—Peter G. Vellon
A recent letter to the editor published in the New York Daily News expressed its disappointment that television commenters covering the Columbus Day Parade used the words “illegal” and “legal” to differentiate contemporary immigrants from earlier, Italian, arrivals. Why do so many Americans feel compelled to make such a distinction, especially since the term “illegal” is so problematic and inaccurate? Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in political manipulation meant to encourage an association between immigrants and criminality. However, the desire to differentiate “legal” from “illegal” may be deeply rooted within the history of immigration and race in the United States.
Here’s what we know. The majority of immigrants in the United States have permission to be here. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Rights Center, undocumented immigrants comprise a small proportion of contemporary immigration. Of those who are here without documents, a large portion roughly 45% entered country legally, only to have their visas expire.
We also know that many of the same critiques hurled at today’s immigrants, especially those described as “illegal,” are almost identical to those faced by southern Italians 100 years ago. Prone to criminality? Check. Lack of desire in becoming American citizens? Check. Siphoning tax dollars and jobs away from Americans? Check. Sending their earnings money back to their country of origin? Check. Given this historical context, it is ironic that many Americans today think of the Ellis Island era with nostalgia and perceive it as quintessentially American.
Other charges questioning immigrant’s willingness to assimilate are similarly off base. In fact, the insatiable demand for English language classes throughout the country contradict allegations of immigrant nonchalance in learning English. More familiar charges portraying a country overrun by undocumented immigrants, or that undocumented immigrants increase crime, similarly fall flat against closer analysis. Once again, the only accurate aspect of the charges is how strikingly similar they are to ones leveled against Italians in the early 20th century.
During this period, anti-immigration crusaders primarily targeted Italian and Jewish newcomers. Defined as a different, and inferior, race to northern and western European stocks (“old” immigrants), southern Italians and eastern European Jewish immigrants (“new” immigrants) remained consistently dogged by assumptions about their inherent “un-Americanness.” Assisted by a relatively open immigration policy in place since 1792, Italians could enter the country relatively unrestricted, and therefore avoided some of the barriers that immigrants confront today. However, this did not stop some immigrants from forging documents such as health certificates, or stowing away on steamships.
Today long waitlists for visas often create an almost impossible situation for family members and children who seek to reunite with those living in the United States. Who is to say how prospective immigrants a century ago would have responded if these laws had been in place from 1880 through 1920? Would folks have patiently accepted wait times of up to 20 years for “legal” entry?
Much of the need to distinguish between “legal” and “illegal” immigration lies in how people assign meaning to those terms. According to Department of Homeland Security statistics, undocumented Mexican immigrants in 2011 numbered approximately 6.8 million, and comprised 59% of the undocumented population in total. To many people in the United States, the term “illegal immigrant” has become reflexively interchangeable with “Mexican,” or any immigrant from Latin or Central America. No doubt, the fact that Mexico is the leading source of “unauthorized” immigration, rather than, say, Ireland, has much to do with the tenor of the immigration debate. Indeed, as Matthew Jacobson pointed out in his book, Roots Too, illegality never became a major issue when in the 1980s and 1990s an influx of Irish immigrants, many of whom overstayed their visas, hence becoming “illegal,” entered the country. In fact, quite the opposite occurred, and Irish “illegal” aliens never became a source of nationwide concern. Categories of race and whiteness proved fundamental in constructing the difference between “old” and “new” immigrants 100 years ago, and remain a primary element in the debate over legal versus illegal today.
Given that we are a nation of immigrants and celebrated as such, why is there not more understanding for many of today’s immigrants seeking similar paths as those who came before them? It’s possible that for the descendants of those questionable European immigrants who came through Ellis Island, their own family’s problematic status may be an uncomfortable reminder of a more contentious, less linear path toward assimilation. Now, fully socialized within the American racial system, it is easier to construct an “illegal other” rather than face the uncomfortable questions about how our society constructs Americanness, race, and whiteness. The assignation of criminal status to today’s new immigrants serves as a perfect balm. Unwilling to acknowledge the obvious commonalities between immigrants today and those from 100 years ago, “legal” versus “illegal” becomes a useful, and in the minds of many, justifiable delineation that their forebears did it the right way.
Similar to the debate over “old” and “new” immigrants a century ago, is it possible that much of the “illegal” immigration debate revolves around racially informed perceptions of what America should look like? However, whether fleeing economic, political, or social despair, just as those who came before them, the overwhelming majority of immigrants arriving today want a better life for themselves and their children. When viewed through that lens, what could be more American?
Peter G. Vellon is Associate Professor of History at Queens College, and the author of A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (NYU Press, 2014).