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Past generations of immigrants ‘came right in’

If You Ask Me

How often have you heard people say how proud they are that their ancestors who migrated to this country long ago came here “legally,” unlike those terrible illegals today.

Well, the truth is, most of our ancestors came here legally because no one stopped them.  It was difficult, if not impossible, to be illegal.  As a recent history of immigration to the United States succinctly put it, “Before the 1920s, immigration to the United States was numerically unrestricted.”

The first immigrants mostly came from western and northern Europe — the British Isles, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, places with whom the earliest settlers easily identified.  It wasn’t until large numbers of people from southern and eastern Europe began to arrive — Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Russians, Poles and Jews from any country — that quotas and other restrictions began to be instituted.

These immigrants mostly fit the invitation on that welcoming statue in New York Harbor — “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” — people  fleeing abject poverty, famine and oppression. They were welcomed because they were needed and because this was a free country.

Once they arrived, though, the new residents were not necessarily given hearty welcomes. The first “different” immigrants arriving in great numbers were Catholic refugees from the great Irish famine of 1845-52, who settled mostly in New York and Boston, where they were told they “need not apply” for jobs. Hostility turned next to the large numbers of Germans who competed for jobs with those who got here first.  It began a pattern of earlier arrivals considering themselves superior to groups coming later, a practice that continues to this day.

But they were all legal until 1875 when the first restrictions were enacted, banning criminals, those with contagious diseases, polygamists, anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes, according to the Pew Research Center.  

There was one exception: Asians. A huge influx of Chinese immigrants, seeking gold in California or jobs building the transcontinental railroads, alarmed the natives and led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  

But for Europeans, except for the disease spreaders, anarchists and other less desirables, it was a free ride for the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. It’s true that it took some courage, especially for those coming from nations that were not English speaking, but basically, these tired and poor had nothing to lose.  

They were moving to a better place, a land of opportunity, with many even believing the myth that the new nation’s streets were paved with gold.  But even without the golden pavement, the new nation was also without famine and there were opportunities to rise from poverty.

Then, in the 1850s, immigration opposition found a new voice, with the founding of the American Party or “Know Nothings.” The party derived its appeal from being anti-everything — especially anti- Catholic, Jewish and immigrant in general. The party nominated former president Millard Fillmore for president in 1856 and he got 21% of the vote.  But that was the peak for the American Party as it faded in the Civil War with the emergence of the Republican Party.

Though the Know Nothings quickly disappeared, their prejudices thrived and survived as the immigration flow shifted to the southern and eastern European nations in the 20th century. By the 1920s, laws were passed setting quotas on the numbers of each national group to be admitted. These quotas favored the “Nordics” over the Slavs, Italians and other ethnic groups from southern and eastern Europe.  

The exclusion of Chinese, our World War II allies, was lifted in 1943 while even long-time Japanese residents and citizens were held in “internment” camps during the war.

Restrictions weren’t imposed on immigrants from the western hemisphere until 1965. Until then, our southern and northern borders were truly open, welcoming just about all comers from Canada and Latin America.

It was a different story for Muslims, who temporarily joined the Chinese for total exclusion when President Trump signed an executive order banning them from January to March 2017.  A second order lifted the ban to just Syrians but greatly reduced the admission of other Muslim refugees. President Biden revoked that executive order on his inauguration day.  

And so, we can expect continued changes in how the USA deals with immigration, depending on the myths and realities we encounter and the politics and prejudices of coming generations.

But the next time you hear someone brag about his legal immigrant ancestors — and you’re in the mood for an argument — tell her they were legal because no one kept them out.


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

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