My ancestors didn’t immigrate to America legally or illegally; they were just immigrants

When the media reports on America’s history of immigration, they typically begin with Ellis Island in New York. But Ellis Island did not even open until 1892.

My ancestors came to America much earlier. They entered through Castle Garden in the Battery of New York, which opened in 1855. For 35 years Castle Garden served as the chief immigration depot in the United States and was the first formal receiving station anywhere in the world. Prior to Castle Garden there was virtually no regulation of immigration or routine process for dealing with immigrant ships that arrived in New York. US Immigration 1840-1920: Step One.


Which brings me to this post by Ben Railton at Talking Points Memo. No, Your Ancestors Didn’t Come Here Legally:

Prior to 1875’s Page Act and 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, there were no national immigration laws. None. There were laws related to naturalization and citizenship, to how vessels reported their passengers, to banning the slave trade. Once New York’s Castle Garden Immigration Station opened in 1855, arrivals there reported names and origins before entering the U.S. But for all pre-1875 immigrants, no laws applied to their arrival. They weren’t legal or illegal; they were just immigrants.

Moreover, those two laws and their extensions affected only very specific immigrant communities: suspected prostitutes and criminals (the Page Act); Chinese arrivals (the Exclusion Act); immigrants from a few other Asian nations (the extensions). So if your ancestors came before the 1920s and weren’t prostitutes, criminals, or from one of those Asian nations, they remained unaffected by any laws, and so were still neither legal nor illegal. This might seem like a semantic distinction, but it’s much more; the phrase “My ancestors came here legally” implies that they “chose to follow the law,” yet none of these unaffected immigrants had to make any such choice, nor had any laws to follow.

The 1892 opening of Ellis Island didn’t change these fundamental realities. Ellis arrivals had to wait in line and answer a list of questions, and could be quarantined if they had a communicable disease or were visibly insane. But if they weren’t in those aforementioned few illegal categories, they still weren’t affected by any law, made no choice of how to immigrate. Moreover, many arrivals during this period came not through Ellis but across the borders, which were unpatrolled and open.

Only with the 1920s Quota Acts did Congress establish national immigration laws encompassing most arrivals. But those acts were overtly discriminatory, extending the Exclusion Act’s principles by categorizing arrivals by nationality and drastically limiting certain groups; South Carolina Senator Ellison Smith put it bluntly: “It seems to me the point as to this measure is that the time has arrived when we should shut the door.” Since immigrants had no control over their nationality, it’s difficult to argue that post-1920s arrivals “chose” to immigrate legally or illegally. And since the borders remained largely open and there were multiple entry points, it’s hard to say that any individual arrival was under the quota and thus legal or illegal.

The 1965 Immigration Act ended national quotas, instituting preferences based on less overtly discriminatory categories such as family connections and educational/professional training. Subsequent laws (such as the 1986 IRCA) further adjusted national policy. But as the ubiquitous “my ancestors” phrase proves, current immigration debates aren’t just about present policies—they’re always informed by ideas about history, and specifically about legal and illegal immigration in our past. So it’s vitally important that we begin to use those terms accurately—to recognize that for so many of us, our ancestors were neither legal nor illegal immigrants. That they came in the same way contemporary undocumented immigrants do: by crossing a border.

My ancestors were neither legal nor illegal immigrants. They just came to America, and no immigration laws applied to them. This is true for virtually anyone whose ancestors arrived in America prior to 1920.

35 thoughts on “My ancestors didn’t immigrate to America legally or illegally; they were just immigrants”

  1. NATIVE AMERICAN sacred sites, places, things and artifacts should not be disturbed unless the Tribal Elders give full consent along with the consent of the majority of the tribe! U. S. Senator John McCain and U.S. Senator Jeff Flake are desecrating NATIVE AMERICAN sacred sites! WHO DID YOU VOTE FOR?

    • By the very nature of their various religious beliefs, EVERYWHERE and EVERYTHING are sacred. Nothing can be done that doesn’t violate their beliefs. And trying to decide WHO is the tribal leader for some tribes is virtually impossible. Who decides whom is the “tribal leader”? In many case even deciding what consititues a “tribe” is virtually impossible. And how do you establish which tribe controls what land? What happens to the person who owns the land under Public Law? Even when the tribes existed, they weren’t certain who controlled what because they were constantly at war with one another and their span of control was constantly changing. You dream a polyana dream and ask the impossible…

        • I am not a self appointed expert on Native Americans (as I suspect you are), but I can read very well. The many shenanigans involved with the legal term “Native Americans” do a dis-service to the actual Native Americans with tribal affiliations. And you didn’t answer ANY of my questions. I have to assume that you have no answers to give.

      • The information that you refer to was before the U.S. Government took over and established the reservations for the tribes. Now days the tribe owns the land under a trust set up by and operated by the U.S. Government and is regulated by the U.S. Government for the tribes. There is no dream at least not as the Native American (Indian) use to have. And no it is not impossible. In the old days there was a tribal land an there was boundaries with markers and each tribe knew the signs that established the boundaries and if a tribe was caught hunting on the other tribes hunting grounds without permission there was war because it was there very existence. White man didn’t know the signs and didn’t care less. NO, i do not know a lot about the Native American customs. I was raised in a German/Indian/ Hispanic home in south eastern Oklahoma surrounded by Indians (Native Americans). My favorite brother-in-law was full blood Native American. Half choctaw and half Cherokee. I respected, Honored and loved him very much. And no i am not losing control of myself. Aren’t you tired of seeing the people getting hurt?

        • Yes, I am tired of seeing the way Native Americans are treated. I am also tired of whites taking advantage of rather flexible laws to claim they are Native Americans in order to establish casinos. In the Northeast there are numerous “tribes” that consist of 4 or 5 people recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as Tribes solely for the purpose establishing casinos. It’s a scam and it beliitles the real issues faces by genuine tribes.

          If it is Reservations you are talking about, then we are in complete agreement that the tribal leaders and the tribe should have the final say as to what happens on their land. What I object to is when they seek to usurp the rights of land owners off the Reservations. That has happened many times here in Arizona and I object to it.

          • The land swaps are part of it. The biggest bit of shenanigans is they don’t do DNA tests to determine if there is ANY Native American blood among these claimants. The BIA simply accepts their word for it. I would think that in order to protect the few rights of the Native Americans, more efforts would be expended checking the bonafides of those claiming such rights. It is just one more way that Native Americans are hurt by the very Governmental Agencies set uo to protect their interests.

  2. And U.S. Senator John McCain goes all around the world kicking peoples teeth in and then comes back to Arizona and tells everyone that has a U.S. Government defense contract that the contracts will be getting bigger, better and more lucrative and then U.S. Senator John McCain steals the copper from the Native Americans off of their reservation and then gives the copper to a foreign company owned by Iran (has stock in) one of Americas enemies to pay for the wars that U.S. Senator John McCain has started. U.S. Senator John McCain was directly responsible for getting all of those men, women and children murdered in Syria. He illegally went into the country behind Americas back and incited them to riot. And you people still vote for him?

    • After he gets through the Primaries (and I wish he wouldn’t), the only alternative is a Democrat. THAT is why he keeps getting elected.

      • Yes he does and the way he does that is all of his supports beat down any other REPUBLICAN THAT RUNS AGAINST HIM and then they are told by U.S. Senator John McCains supporters to wait their turn and if they don’t they are destroyed! Any DEMOCRAT that runs against him is also destroyed!!!

  3. Both sets of my Issei grandparents came legally as contract workers to the Kingdom of Hawai, then Trust Territory of Hawaii from the country of Japan to work in the sugar plantations. But they were not allowed to become U.S. Citizens due to the racism against Asians. All their children (Nisei) were U. S. Citizens, including my parents.

  4. America is an equal opportunity hate distributor.

    First we hated and killed Indians for owning the land we set foot on.
    Since then…..We’ve hated the Chinese. We’ve hated the Polish. We’ve hated the Germans. We’ve hated the Italians. We’ve hated the Jews. We’ve locked up the Japanese.
    Is there any question that America would hate Mexicans too?

    BTW, my grandparents came from Russia. They had no papers, and America didn’t know they were coming.

    • Most countries are equal opportunity hate distributors. Minorities are always targeted for discrimination, if not outright genocide, simply for being. That is not unique to America. The main difference is that we feel guilty about it…at least the vast majority of us feel guilty about it. We do still have those for whom hatred of others is de Riguer. Whether it is race. religion, culture, ethnicity, or what have you, some people find a way to hate others. Fortunately, they are in the minority. And before to retort that it is always right wingers, the left has it’s share of haters.

  5. If an act is not prohibited by law, then it is a legal act. The government does not have to pass a law legalizing the chewing of gum for it to be legal to chew gum.
    The premise of your post is flawed.

    • That would be the premise of professor Ben Railton. His point is that people who claim that “my ancestors came here legally” imply that they did so pursuant to a regime of immigration laws. It was never a choice they had to make because there were no laws. So the assertion is false, despite your facetious analogy. As a co-sponsor of the unconstitutional SB 1070, I doubt you care.

  6. I am part native american and my ancestors were driven from the east to oklahoma because andy jackson wanted to steal their land. When we get back georgia alabama and tennessee then lets talk about stealing arizona and not giving drivers licenses to undocumented pilgrims!

    • I was born and pretty much raised in eastern Oklahoma you can have that place back to. My mom was Spanish and my dad was German/Danish. I was raised in a German and Indian home under their customs. I don’t understand Spanish ways or customs and I have gotten hurt because of it. I was violently ran out of AZ 3 times and each time I was ran back to AZ and told to stay In AZ and never leave. I am in fear for my life to live in AZ but I am in more fear for my life if I leave AZ. I don’t love AZ but I am learning to like it. I do love the desert tho.

      • You really need to elaborate a little bit! Who violently ran you out of Arizona 3 different times and then ran you back in? That sounds like many laws were broken…

    • Chill out, Dude. The administrator just had not yet approved it. It was not deleted. We all have lives around here!

  7. My ancestors came from Germany and settled in New York City with the Dutch until the English came along and chased them all into eastern Pennsylvania where they became part of the Pennsylvania Dutch (a twist on the word “Deutch” or “German”). They, too, were neither legal or illegal, but they were also not welcomed and faced great discrimination.

    When we needed immigants to fill the vast open spaces of our Country, open immigration was fine. We no longer have that need and we have a right as a Nation to limit who enters our Country. All countries on earth have that right and they excerize it. If someone comes here it should be of benefit to the Nation. One thing we don’t need is untrained, illiterate, uneducated people with criminal backgrounds. We are quite capable of producing all we need of that type internally.

    • ” One thing we don’t need is untrained, illiterate, uneducated people with criminal backgrounds.” That describes a large swath of American citizens, many of whom can trace their ancestry back hundreds of years. Just sayin’.

      • That is very true and no doubt includes some of my ancestors. However, today we can and should be selective. Just sayin’…

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