In light of the continuing legal concern with illegal immigration, most notably the anti-immigrant laws passed in Arizona in spring 2010, we’re re-posting a Truth v. Myth staple on immigration and why it is now so often illegal.
Most of us never stop to ask why illegal immigration is now so common, but never was before. Americans have always tried to stop certain types of immigrants—Irish, Chinese, Jewish, etc.—but you will not find battles over illegal immigrants (except when people from those banned groups somehow got into the country). There was no such issue, really, as “illegal immigration” throughout our long history of immigrants. So why is it such an issue today?
The single answer is that we now make it much harder to become a legal immigrant than we have ever done before. That’s it. It’s not that today’s immigrants are more criminal. It’s not that our own sainted immigrant ancestors were more law-abiding. It’s simply a matter of changing the law to make it harder to become a citizen, a process put in motion after WWII.
So here’s the original post, with a few new additions:
Myth: Immigration used to be good, but now it is bad.
Supporting myth: Today immigrants are shiftless, lazy, and/or criminal, whereas they used to be hardworking people trying to make a better life for their children.
“Proof” of myth: Immigrants today don’t bother to learn English, want Spanish to be the official language of the U.S., refuse to become legal U.S. citizens, working here illegally instead, and constantly enter the U.S. illegally without even trying to become citizens because they want a free ride without paying taxes.
You know what I so often hear when Americans talk about immigration now?
1. They support anti-immigration laws.
2. Sure, their ancestors were immigrants, and they’re proud of that.
3. But their ancestors “followed the rules,” and therefore deserved to be here, while
4. Immigrants today have not followed the rules, and therefore do not deserve to be here.
This is a powerful myth. It seems to ring true. But do you know what the “rules” were for immigrants coming through Ellis Island for so many years? Look healthy and have your name listed on the register of the ship that brought you. That was it. “If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these ‘six second physicals.’”
When I visited the Ellis Island museum in 1991, I saw a film that said you also had to provide the address of a friend, sponsor, or family member who would take you in. And off you went.
So I don’t think we’re handing out prizes to past immigrants who followed those rules. They were pretty easy to follow. If that’s all we asked of Mexican immigrants today, we wouldn’t have illegal immigrants.
Immigrants today are faced with much more difficult rules. In other words, they actually face rules.
Go to Google and type in “requirements for U.S. citizenship.” I don’t know how many million pages come up. You petition for a Green Card—or rather, you have a family member already in the U.S. or a U.S. employer become your petitioner, and fill out the visa petition. Your employer-petitioner has to prove a labor certificate has been granted, that you have the education you need to do the job, that s/he can pay you, etc.
Then you’re on the waiting list—not to get a Green Card, but to apply for a Green Card.
One could go on and on. Basically, it’s much harder to get into the U.S. today and to become a citizen than it was when most white Americans’ ancestors came through.
The real problem with immigrants today is the same as it was in 1840: each generation of Americans hates and fears the new immigrants coming in. In the 1850s, the Irish were the scary foreigners destroying the nation. In the 1880s it was the Italians. Then the Chinese, then the Eastern Europeans, then the Jews, now the Mexicans.
Each generation looks back to earlier immigrants as “good,” and views current immigrants as bad. In the 1880s, the Irish were angry at the incoming Italians. In the 1900s, the Italians were banning the Chinese from coming in. As each immigrant group settles in, it tries to keep the next group out.
It’s really time we ended this cycle. Here are some quick pointers:
1. Latin American immigrants are not qualitatively different than previous European immigrants.
2. Spanish-speaking immigrants do NOT refuse to learn English; in fact, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are less likely to speak the old language than the children of other groups (that is, more children of Chinese immigrants speak Chinese than children of Mexican immigrants speak Spanish).
3. Your European immigrant ancestors honored nothing when they came to the U.S. but their desire to be here. They didn’t anxiously adhere to “the rules.” They did the bare, bare minimum that was asked of them, which was easy to do.
4. If we reverted to our earlier, extremely simple requirements for entering the country and becoming a citizen, we would not have illegal immigrants. If we choose not to go back to the earlier requirements, we have to explain why.
The usual explanation is that if we made it as simple now as it once was to enter this country and become a citizen, the U.S. would be “flooded” with “waves” of Latin Americans, poor and non-English-speaking, ruining the country. Which is exactly the argument that has always been made against immigrants, be they Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, etc. Each group is going to destroy the country and American culture and society. It never seems to happen.
But it might happen now, with Latin American immigrants, not because they will destroy the country but because those in the U.S. who are so afraid of them will rip the country apart trying to keep them out. Taking the long view, I can say there’s hope that that won’t happen. But it will take a good fight to get all Americans to realize that the key to this nation’s success has always been the open-door policy.
Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.