January 23, 2018

NOT LEGAL, NOT ILLEGAL:

Yes, Your Ancestors Probably Did Come Here Legally -- Because 'Illegal' Immigration Is Less Than a Century Old (Kevin Jennings, 1/22/18,  Los Angeles Times)

When people say "my ancestors came here legally," they're probably right. For the first century of the country's existence, anyone could land here and walk right off the boat with no papers of any kind, just as Gumpertz did. Coming here "illegally" did not even exist as a concept.

The first federal general immigration law was enacted in 1882. It prohibited from entering the U.S. "any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." In other words, unless you were physically or mentally incapable of taking care of yourself, you were in -- unless you were Chinese.

That's because the first sweeping federal restriction on immigration also came in 1882, in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Troubled by the influx of Chinese workers -- who helped build the transcontinental railroads, among other things -- Congress enacted a wholesale ban on their further immigration that year. To enforce the ban, a bureaucracy had to be created, leading in 1891 to the establishment of the federal Bureau of Immigration, the first body charged with enforcing federal immigration law.

Beyond these restrictions, however, federal immigration laws remained relatively lax: If you were an able-bodied, non-Chinese person, you could come "legally" for several more decades. You didn't have to speak a word of English or be literate in any language at all. In fact, it was not until 1917 that Congress required that immigrants pass a literacy test, and even then they could pass in any language, not just English.

When a massive influx of new immigrant groups came at the turn of the 20th century -- Italians from Southern Europe and Jews from Eastern Europe, largely -- a backlash began to build. In 1924, President Coolidge signed into law the National Origins Act, the primary aim of which was to severely restrict the flow of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The new law required for the first time that immigrants to the U.S. have visas, introducing the concept of "having papers" to American immigration policy.

The concept of being an "illegal" immigrant pretty much dates back to 1924 -- less than a century ago.

It's always and only been about race.


Posted by at January 23, 2018 6:12 AM

  

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