“My family did it the right way. They came here legally.” This is a claim so often preached with a touch of arrogance by those critical of the presence of undocumented immigrants in the United States. You’ll see it posted on a YouTube comment or hear it stumble out of the mouth of your father in law at a family gathering or your friend at a bar after a couple beers have relieved his filter for the night. A truthful response to the “my family did it the right way” assertion is one that looks at how American immigration policy has drastically changed over time, and how the great grandfather who came to America with a couple coins and a dream would have faced much more scrutiny today.
It’s important to start the conversation by acknowledging that if someone claims their ancestors came to America legally, it really means they came to America White. African slaves can be seen through an immigration framework as forcibly illegal immigrants. Throughout the first half of the 19th century this was constantly reinforced with legislation such as the Three-Fifths Compromise that considered slaves to count for three-fifths of a House member’s constituent, or the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which determined free or enslaved people of African descent had no standing to sue in federal court because they were not citizens. Later on, in the century, 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act began to discriminately turn away Chinese immigrants while immigrants of every other national origin were accepted. If someone claims their ancestor was able to come to the U.S legally before the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, they must not be Chinese.
For most of the 19th century, immigrants were not legal or illegal since that was hardly a paradigm in which we viewed immigrants. There were almost no laws preventing anyone from showing up and making the United States their home. Even the phrase “illegal immigrant” was not coined until the 1920’s. From 1892 to 1954, the immigration inspections on Ellis Island were just a notch above today’s airport security. 12 million immigrants coming through typically waited four to five hours after showing up and then were free to enter the country.
Contrast that with today’s immigration enforcement system. The 1996 Immigration and Nationality Act passed by Congress established excessive and severe immigration enforcement. Unlike the previous generations of immigrants, just showing up to the United States will put you in a detention center of epically inhumane conditions. Inadequate medical care is to be expected since private detention centers do not need to meet the medical ethical standards of the rest of America’s prisons. No access to basic hygiene products and even violence by staff are commonplace in detention centers, where 400,000 immigrants are held and then deported each year.
Today’s inhumane detention and deportation process make petitioning ahead of time a must, but now there are strict numerical quotas for each country and for each type of visa. But unlike the four to five-hour wait, an immigrant grandparent had at Ellis Island; the average number of days for each applicant’s case to be heard is 1,071 days or almost three years. For a parent to derive citizenship for their married son or daughter, the wait is at least 10 years. Unless you’re Mexican or Pilipino, then the wait is certainly much more. This also puts the families of asylum seekers in dangerous and vulnerable positions. If an asylum applicant intends to petition for their spouse or sibling to come to the U.S legally they must wait for years in their violent and unsafe home country. Because of the harsh enforcement and bureaucratic nightmare of a backlog, immigrants coming to the United States “the right way” is just not a practical much less moral route.