“Our people came here legally, why can’t THEY?”
The Pilgrims were refugees. The England they fled was an unstable country on its way to civil war. A land of harsh imprisonment, torture, and gruesome executions performed in public for cheering crowds. Religious strictures were severe; failure to attend state-sanctioned services meant substantial fines, while unofficial or “separatist” services were punished as sedition. Imagine the sense of threat necessary for a small group of families to board a little vessel, The Mayflower, and embark on a dangerous journey during which they could expect no help, to make landfall in a wild and unknown place, in mid-November, with winter coming on. Only half survived until spring.
These desperate human beings, whose image we sanitize at Thanksgiving – had they a legal right to North American land? Of course they did. They had contracts and documents from their rulers in England. But if that is legal we must admit that legality is whatever raw power declares it to be.
We can’t afford to forget that, which is why we do so.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad the Pilgrims made it. I’m glad the Federals whupped Johnny Reb. I’m glad that white Euro-Americans pushed all the way to the Pacific, no matter what. I owe my life to this history. To feel guilt or even anger puts me in an untenable existential fix, for the truth is that, as I go about my days, I’d much rather it happened than not. This, alone, makes me complicit. An existential, post-historical complicity, I grant you, but complicity nevertheless because I’ve received nothing but benefit. To forget what my good fortune owes to atrocity, enslavement, usurpation and genocide is more hypocrisy than I’m comfortable with. To turn toward another human being and claim “I am legal and you are not” is the kind of historical joke only gods and demons laugh at.
So here we are having to state the obvious again. On glaring days and gruesome nights, when what should be obvious sounds like the pinnacle of radicalism, that is what we must say again and again, or let Walt Whitman say it for us: “Of Equality – as if it harm’d me, giving others the same chances and rights as myself – as if it were not indispensable to my own rights that others possess the same.”
The great personal lesson of the election of 2016 – a lesson I’m actually grateful for – is that I am a citizen of a country that does not exist. A patriot of a country in ruins. Because I am an American of the Declaration of Independence. I am an American of the Bill of Rights. I am an American of the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and the Statue of Liberty, and its inscribed invitation, by the poet Emma Lazarus, which I don’t think is the least bit corny: “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,/ Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,/ I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”
To turn away from that is to turn away from all that made us. I write as someone who must say: I will not turn away.
Which puts me in the surreal position of welcoming immigrants to a country that does not exist and all I can tell them for sure is: It NEVER existed, except as possibility, and every generation has had to somehow make it exist, and we fail and fail and fail, and our failures serve to keep the possibility of a free and just society alive – and that’s how it’s been from the beginning.
Let us now shift into historical gear. While there’s little I can do on this page to help my fellow-sharers who have no papers to show the ICE-man, I can address the righteous and sort of loutish complaint that usually goes like this: “Our people came here legally, why can’t THEY?”
“Our forebears came here legally” implicitly equates “legally” in the past with “legally” now; the conflation of then and now is all that gives thay sentence weight. So let’s look at then and now.
The United States passed its first immigration law in 1790, requiring only that immigrants be “free white persons of good character” (Wikipedia). Three years’ residence was necessary to assure one’s good character, after which, if your record was clean, an emigrant could be naturalized by any court. According to those rules, retract the “white” restriction and the vast majority of our undocumented neighbors could become citizens tomorrow.
With relatively minor tweaks, immigration law remained basically the same until 1870 when the requirement was amended to include “aliens of African nativity and … persons of African descent.” And, beginning in 1875, immigration laws were amended to control and/or ban Asians.
Which is to say, if you trace your American ancestors back earlier than 1875, and you’re white, you’ve got no case in criticizing today’s immigrants – unless, of course, what you’re really upset about is their skin color and culture, which we shall leave you to wrestle with in the privacy of your heart.
From 1860 to 1890, U.S. population doubled from 31.4 million to 62.9, eight million of whom arrived in Lower Manhattan and were processed by New York State officials on a pretty much come-one-come-all basis. In my research I find no mention of vetting, and, even if some form of vetting existed, these were the most corrupt years of New York City’s history and it’s likely that a promise to vote for Tammany was all the passport anyone needed.
If your people came in the 1860-1890 wave of immigration, when there was no functioning immigration legality at all, what possible beef can you have with today’s immigrants? Unless there’s that stuff about color and culture, but your conscience is none of my business, thankfully for us both.
It surprised me to learn that the federal government did not assume control of immigration until 1890 – four years after the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886.
Ellis Island opened in 1892. The tempest-tost emigrants whom Lady Liberty welcomed were not officially documented in any way. Officials relied on their ship’s passenger list to process the newly-arrived. Until 1914 more or less one million immigrants per year went through Ellis Island. Officials processed as many as 5,000 a day. (The all-time peak daily number occurred April 17, 1907: 11,747.)
Let me repeat: In the great wave of immigration from 1892 to 1914, when approximately 12 million relocated to the United States, disembarking at Ellis Island, those people had no official documentation of any kind.
Theoretically, inspectors were required to ask each of those 5,000-plus-a-day immigrants 29 questions, ascertain whether each immigrant had $18-to-$25 to start life here ($600 in 2015 money), and also give each immigrant a health exam. Given that, according to Wikipedia, “immigrants who were approved spent from two to five hours on Ellis Island,” and given that, of one million immigrants a year, only 2% were rejected, it’s a safe bet that overworked bureaucrats found deft short-cuts to assure that the average immigrant arrived, was processed, and left, in only two to five hours. The obviously ill would be attended to; ship captains would flag trouble-makers; a benign bending of the rules would cause a great deal less chaos than sticking to the letter of the law.
Let me repeat: Only 2% were rejected; 98% were admitted, so – how hard could it have been for your people to enter this country? Really, what’s your beef? What is it really?
A personal note: All four of my grandparents arrived from Sicily during this peak period before World War I. Perhaps Grandma Giovanna was staked with the equivalent of $600. But as to Grandpa Antonio and Grandpa Vincenzo and Grandma Maria, I very much doubt it. As to their skillsets, Maria was a teenage pianist, Antonio a teenage cornetist, Vincenzo an unskilled laborer and Giovanna was a kid. And none’ah dem speak’ah deh Ing’lesh too pretty good.
Stricter immigration practices have been in place since 1919, but by far the majority of Americans are descended from pre-1914 arrivals who had no papers, were not vetted in any meaningful sense, and left the lands of their birth – an upheaval of a decision! – to flee poverty, stifled opportunity, violence and repression, very like those coming to us now, of whom we demand a “legality” that for most is simply impossible.
For what is this so-called legality? Piles of papers that don’t exist. And can’t exist. And won’t exist. For Latin Americans desperately crossing our borders and Syrian refugees in urgent need of our help, the immigration legality that the Obama and Trump administrations insist upon is imaginary. What else can you call a set of requirements that bears no relation to the conditions from which most of these people flee?
That statue in the harbor should burst into flames in embarrassment and shame. Or if that’s a little too poetic, look – since the statue is now nothing but a bric-a-brac, let’s tear it down. No kidding, let's. While it stands it makes hypocrites of us all.
Michael Ventura © 2017. All rights reserved.
Michael ventura is a writer who lives in the mountains of northern California.
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Amendments 1-10 of the U.S. Constitution
(otherwise known as “The Bill of Rights”)
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner prescribed by law.
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment by a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprive d of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial shall jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, or prohibited by it to the states, are reserved for the states respectively, or to the people.