Immigrants have always been scary-looking, but that’s never stopped us before

Posted on January 22, 2016. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

A while back we showed some photos from the wonderful Washington Post feature “What America’s immigrants looked like when they arrived on Ellis Island”. It’s a collection of  photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

Here’s what we said at the time:

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants.

And then we showed some of the photos. At the time, we were just enjoying the window onto the past they provided. But with all the (usual) scaremongering talk about immigrants that was generated by the Syrian refugees, we suddenly thought of them in a new way.

Look at this woman from “Ruthenia” (today’s Belarus and Ukraine):

Ruthenian-woman

Would this woman pass the very, very difficult screening process we have in place for refugees and be allowed into the U.S. today? It doesn’t seem likely. Headscarf, ethnic clothing… looks like a terrorist.

In fact, all the women wore headscarves:

Slovak-woman-and-child

 

 

Three-Dutch-women

If headscarves are a red flag, these Slovakian and Dutch women would be held up for quite a while if they were screened today.

And what about these women?

They wear headscarves and have strange looks in their eyes; the one on the left seems pretty angry. Both of them were likely deeply committed to a religion that most native-born white Americans rejected as foreign and dangerous to the U.S. government and American Way. Yes, they were Italian Catholics who whisked into this country without anyone checking to see if they were terrorists. This at a time when the U.S. government was actually suspicious of Catholics as agents of the Pope. Yes, the Immigration Act of 1924 would limit the number of southeast European Catholics (and Jews) who could enter the country, but they were never banned altogether.

This Algerian man would likely not get into the U.S. today dressed like this. Yet he successfully entered the country a century ago, and likely lived a quiet life. His descendants are probably living quietly in the U.S. today.

Algerian-man

What about this guy?

A-German-stowaway

No way, right? But this German man successfully entered the country, likely with no more screening than the usual six-second physical at Ellis Island.

This Russian soldier seems fairly menacing:

Cossack-man-from-the-steppes-of-Russia

Are those bullets of some kind on his jacket? That seems like a knife in his belt. Whatever he’s holding—club, sword—is also pretty violent-looking. This man came to America loaded for bear. But he got in, and you know that he got his picture taken because of his “colorful outfit”.

We just weren’t scared of people like this a century ago because we assumed that anyone who came to America would see that it was the greatest society on Earth and toe the line. We believed that our society was strong enough to take in disparate peoples and turn them into Americans. We believed our society was appealing enough to win over our immigrants and make them real Americans who would live and die for their new country.

When did we lose that faith in ourselves? When did we decide that every single immigrant, man, woman or child, was a threat powerful enough to bring down our whole system and way of life? Why did we decide it? There have been acts of terrorism in this country before 2001, and they were usually (and usually wrongly) blamed on immigrants (think Haymarket). And we’ve passed stupid laws banning certain “undesirable” immigrants: the Chinese, the Japanese, southeastern Europeans (read Jews and Catholics). But the panicky idea that all immigration is a threat, that no one should be allowed into the country unless they’re white people from Europe, that every immigrant and even every refugee must go through the most rigorous, nay impossible screening process imaginable, is recent.

Here’s a rundown of what war refugees must do if they want to enter the U.S. today, courtesy of John Oliver:

Look, it is difficult to vet people coming out of a war zone, but it’s not like we’re letting just anyone in. We are the United States of America, not Arizona State. Because just for the record here, let me just walk you through what our screening process actually is.

If you’re a refugee, first, you apply through the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, which collects documents and performs interviews. Incidentally, less than one percent of refugees worldwide end up being recommended for resettlement.

But if you’re one of them, you may then be referred to the State Department to begin the vetting process. At this point, more information is collected, you’ll be put through security screenings by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. And if you’re a Syrian refugee, you’ll get an additional layer of screening called the “Syria enhanced review,” which may include a further check by a special part of Homeland Security, the USCIS Fraud Detection and National Security Directorates.

And don’t relax yet, because we’ve barely even started. Then, you finally get an interview with USCIS officers, and you’ll also be fingerprinted so your prints can be run through the biometric databases of the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Defense.

And if you make it through all that, you’ll then have health screenings which, let’s face it, may not go too well for you, because you may have given yourself a stroke getting through this process so far. But if everything comes back clear, you’ll be enrolled in cultural orientation classes, all while your information continues to be checked recurrently against terrorist databases to make sure that no new information comes in that wasn’t caught before.

All of that has to happen before you get near a plane.

This process typically takes 18 to 24 months once you’ve been referred by the U.N. to the United States.

This is the most rigorous vetting anyone has to face before entering this country. No terrorist in their right mind would choose this path when the visa process requires far less efforts. But nevertheless, the House still voted on Thursday to add a few more steps.

It doesn’t seem likely that anyone in the photos above would have entered the U.S. under those conditions. And that would have been a terrible injustice. Not every immigrant is an angel. That German guy probably got into a lot of fights. But we can’t be scared of immigration. We can’t put ourselves in a lock box and say “no more immigrants”. We have to believe, as we once did, that America makes Americans, that Americans can be made, not born, and that that is a source of our greatest triumphs as a nation.

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What America’s Immigrants looked like as they arrived at Ellis Island

Posted on October 28, 2015. Filed under: American history, Immigration, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Yes, we’ve stolen that title from the wonderful Washington Post site showing photos taken by Augustus Sherman at Ellis from 1892-1925. Sherman was the chief registry clerk at the immigration station.

His photos are wonderful because most of them show people dressed in their very best clothing, usually traditional clothes. While immigrants at that time traveled in their regular clothes because they knew the trip in steerage was dirty, they brought their best clothes to put on once they arrived at Ellis Island so that they would seem like presentable people who were a) not poor and b) good citizen material. They dressed to impress, and they had plenty of time to change during the long waiting periods between landing at the dock and being processed.

Adults and children alike were decked out in elaborate clothes. Women must have been sewing for months to create these wonderful ensembles. As the site points out, seeing these people reminds us that America has long been a place where a multitude of cultures mix on the streets, in schools, at work and at play. While immigrants did not wear these magnificent dress pieces every day, they did leave Ellis and make their way in America with them on, and brought them out on special occasions, making America a bottomless reservoir of cultural identity and expression.

It would be great if someone would create a similar archive of 21st-century immigrants. Until then, here are some samples from the Post site:

Ruthenian-woman

A “Ruthenian” woman (today’s Belarus and Ukraine)

Slovak-woman-and-child

A Slovakian woman and her son

Russian-Cossacks

Men from Russia

Algerian-man An Algerian man

Children-from-Lapland

Children from Lapland

Norwegian-woman

A Norwegian woman

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Truth v. Myth: Illegal Immigrants must be stopped!

Posted on July 7, 2010. Filed under: American history, Immigration | Tags: , , , |

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.

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Truth v. Myth: Immigration

Posted on April 10, 2008. Filed under: Immigration, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

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., and refuse to become legal U.S. citizens, working here illegally instead.

 

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 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.

 

I could go on and on. Basically, it’s much harder to get into the U.S. today than it was when most white Americans’ ancestors came through.

 

The problem with immigration 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. Latin American immigrants do not all “break the rules” to get into the U.S. They are not all criminals living off the wealth of citizens’ tax dollars.

 

4. Your European immigrant ancestors (and mine!) 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.

 

Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.

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