Immigration: Why My Relatives Came Legally through Ellis Island Trope is Wrong

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Arrivals at Ellis Island, 1905, Wikimedia

immigration is a very emotional issue. And it is also a matter that most Americans are ignorant of. Count how many times have you heard, but my family came to Ellis Island legally. Of course, they did. The largest immigration wave happened before 1924, when the first immigration laws were passed. Until the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was signed into law, if you reached Ellis Island you were in. There were a few people turned away by immigration officials, but they were obviously sick with tuberculosis or were obviously disabled. Anywhere from 95 percent to 99 percent of people who reached the Island was accepted into the United States.

1924 introduced quotas. Part of it this was an effort to stop, or slow immigration from some Eastern European countries, Italy and Ireland. Those were the shit hole countries of their day.

So if you are honest about it, the first immigration laws are not even a hundred years old.

The first race-based exclusion is over 100 years old, and it was passed out of racist fear. It was the 1884 Chinese Exclusion Act. Incidentally if you go to Tijuana and enjoy some Chinese food, guess where those people came from? They were expelled to Mexico from Southern California. They were brought to the United States to build the railroad.

What about more modern immigration? The 1965 Immigration act was passed with two objectives. The first was family reunification, and the second was to attract skilled labor to the United States, in other words, that is the merit system that some people, for political reasons like to bandy about. Under that Act, most of the people who came though Ellis Island would have not come in. Nor would they have come in under the quota system of 1924.

So when you go about and tell me, but my family came through Ellis Island legally. Of course they did. Most people who got on a ship and sailed across were admitted. The country needed your grand and great grand parents for the same exact reason our industrial farms need the workers from Mexico. It is called cheap labor. Your great grandparents worked the railroads, they planted the fields, and manned the factories. They did not work as doctors and lawyers, or engineers. Most of them did not speak English either, or have an education above the very basics. Why Italian, French, German, Russian, and Yiddish papers were so common. Why there were whole neighborhoods, in Queens for example, that looked and felt like the old country, where every sign was not in English, except for the street names.

Many of them marched and went on strike, and were the backbone of the early labor movement that took form in places like Chicago and New York. Some joined the early police and fire departments in places like New York City. Some were able to save and moved west. Most could not call themselves settlers, since that wave of migration west had already happened. But they did not face much of a background check, or fees paid to the US Government, to come though Ellis Island.

These days an application for a Green Card usually takes upwards of 10 years, not while living in the United States, to receive it. It can take upwards of 25 years for an immigrant to go from first application to swearing in ceremony. It is not as simple as showing up at Ellis Island, getting a cursory medical check and somebody misspelling your name in immigration paperwork. So when you repeat that trope, you show how ignorant you are of the system.

One more thing: Every immigrant has to prove they know English. Every immigrant also has to take a citizenship exam. This is a test that most native born Americans cannot pass. It asks simple questions such as which are the three branches of government, and who is the President of the United States. It also asks things like what where the original 13 colonies, and the Constitution.

Have fun, here is the link to the current practice test.

Historian by training. Former day to day reporter. Sometimes a geek who enjoys a good miniatures game.

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