The lack of a clear national policy has been leading to hardship, grief and turmoil for millions of immigrants who came to the United States with a dream of success in the land of opportunity.
For the past months, the 700,000 undocumented immigrants, brought here as children by their parents under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), have become victims of a political war between the Republicans and the Democrats.
The threat of deportation to "home" countries in which they have never lived hangs over their heads while policymakers stumble through the development of immigration policy on the run.
Republicans and Democrats alike shed crocodile tears for these young people, declaring heartfelt empathy for their circumstances. At the same time, nothing happens because the law is the law. Empathy disappears in scores of excuses.
Writing in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen declares that we are "willing to be morally wrong so long as it is legally right."
History tells us that we have been here before. When we have had official immigration policy, it has not always been good or just.
When the gold rush hit California in 1849, the whole world crowded along the American River hoping to strike it rich. Among the immigrants were thousands of Chinese. (In 1849, there were 54 Chinese in California. By 1876, there were 116,000.)
At first, the Chinese were welcome. They mined some gold, carpentered, cooked and provided domestic support services. When construction of the Central Railroad stalled, they took the jobs rejected by the Irish and finished the task, making up 90 percent of the workforce.
But as the economy slowed and jobs were harder to find, the native Americans created political pressure to get rid of Orientals. So, in gratitude for their contribution to the United States, we passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.
The other sad event in our history was the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. According to State Department historians, the purpose of the Act was "to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity."
The act authorized the admission of 2 percent of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States as of the 1890 census. The law reached back 30 years to 1890 because that would limit Southern and Eastern Europeans, including Italians, Slavs, European Jews, Arabs and Asians while giving Northern Europeans a free pass.
Southern and Eastern Europeans were considered inferior to the Germans, Scandinavians and Northern Europeans. Supporters of the measure argued that these immigrants arrived sick and starving and added to the feeble-minded population. The act passed by an overwhelming vote in Congress.
In 1924, more Italians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Polish and Russian Jews, Chinese and Japanese left the United States than came as immigrants.
Among them were potential teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, inventors, nurses, scientists and who knows what else. We never will know because we sent them away. The same is true about the DACA immigrants.
So we are now in 2018 and still struggling to develop a national immigration policy while charitable and religious organizations work hard to meet the needs of refugees. Even though it seems that most North Dakotans are accepting of these new citizens, there is still an undercurrent of bigotry and racism.
It is true that we cannot accept all of the people in the world who want to come here. The boat will sink so the passengers must be limited.
This is difficult for two particular reasons. First, the Christian ethos says that we should care for the needy stranger. Second, we are all children of immigrants so limiting newcomers seems hypocritical.
Realistically, we will never have a national immigration policy so we each must create our own.
Lloyd Ohmdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND. His column is published each Monday in the Herald.