September 15, 2011

IN BOTH OF THIS month’s Republican presidential debates, Rep. Michele Bachmann hailed what she evidently believes was the golden age of American immigration — the period before the mid-1960s when, she said, “immigration law worked beautifully.”

Ms. Bachmann’s nostalgia is touching but misplaced, unless she really pines for a return to laws that explicitly favored white immigrants from a handful of Northern European countries while excluding or disadvantaging Jews, Asians, Africans and practically everyone else.

Ms. Bachmann didn’t frame it that way, of course. She blamed “liberal members of Congress” for upsetting a system that she characterized as requiring immigrants to have money, sponsors, and clean health and criminal records. In Ms. Bachmann’s world, those immigrants would learn American history and to speak English.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 fundamentally changed the system of immigration in this country but not in the way Ms. Bachmann evidently imagines. That law, pushed by Democrats including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-N.Y.), threw out four decades of immigration quotas whose explicit goal was to emulate America’s ethnic balance as it stood in the year 1890, when the country remained overwhelmingly white.

Specifically, the 1965 measure ended a legal regime dating from the early 1920s that generally shut out Asians (especially Japanese) and capped immigration from Latin America, Eastern and Southern Europe, and other areas at very low levels. The effect was to overhaul that hidebound, exclusive quota system. The new system, whose cornerstone gave preference to family reunification and job skills, broadened what had been a narrow pool of immigrants to include soaring numbers of newcomers from Asia and Latin America.

The shift has contributed to the nation’s diversity, dynamism and rich cultural kaleidoscope even as it challenged society, especially schools, to accommodate waves of new Americans whose looks, language and customs were unfamiliar to their neighbors.

By talking about sponsorship, English-language competency and the like, Ms. Bachmann is either confused or deliberately misleading. Most legal immigrants are still required to have family or employer sponsors, as they did in the gauzy past she idealizes. As for learning English, American history and the like, those were, and remain, requirements for citizenship, not immigration.

Ms. Bachmann, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, may not care for the changes and effects wrought by the 1965 bill; many other critics on the right do not. Patrick Buchanan, for example, has blamed the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech on the immigration overhaul, noting that the gunman “was among the 864,000 Koreans here as a result of the Immigration Act of 1965, which threw the nation’s doors open to the greatest invasion in history, an invasion opposed by a majority of our people.” If Ms. Bachmann shares such views, let her address the issue honestly and head on, not in code.