Wednesday, June 1, 2011
June 1, 2011: Let Me Be Clear
I haven’t kept track, but I think it’s quite possible that immigration has been the focal point for more of my posts here than any other theme or topic. While those posts have cut across a pretty wide range of different sub-topics within that theme—from the Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island to the Statue of Liberty and the DREAM Act, among others—I would say that there’s been at least one point that I’ve tried to make in each of those pieces. But because it hasn’t been the main point of any of them, and because it goes so hard against the grain of some of our most assumed and shared national narratives about immigration, I want to foreground it as clearly as I possibly can here: for most of our history, for the vast majority of arrivals to America, there was no such thing as legal or illegal immigration. Even after the 1880s, when the first immigrations laws were passed, this remained the case; up until at least the 1920s (and really the 1960s), if you weren’t trying to immigrate from one of the nations that had been limited or excluded as a result of those laws (and if you didn’t have an obvious dangerous illness or the like), you were neither a legal nor an illegal immigrant, just a new arrival to the United States.
I come back to this here, with more force, because of none other than Sarah Palin, whose bizarre non-campaign bus-tour-campaign of the nation arrived at Ellis Island today. In anticipation of that arrival she tweeted that she planned while there to “celebrate legal immigrants’ work ethic and love of freedom,” overtly conflating (as so many Americans, even much better-informed ones than Palin, do) Ellis Island arrivals with legal immigrants. And once there, she responded to a question about the DREAM Act by arguing that “the immigrants of the past, they had to literally and figuratively stand in line and follow the rules to become U.S. citizens. And unfortunately, the DREAM Act kind of usurps the system that is a legal system” [sentence continues but I’m not doing it an injustice by cutting, and that’s enough Palin quoting]. But as Ellis Island’s own official site history details at great length (see the first link below), and as any tour of the facility would likewise no doubt highlight, the lines and rules for those arrivals to Ellis Island had nothing to do with the law—there were certainly policies and procedures in place, mostly to weed out that small percentage who were not allowed to enter (the Chinese after 1882, for example; again, immigrants with obvious and threatening illnesses), then mostly as a 3-5 hour hoop of questions and waiting through which each arrival had to jump. But once that person had made it through the hoop, he or she was free to enter the United States—and fourteen years later, give or take, provided once again that he or she wasn’t from certain excluded countries, he or she could apply for citizenship with far less rigor and far fewer requirements than are asked of the kids who would be eligible for the DREAM Act.
Even if we leave Palin out of this, as I would dearly like to, the stakes of this question could not be higher—more than 100 million Americans can trace their heritage back to folks who arrived at Ellis Island, and if those 100 million believe that their ancestors were legal immigrants, in direct and non-contextualized contrast to today’s illegal immigrants, it becomes nearly impossible for the conversation on the issue to go anywhere other than condemnation. Whereas if those 100 million recognize that such laws simply did not apply to the vast majority of those Ellis arrivals, that the situation is entirely different for many contemporary immigrants (or, more accurately, that many of those contemporary immigrants face situations similar to those experienced by the Chinese in the 1890s), then the conversation can begin in earnest. But as someone who thinks pretty much daily (duh) about public scholarship and American identity, I can’t leave Palin out—a frightening high percentage of Americans are getting their historical information and narratives from Palin, from Glenn Beck University, from Michele Bachmann (who thinks Concord and Lexington were in New Hampshire), from Herman Cain (who is running for President on a platform of restoring the Constitution and believes the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is in that document), and their ilk. And it’s not just that those narratives are partisan or driven by contemporary politics or culturally exclusionary (although they’re all those things)—it’s that the information is inaccurate, false, just plain wrong.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done. I can, I believe, do a bit of it, but mostly what I can do is help direct Americans to our shared history, to the complex and challenging but more real narratives and details of who and what we’ve done. From there, it’s on all of us to keep doing the learning and analyzing, to keep talking about these issues in more informed and communally meaningful ways, and see what happens next. I don’t think that’s just a dream. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) That Ellis Island history: http://www.ellisisland.org/genealogy/ellis_island_history.asp
2) A pretty strong and thorough overview of American immigration laws: http://academic.udayton.edu/race/02rights/immigr01.htm
3) OPEN: What do you think?