by Cecilio Morales
Since parity in health care was good enough for Republicans at a recent presidential debate, perhaps their anti-immigrant followers ought to consider parity for today’s immigrants. Immigration restrictions today should be no greater than they were when the majority of this country’s forbears came.
That would be in the spirit of the declaration by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who stated during the debate: “Either give every American the same kind of health care that Congress has or make Congress have the same kind of health care that every American has.”
No Republican spoke in contradiction to that notion.
So let’s let immigrants in as easily as the great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents of our current crop of patriots arrived — or else send their descendants back across the ocean until they can meet modern immigration rules.
The sepia-tinted memories of the millions upon millions of U.S. residents whose ancestors came through Ellis Island usually include images of immigrants of yore who stood in line patiently awaiting their turn. All 22 million of them who checked in there between 1892 and 1924.
In fact, until 1882 there was no legal barrier whatsoever to entry into the United States.
That’s how millions of Irish immigrants could flee the genocidal policy of Britain that produced the infamous Potato Famine of the 1850s. The only barrier they faced on these shores was the ethnic prejudice of the Anglo-American vigilantes.
Some things don’t change much, do they?
Indeed, the history of U.S. immigration law is the history of prejudice.
The first law of this kind was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As its name suggests, the act was meant to keep out one specific group of people for reasons not even worth considering.
Many non-Chinese immigrants’ ancestors could still come into the United States without limit so long as they did not have an infectious disease (a reasonable health consideration in the age before penicillin).
The free-for-all intended for Europeans ended in 1922 with another law grounded in prejudice. It explicitly sought to preserve the then-current ethnic composition of the country by severely limiting immigrants from southern and eastern Europe.
The flow was still fairly large and easy for most other Europeans until 1924. Indeed, that flow actually turned outward during the Great Depression, when more people left the United States than came.
Another myth stricken. It’s the economy, not the Statue of Liberty, that draws in immigration.
Want to curb immigration?
Make sure the economy is so lousy you lose your job and stand in soup lines.
Otherwise, observe the following catastrophe that befell the United States when the nation had nearly open borders:
Through Ellis Island alone, the nation got novelist Isaac Asimov, body-builder Charles Atlas, composer Irving Berlin, children’s book writer Ludwig Bemelmans who authored the beloved “Madeline” books, actor and director Charles Chaplin, makeup expert and entrepreneur Max Factor, Boys’ Town founder Father Flanagan, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, comedians Bob Hope and Stan Laurel, actor Bela Lugosi, dance master Arthur Murray, journalist James Reston and football star Knute Rockne. Most of these and other immigrants, who came as nobodies, were the best gift the world has given the United States.
Now what about the Hispanics? Aren’t they overtaking the country?
While they are among the newest immigrants, they are also among the oldest. They didn’t face a passport inspector at the border, either.
St. Augustine, Florida, the oldest city in the United States was established by Spaniards. It was already 42 years old in 1607 when there was still doubt about the survival of Jamestown, Virginia, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year. So let’s hear it for parity.
Let’s accord the same legal treatment to newcomers that was accorded to the great-grandparents of the vast majority of today’s model citizens.
(Cecilio Morales is executive editor of the Washington, D.C.-based weekly Employment & Training Report. Reach him at Cecilio@miipublications.com). ©2009