April 15, 2009 by D Stack
“They should come over legally, like my grandparents did.”
One of the most common arguments against illegal immigrants is that our sacred grandparents never, ever, broke a law. Not a one. To begin with, I find this an odd argument, since anyone who is a 3rd or later generation American probably has no context as to the true circumstances of their family’s immigration history. Or to put it bluntly, “how do we know that our grandparents came here legally? If they came illegally, would they really tell us?” A little personal history and then a some broader history…
I’m a third generation American. My grandparents on both sides of my family were born in the United States and their parents immigrated from Italy (maternal) or Poland (paternal). I didn’t know my great-grandparents at all (all but one died before I was born and the last died when I was a toddler). I was fairly close to my maternal grandparents until they passed away in the late 1990s. My mother has told me my family history, how both her grandparents came from the Naples area of Italy, though they did not know each other. Some of her family on her mother’s side got rejected at Ellis Island, causing a branch of the family to settle in Argentina. A few years ago I decided to research my family history on a whim. I was at the Ellis Island Foundation’s website and found they had records of everyone who came through Ellis Island. I quickly found my mother’s paternal grandparents’ records – the ship they came on and their entry into the United States. But her paternal grandparents… that was another story. I could not find any record of them at all. Not surprising, records have gotten lost. But the really odd thing was I found record of her maternal grandfather – but it showed him entering the United States as a citizen of Argentina, some ten years after the birth of my maternal grandmother in the United States. But everyone in the family indicated aside from brief trips, he (and the rest of the family) had lived in New York City their entire lives. Our best theory is either another relative with the same name (none we knew of) or he initially entered the US legally and re-entered it some twelve years later to make everything legal. I’ll never know for certain. But it made me aware there was at least the possibility of an illegal immigrant in my own family history. I’ll never be able to say with certainty “my great-grandparents came over here legally.” I know at least some of them did. But I can’t be certain about all of them.
About two years ago I mentioned this to a worker at the Tenement Museum in New York City. She indicated that illegal immigration is not something new. For example, from their website:
As a little girl, 97 Orchard Street was Josephine Baldizzi’s world. She rarely ventured beyond the stoop where she watched her favorite peddler load pots and pans into his cart singing “a nickel, a dime, rain or shine!” In the evenings, the Baldizzis would sit around the kitchen table to eat and talk. Sometimes, the conversation would drift to far away Sicily.
Josephine wasn’t quite sure how her parents made the journey from Italy to America. According to family lore, Adolfo and Rosaria may have entered America as illegal immigrants.
For much of American history, there was not much in the way of law restricting immigration, though the process for becoming a naturalized citizen varied. Some interesting moments in immigration history include:
- The 19th century saw laws to exclude Asians from becoming naturalized citizens. It also saw the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to limit Chinese Immigration.
- 1882 also banned “lunatics” and carriers of infectious diseases.
- After the McKinley assassination in 1901 there was the Anarchist Exclusion Act.
- The Immigration Act of 1917 banned “idiots,” “feeble-minded persons,” “criminals” “epileptics,” “insane persons,” alcoholics, “professional beggars,” all persons “mentally or physically defective,” polygamists, illiterate, various Asians, and anarchists..
- The Emergency Quota Act of 1923 set quotas on immigrants from various nations, though professionals were exempt.
All of these, and more, were laws that many people bypassed to enter (or stay in ) the United States illegally. And many of them have descendants who are natural-born American citizens.
What of current immigration law? A few months ago I read a newspaper article that explained the number of illegal immigrants in the United States by asking the reading to picture interstate highways with a speed limit of five miles per hour. That limit would be routinely ignored. Unless you are a person in strong demand (i.e. a company sponsored work visa), you are looking at a very long and expensive process to be allowed permanent residence in the United States. I’m not certain how many of our ancestors would have followed the law if the law required them to wait five to twenty years and thousands of dollars in legal fees to get their Green Cards. If you are not a professional, you are looking at an extremely long and complicated process to get a Green Card. It is my contention that we do not have a workable system for legal permanent residence of non-professional workers.
- New York Tenement Museum
- Anne Noyes Saini. “Legal Immigrants to U.S. face endless wait”. Christian Science Monitor. 26 Feb 2008. <http://www.csmonitor.com/2008/0226/p02s01-usgn.html?page=1>. Retrieved 15 Apr 2009