Pulling Up The Drawbridge

As a second generation American, family and immigration are inextricably linked in my mind. I’ve had family on my mind this week as my much loved Uncle Pete died at the age of 94. He was technically an in-law because he was married to my father’s sister Mary for some 69 years. 69 years, imagine that. The reason I’ve always gone by Peter was because of my Uncle: he was Pete, I was Peter. Case closed. Like my father, Uncle Pete was the son of immigrants and was very proud of his Hellenic heritage. The Greek side of my family instilled in me a love of my roots and a profound sense of empathy for immigrants from all walks of life.

A few notes about my Uncle before I move on to the latest immigration kerfuffle. He was a World War II vet who had a lot of stories to tell about his experiences. I think most of them were true but he was a car dealer so you never know. I remember him at large family parties, weddings and whatnot as the relative who loved Greek dancing. It’s the sort of dancing where everyone joins hands and follows a leader of sorts. Uncle Pete was usually the guy up front leaping about and stealing the show. I remember a time when my Aunt and Uncle were visiting my family in California. I was off to another Grateful Dead show and Uncle Pete pulled me aside and asked, “Do they dance at these things?’ I told him that they did, he smiled and said: “I hope you learned a few moves from me.” He then slipped me a twenty dollar bill and kissed me on the forehead.

Debates about immigration are as old as the republic. Things really got ugly when the Irish started arriving. Many Americans thought they were part of a papist plot to take over the country. That’s one reason the loathsome Know Nothing party was born, to keep the Pope out of the White House. They did a decent job: we have still only had one Catholic President.

Nativist and anti-immigration sentiments may be as old as the republic but immigration laws are not:

Prior to 1875’s Page Act and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, there were no national immigration laws. None. There were laws related to naturalization and citizenship, to how vessels reported their passengers, to banning the slave trade. Once New York’s Castle Garden Immigration Station opened in 1855, arrivals there reported names and origins before entering the U.S. But for all pre-1875 immigrants, no laws applied to their arrival. They weren’t legal or illegal; they were just immigrants.

Moreover, those two laws and their extensions affected only very specific immigrant communities: suspected prostitutes and criminals (the Page Act); Chinese arrivals (the Exclusion Act); immigrants from a few other Asian nations (the extensions). So if your ancestors came before the 1920s and weren’t prostitutes, criminals, or from one of those Asian nations, they remained unaffected by any laws, and so were still neither legal nor illegal. This might seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s much more; the phrase “My ancestors came here legally” implies that they “chose to follow the law,” yet none of these unaffected immigrants had to make any such choice, nor had any laws to follow.

The 1892 opening of Ellis Island didn’t change these fundamental realities. Ellis arrivals had to wait in line and answer a list of questions, and could be quarantined if they had a communicable disease or were visibly insane. But if they weren’t in those aforementioned few illegal categories, they still weren’t affected by any law, made no choice of how to immigrate. Moreover, many arrivals during this period came not through Ellis but across the borders, which were unpatrolled and open.

Only with the 1920s Quota Acts did Congress establish national immigration laws encompassing most arrivals. But those acts were overtly discriminatory, extending the Exclusion Act’s principles by categorizing arrivals by nationality and drastically limiting certain groups; South Carolina Senator Ellison Smith put it bluntly: “It seems to me the point as to this measure is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door.”

The 1920 law was aimed at all sorts of  “undesirables” from Jews to Italians to Asians to Greeks to name but a few. Isolationism and bigotry were big in the 1920’s. Congress was protecting the country from radicals, lazy Mediterranean sorts, non-Protestants of all faiths, and the yellow peril.

The laws were modified in 1965 make them less discriminatory and more family friendly. I recall hearing some tales of chicanery in my own family involving relatives who came to America right after World War II when Greece was engulfed in a lunatic Civil War between right wing royalists and Communists who were role models for the Pol Pots of the world. I am not making this up: both sides were horrendous and the lesser of two evils won.

It pains me when folks whose families emigrated to our country to escape poverty, war, and oppression forget where they came from. They’re fond of claiming that “my people came here legally,” but Ben Railton pointed out in the TPM piece I quote from earlier, it ain’t neccessarily so.

Here in Louisiana, we’re still being bombarded with political commercials. Many of the pro-Cassidybot ads focus on safeguarding our borders from lazy welfare bums. It’s another page from the 2010 Vitter re-election campaign and it seems to be working. It makes it easier for me to overlook my reservations about the incumbent when her opponent and his owners are running such a despicable campaign. It’s made worse by the fact that the Cassidybot is a lapsed liberal who converted to wingnuttism and xenophobia to win office.

The reaction to President Obama’s sensible executive order is predictable. The wingers are howling at the moon and demanding the “dictator’s” head on an impeachment platter. It doesn’t matter that Presidents Reagan and Bush the Elder issues similar common sense and compassionate executive orders when they were the Ovals Ones. The GOP’s base base never lets the facts get in the way of a good tantrum.

This issue is about justice, fair play and the American Way. It’s ironic that the so called family values party is once again so blinded by bigotry and hatred that they support tearing families apart because they’re the OTHERS. Many of our families were once the others; mine was. I wish more people would remember where they came from and stop pulling up the drawbridge.

4 thoughts on “Pulling Up The Drawbridge

  1. We do, however, have a mostly Catholic Supreme Court. Not sure what to make of that.

    1. Chock full of Opus Dei Catholic types as opposed to the Kennedys and Kerrys of the world.

  2. Thanks for sharing the TPM piece! And I appreciate your thoughts and family histories/connections here as well. The more we can do both those things–share the national and the personal histories with accuracy and nuance–the more we can move the conversation forward, I believe.


  3. Thanks for the flattering comments, Ben. Your piece is outstanding and taught me a lot about the history of our immigration system.

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