Immigration in perspective

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One of the things that drives me absolutely bonkers about debates surrounding immigration is how devoid it is of historical perspective.  Anti-immigration advocates that argue for more control over immigration universally tend to overlook the historical reality that the relatively recent existence of immigration controls is the only reason one can even speak of an increase in illegal immigration.

One common argument you hear from anti-immigration advocates is that, yes, we are a nation of immigrants, but that our ancestors came to this country legally.  But the fact of the matter is that the concept of “illegal” immigration did not exist until the end of the 19th century.  Prior to 1875, the United States allowed a virtually unrestricted flow of immigrants, with the only requirement for legality being physical presence.  Basically, as long as you found a way to set foot in America, it didn’t matter how you got here.  You were a legal permanent resident.

And 1875 didn’t change much except bar the entry of convicts and prostitutes.  You have to go to 1921 to find the first time the United States ever put any real limits on the number of people allowed to enter the country (shocker: it was motivated by xenophopia, the law actually attempted to implement proportional immigration quotas by country in order to keep the existing ethnic balance intact).

So for all those that claim that their ancestors came legally, before you go praising their virtues, keep in mind that they didn’t really have much of a choice; there was no such thing as illegal entry.

Now imagine what the situation would have looked like if we had today’s limits on entry.  The majority of our nation’s ancestors might never have been allowed in.  Though I have a hunch that, with the hope that their future generations might grow up in America, some of them might have hopped over a fence to make it happen.

Posted on May 12th 2010 in news

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