My ancestors immigrated legally. Everyone should come here legally.
I agree. However, for so many people who would love to be legal residents, there is no legal way to become a resident. (Click here for a list of who can qualify to be a legal US resident.) Yes, many, many peoples’ ancestors immigrated legally–there was no way to immigrate illegally for a long, long time in US history!
Before 1882, there really wasn’t any limit on immigration. So yes, if your ancestors came here before 1882, they came here legally, because at the time, there was no way to come to the US illegally.
First Limits to Immigration
The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, prohibiting the immigration of anyone from China. While that sucked for Chinese citizens who believed in the American Dream, the rest of the world was still welcome, no questions asked.
Then they also banned “criminals, the insane, and any person unable to take care of themselves without becoming a public charge.” Unstandably. I’m curious how they verified this in the 19th century, but again, it makes sense.
There were a few more immigration laws enacted at the end of the 19th century (like banning people with tuberculosis), but what has shaped our modern immigration system was the quota system which was put in place in the 1920s.
More Limits to Immigration
In 1924, the National Origins Quotas were put in place in the US’s immigration policy. The government consulted the 1890 census, took into account the national origins of all US citizens, and proclaimed that 2% of the number of people from the nationalities already represented in the US could be premitted entry in the US. (Clearly, this hugely favored immigrants from Great Britian.) Despite the Asian-American population at the time, all Asian immigrants were banned in 1924, not just the Chinese (they had been banned since 1882).
Asians were finally allowed to immigrate to the US again in 1952.
The quota system ended in 1965. It was replaced with a strong prefence for family reunification and visas for skilled workers (as we saw above in “who qualifies for legal residency?”).
In 1986, Ronald Reagan–yes, THAT Ronald Reagan, the demi-god of the Republicans–granted anmesty to 3 million immigrants living in the US without documentation. I guess he wouldn’t be Republican enough for the Republicans anymore.
But I digress.
New Laws We Don’t Talk About (Or Know Much About)
In 1996, new laws were passed that said if a person resided in the US between 180 days and 365 days without a valid visa, they would receive a 3-year ban from entering the US. If a person spent more than a full year without a valid visa, they would be issued a 10-year ban from entering the US. Sure, immigrants can petition a waiver from this ban. Very few are granted waivers.
Back to what I said before, if a US-citizens marries an undocumented immigrant, this 10-year ban still applies. The non-US-citizen member of the family gets deported, with no hope of entering the US for 10 years. Then the US-citizen spouse and children are left to decide if they remain in the US without their spouse and parent, or if they choose exile in a foreign country, where they may not know the language or the culture, in order to be a united family.
Movies like The Proposal are 20 years out of date. Sandra Bullock would get sent back to Canada. And refused premission to enter the US for 10 years. Whether Ryan Reynolds married her or not.
Come on, Hollywood–do your research!
On a darker note, the 1996 law also opened the door for more local law enforcement on immigration. Now, in general, I do believe that keeping things local is better. Constituents have a greater say in policies.
However, in this case, this law may have given rise to the immigration detention system that we have today.
Do you believe that those who get picked up by immigration authorities just get sent back to their country of origin?
I’ve got another page that digs into our immigration detention system, coming soon.