When Illegal Immigration Was European

I don’t usually follow politics closely, but I do have a great fondness for weekly elimination reality TV shows like “American Idol,” “Top Chef,” and “The Voice.” Since the GOP primary has basically turned into one of those shows, whatwith its regularly scheduled on-stage performances and someone voted off by the viewers each week, I’ve started watching.

And I’ve noticed some confusion, among the candidates, about the history of immigration law.

At tonight’s debate, Rick Santorum presented the following account of his family to explain why he opposes “a pathway to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants: 

I come at [immigration policy] from — as being the son of an immigrant. And my grandfather came to this country and brought my dad when he was 7 years old. And that’s the story that I love and am familiar with, and believe in my heart of hearts that immigration is — people who want to come to this country and be Americans is really the continuing infusion of freedom and enthusiasm for our country. But when you come here illegally, the first act you take is to break our law, that’s a different story.  …

Again, just like health care, we need a clear contrast, someone who can say, look, I have always been for making sure that the law is enforced and enforced fairly. I agree for people who have been here 25 years and maybe have to be separated from their family if they were picked up and deported, but my father grieved for his father when he came to this country and lived here five years.

And other folks who sacrificed, who came here to America, did it the right way according to the law. Because America was worth it. And if you want to be an American, the first thing you should do is respect our laws and obey our laws.

Now, I don’t doubt Santorum’s account of his own family history. But I detect a suggestion here, beyond the implication that his own family “did it the right way according to the law,” of some past Golden Age when everyone “did it the right way according to the law” and if they didn’t, they were prosecuted (persecuted?) duly. An implication, in other words, that something has changed since the time his grandfather came.[*]

Santorum is right that some things have changed, among which is the difficulty of legal immigration from Mexico. On which point I refer you to immigration historian Mae Ngai’s book, Impossible Subjects. (Or, on the difficulty of legal immigration more generally, the classic chart from Reason magazine.)

What hasn’t changed is politicians exploiting popular prejudice against newcomers. As Ngai explains, in the 1920s, newly arrived Italians such as Santorum’s grandfather were among the groups who met complaints that they “stole jobs, were ignorant, criminal and showed no desire to become citizens.” That’s why, when Congress established immigration quotas in the 1920s for the first time, they placed the harshest restrictions upon Southern Europeans.

Nevertheless, European-Americans, even those who had initially entered the country unauthorized, were eventually embraced as American national identity shifted from an Anglo-Saxon to a “melting pot” ideal. Responding to popular pressure, the federal government opened up numerous pathways to legalization that, numerically, primarily benefited undocumented European immigrants. More from Mae Ngai:

Here’s how hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants—mostly Europeans—became legal:

  • The Registry Act of 1929 allowed immigrants who arrived before 1921 but had no record of their admission to register retroactively, for a $20 fee.
  • From 1935 to the late 1950s, to keep families together, tens of thousands of Europeans unlawfully in the U.S. were allowed temporarily to go to Canada and reenter the States legally as a permanent resident.
  • In 1940, Congress authorized the suspension of orders of deportation in cases of hardship, which it defined as “serious economic detriment” to the immigrant’s immediate family. The guidelines have become less generous, but the principle remains in the law.

Now, of course, these laws (you might call them amnesty laws) are all long past; Santorum, of course, can and should advocate whatever immigration policies he thinks would best serve the country today. But recall: Santorum once said that he found Barack Obama’s stance on abortion “almost remarkable for a black man.” Having made the president’s ethnicity a basis for critiquing his policy positions, Santorum may find himself vulnerable on this same score in a general election. For instance an opponent might, if said opponent were feeling snarky, even describe Santorum’s stance on immigration as “almost remarkable for an Italian-American.”



[*] Which, the Internet tells me, was 1925, although as Rick Perlstein points out, this seems iffy given that strict quotas against Italian immigration went into place in 1924; I’m also confused because Wikipedia says his father was born in 1923, which would mean, if he came when he was seven as Santorum said tonight, that they came in 1930.