The problem of undocumented immigrants is not new

Guest Post by Ronald H. Bayor

The nation is presently watching the Mexico–U.S. border and obsessing over the issue of illegal immigration. The topic of undocumented immigrants, however, is not a new one. With the passage of largely ineffective state laws in the nineteenth century excluding certain immigrants because of disease, criminal background, or other problems, America began to witness the appearance of those entering the country regardless of restrictions.

Official federal control of immigration began in 1875 with a Supreme Court ruling and then with the systematization of the process by the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. Neither stopped the many immigrants who entered unlawfully. Immigrants barred from entry managed to evade exclusion by bribing immigration officials or ship captains, arriving as ship stowaways, using false papers such as citizenship documents, hiding previous criminal behavior, forging medical records, or traveling as first-class passengers who were given only cursory examinations. The U.S. never had a foolproof system for capping entry.

Rather than Hispanics from Latin America, those illegally entering the U.S. were comprised of various European nationalities. Western hemisphere immigrants were exempt from any restrictions and entered as non-quota immigrants until the 1965 immigration act. Their labor was essential to American agriculture. Asians, however, faced early and severe restriction starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But that law and its successors failed to provide a barrier, as the Chinese used various techniques, including purchased citizenships (known as “Paper Sons”), to secure entry.

In the 1920s, when immigration legislation establishing quotas was introduced, the key issues concerned nationality and race. According to the pseudoscience of eugenics, some immigrants were of “better stock” than others and would add, not detract, from the nation’s biological health. Southern and Eastern Europeans and Asians were considered to be detrimental to the country. Assumptions based on stereotypes held that these immigrants would become charity cases, were not as mentally or physically fit, were prone to crime and disease, and represented the dregs of the world, “the wretched refuse” of other shores. With quotas came more attempts to enter the U.S. illegally.

Immigrants in 1902 in a detention pen on the roof of the main building. Detention meant that something was wrong and could lead to days or months in unsanitary and crowded quarters, as well as deportation.  Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-116223.

Immigrants in 1902 in a detention pen on the roof of the main building. Detention meant that something was wrong and could lead to days or months in unsanitary and crowded quarters, as well as deportation. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-116223.

The system changed over the years due to the need for workers at various times, and in the post-World War II era, foreign policy pressures forced the end of unequal nationality quotas. America usually needed the skills and workforce that immigrants provided, and the immigrants longed to start a new life in the U.S. Eugenics became discredited after the Nazis used these false theories to create the horrors of the Holocaust. But stereotypes about immigration prevailed. Undocumented or illegal immigration concerns in present times became sharply refocused on Hispanics coming from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rather than on the previously despised European groups. While many object to the illegal status of these immigrants, suggest building a wall or fence along the U.S./Mexican border, and want to deport those already here, the illegal issue has historically been complex. People’s personal preferences and racial attitudes influence their reaction to immigration more than the letter of the law. During the 1980s, white immigrants from Cuba found more acceptance as new arrivals than black immigrants from Haiti. If German, British, or Norwegian immigrants sat on our border yearning to enter, the storm of protest against illegals of these nationalities would hardly exist, especially if children were involved. In the 1990s, for example, Congress passed temporary legislation allowing larger numbers of Irish to arrive.

The issue then is not just illegal entry but who enters. Although the U.S. has an immigration system based on attracting people with particular skills and enabling family reunification, exceptions have always existed, including classification as non-quota refugees. And those children on the border now could easily fit the legal definition of refugees and enter as humanitarian cases.

The reasons for entry, legal or illegal, over the years have remained the same: immigrants come to this country fleeing wars, crime, a poor economy, class restrictions, and lack of opportunity. As one Colombian immigrant, who arrived undocumented in 1980, said, “We were just immigrants looking for freedom.” He found opportunity and success. While nobody supports open borders without any regulation, immigrants, even those who came illegally, have provided the U.S. with a constant flow of the skills and the ambition needed to create future growth and prosperity.

bayorRonald H. Bayor is a professor emeritus of history at Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent publication is Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered Americapublished by Johns Hopkins.