Truth v. Myth: Illegal immigrants must be stopped!

In light of the continuing legal concern with illegal immigration, most notably the anti-immigrant threats currently being voiced by Donald Trump, we’re re-posting a Truth v. Myth staple on immigration and why it is now so often illegal.

Most of us have ideas on how to fix illegal immigration, but we 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 we 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 one of the HP visited the Ellis Island museum in 1991, they 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 we can’t really hand 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.” It’s hard to say 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.

5 thoughts on “Truth v. Myth: Illegal immigrants must be stopped!

  1. Careful– it sounds like you might be slipping into the Reagan-esque “evils of big government” position. 🙂 I think I take a more neutral position on this issue than either the author or Trump but I feel it a bit incomplete to compare immigration policy then and now without also considering how the US is different now than it was then– economically, culturally, socially, politically– and how much the world has changed (ie. the reasons people seek to emigrate from their homes and come to the US). I am just suggesting that this article maybe doesn’t tell the whole story.


      1. I don’t know that I have the story, per se. But when talking about what immigration policy should be today I don’t think we can just look at history and surmise that what was good enough in the past is good enough for today without considering how the US and the world has changed. I am not an economist and only an amateur student of history but I will try to offer reasons that I think other factors need to be considered.

        Let me preface this by saying that, in theory, I concur with an open door policy and I certainly can’t support a policy that would exclude people because of how they dressed, where they come from, the religion they practice, their cultural background, or their skill/education/socioeconomic status. Those should never be part of the equation. The test should be whether an immigrant could work and live in community with American ideals.

        First off an economic consideration, in my mind the biggest issue: In the golden era of immigration, let’s say 1850-1940, the US was moving from its infancy as a nation, through the industrial age, and on into its growth into a global economic leader. Those were the years of massive industry, manufacture, westward expansion, harnessing of our natural resources (mining, logging, agriculture, etc.), and all of the infrastructure that supported that growth– and compared to anything the world had seen before, it happened at an unprecedented speed. Land was plentiful and opportunities abounded for people, regardless of education or skill, to “strike it rich” or even just provide a comfortable life for themselves and their children. I imagine that for immigrants, crossing that ocean seemed a move from Old World thinking to New World thinking with all of the benefits that offered. And in truth, as a nation we needed those immigrants to make that unprecedented growth happen! And, while it would be ideal if we were still that growing nation, it simply isn’t the case anymore. Our economy is stagnant, job numbers are not where they should be, companies are moving their operations overseas rather than keeping jobs here. Too many Americans already can’t find good jobs that pay a decent wage– not because they are lazy and shiftless but because our economy simply doesn’t support it. How could we overload that already volatile situation with more laborers seeking economic opportunities? So I do think we have to consider whether a potential immigrant is able to find and keep gainful employment. My hope for the US would be that one day we would have the kind of economy that would again support a more open immigration policy.

        Next, cultural consideration: The US is a bit of an anomaly with much of the world in that most regions of the world are defined by their race or ethnicity. For example, China is populated by ethnically Chinese people, Italy is populated by ethnically Italian people, etc. In contrast, the US is populated by people who are very ethnically diverse so we would be better defined but our culture rather than by our ethnicity– we are culturally Americans. When one chooses to voluntarily leave the country of their birth and come to the US, as has probably been the case for most immigrants for the past 200 years, they most likely expect to forgo much of the loyalty they have to the place of their birth– in essence, they would be working toward becoming American in culture not just in name. That doesn’t mean they are no longer what they were before: Italians can also be Americans, Asians can also be Americans, Africans can also be Americans, Latinos can also be Americans. But it does mean they have to become American in addition to what they are already. Forgoing the loyalty to your birth country does not mean setting aside the customs, traditions, dress, religions, etc. but it does mean that all of those things have to work in American communities and societies. I believe we do have to be able to screen out people who don’t truly intend to move their loyalty from their country of birth to the US (by which I mean not automatically barring them from citizenship but making it a process that allows for some confidence that their intentions are to become loyal US citizens). And we have to accept the fact that we live in a world where the intentions of some are nefarious and anti-American culture– maybe not even more so than they were in 1900 but with today’s technology perhaps their anti-Americanism is potentially more deadly.

        Next, social consideration: Well, I’ll be brief on this one. We simply cannot adopt a “six-second physical” for obvious reasons and I would hope you don’t actually mean that we should go back to that. Think back to the widespread panic caused by the very few cases of Ebola that snuck into the US a few years ago.

        You suggested that if we choose not to go back to earlier requirements that we have to explain why. I do hope that you wouldn’t actually be supportive of the 3-5 hour process that you describe. As I said originally, I take a more neutral position. We can’t live in fear of immigrants but we also can’t throw open our borders with abandon. My hope for the US is that we would always be a place that people want to become a part of because it provides the opportunities that move people forward in their lives. If we as Americans practice the spirit of true enfranchisement and community then we all benefit from this huge conglomeration of culture, race, and ethnicity that make the US what it is. But we have to have smart and workable immigration policies to keep the US what it is.

        And I am sorry that I wrote a book…. 🙂


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