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WASHINGTON LETTER Mar-24-2006 (840 words) Backgrounder and analysis. xxxn

In immigration law, distinctions of 'legal,' 'illegal' fairly recent

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Here's a little-understood fact about immigration law: Until well into the 20th century, pretty much anyone who showed up at a port of entry or walked across a border got to stay in the United States.

In other words, one reason so many people today can say "my ancestors followed the law when they came here" is because until fairly recently there was no distinction made about whether someone arrived legally or not. With few exceptions, anyone who got here was admitted.

Doris Meissner, former commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and now a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, said that during the mass migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- the years of those photos of boatloads of European immigrants being processed at Ellis Island -- only a small fraction of newcomers were rejected.

"The number who got sent back at Ellis Island was less than 2 percent," Meissner told Catholic News Service in an interview, "possibly less than 1 percent."

And those rejections were almost always because the people suffered from an illness that might make them financially dependent upon the community, she said. For instance, a then-common eye infection left victims blind and presumably unable to support themselves. People who had it were turned away.

There were some exceptions to the open-door policy, explains an immigration law history article provided by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Bureau, as the agency Meissner headed in the 1990s is now called. An 1882 Chinese exclusion law that remained on the books until 1943 was originally aimed at limiting cheap labor.

Other laws of the era excluded polygamists, those with criminal records for "moral turpitude," people with contagious diseases or epilepsy, professional beggars, anarchists and those who were insane.

Outside such categories, everyone else was presumed to be admissible. It wasn't until 1924 that the U.S. government began requiring immigrants to obtain visas in their home countries in advance.

At that time quotas also were created for how many people could be admitted from each country, with the exceptions of Mexico and Canada. Within a few years, the Border Patrol was reformed and its focus changed to keeping out and deporting those who didn't have permission to enter the country.

The 1924 law followed the country's most dramatic influx of immigrants in history, with more than 14.5 million new arrivals in 20 years, with 60 percent from Italy, Russia and Austria-Hungary, the history article explained.

Meissner said in the 1920s the public was especially wary of immigrants from countries such as Germany, and other European nations against whom Americans had fought during World War I. During the Depression, immigration was largely self-limiting. In fact many people left the country during the 1930s.

But by the 1940s, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. men in the military overseas, worker shortages were becoming a problem. Beginning in 1942, the government began importing temporary workers. Most came from Mexico to work in agricultural jobs.

Gradually since then restrictions on immigration have increased, in response to concerns ranging from terrorism to lowering wages.

Currently, the wait for a visa to legally enter the United States is as long as a decade for some categories of people. National quotas, fingerprinting and background checks, income and sponsorship requirements, even the cost of applying for visas all act as filters in limiting who comes in legally. The number of visas available for unskilled workers each year is just a fraction of the number of jobs for which unskilled, immigrant labor is sought, leading many to sneak into the country to take those jobs.

An estimated 500,000 jobs a year go to unskilled workers, who are largely illegal immigrants. The U.S. government issues 5,000 visas a year for unskilled workers.

Meissner said that in some ways the sense that immigration is out of control is a cumulative effect of laws that are not only recent in U.S. history, but in the history of governance.

"There's far more regard to demarcations of boundaries" than ever in history, she said. And in an age when transportation among nations is readily available to more people than ever, there are more legal restrictions keeping them where they are.

With an estimated 12 million people in the United States illegally, Congress is being pressured on one side to increase immigration restrictions even more. On the other side are people who consider the number of illegal immigrants an indication of more fundamental problems.

Meissner said that as she travels around the country she often hears people say, "I can accept that these illegal immigrants are good, hard-working people, but they should follow the law and come in legally, like my great-grandparents did."

Aside from the point that those great-grandparents probably came in at a time when everyone was admitted, Meissner sees a basic misconception about that possibility.

"People do not understand that there is no legal avenue for them to go through," she said.


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