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.
While the conventional wisdom is that most conservatives oppose the immigration reform proposed by President Bush, there are divisions in those ranks as well. The divisions are both practical and philosophical, with overlapping attitudes, but the most crucial debate may be between the conservative optimists and the conservative pessimists, the realists and reactionaries.
The optimists argue that the Bush immigration reform will release "individual initiative, self-reliance, opportunity and entrepreneurship," as Tamar Jacoby formulates it in the Wall Street Journal. "What, after all, could be more conservative than encouraging the American Dream, rewarding work, restoring the rule of law and enhancing security?"
Pro-market conservatives recognize that the present system is badly broken and that the first step toward fixing it is to see it for what it is - driven by market opportunities in low-paying jobs that are hard to fill (nursing homes, kitchens, hotels, hospitals, farms.)
The pessimists argue that the president is pandering to the Hispanic vote he won't get no matter what he does; he'll have to continue to speak Spanish to them because they won't assimilate. The greatest fear of both groups is legalizing potential terrorists. But the terrorists of 9/11 entered both legally and illegally and President Bush says his reform will make it easier to identify those who arouse suspicion.
Both optimists and pessimists are in this for the politics, but the optimists are the most practical if they can persuade the newly legalized to learn English (and make it easy for them to do so), get an education and save money to take home with them, such as their Social Security deductions. Creating such incentives won't be easy, but how to do it should be part of the debate. You don't need a calculator to realize that pouring money into rounding up most of the illegal immigrants and shipping them home is mission impossible.
"Out of common sense and fairness, our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," the president said. "We must make our immigration laws more rational and more humane." That's true for the immigrant who works, whether in Houston, Texas, or down on Houston Street.