Suzanne Fields

A certain young Jew from Russia arrived at Ellis Island in New York Harbor early in the 20th century. He could speak no English, so someone had pinned a label on his lapel with a single word: "Houston." The immigration official who looked over his papers at Ellis Island deduced that he wanted to go to Texas, and directed him to the train station. His anxious relatives waited in vain to greet him on Houston Street on the Lower East Side.

The story may be apocryphal, but it has the ring of truth. Many arriving immigrants in those days couldn't speak English and knew very little about their new land. This particular young man stayed in Houston, in the telling of his story at the immigration museum on Ellis Island, and made a good life for himself and eventually a family in Houston. All's well that ends well.

Lots of such anecdotal stories are passed around in families whose immigrant grandparents arrived in America in those days when more immigrants arrived on steamships than by crossing the Rio Grande. The stories appeal to the tall tale, glossing over the hardships and debates that roiled immigration policy, just like today. My father, who arrived at Ellis Island in 1910, often recalled that he arrived speaking two languages and neither one was English. Life was difficult, but the motivation to do well was compelling.

Between the 1880s and World War I, debates raged between advocates of open immigration and the defenders of rigid restrictions. The advocates won most of the time. Restrictions were limited to paupers, polygamists, anarchists and those suffering from a "loathsome" disease (usually tuberculosis and "the social diseases").

"Irksome as such laws were from the point of view of the immigrants and their defenders, none constituted nearly so great a threat as the recurrent proposal that persons unable to read or write their own language be barred," writes Irving Howe in "The World of Our Fathers." Three times literacy qualifications were passed by the Congress, and three presidents vetoed them - Grover Cleveland in 1897, William Howard Taft in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson in 1915.

The politics were obvious and no president dared alienate the growing power of ethnic blocs who wanted to bring their poor and uneducated relatives to join them here. Politics, the economy and bigotry comprised the fulcrum on which immigration debates seesawed endlessly.

Such debates continue today, but with a difference. We now have created a home for up to 9, 10 or 14 million illegal immigrants (no one knows for sure) who live in an underground that undercuts the rule of law.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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