When it comes to immigration in America, a disconcerting truth applies: We’re for it in the past but not so much in the present. Since we are a nation of immigrants and, save for Native Americans, we all have roots elsewhere, this tension never relents. So we revere the grit of our Ellis Island ancestors. But we build fences 30 feet high on the Arizona border. We’re grateful to the parents of Bob Hope, I.M. Pei, and Madeline Albright for bringing them here. But in the first six months of 2011, we deported 46,486 immigrant parents.
Now two descendants of immigrants are running for president. Both say our immigration system is broken. Each has a different fix. Mitt Romney, who is English, Scottish, German, and French, and whose father was born in Mexico, is the great-great grandson of a carpenter from northern England. Miles Romney was among the first Mormons converted abroad and came here in 1841. Barack Obama, who is Kenyan (of the Luo tribe), English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French, and whose father was from Kenya, can trace his ancestry to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1640. “Not Fit For Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press, 2010) astutely teases out the perennial contradictions at work here. Former Sacramento Bee columnist Peter Schrag shows how, at any one time, some Americans would’ve been hostile to Romney and Obama’s forebears. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, panicked that there were so many German “Palantine boors” settling in Pennsylvania they’d “Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them.”
The great historian Oscar Handlin once said that the story of America wasn’t grounded in the frontier, as many held, but in immigration. Actually, I’d gin both together. For in order to thrive, our new country needed to people its frontiers — and this required immigrants. Schrag points out that, in the Declaration of Independence, one of Jefferson’s indictments of George III is that he had “endeavored to prevent the population of these States . . . obstructing the laws for the naturalization of foreigners [and] refusing to pass others to encourage their migration.” The irony follows fast; when immigration later surged, Jefferson fretted the country would be “a heterogenous, incoherent, distracted mass.”
It’s easy to point out hypocrisy. But it’s also easy, here in Massachusetts, to be pro-immigration in theory, because it’s low in actuality. Just crunch the numbers: Massachusetts and Arizona are roughly equal in population (about 6.5 million) but Arizona has an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants (a fivefold increase since 1990) and we have about 83,000. Schrag himself admits there are undeniable problems when a developed society (like the United States) borders an undeveloped one (like Mexico). He also cedes that one reason the New Deal and Great Society programs passed was because immigration had been quashed during those years, and thus established Americans weren’t upset by benefits going to allegedly undeserving newcomers.
“Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882” (Hill and Wang, 2004), by Roger Daniels, a consultant to the Ellis Island immigration museum, advances the story. “In the beginning Congress created the Chinese Exclusion Act,” he writes, and from there we learn how that 1882 statute — the first blatantly racist immigration law — led to ever more constrictions. By the 1890s, “persons likely to become a public charge” were being turned back. At first, the “LPC clause” was meant to restrict those physically and mentally unable to care for themselves, but after a while it just meant anybody poor — as in virtually every immigrant.
In 1924, a new law in effect barred Asians and Africans, and favored northern and western Europeans over southern and eastern ones. This de facto ethnic profiling informs “Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America” (Princeton University Press, 2004), winner of the 2005 Frederick Jackson Turner Award. Mae M. Ngai, a history professor at the University of Chicago, chronicles how immigration limits forced us into legal and illegal subsets, and turned our borders into hotbeds. This state of affairs lasted until the Immigration Act of 1965, which “ended the policy of admitting immigrants according to a hierarchy of racial desirability.” There would still be quotas, but they’d be evenly doled out, 20,000 per country per year.
And thus the third world came to America. By the 1980s, four fifths of all legal immigrants arrived from either Asia or Latin America. This Latin American influx, of course, is the main issue in immigration today. It’s all about border states now, California, Texas , and — especially since those two states cracked down — Arizona. “The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands” (Beacon Press, 2010) is a sobering account of what happens “when people risk dying in order to live.” Tucson journalist Margaret Regan zeroes in on 14-year-old Josseline, charged with caring for her 10-year-old brother, both trying to reach their mother in Los Angeles. She fell ill and was left to die by her guide and group. To tell her story and hundreds of others, all these desperados dying of exposure and dehydration in the desert, Regan hikes along with the Arizona Border Patrol and the faith-based migrant rescue group No More Deaths. Strong stuff.
Same goes for a modern classic by Ted Conover, a master of experiential journalism, who lived for a year with various hopefuls trying to get to America. In his “Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants” (originally published by Vintage, 1987, reprinted in 2006) he is threatened, arrested, and released several times. As for what happens to the children of those who make it over, that story is beautifully told in Helen Thorpe’s “Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America” (Scribner, 2009).
Thorpe is a journalist married to John Hickenlooper, mayor of Denver when the story unfolds, and now Colorado’s governor. The city had become a flashpoint in the immigration debate as congressman Tom Tancredo ranted for the deportation of all illegal immigrants and accused Hickenlooper of managing a “sanctuary city” for illegals. Meanwhile, these Mexican girls, two of whom are illegal, must make their way in a limbo world where they can’t get above-the-table work, can’t qualify for college financial aid, and can’t visit their families in Mexico.
Even more stories wash ashore in Peter Morton Coan’s “Toward a Better Life: America’s New Immigrants in Their Own Words From Ellis Island to the Present” (Prometheus Books, 2011). Read here about the little Romanian girl off to meet her emigré mother for the first time in New York in 1909, wondering if she’ll look like the Statue of Liberty. Or about Cesar Millan, “The Dog Whisperer,” who slept on the streets of Tijuana, only surviving “because your adrenaline is feeding you” until he could cross.
Where does immigration stand today? There is Obama’s recent endorsement of the DREAM Act, which puts a stay on deportations and gives hope to thousands of children of undocumented immigrants. But, remember,visas still go overwhelmingly only to the educated, the affluent, or those who have spouses or parents in America already. An immigration lawyer in “Toward a Better Life” puts this in dramatic perspective: “If the ancestors of most Americans had tried to immigrate to America under today’s rules their American Dream would have ended at the docks,” he says. “Because they wouldn’t have been able to get on the boat.”
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.