[OPE-L] How grandma got legal

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Wed May 17 2006 - 13:23:26 EDT

How grandma got legal
Illegal-immigration foes say today's migrants are different from
their own forebears. They don't know U.S. history.
By Mae M. Ngai
MAE M. NGAI is a history professor at the University of Chicago and
author of "Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of
Modern America."

May 16, 2006

'MADE IN America ? by immigrants" and "We too have a dream" read
signs at the May 1 marches across the country. By invoking an
American ideal, today's newcomers are staking their claim as the
latest generation of nation-builders. But their critics object to
this appeal to history; they resent comparisons to previous
generations of immigrants, who were legal.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, says his grandparents ? Dutch
immigrants who settled in Nebraska ? didn't try to get ahead by
breaking the law. Rather, they made it through "frugality ? hard
work, grit, honesty," he says. "They would be very upset about people
who didn't do it the right way."

Such comparisons between past and present miss a crucial point. There
were so few restrictions on immigration in the 19th and early 20th
centuries that there was no such thing as "illegal immigration." The
government excluded a mere 1% of the 25 million immigrants who landed
at Ellis Island before World War I, mostly for health reasons.
(Chinese were the exception, excluded on grounds of "racial

What's more, statutes of limitations of one to five years meant that
even those here unlawfully did not live forever with the specter of

In the early 1900s, immigrants from Europe provided cheap, unskilled
labor that made possible the nation's industrial and urban expansion.
They shoveled pig iron, dug sewers and subway tunnels and sewed
shirtwaists. Even then, people born in the U.S. complained that the
newcomers stole jobs, were ignorant, criminal and showed no desire to
become citizens. The rhetoric was often unabashedly prejudiced
against Italians, Jews, Poles and other "degraded races of Europe."

In the conservative climate after World War I, Congress slammed shut
the golden door. For the first time, the U.S. imposed numerical
limits on immigration. Congress gave the smallest quotas to Eastern
and Southern European countries and excluded all Asians; it also
created the U.S. Border Patrol and eliminated statutes of limitations
on deportation. It exempted countries of the Western Hemisphere,
however, in deference to agricultural labor needs and the State
Department's tradition of pan-Americanism.

These quotas created illegal immigration as a mass phenomenon. And
since that time, Americans have been of two minds about the problem.
We want restrictions on immigration, but we hesitate to execute mass
deportations. Congress has thus pursued border control, on the one
hand, and legalization of the undocumented on the other.

Our legalization policies recognized that once a person settled here,
had a family, a job and a home, he or she became a part of society.
Separating families was seen as detrimental to individuals and
society, and deportation was likened to banishment.

Here's how hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants ? mostly
Europeans ? became legal:

? The Registry Act of 1929 allowed immigrants who arrived before 1921
but had no record of their admission to register retroactively, for a
$20 fee.

? From 1935 to the late 1950s, to keep families together, tens of
thousands of Europeans unlawfully in the U.S. were allowed
temporarily to go to Canada and reenter the States legally as a
permanent resident.

? In 1940, Congress authorized the suspension of orders of
deportation in cases of hardship, which it defined as "serious
economic detriment" to the immigrant's immediate family. The
guidelines have become less generous, but the principle remains in
the law.

In 1965, the U.S. repealed racial restrictions against Southern and
Eastern Europeans and Asians, but the 1965 law also imposed quotas
for the first time on Western Hemisphere countries. That created
illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America.

The 1986 immigration reforms addressed the problem by legalizing
nearly 3 million undocumented workers. It also called for increased
enforcement ? which didn't stop illegal immigration, it just made it
more dangerous.

President Bush wants Congress to provide today's undocumented
immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, to establish a guest worker
program and to add the National Guard to police efforts at the
border. History is only partly on his side.

Providing a route to legalization ? even one that is much less
generous than we've offered in the past ? at least adheres to
precedent. But history shows that as long as we restrict the number
of legal entries, there will be a parallel stream of unauthorized
ones, even with tough enforcement laws. And the European experience
with guest worker programs should warn us that guests don't always go
home when they are supposed to.

To really tackle the problem, we might consider updating other
policies from the nation's past. Reinstituting a statute of
limitations on deportation would limit the numbers of undocumented
people in the country. We could also raise the ceiling on legal
admissions ? or eliminate it, especially for neighboring countries.
This is not such a radical idea: The North American Free Trade
Agreement has already lowered barriers to the movement of capital and
products, and citizens of European Union states have free movement
within the EU.

Legalizing the undocumented is just and humane. But unless we address
the restrictions on legal admission that do so much to cause illegal
entries, the cycle of enforcement and legalization will continue.

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