The Obama administration has been vexed recently over a large influx of migrant children entering the country without authorization. With immigration, especially the illegal/alegal kind, already a polarizing topic, it unfairly makes the administration look helpless, and ineffectual.
Well, maybe the image is not so unfair after all, as this sad situation was arguably predictable, given a rather similar incident more than 20 years ago, as I’ll explain shortly.
Note first that in 2012, Obama announced a new policy that would allow certain unauthorized migrants to remain in the country for two years, providing they met certain conditions, one of which was that they already be in the country in 2012. Clearly the kids crossing the border illegally now don’t qualify, but apparently some unscrupulous “guides” convinced the kids or their parents that the children met the requirements.
Remarkably, something quite similar had occurred back in 1993. The Chinese Student Protection Act (CSPA), enacted in 1992 and implemented in 1993, in essence granted blanket political asylum to any Chinese national who had been in the U.S. between June 5, 1989 and April 11, 1990. The ostensible motivation for the legislation was to protect Chinese foreign students who were in the U.S. during “Beijing Spring,” the 1989 period of protest in China that ended in violent suppression by the People’s Liberation Army. Since there had been many sympathetic protests by Chinese students in the U.S. at the time, the claim was that Chinese nationals in the U.S. could not safely return to China. After the 1989 incident, the George H.W. Bush administration granted temporary residence to the foreign students, and the CSPA went much further, giving them all green cards (and anyone else from China lucky enough to have been here in the stated period).
The Act was implemented in 1993, at the start of the Clinton administration. As with the Latin American kids coming illegally to the U.S. today, “guides” in China spread rumors that the CSPA would cover people who came to the U.S. in 1993. The “guides” got a number of people in southern China to pay them for illegal ocean passage to the U.S. At least one of the ships landed in Monterey, CA, but the most well known case is that of the cargo ship Golden Venture, which ran aground near Queens, NY, on June 6, 1993.
The widely televised arrival of these ships, especially the Golden Venture, was so dramatic that it drew enormous attention to the problem of illegal immigration, and arguably contributed to the passage of California’s Proposition 187 in 1994, which would have denied education and other government services to unauthorized immigrants. Though the measure was struck down in court, the next few years saw increasing calls in Congress to place various restrictions on immigration and immigrants. A 1996 bill reducing yearly caps on legal immigration had bipartisan support and very nearly passed.
In other words, the CSPA helped set in motion a restrictionist national mood regarding immigration. Whether one supports or opposes having tighter immigration policies, it is clear that immigration policy that is aimed very narrowly can have very broad consequences.
It is also clear that the old saying that “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it” seems to be hitting the Obama administration with a vengeance today. In setting their nondeportation policy in 2012, they should have realized from the experience with the CSPA that their executive order might be deliberately misinterpreted later on, placing the administration in a highly uncomfortable position in the short run, and making it all the more difficult to achieve their long-term goal of enacting a more expansive immigration policy.
Furthermore, an important aspect of the CSPA to keep in mind is that it wasn’t needed. Contrary to the claim that the Chinese foreign students would be persecuted if they were to return home, they had been indeed returning home without incident, according to a U.S. State Department report. In fact, the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars, who mounted a large, masterful campaign to lobby Congress to pass the CSPA, held a fundraiser (lobbying is expensive!) consisting of selling the students cheap flights back to China, say for visits.
This is not to say that the Obama people were necessarily wrong in their 2012 action. But a look backward, in order to anticipate what might occur going forward, would have been useful.