My Great Grandparents Emigrated This Way; Why Don’t You?


Immigration 101 is a series which tracks my basic immigration law class at Hofstra University School of Law. This installment looks at the historic development of the immigration system.

All of my students have heard their relatives say that immigrants today should be subjected to the same tight scrutiny that our immigrant ancestors had to endure in coming here. This of course is absolute nonsense. If your ancestors came before 1892, if they were Famine Irish or Germans coming after the failure of the democratic revolutions of 1848, then there was no system for them to come here. They just showed up.

That is right. You just got on a boat in Hamburg and came here. No visa, no application, no inspection by a federal officer when you arrived. You did not have to be related to anyone here. You just came in. Your immigrant ancestor might have been a horse thief, or a terrorist, or had a dread disease. No matter, all were welcome.

The first real restrictions on immigration were introduced in the 1870s and these were not directed against the diseased or disordered. They were targeted at the Chinese. Now I will discuss the Chinese exclusion more in another installment, but suffice to say that our immigration laws were originally created in response to a racist desire to keep the Chinese out.

It was another 20 years before a comprehensive immigration system was introduced. Ellis Island was created to enforce these new laws. But unless you were from Asia, the laws were not tough.

Until the 1920s, Europeans could still just show up. No visa, no background check or biometrics. You did not have to have a job waiting for you or family members pledged to support you here. The medical exam at first consisted of little more than doctors observing you walk up two flights of stairs, pulling you out for further inspection only if you were out of breath. No blood test, no X rays. Just a peremptory visual exam.

This system continued virtually intact for almost thirty years.

Immigrants today would love to have the system in place for the first 130 years of American history. If that system was in place today, there would be no illegal immigrants.

In the next installment I will discuss how non White immigrants like Jews and Italians forced America to rethink its immigration policy.

Read other parts of this series:

Immigration 101 is a comprehensive series on American immigration law for the layperson. This series tracks my course on immigration law at Hofstra Law School and answers many of your questions about immigration policy.