Immigration: A Checkered Past, a Challenging Future


Part II of II — Read Part I

On the first day of the new year 1892, Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork, Ireland, became the first immigrant admitted to the US through Ellis Island. It was the day the new gateway to a new world opened to an old world of people with hope in their hearts of a bright future. After a 10-day ocean crossing from her native land, Annie was welcomed by immigration officials and given a ten-dollar gold piece.

She was among 700 immigrants, including two brothers, who passed through the Island that day and among 450,000 admitted in that first year of operation. She and her brothers were soon reunited with their parents, already in New York.

Before Ellis Island was closed in 1954, more than 12 million people from all over the globe—Russia, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and others—made their way through Ellis in a never-ending stream of humanity. They came in search of something better than the poverty, famine, economic depression, dislocation, or religious persecution in their homeland.

The immigrants’ first introduction to America in those years was the welcoming Statue of Liberty and the promising skyline of lower Manhattan. Their stories stand in contrast to those of illegal migrants slipping across our borders now. Stephen Dinan, among the journalists focusing on the border crisis, told a story of Rogelio Gutierrez who “saw the lights of La Jolla from the boat in the minutes before he and 13 other migrants were ordered to strip off their life jackets, jump into the water, and swim for it.” His body was pulled from the surf a short time later.

Other outlets reported on the migrant woman killed by a semi-truck on Interstate 10, and the migrant who hanged himself on a mesquite tree to avoid facing death from dehydration. Dinan reported that Gutierrez “was one of 61 people to die trying to sneak into the US in May and one of 383 others in the past 10 months. They have drowned, fallen from the border wall, died of exposure, succumbed to illness, or killed in car wrecks,” most at the hands of smugglers.

Immigration has been both a scourge and success story. It has a checkered past and an uncertain future. The vast array and diversity of the people our way of life has beckoned here has helped mold the American character, our society, culture, and economy. It is hard to calculate the benefits that flow from the American melting pot. It is also hard to calculate the human suffering and divisiveness that has poured over the edges of unlawful entry.

Now it has once again gotten away from us; out of our control. The record-breaking statistics of illegal crossings, deaths, arrests, children abandoned, and delays in processing detailed in Part I are testament to crises, failures in our immigration system, and lapses in our own humanity.

As we attempt to first cope with the current crises and then find new paths to the future of immigration it would be helpful for all of us to look back before looking too far forward.

We all have a personal stake. We are all immigrants or their descendants. That includes Native Americans whose ancestors traversed a land bridge, known as Beringia, between Asia and America that existed during the ice ages, more than 15,000 years ago. Native Americans lived and fought among themselves for millennia until the unrelenting flow of foreigners disrupted and often destroyed their way of life.

The Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors cast a wide net over the Caribbean, Central and South America, and large swaths of North America from Florida to California beginning with Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Bahamas in 1492 and Hernan Cortes conquest of Mexico three decades later. Their treatment of indigenous populations was often merciless, in their quest for Gold, Glory, and God.

Thousands of Pilgrims were among the first migrants to settle in New England in the 1600s. More Brits established the first permanent settlement in Jamestown in 1607, while the Dutch settled in what was then New York. The first of more than one million slaves were brought to Jamestown in bondage a decade after the English arrived.

The French ignited more mass migration to the New World, settling in regions of both the US and Canada.

The Revolutionary War brought German immigrants in the person of former Hessian mercenaries who the British hired to defeat the American revolutionaries. Some found their way to Texas.

By 1840 Irish immigrants, escaping from the potato famine, arrived in New York and Boston by the millions, joining earlier arrivals who had settled in Philadelphia. Major opposition to the Irish migration, according to John Steele Gordon writing in the Wall Street Journal, was rooted in fear of a larger Catholic population in a Protestant nation and an unwanted increase in low-wage workers. It spawned the creation of the Know Nothings Party, which reached its political height with the election of Nathaniel Banks as Speaker of the House for one term in 1857.

While immigration dropped during the Civil War it mushroomed again afterward and again sparked political opposition. The Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted in 1882, banning all Chinese immigration, reflecting another round of often brutal discrimination.

The peak year for immigration was 1907, when 1.3 million people ventured here legally as part of a mass migration between 1880 and 1914, when World War I pushed the numbers down. Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, banning most immigration from Asia, the Immigrant Quota Act in 1921, and the National Origins Act of 1924, which set limits on the overall number and the nationality of immigrants effectively ending mass migration, according to researchers. When President Calvin Coolidge signed the latter bill, he was quoted as saying, “America must remain American.”

Nativist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, fought the influx of migrants from Europe and Asia. They also fought immigration from Mexico but ran into greater resistance because of the strong influence of Mexican labor. White supremacists were able to win passage of legislation in 1929 that made illegal entry into the US a federal crime.

Germans, Irish, and Italians were among European settlers who were considered people who would not assimilate well, but they did. The same held true for Asians and Jews. “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready,” segregationist President Woodrow Wilson once said of German Americans.

The excerpt from an Emma Lazarus poem inscribed on the Statue of Liberty “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free…,” has never been universally popular among Americans already here.

Our nation has always been faced with difficult and complex immigration challenges that have been exacerbated by profound questions of race, culture, social and economic integration, and changing political ideology. Sometimes those conditions react like the tectonic plates at the earth’s crust shaking the very foundations of our democratic system and our values. Immigration politics and policy have seemed just that destructive at times, but they have left in the rubble valuable lessons about our politics and the ever-evolving national family portrait.

It should not be lost on any of us, however, that the immigrants keep coming by the millions upon millions. Despite the hardship and the risks, they keep coming. They are determined and relentless. We must continue to remind ourselves why they are drawn here, what it is that we too often take for granted.

There were other major immigration developments over the course of the first half of the 20th Century. During the depression, emigration out of the country increased and immigration decreased, but that changed during World War II. After the war, more refugees from Europe, the Soviet Union, and later Cuba were permitted in.

A major and historic change in US policy came with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota system and directed priorities to admit people outside the Western Hemisphere based on either skills or family ties. The new law produced a rush of new immigrants, not from Western Europe but from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, according to Steven Gillon, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and a resident scholar with

There have been hopeful bipartisan attempts to modernize immigration laws, but they have failed.

There are a good many positive proposals that have been debated for years that could translate into successful bipartisan legislation. Former President George W. Bush outlined sound pragmatic solutions in a recent op-ed in which he addressed past failures. I referred to his piece in April:

“The short answer (to the failures),” he said, “is that the issue has been exploited in ways that do little credit to either party. And no proposal on immigration will have credibility without confidence that our laws are carried out consistently and in good faith.”

The former chief Executive advocated a pathway for “dreamers” brought here as children. He also advocated more security at the border. “We need a secure and efficient border, and we should apply all of the necessary resources—manpower, physical barriers, advanced technology, streamlined and efficient ports of entry, and a robust legal immigration system—to assure it.” He also urged a modernized asylum system “that provides humanitarian support and appropriate legal channels for refugees to pursue their cases in a timely manner.” He proposed increased legal immigration, focused on employment and skills. Amnesty for undocumented immigrants here now would be “fundamentally unfair” to those waiting their turn to become citizens, “but they must be brought out of the shadows and gradually given an opportunity to earn legal residency and citizenship.”

There is little new in reform proposals. Similar debates take place year after year as the politics of the issues bounce back and forth from one extreme to the other, from full-blown amnesty to building the wall and shutting down the border.

The “new” initiative headed by Vice President Kamala Harris to stabilize Central America, for example, is not new. It dates back to plans proposed in 2014, in the midst of an immigration surge, for an international effort to address drug trafficking, human rights, refugee resettlement concerns, and other reasons why people in Central America decide to leave home.

It was then, and is now, another grandiose ideal beyond our capabilities and it sounds an awful lot like a mini version of more American nation-building.

The point is that neither party is in any position to resolve the immediate crises we face at the border. The left, right, and leadership in both houses have been unable or unwilling to drill through the ice where bipartisanship lies in a cryogenic state. Instead, the country has gotten a flurry of questionable and mostly ineffective presidential orders and legislative initiatives intended to fail and a flurry of finger-pointing. It has been enough to make conditions on the border intolerable.

The solutions exist as President Bush reminded us, but not the political will to reach them.

Ultimately, the American people must infuse their leaders with the will to put an end to the tragedies at the border. Without that pressure and with the media focused on the latest flashpoint, the President and Congress will never reach common ground, and that’s the only place where solutions are found.

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and four grandchildren.