Sweeping new immigration reforms passed in the closing hours of the 101st Congress have their share of flaws, compromises and genuflections to political interest groups. Nonetheless, the statue is generous in spirit, a codification of America's increasing willingness to become a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and even multi-lingual society.
The golden doors are opening as the fear of things foreign diminishes.
New immigrants will be clearly identified by their skills, their assets, their family ties here and their country of origin. After years of semi-exclusion, people from Europe and Africa will obtain the access that in recent decades has been enjoyed by Hispanics and Asians.
Despite an unfortunate clause that was tossed in at the last minute, the legislation will be a vast improvement over the McCarran-Walter Act, a notorious piece of McCarthy-era anti-Communist hysteria. The clause gives the secretary of State authority to bar an alien from visiting this country if he determines this would "compromise a compelling U.S. foreign policy interest." This is bad law, contrary to recent advances that precluded visa denials for activities protected under the First Amendment. The clause should be rescinded.
During the long battle for enactment, there was intense dispute whether a jump in immigration would help or hurt the U.S. economy over the long run. Opponents argued that newcomers inevitably create welfare costs, compete for jobs that are increasingly scarce and act as a drag on wage rates. Proponents countered successfully by pointing to a need for more engineers and scientists to strengthen U.S. competitiveness. Business groups were enthusiastic, organized labor was not.
In humanitarian terms, the new legislation will more speedily promote the unification of families, rescind discriminatory rules against homosexuals, put an end to overzealous marriage fraud prosecutions and give refuge to persons fleeing oppressive regimes. So the liberal left was satisfied.
Only the fourth fundamental revision of the immigrant selection system in history, the new legislation marks the first time Congress has been able to deal with legal (as opposed to illegal) immigration since 1965 despite a record tide of newcomers. The number of visas permitted each year will rise from a present level of 490,000 to 775,000 -- the latter figure roughly equal to Baltimore City's population.
While some provisions need correction, the American people can take pride that their country remains open, a place where people of all races, religions and economic status want to come and still can come to breathe free.