We've been there before. The fear of "undesirable" immigrants is nothing new in this country. It's just the names, faces, and colors that change. Unfortunately, people have a short memory. Especially when yesterday's "undesirables" become today's gatekeepers.
I've been reading about the immigration struggles of the early twentieth century, the period when my family entered this country. It was the Ellis Island era, a time of massive immigration from Europe. There was significant national debate about this, with two sets of concerns: the sheer numbers of immigrants, as well as the dramatic demographic shift taking place. Here was the problem: The "old immigrants" (from Great Britain, Germany, Scandinavia) were being outnumbered by the "new immigrants" (from Southern and Eastern Europe.)
There were economic concerns, some of them legitimate, about competition for jobs. But the ugly language of "eugenics" and beliefs about the racial superiority of Anglo-Saxon stock ran through much of the debate.
The response? Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed act, after the bill's architects.
This was an ugly piece of legislation. For starters, it continued to affirm the exclusion of Asians, since they weren't eligible for naturalization. That privilege was limited to white people. (Hard to believe, reading those words.)
The real significance of the act, the big change, was this: It stemmed the tide of the those undesirable immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, while leaving the door open to people of Anglo-Saxon stock.
And it did this very neatly, without explictly acknowledging the underlying anti-ethnic or racist idealogy.
The Act simply established immigration quotas for each national group. The basis for the numbers? Two percent of the population living in the United States at the time of the 1890 census! In other words, rolling back the clock to the good old days.
You can read the quotas here: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5078/
Italians, to take one example, had been averaging 200,000 immigrants a year. The new quota was 4,000.
In contrast, Great Britain and Ireland combined were allotted about 62,000 immigrants a year. Germany got 50,000.
The message was clear. The United States was happy to absorb immigrants with names like Johnson and Reed. So one side of my immigrant family tree, the Kilpatricks, could still have slipped in after 1924, I expect. Nothing wrong with being Scottish. Although I recently learned that my late father never did get around to being naturalized until he was drafted in WW II. So I guess that makes me the daughter of an illegal!
But the United States did not want more Italians. Or Jews from Russia and Poland. Or Slavs from anywhere: Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia. Or Greeks and Albanians. Just read the numbers.
After 1924, the United States would not have been eager to welcome my Slovenian grandparents and great-grandparents, even if they did change their names from Kozlevčar and Adamič to something more American.
And guess what? The door would probably also have been closed to the ancestors of Kris Kobach, immigration expert and author of Arizona's tough new immigration policy, aimed at rooting out Hispanic "illegals." With a name like that, he's got to be of Slavic descent, at least on his father's side. In one interview, he mentions Bohemian ancestry. So "Kobach" must be a Czech name.
How soon they forget.
Update: My father's path to citizenship turns out to be a little more complicated than I imagined. See my follow-up here.
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders