Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Disorder at the Border

In the current immigration debate, one argument has arisen that demands response. Daneen G. Peterson has voiced it in a particularly bold-faced way, insisting that we are not a nation of immigrants:

Most Americans today are NATIVE BORN and therefore NOT IMMIGRANTS! What is left unsaid in the above phrase is the significant fact that our American ancestors came to this country as LEGAL immigrants, which is the antithesis of the current invasion of ILLEGAL ALIENS supported by the open borders, pro-illegal alien crowd! [Link]
What is left unsaid in the above screed is that our borders were far more open in our early history than today. (Does it even make sense to distinguish "legal" from "illegal" immigrants where there are no immigration laws?) And that immigrants sought ways to avoid U.S. border inspectors even in the 19th century.

Take this passage from Marian L. Smith's 2000 article on immigration by way of Canada:
In earlier years immigrants landing in Canada were largely from Britain, Scandinavia, northern Europe, or Russia. In the 1880s, as the United States began to impose more stringent immigration rules at its own ports of entry, even more immigrants from the same regions and elsewhere chose to travel via Canada to avoid the trouble and delay of U.S. immigrant inspection. By the 1890s, steamship companies began to advertise passage through Canada as a more desirable route for immigrants who wished to avoid U.S. inspectors. While much of this traffic remained Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, or Russian, the business of carrying Italians, Greeks, and others from Mediterranean ports to Canada grew. [Link]
The Mexican border was no less porous than the Canadian, and the people aiming to start a new life in America no less determined than our modern-day border-crossers.

We can all agree that illegal immigration is a problem in urgent need of a solution, but let's not mistake our ancestors for saints. Or dismiss them as criminals.

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