W is set to address the nation tonight on the topic of (illegal) immigration, likely including the announcement that the National Guard will be deployed along the Mexican border. This administration is fixin' a veritable spiral-bound church social cookbook of recipes for disaster. At first blush, I'm all for anything that keeps the boys and girls out of Iraq, but a Sasabe-to-Douglas game of Red Rover with guns is not, perhaps, the most healthy alternative.
A few letters to the editor in the Tucson morning paper over the past few weeks have harped on the message that, well, my ancestors came over here legally, without sneaking in, so everybody else should do it that way too, because the illegals are just cutting the line in front of the people doing it the right way. Let's take a look at that. I'm making broad assumptions here that may be unfounded, but I'm guessing that most of the My People Came Through Ellis Island So Why Can't Yours crowd are of European descent. As I've pointed out before, the hordes migrating here from Ireland, Poland, Germany, Hungary, and Russia only had one option when it came to travel--get on a boat whose accomodations they could afford and get off in the port where it docked. Walking to the US was not an alternative, at least not since the Bering land bridge flooded several millenia ago. My immigrant ancestors didn’t have much money—farmers from England on one side, Bohemian miners on the other, a German here, an Irishman there—but most of them had the fortuitous timing to duck the waves of fill-in-the-blank anti-immigration sentiment that rolled through the country beginning in the mid-1800s.
The legal process of immigration those people went through bears little resemblance to The Process so reverentially referenced by modern immigration reformers. Depending on the ship line available to them, 19th-century immigrants from Europe may have entered the US through any number of ports, and, given enough personal wealth, faced an “immigration process” as simple as signing on the dotted line:
First and second class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, these passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship; the theory being that if a person could afford to purchase a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. The Federal government felt that these more affluent passengers would not end up in institutions, hospitals or become a burden to the state.
Passengers with limited financial means were required to jump through an additional hoop, although for most, the delay in admittance was on the order of half a day or less :
Upon arrival in New York City, ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers. First and second class passengers would disembark, pass through Customs at the piers and were free to enter the United States. The steerage and third class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where everyone would undergo a medical and legal inspection.
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." By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship's manifest log (that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation) contained the immigrant's name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection.
The automatic status accorded the wealthier immigrants and the cursory controls placed on the poorer ones expose the myth of the noble, legal Ellis Island immigrant who allegedly faced the same bureaucratic entanglements modern would-be immigrants face and still managed to build a fortune on the 43 cents he had in his pocket when he walked through the gates. The poorest migrants were delayed less than a day in their quest to enter the country, even if they had no resident relatives or job prospects. Modern migrants—even those with connections in the US—must navigate an extremely complicated, hierarchical system with built-in preferences and national origin quotas, and even then expect to wait six months to several years for a visa.
Because the number of immigrant visa numbers that are available each year is limited, you may not get an immigrant visa number immediately after your immigrant visa petition is approved. In some cases, several years could pass between the time USCIS approves your immigrant visa petition and the State Department gives you an immigrant visa number. Because U.S. law also limits the number of immigrant visas available by country, you may have to wait longer if you come from a country with a high demand for U.S. immigrant visas.
In a very real sense, then, the historical Ellis Island experience is more closely paralleled by the modern illegal immigrant crossing the Mexico-US border than by the “legal” immigrant waiting for official entry. Ease of access to the US was and still is largely conditioned by the financial resources at the immigrant’s disposal; those with little money face the danger of walking across the desert now and faced a long crossing made hazardous by crowded, unsanitary conditions in steerage then, compounded by an increased risk of denied entry due to disease contracted on the voyage or the determination by inspectors that the poor immigrant posed an unacceptable social risk. The better-off illegal migrants now increase their chance of a successful entry by being able to buy forged paperwork and a ride, just as the well-heeled legal immigrant in 1875 bought instant credibility and a free pass through Customs with his first- or second-class ticket stub.
In either scenario, though, comparing the current immigration requirements with the effective turnstiles at Ellis Island and other ports of entry in the late 1800s is dishonest. Why, people ask, don’t the lettuce pickers and construction day laborers do the right thing and get in line at the immigration office with the rest of the upstanding citizens of the world? Read the immigration preference system and see if you can find “unskilled laborer” listed under any of those categories. Actually, I’ll save you the trouble: you can’t. Why do they choose, instead, to risk death by walking across the desert or pay their meager savings to a coyote for the guided tour? Because they are desperate. And desperate people do not have the luxury of waiting for a visa number that will never be issued.
Yes, my ancestors and probably yours did it “the right way,” coming through an official port of entry, spelling their names for the man who wrote them in the ship’s registry, standing in front of a doctor who rubber-stamped their health as acceptable, answering a couple of questions from the form filled out on the ship, and walking directly through the golden door. Given the choice of that kind of “process,” don’t you think the hundred of thousands sneaking across the southern border would opt to do the same? And if today’s immigration restrictions and requirements had existed in 1850, would you or I be sitting here in the US today, or would our ancestors have decided they couldn’t hack it, and either stayed home or found more creative ways into the country?