on the one hand, sort of this idea that, you know, that every person is entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and yet sort of a grudging feeling that that really doesn't necessarily apply to anybody. I mean, Benjamin Franklin famously said that blacks and tawnies should not be allowed into the United States - tawnies being, basically, anybody of color.

And in fact, it really wasn't important because there really was no mass migration of people from other parts of the world to the United States. The only, really, migration that was taking place for the first hundred, 200 years of American settlement was from Europe. And, of course, the Statue of Liberty was built facing to the east. That was sort of our notion of immigration was that it was a movement of people from Europe to the United States. And, really, as you say, only in the late 19th century when you began to see migration in other patterns from other parts of the world, then, you know, there was some sort of reconsideration. Maybe we do need some laws that define exactly who is welcome in the United States.

DAVIES: Right. So for a long period of time, immigration was limited to white people, essentially. We should note, of course, there was the forced migration in bondage of, you know, millions of Africans brought here as slaves, of course. But even in the 19th century, when citizenship was seen as something reserved for white people, large numbers of Chinese were brought in to work on the transcontinental railroad. A lot of Mexicans were working in agricultural labor in the United States. What restrictions, if any, applied to them? Could - did they have an avenue, a path to citizenship?

GJELTEN: Well, as far as the Chinese immigrants, it was not just the transcontinental railroad. It was also mines, factories. You know, it was basically employment that other people didn't want, the same kind of pattern that we've seen with respect to immigrants, you know, throughout our history. And yeah, tens of thousands - more than 100,000 Chinese laborers were coming into the country. And in the beginning, you know, there wasn't a lot of concern about that because it was really only Chinese men. And they were not coming here to settle necessarily. They were coming here to earn money to send back. And, actually, many of them returned to China.

But by the 1880s, it became clear that this was actually a new element in our population. And so, yeah, Congress passed, in 1882, the famous Chinese Exclusion Act that basically slammed the door on Chinese immigration to the United States. It was the first law that, by ethnicity, restricted immigration to the United States and said that a certain class, a certain ethnic class, was excluded.

DAVIES: And Chinese who were already here were not permitted to become citizens, right?

GJELTEN: They were not permitted to become citizens. They were not permitted to bring their relatives here. Really, it was a closed door for them.

DAVIES: And were there large numbers of Mexicans working in farms and other places in the southwest?

GJELTEN: Yeah. There were, not as many as in the 20th century. And again, there was a kind of a migratory movement back and forth even then. The Mexicans were coming here, then they were going back and then were coming. It was a kind of a seasonal flow. And so in the beginning, it wasn't seen, necessarily, as threatening as it was seen later.

DAVIES: So legal immigration was mostly limited to Europeans throughout the 19th century. But it's - eventually, there is agitation to establish some real rules, that we need specific quotas. Where did this come from?

GJELTEN: What happened was by the late 19th century, immigrants were coming in in numbers that had never been seen before. Around the turn of the century, as many as a million immigrants were coming in. So on the one hand, it was the quantity of immigrants coming in. And secondly, we had by then seen a change in the character of the immigrant population. In the beginning, it had been, of course, going back to the founding of the Republic, mostly people from the United Kingdom, later Germany, Scandinavian countries, all of them coming, basically, from northwest Europe. But by the end of the 19th century, many more people were coming from southern Europe and from Eastern Europe - Slavs, Mediterranean people, it was said.

And there was, for the first time, particularly because the numbers were so great, some real concern about - this was sort of somehow jeopardizing the heritage of the United States, which was seen as a kind of an Anglo Protestant heritage. And so there was an effort to define which nationalities, which immigrant groups, were preferable. And it was quite explicit. There was a commission established under the leadership of a Republican senator from Vermont, William Dillingham, that ultimately resulted in, quote, "a dictionary of races and people" in which these commission members defined specifically which ethnicities were desirable and which were not. And then as a result of that, there were the infamous national origin quotas, where we actually allocated visas to this country on the basis of what your national origin was in order to sort of limit the immigration of people from areas that were not considered as desirable.

DAVIES: Right - essentially, to keep America as white as possible. Give us a sense of what the quotas were like. What were your chances if you were from the United Kingdom as opposed to Italy, say?

GJELTEN: When the first quota system was established, which was back in 1921, Great Britain and Northern Ireland had about 80,000 visa slots a year reserved for them. Germany had 67,000. All of Europe had 356,000. Northern and Western Europe had 200,000. Meanwhile, Asia had 492, Africa - 359. And Southern and Eastern Europe, although they had more than Asia and Africa, had about 150,000. So you saw in those quotas a very precise differentiation of which nationalities we should invite, which nationalities we should welcome and which ones we should restrict. That was the quota system that was established first in 1921 and then revised slightly in 1924.

DAVIES: So for decades, we had these quotas, which made sure that northern Europeans had the edge in immigration. This changed in 1965, when there was an effort to replace that with a more, I guess, egalitarian approach. What happened?

GJELTEN: In 1924, there was a new law passed that assigned quotas to all the countries in the world and - you know, much more generous quotas for, as you say, people from Northern and Western Europe. And it was very difficult for people from Asia, Africa and other non-European countries to come to the United States. There was a feeling sort of in the context, really, of the civil rights movement that that notion of national origin quotas really suggested that there were kind of second-class people, that there were second-class nationalities, that there were less desirable nationalities.

And in the spirit of the civil rights movement, a sense that just as you needed to replace those laws, change those laws that sort of put African-Americans in an inferior status legally, you needed to also change your immigration laws to get rid of this idea that there were second-class countries, second-class nationalities, and the idea that America really should not close its doors to people from non-European countries, that, really, America should be a country that is more or less open to everybody independent of nationality - very simple principle and had not been put into practice. Finally, in the mid-1960s, a sense that it was time to get rid of that notion of prejudice in our immigration law.

DAVIES: Right. And Southern Democrats in particular wanted to preserve that and wanted to keep the country relatively white. And in the end, in order to get it passed, those who favored a change agreed to a formula that the conservatives thought would bend things their way. What did they - what was the final deal?

GJELTEN: Well, when President Johnson first proposed the new legislation to get rid of the national origin quotas, he said that a country that is built by immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission, what can you do for our country? We should not ask in what country were you born? And that actually - that idea was the original one in this legislation, that visas should be allocated to people on the basis of what they could offer the country in terms of skills, training, education. The phrase was the attributes that are considered especially advantageous should be prioritized. There was a sense among conservatives in Congress that having a strictly merit-based immigration system like this would sure to change the character of the country too much. It would open the doors of the country too much to people from really nontraditional, non-European backgrounds.

So on the one hand, they agreed to get rid of the national origin quotas but only on the condition that the priority of the law, the new priority, should change, not giving priority, not giving preference to people who had particular skills and training and education but giving preference to people who already had relatives here, the idea being that if you gave preference to people who already had family members here, you would basically just replicate the structure of the society that you already had. You would basically have sort of minimal change in the composition of the country.

As it turned out, it backfired because the great demand to immigrate to the United States in those years was coming from third-world countries, what we used to call third-world countries, not any longer from Europe. And bit by bit, every time you gave a visa to a student from Africa or an employment visa to somebody from South Asia, behind them were dozens and dozens of family members who wanted to follow to the United States. And that family unification system really resulted in a flood of immigrants from countries that hadn't been represented before. So you saw this phenomenon that President Trump has derided as chain migration - you really saw it kick into operation in - particularly in the 1970s. And it ended up this chain migration, this emphasis on family unification as the most important principle in U.S. immigration policy, really produced in the end a flood of immigration from the very countries that people were uncomfortable with in the beginning.

DAVIES: Tom Gjelten is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, now covering issues of religion and faith. He's also covered immigration issues and his book published in 2015 is called "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with NPR National Desk correspondent Tom Gjelten about immigration policy in the U.S., what the rules are and how we got them. He's also the author of a book about immigration communities in Fairfax County, Va. It's called "Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." So in 1965, that was the last time we really had a change in the immigration laws of the United States. It's the 1965 Immigration Act, which essentially governs the rules today.

GJELTEN: Yeah. We've had, of course, other immigration legislation in subsequent years. But I would say that the 1965 Immigration Act is without question the most important immigration law we've ever passed in this country. I would say that in the 20th century, no other law had quite the effect on the character of our country as the 1965 Immigration Act had. You know, prior to the passage of that law - immediately before the passage of that law, only about 4 percent of our population was foreign born. Those people who were coming in, 3 out of 4 were coming from Europe. By 2000, the share of the U.S. population born outside the country had risen to about 13 percent, and 9 out of 10 immigrants were coming from countries outside Europe. It was the 1965 Immigration Act that really made the United States the multicultural nation that it is today.

DAVIES: And did the law impose any limits on numbers? If you met the qualifications either in terms of needed skills, unemployment or having relatives in the United States, you got in?

GJELTEN: Yeah, there were still limits. There were still numerical limits. I think what was considered revolutionary, what was considered most important at the time, is that those limits were roughly independent of national origin. It was not - you know, smaller countries had fewer slots reserved for them, larger countries had more, but those - the numerical limits did not depend so much on your national origin. Basically, all nationalities were treated equally.

DAVIES: Now, a lot of the debate about immigration policy today deals with migrants from Central America. And in the debate in the '60s, potential immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, our neighbors in Mexico and Canada, were regarded differently, weren't they? What changes were made there?

GJELTEN: The biggest - there were no national origin quotas, interestingly enough, Dave, applied to people coming from the Western Hemisphere countries, but there was...

DAVIES: So no quotas for people from Mexico at the time.

GJELTEN: No quotas for anyone from the Western Hemisphere. However, there was a more important principle that really limited immigration from that part of the world, which was that you had to demonstrate that you were not liable to become a public charge. And of course, given the poverty in Mexico and in Central America, it was very hard for immigrants coming to the United States to show that they were not going to become a burden on the welfare state, a public charge. And it was that - so it was sort of a different dynamic that limited immigration from the Western Hemisphere.

The 1965 act actually changed that dynamic as well because for the first time, people coming from that part of the world had an option. Even if you couldn't prove that you were not going to be a public charge, if you had relatives here, that gave you a way to get in. And so the '65 act opened the door for people from the Western Hemisphere to come just as it opened the door for people from Asia or Africa or other parts of the world. It was a different - for a different reason and operated by a different dynamic, but it was still important for the Western Hemisphere countries.

DAVIES: Now, of course, there's a difference between undocumented workers who come for a temporary work effort and then go back and settle in Mexico - difference between that and people who come and settle and make a new life in the United States. We often hear that there are 12 million undocumented workers in the United States. When and how did we experience this huge increase in people who came illegally to settle in the United States?

GJELTEN: That was a slow - a slowly developing phenomenon. It did have its roots in that sort of agricultural population that first came. But, you know, there was a change in the structure of the U.S. economy. You know, the rise of the service sector of the U.S. economy became much larger, whether it's restaurants or landscaping or, you know, cleaning houses. There was a demand for - in the beginning, the demand was for agricultural work, but, you know, as our economy changed, as the structure of the economy changed, that demand for that kind of unskilled labor really grew into a much bigger part of the economy. And that was not a seasonal demand as much as agricultural work had been. We saw for the first time a real demand for unskilled labor in many industries, many parts of the economy. And it was largely immigrants from, you know, the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico and Central America, who began taking those jobs and staying here because those jobs tended to be year-round jobs.

DAVIES: And how did they get here, most of them?

GJELTEN: You know, a lot of them - I mean, the border - (laughter) the border wasn't as effectively enforced at that time. You know, it was a lot easier to come in. You know, you could actually get a Social Security number as an undocumented immigrant. I mean, there wasn't this sort of connection of our Social Security system or income taxes to your immigration status as appeared in later years. I mean, it was just a lot easier to come here and find work as an undocumented worker.

DAVIES: It's sort of tolerated. You would get a taxpayer ID number, which follows the same digits as a Social Security number, but that way you were paying taxes, right?

GJELTEN: Yes. And, you know, there was a lot less enforcement in places of employment. You know, this was not a time when employers were really being watched to see whether they were hiring legal or illegal immigrants. It was just a - it was a time - partly because there was a great demand for these workers and employers were, you know, actually finding them to be good, solid workers. They wanted to hire them. There just wasn't a real effort to enforce the immigration laws, you know, for a long period of time.

DAVIES: Tom Gjelten is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. His book is "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." After a break, he'll talk about why so many immigrants from Central America are seeking asylum and how immigration rules might be changed. Also jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two new interpretations of the complete works of Thelonious Monk. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with NPR national correspondent Tom Gjelten about how our national immigration policies have evolved. He says action by Congress in 1965 established new rules allowing immigrants in the country to sponsor relatives to come to the U.S., a practice which brought far more immigrants from the developing world. Gjelten's 2015 book about immigration is "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." We often hear, when this is discussed, you know, there are people who come and try and do it the right way. They get in line. If someone is a Central American who wants to come to the United States as an economic migrant, say, I want to come here, I want to work, I want to make a better life for myself and my family, what are the chances?

GJELTEN: Well, they're obviously getting a lot more difficult, and it sort of rises and falls in part with the demand for that type of work. I mean, we have seen, for example, during periods of economic recession that there is a lot less migration to the United States. In fact, we have seen, you know, in recent years, an outmigration from the United States precisely because those opportunities were drying up. So it's really - I think, the flow is really dependent as much on anything else - as on anything else on the economy and on the demand for those workers.

The enforcement at the border has really gotten much, much more strict in recent years. And perhaps that's one reason why, you know, we actually are seeing fewer people come into the United States unlawfully across the southern border. You know, it should be pointed out, Dave, that at this point, there are more people here unlawfully as a result of overstaying their visas - people who came here legally in the first place, maybe not permanently but temporarily - who then overstay their visas. So, you know, I think it's a little mistaken to sort of focus too much on illegal immigration across the border.

DAVIES: Right. So we hear a lot today about asylum-seekers, people who present themselves at the border and say that they are in danger in their own countries because of political or gang violence. Did that become more common in recent years?

GJELTEN: Absolutely. And that really stems from, first of all, the civil wars in Central America, in Guatemala, in Nicaragua, in El Salvador, to some extent in Honduras. The violence of the 1980s in those countries produced a huge surge of immigration. I know when I was writing my book, I looked into the pattern of immigration from El Salvador, for example. It was just a trickle before 1980. And then you had an extremely violent civil war in El Salvador in the early 1980s. That produced a real outpouring from El Salvador, the same thing from Guatemala.

As these countries became more violent - and now in recent years with gang violence really plaguing those countries, those are the factors that really drove migration out of those countries and people coming from those countries have legitimate claims to seek asylum because they actually are fleeing incredible violence and great dangers in their own countries.

You know, one of the points that I like to make over and over again is it's really traumatic to leave your country. And it's traumatic to make that journey. It's very dangerous to make that journey. This is actually a point that President Trump quite correctly made the other day. It takes a lot to convince people that they should leave the country of their birth, the only country that they know, their family, their community, and go to a distant country that - where they're going to be complete strangers. It takes a lot to drive people out of their home country.

DAVIES: So we've been talking about the rules for legal immigration. The asylum process is different, right? What are the rules for granting asylum? Are there any limitations?

GJELTEN: There is a definition of what constitutes a legitimate claim of asylum. You have to have a well-founded fear of persecution in the country from which you're fleeing, a reasonable fear of - that you're facing violence. The problem is that these are kind of subjective definitions. And it's really up to asylum officers to decide whether those are legitimate or not. I tell a story in my book of a young woman from El Salvador who made that journey to the States. She was fleeing an abusive, murderous boyfriend. She feared that if she returned to El Salvador - her village in El Salvador, he would kill her. She'd been raped repeatedly. She came to the United States, came to the U.S. border, presented her case and was denied asylum. She got sent back to El Salvador, ran into more problems, made the trip again. And the second time, you know, she had a different asylum officer. And he found her case persuasive. And he gave her asylum.

So it's quite arbitrary and depends on the asylum officer who hears your claim. Then, of course, sometimes, you'll get admitted to the United States on a provisional basis. If no one is available to hear your claim at the time, you can come in sort of provisionally and then wait your turn to make your case before an immigration judge. But it's not a black and white situation where, obviously, people either qualify or don't qualify. It's really up to the asylum officer or the immigration judge to make that determination.

DAVIES: And clearly, the capacity of the system to hear these cases is overtaxed at the moment. You know, people who present themselves seeking asylum seem almost always to be very sympathetic cases. I mean, it's hard not to feel compassion for people in this kind of suffering. Former Attorney General Sessions said at one point, you know, that the rules for asylum were not intended to solve all problems or even all serious problems and argued that, you know, if you're in a country and you suffer from domestic violence, it's not so clear that the only solution should be to come to the United States. We've been talking about how policy is debated for legal immigration. Are people talking about a clearer definition of what represents an asylum claim?

GJELTEN: There certainly is, I think, an effort to narrow the grounds for asylum. And as you say, Attorney General Sessions was sort of in the forefront of this, really saying that just because you have violence in your home country shouldn't necessarily entitle you to come to the United States. You know, another debate is whether we should make more of an effort to address the - kind of the factors in those countries that are pushing people to leave, how much of an effort to put into economic development, social development, support for rule of law to deal with the conditions that are producing this kind of environment of violence that are pushing people out of those countries because if you simply sort of ignore those countries and ignore the factors that are driving people to leave, you know, you're just going to have a continuing pressure from those countries. You're going to continue to have people who would feel the need to leave in order to save their own lives.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Tom Gjelten. He is an NPR national desk correspondent. He's written about immigration policy in the past. And he's the author of a book about immigrant communities in Fairfax County, Va. It's called "Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story" (ph). We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with NPR national desk correspondent Tom Gjelten about immigration policy in the U.S., what the rules are and how we got them. He's the author of a book about immigrant communities in Fairfax County, Va. It's called "Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." So in the 1960s, there was an effort to change the basis of immigration, make it more fair, less dependent on countries of national origin. We saw a great increase in the diversity of the immigrant population. And over time, opposition arose, right? I mean, before President Trump, where did this come from, the opposition to the rising tide of immigration?

GJELTEN: The opposition, I think, we have to acknowledge that it was racial and ethnic. There was a concern that the demographic character of our country was changing. You know, a lot of people were uncomfortable with how diverse the United States was becoming. Even though we had this notion that sort of America was open to everyone, once we actually put that principle into practice and saw the character of our country changing, saw it becoming more diverse, you know, there was growing discomfort with that. And we have now seen lately a really - quite a remarkable change in the way that people talk about this problem. You've used the - and I used the term that we are a nation of immigrants. There is now a feeling among some quarters of the population that we actually are not a nation of immigrants. We are a nation of settlers. You know, there's this idea that the people that built this country were not actually immigrants. They were settlers or pioneers or conquerors. The idea of an immigrant is a whole different concept. It assumes that people are coming to a country that is already built, that is already established, that already has a character, that has already demonstrated its power, its prosperity, its success. And people want to become a part of that.

So you are now seeing, particularly on the right, this distinction between immigrants and settlers and what kind of country we are. I think for the first time, really, since the 1960s, we've seen overt opposition to the very idea of immigrants from other parts of the world coming to this country, taking advantage of what the original Americans built. That is, to me, alarming.

DAVIES: Well, let's just take a moment to explore some of the arguments that are made about immigration. One of them, of course, is that they take the jobs of American citizens and have a harmful economic impact. What do economists say about this?

GJELTEN: A fair generalization to make is that immigrant labor, for the most part, is positive for the economy, that immigrants help the economy grow, in rich America in many ways. But that is a kind of a macro generalization. If you look at certain segments of the economy, certain segments of the labor market, it's not quite as clear cut. If you look, there have been a number of studies, for example, that have shown that for the labor force that has, let's say, less than a high school education - the really unskilled part of the labor force - native-born workers in that category do face competition from immigrant labor that is harmful. If you look at the other end of the labor force, you know, the higher skilled portion of the labor force, it's just the opposite, that immigrants are actually building the economy and enriching the economy. But it does differ from, you know, one segment of the labor force to another.

I mean, I did a - I looked at, for example, at one particular situation at the National Airport in Washington, D.C. In the early '80s, the maintenance staff at the airport was almost entirely African-American. And they were unionized, and the company that provided the maintenance workers was a unionized company. The management of the airport terminated that company and brought in refugees from Vietnam to do the same work that the maintenance workers who were there previously had been doing. That does not change the overall trend, which is that immigration - most economists would agree that immigrant labor is helpful to the economy, but it does vary, you know, segment by segment.

DAVIES: And President Trump often makes the argument that they are a menace, that they kill innocent Americans. What's the record on crime and immigrants?

GJELTEN: What studies show is that immigrants as a whole, or at least legal immigrants as a whole, are less likely to commit crimes than the native population. That's a very important data point, that rates of crime among the immigrant population are lower than among the native population. One problem with these studies is that they don't break out the statistics for unlawful immigrants, immigrants who have come here without papers. So we can't definitively say what the likelihood of an undocumented immigrant is to commit a crime. I believe the state of Texas has done some research in this area. And that shows that the rate of criminal behavior by undocumented immigrants is no higher and even lower than that for native-born Americans. But we really don't have a lot of data on undocumented immigrants across the country in terms of the likelihood that they're going to engage in criminal activity.

DAVIES: We began by talking about the rules for legal immigration. The ones that we have now, I guess, were mostly established in 1965. You can bring family members in if you are here. And there are some visas granted on the basis of employment skills. What are the proposals to change the rules?

GJELTEN: Well, President Trump has famously said that he's opposed to what he calls chain migration. Interestingly enough, I think there's actually quite a bit of support for that idea, that just because your, you know, your adult brother immigrated here 50 years ago shouldn't necessarily give you an advantage over somebody else to come to this country. There is, I think, a fairly broad feeling that this may in fact have gotten - have been carried too far, that, you know, people with a really good case to be made for why they should be allowed to immigrate to this country are not getting a fair shake. So I think that, you know, if we ever get to the point that we really do revise our immigration laws, I think it's highly likely that we will probably restrict some of those categories of family unification and give more attention to people who can come here and fill a need that is not being filled because of, you know, particular skills, particular training, particular education. I think that is something that actually would have bipartisan support.

Now, there are going to be those who argue against it because of, you know, they have a certain amount of investment in that family unification policy. But this is one of the areas where I think we actually might see some compromise. And I also wouldn't be surprised to see sort of some renewed interest in some numerical limitations. I mean, we're now approaching 14 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born. That takes us back to the beginning of the 20th century. That was the last time we had that large a share of the population being foreign-born. And maybe there's an argument to be made that, you know, we've sort of reached our capacity for this kind of immigration, that we need to sort of slow it down a little bit.

So I think there actually are areas in which, you know, you could have broad agreement that some modification of our immigration laws is overdue. I think that, you know, there's got to be a recognition of the fact that a lot of these people who are here illegally - unlawfully deserve a chance to stay here and become permanent residents or citizens. That's got to be a part of any kind of reform legislation.

But there is very broad agreement that reform is overdue in our immigration system. There's no question about that.

DAVIES: Well, Tom Gjelten, thanks so much for speaking with us.

GJELTEN: Great speaking with you, Dave. Thanks for the opportunity.

DAVIES: Tom Gjelten is a correspondent on NPR's national desk. His book is "A Nation Of Nations: A Great American Immigration Story." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews two new interpretations of the complete works of Thelonious Monk. This is FRESH AIR.

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