Illegal immigration sounds like a serious crime.
We’re led to believe legions of black and brown people are rushing our southern border, straining our limited resources, and threatening our way of life.
President Trump has maintained that illegal immigration is at an all-time high and must be stopped by any means necessary to preserve our freedom.
Taking a longer, more historical view of this situation calls many of these images into question. As Tyler Anbinder points out in his book “City of Dreams,” the history of immigrants is the history of the U.S.
Through the 18th and 19th centuries, there was essentially unlimited immigration into the country. Typically, many of the “natives” of each generation deemed the newest group of immigrants to be of “inferior stock,” believing that they threatened our safety and harmony.
Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a tipping point in the early part of the 20th century. In 1913, Dr. Alfred Reed of the U.S. Public Health Service argued for an end to unrestricted immigration and the admission of “only the best individuals,” by which he meant Northern and Western Europeans. (Sound familiar?)
Convinced by Reed, many Americans came to view new immigrants as inferior to older ones, and thus supported restrictions. Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act in 1921, followed by the National Origins Act in 1924, severely limiting immigration.
The latter bill set quotas based on national origin, essentially banning immigrants from Asia and Africa, while significantly reducing the number from Southern Europe.
At this point, it may be instructive to describe my family’s history of illegal immigration. In 1923, my grandfather came to New York from Portugal. He had grown disillusioned with his abusive, alcoholic father and the fact that his older brother controlled all his family’s meager resources. He realized he could more easily make a life in the United States.
Meanwhile, my grandmother was fleeing persecution in her village after her father had been killed for supporting farmers’ rights. She, too, realized her odds were better in the United States. She married my grandfather after he briefly returned to Portugal, and the two made plans to move to the United States permanently.
They journeyed on foot to the city of Porto and found a ship to the U.S., only to discover that the quota for Portugal had been filled and they could not emigrate.
Feeling desperate, they boarded a ship for Brazil, a country whose citizens could enter the U.S. without restriction. From there, they obtained falsified passports and boarded a ship to New York. But had they attempted to emigrate just a few months earlier, they could have entered the United States legally.
After reaching America, my grandparents quickly became productive members of society, earning money by opening and running multiple boarding houses in the city of Bridgeport. They had seven children and 14 grandchildren, who would go on to become doctors, nurses, lawyers and business professionals.
It was not until the 1960s, when my grandfather tried to visit Portugal, that immigration authorities discovered they were here illegally. By then, the quota system had been abolished, so they were quickly naturalized.
When I discuss illegal immigration with friends and colleagues who are vehemently opposed to it, I always suggest they should consider their relationship with me. I am clearly a product of illegal immigration.
It seems clear that the difference between legal and illegal immigration is often a semantic one, or at most a matter of timing. For my grandparents, it was a difference of a few months.
Portuguese citizens could enter legally before 1924, but not between 1924 and 1965.
A poor Mexican or Guatemalan without American relatives does not have the same opportunity that a poor Portuguese or German immigrant once had. Americans need to acknowledge this, rather than continue to believe that their forebears followed the same rules that today’s illegal immigrants supposedly disregard.
Except for Native Americans, all of us are the products of immigration. Throughout our history, every generation has asserted that the newest immigrants are inferior, incapable of assimilating, and harmful to our way of life. In every case, these stereotypes have proven wrong. Our greatness as a nation stems from our diversity and our ability to be a welcoming society.
When the news turns to discussions of illegal immigration, don’t just picture a group of poor Mexicans climbing a wall in the desert. Picture my kind, caring, salt-of-the-earth grandparents.
Dr. Michael Soboeiro grew up in Bridgeport and is now a practicing physician in North Carolina.