Once upon a time, there was no such thing as an ‘illegal’ immigrant


Featured in the L.A. Times, the president of the historic Tenement Museum tells a story encapsulating what it meant to be an immigrant to the United States at two different times in our history just decades apart. It is the story of two immigrant women who were both tenants at 97 Orchard Street, New York, New York, the home that would become the Tenement Museum. They came to America at much different times, and the tenement house now stands as a museum and a testament to the lives of these two women.

Nathalie Gumpertz arrived from Germany in 1858, married and reared four children at the tenement house. In 1925, Rosaria Baldizzi arrived from Italy to live at the same address. She worried about her unlawful status and fear of being deported for two decades. In the years between the two women’s arrival the concept of “illegal” immigration was invented.

In 1882, the first two federal immigration laws were adopted in order to keep certain people out. One prohibited from entering the country “any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to care for” themselves without becoming a public charge. The other, called the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibited the Chinese on racial grounds. And to make sure these laws were enforced, the United States created the federal Bureau of Immigration, the first agency developed to enforce federal immigration law.

Besides those listed above, immigration law was still generally permissive. Other categories of people could enter the U.S. with no documentation whatsoever. In 1917, a mandatory literacy test was adopted, but “even then they could pass in any language, not just English.” In less than a decade, however, as the nation experienced growing populations of ‘undesirable’ ethnic groups, such as Italians and Jews, Congress passed the National Origins Act, the first law requiring immigrants to have visas and limiting the numbers reserved for undesirable groups. This was signed into law in 1924, less than 100 years ago, and almost single-handedly is responsible for the concepts of “legal” and “illegal” immigration.

When Ms. Gumpertz arrived in America, she was “legal” because there was no such thing as “illegal.” When Ms. Baldizzi arrived, her ethnicity was key to her “illegal” status, and the daily anxiety she and her family lived with are still recognizable today. Further change in immigration policy finally allowed her to earn her citizenship more than 20 years later.

Immigration law in the U.S. has a relatively short history, and is fraught with big changes often based on racial and ethnic prejudices. Over the years, legal status has depended on the prevailing attitudes of the day, and for many who claim their ancestors came here “legally,” it’s often because there simply were no legal restrictions to speak of at the time. If one thing has remained true, it is that the country can always reshape its immigration laws, for the good of the many or the few.

For more information on this fascinating story, please see: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-jennings-legal-illegal-immigration-20180114-story.html