Our ancestors came here through open borders

How many times have you heard someone crow that his or her ancestors came here legally, unlike those caravans of diseased rapists, murderers and drug smugglers preparing to invade San Diego?

Actually, coming here legally wasn’t anything to brag about for most of our ancestors because immigration wasn’t against the law. Laws covered naturalization — becoming a citizen — but not immigration.

It pains me to tell all those legal ancestor worshippers this, but during its first 150 years or so, the United States really did have open borders.  Almost anyone could immigrate here without restrictions: your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, even my questionable German and Irish forebears.  

In fact, the open immigration policy of the founders didn’t end until 1882 and then only for the Chinese. It seems we had become very alarmed over what was nastily called the Yellow Peril, the infusion of another color into our lily-white nation — well, of course, not counting the slaves who insisted on staying after their emancipation.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act did add a couple of restrictions on non-Asian immigrants. Those identified as “lunatics” were turned back at Ellis Island in New York Harbor and other ports of entry for the first time, along with immigrants suffering from or carrying infectious diseases.  

The restricted list was expanded to “anarchists” after a self-styled anarchist named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley while he stood on a receiving line at the Buffalo Exposition in 1901. 

Czolgosz was a Detroit native but his parents were Polish immigrants and who gave the immigrant haters an opportunity to focus on the newer immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The Irish were bad enough to the earliest WASP settlers — being Catholic and in thrall to the Pope — but at least they spoke a kind of English. Not so the Italians and the Poles, who spoke alien languages and were Catholics to boot. And those among them who weren’t Catholics tended to be Jews.

So in 1921, Congress passed what was called the Emergency Quota Act to keep these dangerous immigrants in check. Three years later, the National Origins Formula was passed to reduce the number of those scary southern and eastern Europeans allowed here. These bills, a century ago, closed the borders.

Things began to change a bit during and after World War II when it became embarrassing for the nation to exclude its allies. By 1952, race had been eliminated as a reason for exclusion and in 1965, quotas were dropped in favor of family reunification and skills. But that law also imposed the first limitations on Latin Americans, who had previously been allowed to enter the U.S. through open borders, if you will.

We haven’t had major immigration reform since the Reagan Administration when Congress granted legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, mainly from Latin America.

Since then, immigration has been mostly the subject of political debate, demagoguery and fear mongering. The 11 million or so undocumented immigrants currently living here make significant contributions to the nation’s economy and deporting them would be as expensive as it would be impractical.  

“A reasonable solution allowing law-abiding undocumented immigrants to live and work here legally is imperative in any serious immigration reform,” said a recent study by the George W. Bush Institute, hardly a radical think tank.

The Bush study determined we need more, not fewer, immigrants to keep the population, labor force and economy “vibrant and growing” and it recommends a number of seemingly sensible reforms in addition to finding a way to legalize the undocumented immigrants living here.

It would change a system largely based on family unification to one emphasizing skills and education, as other developed economies have done. It would also overhaul the temporary work visa system by raising caps on seasonal agricultural visas to meet market demands.

The Bush Study also offers a constructive way to have a more secure southern border. It points out that immigrants come here to find jobs that need to be filled and maintains that opening up legal immigration opportunities would reduce the incentive to cross unlawfully or overstay a visa.

“With fewer unauthorized entries to pursue, our immigration enforcement resources can focus on the real criminals.”  

There’s no mention of a wall, probably because miles of fencing authorized during the George W. Bush administration are still being oppposed in the courts by landowners, something that would surely face the Trump wall, even if Mexico paid for it. 


Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.