Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Joshua B. Freeman

Committee Members

Jeanne Theoharis

Gerald Markowitz

Ruth Milkman

Subject Categories

Immigration Law | Political History | United States History


hart-celler, employer sanctions, nativism, immigration reform and control act, SCIRP, Reagan


The dissertation is a study of immigration lawmaking in the Cold War period. It explores how the gap emerged between the law and the social reality of immigration, and how lawmakers politically and institutionally “resolved” these contradictions under the competing pressures of foreign policy, shifting Congressional alignments, an unstable economy and the reigning political idiom of non-discrimination.

The constant efforts to reformulate immigration policy from 1952 to 1990 were produced by the struggle between competing economic and political blocs in a context largely insulated from public opinion, where Cold War foreign policy demands set the boundaries of acceptable discourse and policy outcomes trended towards “symbolic law.”

Until 1964, the conservative coalition retained power over immigration policymaking with entrenched Deep South representatives best emblematizing its core contradiction: a defense of national-origins restrictions alongside defense of the Bracero program and, implicitly, undocumented immigration. The dissertation re-examines the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act reforms, and the decision to impose numerical limits and Labor certification processes on Western Hemisphere immigrants. Although triumphant, liberal policymakers remained constrained through the 1970s by the institutional relationship of forces and configurations of power in Washington, the inheritance of previous compromises, as well as the ambivalences of their own worldview related to different streams of immigration. That included a downplaying of extant labor market conditions, reluctance towards microeconomic planning, as well as uneasiness about Mexican labor and demographic change. By the late 1970s a broad consensus emerged in Washington that the immigration system was “out of control,” even though that very system took shape around a regime which the same politicians were disinclined to undo. A new political center produced the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy report, as well as the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986. This tenuous consensus revolved around the politics of symbolic control, which combined proclamations of formal equality with ever-sharper differentiation of legal/illegal immigrants. But this new immigration center could not hold, as it was held together by symbolic laws like employer sanctions and the avoidance of major questions. The heated politics of immigration have roiled the country ever since, transforming both major parties in the process.