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No, Your Ancestors Probably Didn’t Come Here Legally


Here’s a common (and lazy) argument against undocumented immigration: “why can’t they just come here legally, like everyone else did”? As we’ve explained before, it’s almost impossible for many immigrants to come to the US with papers. And as a new article from explains, the first part of that premise is false too. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Although many people think their ancestors came legally, says immigration historian Mae Ngai, most families can’t know that with certainty. And the criteria for admission to the United States have changed so much since the late 19th and early 20th centuries that most comparisons of then to now are like apples to oranges.

“Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” said Ngai, a professor of Asian American studies at Columbia University and author of the 2004 book Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. “You didn’t need a passport. You didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a green card. If you showed up at Ellis Island, walked without a limp, had money in your pocket, and passed a very simple [IQ] test in your own language, you were admitted.”

A rapidly expanding America needed labor. One million immigrants were let in annually. Just 1 percent were turned away, typically because they failed the medical or mental test.

As Italians, Greeks, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and other newcomers began showing up, said Ngai, nativists leveled criticisms that “sounded much like the ones that you hear today: ‘They don’t speak English. They don’t assimilate. They’re darker. They’re criminals. They have diseases.’ ” […]

“When people say their ancestors came legally, if they came before 1924, everybody was legal,” said Ngai. “It wasn’t a choice they had to make. After 1924, if you couldn’t get a visa because your country’s quota was filled, many came without documents. They sneaked in.” […]

With the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, Congress abolished national-origin quotas and replaced them with less overtly discriminatory categories, including preferences for family reunification, and job-related visas. But under the rules, no country could get more than 7 percent of the total number of visas available in any given year, which in the current context works out to about 26,500 annually.

So now four countries — Mexico, India, China, and the Philippines — max out every year, said Ngai. And depending on the visa category that a person applies for, the wait can be 10, 20, even 30 years. But if you’re coming from a low-immigration country such as New Zealand, she said, you might not wait at all.

When people who want to limit immigration to the U.S. say that immigrants should “go to the back of the line and wait their turn,” said Domenic Vitiello, a Penn professor who teaches a course called the Immigrant City, they often fail to acknowledge there really is no single line to which everyone has equal access.

As for the notion that yesteryear’s immigrants assimilated more easily than today’s, that’s “another common myth,” said Ngai. All first-generation immigrants have trouble learning English, continue speaking their native language, and have strong ties to their ethnic communities, she said. Then as now, assimilation accelerates in the second and third generations.

“If someone says, ‘My grandparents came legally, learned English, and assimilated quickly,’ I can’t challenge their personal story — I don’t know it,” said Ngai. “But I do know that was not the experience of the vast majority.”