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Friday, June 24, 2011

June 24, 2011: No, Your (and My) Ancestors Were Not Legal Immigrants (Renamed Repeat)

[After reading a couple different comment threads on articles about Jose Antonio Vargas, I feel a need to repeat this post. The number of people who want this guy—who, again, was sent to America at the age of 12 by his Mom—arrested, deported, and/or put in some sort of black site prison for the rest of time is deeply frustrating. If you’re reading this and could send this post to one other person you know, perhaps especially somebody who thinks “illegal immigrant” is a category that has existed since America’s origins and/or has meant something static throughout our history, I’d sure appreciate it.]
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 this weekend,
PS. Three links to start with:
2)      A pretty strong and thorough overview of American immigration laws:
3)      OPEN: What do you think?


  1. Ben, you put up a post that really didn't say much. But if I was an Illegal immigrant, I'd buy you lunch.

    As you admit the people that came to America had to follow some sort of rules. IF they followed the rules then they were doing things LEGALLY.

    Those who didn't follow the rules or had diseases either had to be quarantined OR sent back to their countries of origin, I believe, at the expense of the transporter. If the new comers broke any rules then I guess they didn't do things "legally".

    Our country has set up rules for hundreds of years on how to enter this country. The quotas back then were quite different than now. But as of now there is still strict "rules" for coming to America and those rules stipulate the LEGAL way of doing it or like most Illegal immigrants the Illegal way of doing things.

    By NOT making that fact known about how a foreigner comes to the USA LEGALLY you make it sound like a free for all, it is not. It is SERIOUS business.

    Unfortunately and I like to compare the way Immigrants come to this country now as the Woodstock Syndrome. At hippie day Woodstock back in the mid 60's a fence made a demarcation between those who had PAID their admission to those who didn't, meaning those who were outside the fence and didn't have a ticket

    The problem was to many people came to the festival, overwhelmed the fence and knocked it down. That is where we are at today. The FENCE is still there, as ALL fences in life, we don't have to change any laws for the working of that "fence" now, but people think they have that right to knock down that "fence" those rules, regulations, laws, statutes, through criminal acts, such as visa fraud, document fraud, lies and deception.

    It would have been nice to see you back up rule of law but apparently you are a loonie lefty liberal. One who obviously has NOT taken into account the problems Illegal Immigration has brought to this country and apparently doesn't care.

    Our country by the year 2050 will have 60% of its inhabitants IMMIGRANTS, Legal and Illegal.
    Estimated population growth 1994-2050 120-130 million.
    The shear numbers are what is going to be called "The Tragedy of the Commons" ( Garrett Harding ) I would suggest you read information by Frosty Wooldridge, Garrett Harding as mentioned, and Web Sites like the Social Contract,
    to educate yourself and your readers the reality of Illegal Immigration on our communities, our environment and our country, because you've done NONE of that.

    Joe Rizoli

  2. Hi Joe,

    Thanks for the comment, but I would have to take issue with your opening sentence--I don't know that you're in a position to assess what my post did or didn't say, because it's pretty clear that you didn't really read it.

    For example, one of your most crucial points is that "our country has set up rules for hundreds of years...," but that's entirely and fundamentally untrue. Up until Ellis Island opened in the 1880s, there were literally no rules of any kind for any arrivals--you came to the country and you were part of it, period. Even when Ellis did open, unless you were an immigrant from China (later other Asian countries excluded for similarly racist reasons--and most of them came to the West Coast, so this didn't really apply to Ellis anyway), there were still no quotas until the 1920s, and the "rules" were purely formalities (stand in this line, talk to this official) unless you had a contagious disease. Which is to say, it was still the case that if you came to this country, you were part of it, with only two exceptions: a) somebody our only existing immigration law discriminated against; b) the deathly ill.

    Since this was by far the most central point of my post--that people like Palin believe, or at least profess, that we've had "rules" for "hundreds of years" and that what has changed is that immigrants now no longer follow the rules the way older immigrants ("my ancestors," often, in this formulation); and that said belief is entirely inaccurate to the realities of our history--the fact that you're still arguing that makes clear to me, again, that you didn't actually read the post, so much as view it through the lens of your existing (and this case inaccurate) beliefs.


  3. PS. It's also worth noting that many if not all of your arguments and worries about immigration's dangers and impacts, and about how these new immigrants are bad compared to what used to be the case, have literally been part of our national conversations since the 18th century. See this post: