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Immigration policy 1911: lunatics excluded, but bigots stayed

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Immigrants are waiting at our borders as Americans chant that their ancestors came here legally.

Perhaps, as estimated by a 1911 federal report, their ancestors were among the 74 percent of native white persons of native white parentage who were already here in 1890?

Even so, "illegal" immigrant is a relatively new term. The need for a visa didn’t come about until the Immigration Act of 1924 when a quota was set and temporary entry was authorized by visa - unless you happened to be Asian and weren’t welcome at all.

The USA had an open door for the fabled huddled masses without restrictions until 1875 when Congress passed legislation excluding prostitutes and convicts. In 1882, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act; later in 1882, separate legislation excluding lunatics, idiots and paupers was enacted.

Nevertheless, in 1886, Republican Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge was resolute about restricting immigration further. A supporter of the Immigration Restriction League, Senator Lodge introduced a legislation requiring a “literacy test” that specifically targeted immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The greatest influx of immigrants at that time was overwhelmingly southern Italian or Jewish. It was structure to have the least effect on English-speaking immigrants. The” literacy test” legislation was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland because he viewed it as a conflict with American values. (It was enacted in 1917 when Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s third veto.)

As the wave of immigrants exploded along the Atlantic seaboard in the early 1900s, the Dillingham Commission was formed in 1907 to” study” immigration. It was a House-Senate committee joined by the President. The Dillingham reports include Dictionary of Races and People (1910) and the Statistical Review on Immigration (1911) Dillingham was also influenced by the political scientist Mayo-Smith, whose economics study, Emigration and Immigration (1890) regarded the influx of immigrants with different sociocultural deportments as jeopardizing American society. This view was echoed by Henry Cabot Lodge.

These reports variously describe Chinese as “Chinaman”, describe the “Jewish nose” (in Dictionary of Race and People) and define southern Italians through the eyes of an Italian sociologist who finds them to be “excitable, impulsive, impracticable and not adaptable to highly organized society. “ It doesn’t even attempt to disguise its bias favoring whitest of the white. Because the greatest number of immigrants between 1907 and 1911 were southern Italian or Hebrew, the Dillingham report suggested their friends and relatives would soon follow. These Dillingham Commission reports established the rationale for further restrictions on immigrants. It legitimized bigotry.

Governor Rick Perry protests that it’s the law that must be enforced and the children should be sent back to Central America. Perry might want to consider Thomas Jefferson’s counsel – that if a law is unjust, we have an obligation not to follow it.

The immigrant children are not Americans – they are human beings. Have we not advanced since 1911? Dillingham’s prejudice was revolting but at least he didn’t wrap it up in a deity or legalese. Cabot held the English- speaking immigrants more suited to join their brethren in America. Millions of southern Italians and Jewish immigrants were already here. Should they have been sent back?

My grandfather, Pop, was one of those immigrants. Lucky me – Pop was at that invincible age of 22 when he left rural southern Italy for America and settled in Staten Island. I didn’t know he was one of the undesirables – an illiterate low-skills laborer. Pop worked for the city of New York He worked hard and sacrificed to give his family the American dream. Pop couldn’t speak much English but he spoke American college – he saved and paid my Dad’s tuition to graduate from a prominent university and leave the old neighborhood. I couldn’t be more proud of my grandfather or grateful that the literacy test was scrapped when Pop arrived.

He prevailed, despite the bigotry against southern Italians on the Atlantic coast. My grandfather was a true American.

We can’t know what the future holds for immigrants who seek refuge in America. Their success might skip a generation and their dreams might stay on hold forever. I cried when I learned my grandfather might have been turned away if he was required to pass a literacy test. Lives changed because he stayed.

Send those children back and we have betrayed our own values as well as their hopes.

Do we want to be known as America – where the streets are paved with greed and loving citizens scare the children of strangers who entrusted them in our care?

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