Immigration

Mixed reaction marks the 50th anniversary of law that changed the face of America

In this June 25, 2014 file photo, a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas.
In this June 25, 2014 file photo, a group of immigrants from Honduras and El Salvador who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally are stopped in Granjeno, Texas. AP

The ebb and flow of immigrants to the United States emerges starkly when you scan official immigration records kept since 1820.

Until the late 1960s, immigrants from Britain, Germany and other European countries outnumbered migrants from Latin America, Africa or Asia. But by the 1990s, the trend was reversed, and today the majority of migrants come from non-European nations — with Asians on track to overtake Hispanics as the largest immigrant population in the United States.

While there are many factors behind the demographic shift, a key one was a change in immigration law 50 years ago when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 at the foot of the Statue of Liberty.

It ended the previous immigration system under which European immigrants were given preference, and helped fuel the movement that changed the face of America. A mix of reactions marked the 50th anniversary of the law Oct. 3, with praise by pro-immigrant groups and regret by anti-immigrant forces.

“That 1965 law opened the doors to immigrants from all over the world and changed the U.S. demographic landscape considerably,” according to a statement from the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum. “And despite unease (or worse) about these changes, the bottom line is that immigrants provide a much-needed shot in the arm for America: They revitalize cities, boost our population and contribute to our economy.”

For its part, the pro-immigration-control Federation for American Immigration Reform said the 1965 law unleashed such huge immigration flows that the very stability of the United States is now threatened.

“The law has resulted in reckless population growth, growing dependence of the social welfare system, and overwhelmed the country’s capacity to assimilate immigrants and their children into the social, cultural and economic mainstream,” Dan Stein, the federation’s president, said in a statement marking the anniversary.

Now, with about 11 million undocumented foreign nationals in the country, immigration has taken center stage in the debates for the 2016 presidential race. Republican front-runner Donald Trump has vowed to deport all undocumented immigrants while other candidates have embraced the idea of denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.

Denying citizenship to the children of the undocumented is a particularly relevant issue after the New York Times recently reported that along the Texas border, some local officials have refused to issue birth certificates to some Texas-born children because their undocumented parents did not have the identification documents officials demanded.

Amid the heated rhetoric on citizenship, prominent Miami attorney Arturo Hernández and his El Paso co-counsel Felipe Millán recently scored a major legal victory when they persuaded a federal judge in Las Cruces, New Mexico, to override the revocation of the U.S. passports of two Mexican-American brothers — Juan Carlos and Mario Alberto Borunda — whom the State Department initially perceived as undocumented.

Though both brothers were born on the U.S. side of the border in the 1980s, their father also obtained birth certificates for them in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua as a symbolic gesture so they would preserve their heritage and enjoy the benefits of Mexican citizenship if need be, the U.S. judge said in his July ruling.

The ruling also enabled the wife of Juan Carlos Borunda to enter the United States to join her husband after U.S. authorities denied her fiancé visa. The couple eventually married in Mexico but were forced to live apart for a year.

“At a time when immigration, especially Mexican immigration, is at the forefront of our national political debate, the significance of this case is established by the legal process that was vindicated and by the good that this case brought,” said Hernández. “Two young men gained United States citizenship and thereby established their identities as Americans, and a divided Mexican-American family was reunited.”

Since Johnson enacted the 1965 law, immigrants from all over the world have flowed to the United States — legally and illegally.

After 2001, the average annual number of foreign nationals legally obtaining residence in the United States has been about one million — similar to the numbers recorded between 1905 and 1914 when there was another huge immigration flow.

The difference is that while the majority of the 6.3 million immigrants given residence between 1910 and 1919 were Europeans, the majority of the 10.2 million given residence between 2000 and 2009 were non-Europeans.

Many of these immigrants — especially those from the Caribbean, Central and South America — wound up settling in Miami.

Immigrants from Honduras, who figured in the hundreds and low thousands from 1930 to 1959, steadily rose in numbers from the 1960s to 2013. Between 1990 and 1999, for example, more than 72,000 Hondurans obtained U.S. residence — a huge increase from the 809 in the 1930s or the 5,320 in the 1950s.

The immigration of the Boesch family from Honduras mirrors the transformation of the American demographic landscape over the last half century.

Sometime in the 1960s, probably after Johnson signed the 1965 law, Mario Boesch settled in New Orleans, arriving with an immigrant visa obtained in his native Honduras. At the time, New Orleans was a major center of Latin American immigration. It was to Latin America what Miami is today.

Then Boesch helped his brother Luis, in Honduras, get an immigrant visa for himself and his family to live in the United States. Luis received the visas in the mid-1980s when his son, Jean Pierre Boesch, was a teenager. Luis and his family moved to Miami in 1986.

It was a time when the Honduran community in Miami was relatively small. At first, Jean Pierre worked in a variety of odd jobs — from day laborer to construction worker to supermarket employee. Then he joined the U.S. Army but was discharged because of a back injury.

Today, he works in a lawyer’s office that represents Hondurans who have legal issues in their home country.

“When I first arrived, it was difficult to find other Hondurans in Miami,” Jean Pierre recalled. “But by the 1990s, many more Hondurans appeared and the Honduran community grew and grew.”

“Since 1990, the Honduran-origin population has increased sixfold, growing from 127,000 to 791,000 over the period,” according to a Pew Research Center 2013 statistical survey.

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