The Election Chronicles, Volume 6: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Constitution, Part 1

As I write this we are 14 months away from the 2016 presidential election and at this point immigration appears the be the primary issue. I hope the national discussion moves on, but for now this is what we have.

I’ve always been fascinated by this because as Americans we recognize that we are a “nation of immigrants” (apologies to our Native Americans) but at the same time we’ve shown a shocking lack of tolerance for our latest immigrants.

In the 1800s (when our nation was about 100 years old) there was a push to limit immigration. In the 1850s we saw the birth of the Know Nothing Party. They got their name because they were instructed to say “I know nothing” whenever anyone asked them to explain their position. It didn’t work: nearly everyone knew that they believed that immigrants (particularly Catholic ones) were going to destroy the United States.

The “No Nothing Party” didn’t last long but the fear of immigrants did. Large cities on the East Coast were replete with anti-immigrant feelings. Nearly everyone who sought a job saw signs on factory windows that said: “NINA.” It was code for “No Irish Need Apply” or “No Italians Need Apply.”

This ran against the reality that these immigrants made us who we are today. Speaking of the Irish, many of us look fondly on President John F. Kennedy. His great grandfather, Patrick Kennedy (1823-1858) immigrated to Boston in 1849. Interestingly enough he came from Ireland to Boston 39 years before my great grandfather made the same trip.

Not impressed with John Kennedy? Fair enough. How about President Ronald Reagan? His grandfather, John Michael Reagan (1854-1889) left England and came to New York in 1871.

Still not impressed? Fair enough. The grandfather of Donald Trump, Frederick Christ Trump (1869-1918) came to the United States in 1885.

Now Donald and all his “Know Nothing” followers will claim that they all came here legally and that makes a difference.

Fair enough, as far as it goes. But here’s the problem: Until 1921 nearly anyone who came here could stay. In 1882 President Chester A. Arthur (1829-1886) signed the Chinese Exclusion Act which made it difficult, even impossible at times, for Chinese immigrants to stay and become citizens. But that applied only to the Chinese.

If you came from nearly anywhere else it was different. My father’s parents were both born in Canada. They loved the land where they were born but knew it was too hard to make a living and they made their way to Massachusetts. And they did it much the same way John Kennedy’s great grandfather, Ronald Reagan’s grandfather, and Donald Trump’s grandfather did the same thing.

They all had the good fortune to arrive before 1921. In that year Congress passed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 which limited immigration from all countries. It’s been amended countless times since then but the reality remains: no matter where you were born, no matter what you face in your country, no matter what you can offer in terms of your skills, no matter what you dream about for your children, it’s much harder to come here legally.

If you were born in Mexico, have a high school education, and don’t have a relative to sponsor you, it’s a hard climb. Thousands of undocumented workers currently in the United States came here under the radar and mow your lawn, wash the dishes when you eat at a restaurant, and clean your house.

Donald and his ilk claim that they have no problem with them, they just want them to “wait their turn” and get here legally. Fair enough. So here’s my question: how long do you think it will take for someone with a high school education and no family here to get a green card? Do you think it’s a year? Maybe 5 years? Maybe a little more?

Guess again. I’ve done some research and it appears that it will take you about 25 years to come here legally. So if you first applied in 1990, your phone should ring soon. If you apply today, be by your phone in 2040. Of course if you were 20 years old at the time (and could work hard in difficult situations) you’re now 45. Mexico got your best years.

My grandfather came here in 1915 when he was 23. By 1940 (25 years later) he was married with 7 children. Those years were much better spent here than they would have been in Canada.

Enough for now. My next blog post will discuss how Trump’s position requires amending the Constitution.

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