They believed Emma Lazaruss lines: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (My grandmother actually taught them to me when I was a very young child only a little older than when my grandfather taught me the Pledge of Allegiance.) So did millions of Southern and Eastern Europeans who filled the steerage of countless ships that passed Lady Liberty and landed on Ellis Island.
The only immigration lines that existed then were the lines waiting for the inspectors at Ellis Island. They were terrifying enough, since anyone who showed signs of disease was sent back and tuberculosis was endemic in the European slums. But at least the terror was short-lived; the immigrants of the 1890s to the 1920s did not have to wonder for months or years if they would be accepted by the U.S. government.
On the whole, this wave of immigrants did pretty well. They began at the bottom of society in my familys case, on the Lower East Side of New York. My grandmothers story is fairly typical: as a young woman, she worked in the garment industry, in a sweatshop, ironing waists 12 hours a day for pennies. She could easily have been one of the young women killed in the Triangle Fire, but by then (1911) she was married and had a child.
That path from unskilled labor to small business; from the teeming city streets to smaller communities was not untypical of that generation of immigrants. Or any: look at the immigration patterns of the Chinese and Japanese in the 20th century. And today you find the Italians, the Bohemians, the Poles and the Jews (and the Chinese and the Japanese) at all levels of American society, and in cities and towns across the continent.
But that easy access to the American way of life ended in 1924, when the right-wingers of the day decided that there were too many Italians, Poles and Jews in their White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant America. Congress passed the Immigrations Restriction Act, which restricted immigration to 2% of each of the ethnic groups living in the U.S. in 1890 before the great immigration wave of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, thus preserving the WASP vision of America. Or so they thought.
The undocumented the illegals for the most part are working at the bottom of the employment ladder: the jobs Americans dont want. But they are making lives for themselves and their families, and trying to ensure that their children get a good education so their lives will be better higher on that ladder. Just like my grandparents. Remember the fuss Tom Tancredo made a few years ago when the academic-star son of undocumented immigrants, who had lived in Denver almost all his life, and done all his schooling there, wanted to attend a Colorado university at the in-State tuition rates? That young man represents the next generation of todays immigrants.
As long as this country has a standard of living much higher than that of most of the countries in this hemisphere, the poor and desperate will come pouring in. And they will come, whether or not there is a fence, or armed guards, or unmanned aircraft with infra-red detectors. They will come for the jobs they can get, and stay for the lives their children will have. Is that so bad?
Want to stop the flood? Invest in the Mexican and Guatemalan economies rather than in guns and fences and troops. Make it possible for life there to be as good as life here. Pay a living wage for those jobs Americans dont want. Theyll want them, if they can make a living working them. Strengthen our economy along with our neighbors and see how far that gets us.
And remember where you came from.