Setting the Stage for the “Highly Skilled”

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 9:20 AM
Stevens C-1 (Hilton Chicago)
Monique Laney, Auburn University
While immigration laws of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century became increasingly restrictive based on an applicant’s national origin, they always included exceptions for those who could presumably further the nation’s interests. Earlier laws already provided exemptions for teachers, students, and merchants, then for skilled laborers, professionals, actors, ministers, professors, domestic servants, nurses, and agricultural workers. What was new after World War II was an emphasis on professionals with scientific or technical skills. By 1948, the Displaced Persons Act included the first conscious labor preferences and job requirements for refugees entering from Europe. Not much later, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act allocated 50% of visas to highly skilled professionals. This presentation discusses a precedent for these new stipulations.

The military undertaking Project Paperclip brought hundreds of German and Austrian scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States after World War II to work on military projects. Most of the specialists came between 1945 and 1952 as enemy aliens, but soon the State, War, and Justice Departments worked out a process that would allow them to become American citizens.

The involved agencies went to extraordinary lengths to pave a way for former enemies to become U.S. citizens in the name of “national security” for military uses or “national interest” for civilian exploitation, putting them ahead of displaced persons barely surviving in Europe. The additional involvement of the Commerce Department from the beginning signals the important role that employers would play in future immigration debates and programs.

Typically, only discussed in the context of military history or as the operation that brought Wernher von Braun and his rocket team to the United States, this presentation discusses Project Paperclip as an important step in the development of immigration policies that offer preferential treatment for the highly skilled ever since.