Immigrants to the U.S. Were Once Self-Starters – But No More

By David North on December 4, 2009

"Self Starters" are well regarded in the American culture – they create their own careers without help from family or old-school ties. All legal immigrants to the United States used to be self-starters.

But no more.

Decades of bad immigration policy has all but eliminated the self-starters from the flows of incoming immigrants, but the favorable image of that group – and the closely-related one of the U.S. as a nation of those immigrants – lingers, distorting the immigration policy debate.

By definition the Spaniards who settled northern New Mexico (and the Englishmen who came later to Jamestown and Plymouth Rock) were self-starters. No resident relatives, employers, or refugee assistance agencies helped with their arrival.

For centuries, right up till the 1920s, all immigrants to the U.S. were self-selected and self-starters; if you wanted to come to the U.S. you had to save up enough money to buy passage (usually across the Atlantic), you had to survive that passage, and then get past the inspectors at Ellis Island. That was it.

When America tired of unlimited immigration after World War I, and when Congress decided to lay on the ethnocentric country-of-origin quota system (in the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924), it felt that some arrangements had to be made, within that system, for overseas family members of U.S. residents to get a preference over other would-be immigrants from the nations squeezed by the new quotas.

That was the beginning of the flows of what I call the "insider-nominated" immigrants -- another word for it is nepotism. (For more on that see my colleague Jerry Kammer's recent blog on the subject.)

The country-of-origin quotas were replaced in the 1960s by a different system. The Immigration Act of 1965, with its subsequent amendments, allocated most of the immigrant visas to people nominated by family members in the U.S., and smaller numbers to be nominated by employers; there was to be room for some refugees as well.

The refugees, though not necessarily nominated by the refugee assistance agencies overseas, were placed in the U.S. at locations selected by those agencies, and then were helped by those agencies.

In a sense, then, all three of these subpopulations – the relatives, the desired workers, and the refugees – were tied to insiders in the U.S. The self-starters, as a group, were all but eliminated at the time, but in later legislation a few openings for them were created; the categories for them, and their characteristics, will be the subject of a subsequent blog.

My central point is that immigration reformers need to start chipping away at the "nation of immigrants" concept and the thought of always sturdy, always self-reliant immigrants and, instead, start talking in terms of insider-nominated immigrant flows, institutionalized nepotism, and the use of some immigrant admissions as favors for a tiny minority of the nation's employers.

It is helpful to remember that the points systems – mentioned in an earlier blog – used to screen immigrants in the rest of the English-speaking world are such that nepotism is muted (but not eliminated) and the talent and the drive of the self-starters is rewarded. If there are to be changes in our immigrant-selection system, we should move in that direction.