My ancestors just showed up at Ellis Island. How about yours? Plymouth Rock? And your point would be…?
[excerpt from “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths About Immigration by Aviva Chomsky]
What the people (generally of European origin) who point to “the rules” ignore, moreover, is that when their parents and grandparents came to the United States, they in fact did exactly what so-called “illegal” immigrants are doing today. They decided to make the journey, and they made it. All they had to do was get together the boat fare. The rules were different then. U.S. law explicitly limited citizenship and naturalization to white people. Nonwhites, however, were denied both entry and citizenship. Through a complex process of omission and commission, the law dictated open immigration for white people and restricted immigration for people of color. Immigration and naturalization law created, in the words of Aristide Zolberg, “a nation by design.”
Between 1880 and World War I, about 25 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. They did not have visas or passports. A very small number of them—about 1 percent—were turned back at Ellis Island because they were deemed to be criminals, prostitutes, diseased, anarchists, or paupers. There were no illegal immigrants from Europe because there was no law making immigration illegal for Europeans.
It wasn’t until 1924 that numerical restrictions were placed on white European immigration, creating a situation in some ways similar to today’s, in which would-be immigrants had to compete, before they left home, for the few available visas to come to the United States. The restrictions placed on Europeans, though, pale in the face of those that the 1924 legislation placed on non-Europeans: as “aliens ineligible to citizenship” because they belonged to the “colored races,” they were excluded altogether. Although the 1924 quotas did not apply to the Western Hemisphere— Congress couldn’t figure out what “race” Mexicans actually belonged to—the legislation also invented the concept of the “illegal immigrant” and created the Border Patrol to keep Mexicans out. (I describe these restrictions in more detail in the section on immigration and race in my book.)
The last major immigration reform, in 1965, finally removed the racially defined quota system, and replaced it with a uniform quota system for all countries. But the new laws of 1965 were only one factor leading to the huge increase in immigration from Latin America and Asia.
Even more important has been the acceleration of what we now call “globalization.” Today’s globalization builds on structures developed during the centuries of colonialism that preceded it. One aspect of globalization in the second half of the twentieth century has been a huge population movement from the former colonies into the lands of their former colonial masters. In order to comprehend this global phenomenon, we have to look at the socioeconomic and cultural legacy of colonialism.