It is undeniable that the United States has a long history of extreme racism regarding citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790, passed just three years after a Constitution that spoke of “Justice” and “Liberty,” bluntly declared that only a “free white person” could become an American citizen. This remained unchanged for nearly a century, until the 14th Amendment in 1868, passed after the Civil War, determined anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen. This was immediately contradicted by the Naturalization Act of 1870, which declared the only non-whites this change applied to were blacks; the 1898 Supreme Court case of Wong Kim Ark v. the United States finally brought citizenship to all people born here.
As for those already born who desired citizenship, the struggle continued. Women became truer citizens when they won the right to vote in 1920, unless they married an Asian non-citizen; then their citizenship could be revoked! Native Americans — whose ancestors had been here before anyone — had to wait until 1924 to be eligible for citizenship, Filipinos and people from India until 1946. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, social movements then battled to make what had been promised by law a reality for men and women of color, whether native-born or immigrants.
Given white supremacy’s zealous protection of citizenship, it may seem surprising that there were no laws against immigration itself until 1875, when prostitutes and convicts were barred from entry. (But then, perhaps not so surprising, as most immigrants were from Europe — this despite hostilities towards the Irish, Catholics, Jews, and southern and eastern Europeans. All immigrants represented cheap labor, too.) Before that, immigration was reported but not regulated. Anyone could simply show up and try to scratch out a life for him- or herself. You can come, but don’t expect citizenship, don’t expect any power or participation in this democracy.
Millions came by the time the first racist immigration restriction was created: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, banning almost all immigration from China. Many American whites were openly bigoted, but also spoke of economics — Chinese workers hurting their wages and taking their jobs. Other Asians were banned as well, as were people deemed idiots and lunatics. So it was the late 19th century before illegal immigration was possible, because beforehand there really were no laws against immigration.
Racist laws continued, of course. In 1921, temporary caps were placed on the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. from other countries; these were made permanent in the Immigration Act of 1924. This was particularly an effort to stem the post-Great War flood of southern and eastern European immigrants, especially Italians, who were coming by the hundreds of thousands. Complaints against them, says historian Mae Ngai of Columbia University, “sounded much like the ones that you hear today: ‘They don’t speak English. They don’t assimilate. They’re darker. They’re criminals. They have diseases.’”
Immigrants from northern and western European nations were favored, including the recent enemy, Germany, which was allowed the most immigrants. (Later, Nazi Germany would justify some of its own racist legislation using American law, which was widely considered the harshest immigration policy in the world; see Hitler’s American Model, Whitman.) In 1929, only 11.2% of yearly immigrants could come from Italy, Greece, Poland, Spain, Russia, and surrounding nations. Only 2.3% could come from outside of Europe, and outside the Americas (the Americas were exempt and had no quotas).
This quota system persisted until the civilizing effects of the civil rights era reformed immigration law in 1965 and opened up the U.S. to more non-European immigrants (though quotas were then put on American countries).
Today, U.S. permanent immigration from other nations is capped at 675,000 people per year, except for people with close family in the U.S. — the number of permanent visas for that category is unlimited. In 2016, 618,000 permanent resident visas were issued. 5 million more applicants wait. No country can receive more than 7% of our visas. Add to this the temporary visas that are successfully converted into permanent ones and around one million people, most from Mexico, China, and other American and Asian nations, achieve permanent residency status here each year. Europeans make up a small minority of immigrants to the U.S.
In today’s debate over illegal immigration and citizenship (solved here), the white conservative trope that Central and South Americans should “do it right, do it legally like my ancestors did” is played on repeat. One has to question, however, whether such confidence is justified. During this period of tight restrictions on European immigrants there were indeed many illegal immigrants from Europe. How certain are you, exactly, that you are not a descendant?
To dodge the quota system, European immigrants would journey to Canada, Mexico, or Cuba and cross the border into the United States. Or they would simply pull ashore. The American Immigration Council documents:
In 1925, the Immigration Service reported 1.4 million immigrants living in the country illegally. A June 17, 1923, New York Times article reported that W. H. Husband, Commissioner General of Immigration, had been trying for two years “to stem the flow of immigrants from central and southern Europe, Africa and Asia that has been leaking across the borders of Mexico and Canada and through the ports of the east and west coasts.” A September 16, 1927, New York Times article describes government plans for stepped-up Coast Guard patrols because thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Russians, and Italians were landing in Cuba and then hiring smugglers to take them to the United States.
The 1925 report regretted that the undocumented person’s “first act upon reaching our shores was to break our laws by entering in a clandestine manner.” The problem was so bad that Congress was forced to act:
The 1929 Registry Act allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the country since 1921 and were of “good moral character.”
Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940—80% were European or Canadian. Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 unauthorized Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through “pre-examination”—a process that allowed them to leave the United States voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a “touch-back” program), or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in “meritorious” cases. In the 1940s and 1950s, several thousand deportations a year were suspended; approximately 73% of those who benefited were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians).
The 1929 Registry Act, Steve Boisson writes for American History Magazine, was “a version of amnesty…utilized mostly by European or Canadian immigrants.” Much kinder treatment than mass deportations and separating children from parents, to be sure.
One woman who took advantage of the program, according to The Los Angeles Times, was Rosaria Baldizzi, who snuck in after leaving Italy.
Baldizzi would not become “legal” until a special immigration provision was enacted to offer amnesty to mainly European immigrants who arrived without proper documentation after 1921, who had established families, and who had already lived in the U.S. for seven years. She applied for legal status under the new policy and earned her citizenship three years later, in 1948. Only then, for the first time in more than two decades, could she stop worrying about her immigration status.
If you trace your family history you may be surprised by what you find. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stanford professor Richard White, after researching his family tree,
discovered that his maternal grandfather, an Irishman, had entered the U.S. illegally from Canada in 1924 because he could not get a visa that year under the new quota laws. His grandfather failed in his first attempt, when he walked across a bridge into Detroit, got caught by U.S. customs officers, and was deported.
From Canada, the grandfather called his brother-in-law, a Chicago policeman, who came to Canada and met him there… The pair then walked to Detroit, but this time the brother-in-law, who was dressed in his police uniform, flashed his badge at the customs officers, who waved the duo through.
The next time someone declares his or her ancestors came here legally, demand proof at once.