Editor’s note: Rep. Steve King has recently been in the news for his anti-immigration reform efforts, which have been rebuked by many of his Republican colleagues. This article, written last year, corrects some of his earlier assertions regarding immigration.

Last week, a Member of Congress from Iowa invoked Ellis Island as an example of the glory days of immigration.  A century ago, Representative Steve King argued, the immigrants that entered through Ellis Island in New York Harbor were the “cream of the crop.” In Representative King’s view, the problem with our current immigration policy is that we no longer are selective in ensuring that we admit immigrants who will contribute to our society and our economy.

There are at least two flaws in Mr. King’s argument.  First, he does not seem to have a particularly good understanding of history.  Secondly, his comments suggest some confusion about how our current immigration laws function, which is ironic since, as the vice chairman of the House Subcommittee responsible for immigration, he is actually one of a few people in the country responsible for writing the laws.

As many as 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry to one of the 17 million immigrants processed through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Film and television have romanticized the image that many have of these immigrant ancestors: we remember them, as historian Nancy Foner writes, as men and women who “worked hard, they strove to become assimilated, they pulled themselves up by their own Herculean efforts…they had strong family values and colorful roots. They were, in short, what made America great.”  While there is some truth to that description, we’ve also selectively forgotten a lot about the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.  They didn’t all learn English the day that they stepped off the boat: like today’s immigrants, most learned over time, but they started with enough “survival English” to get by.  They (or their children) eventually did integrate into American society, but many initially lived in ethnic-specific tenements, isolated from the larger society not only because they felt more comfortable amongst those who could understand their languages but also because there were many American citizens that did not want them in their neighborhoods.

You see, though we revere them now, many Americans at the time resented the immigrants who came through Ellis Island, most of whom were not, contrary to Mr. King’s memory, the “cream of the crop” by any conventional measure, but were, in most cases, poor and with little formal education.  At a time when the vast majority of Americans were Protestant Christians, these newcomers were very often Catholics or Jewish, which was another reason they were not welcomed.

Though a growing anti-immigrant sentiment did lead to gradual legal restrictions on who could immigrate to the U.S.—beginning, in 1882, with the Chinese Exclusion Act (prior to which time there was no federal immigration law at all, and thus no illegal immigration)—until the 1920s, the vast majority of immigrants were allowed into the U.S., regardless of what they had to offer the country.  As Representative King acknowledged in his remarks, it was only “2 percent [that] didn’t meet high enough standards so they were put back on the boat.”  He tries, curiously, to uphold that 2 percent rejection rate as an example of how we used to be selective in choosing the most “worthy” immigrants.  One would think, based on his logic, that our policy today admitted more than 98 percent of prospective immigrants.

The reality is that the vast majority of would-be immigrants today are shut out from lawful migration.  In 1924, in response to growing anti-immigrant public sentiment as a result of the unprecedented immigration rates of the Ellis Island era, our Congress dramatically restricted immigration. This was done by setting quotas that tightly limited immigration, with a strong bias against immigrants from the Southern and Eastern European countries that many felt had “polluted” the country during Ellis Island.

Our laws changed again in 1965, switching from a system that limited immigration based on country of origin to one based on family relationships and employability.  Those are still the pillars of our current system, which still includes congressionally-stipulated quotas on how many immigrants can come each year in each category.  The reality is that it’s much, much harder to immigrate lawfully to the U.S. in 2012 than it was in 1912. In 1912, one simply boarded a boat (without the need for a visa) and, 98% of the time, would be admitted through Ellis Island. Today a would-be immigrant must for apply for a visa, for which only a small percentage of the world’s would-be immigrants will qualify.  For example, current law provides, at most, 5,000 immigrant visas per year for employer-sponsored immigrants who are not considered to be “highly-skilled.”  By contrast, 5,000 immigrants—most of whom would be considered “low-skilled” by today’s classifications—entered through Ellis Island in an average day.  Our immigration policies today are far more restrictive than they were at Ellis Island.

A neighbor of mine illustrates well the challenges of our current legal system for the many for whom there is no line for lawful migration: she migrated to the Chicago area more than twenty years ago, but her only U.S. citizen family members—cousins—were not close enough relatives to file a petition on her behalf to migrate lawfully.  She came to work, but the work she would eventually do as a drive-thru worker at a fast food restaurant did not qualify as “highly-skilled.” The chance of being sponsored for one of those very few employer-sponsored visas designated for the other-than-highly-skilled was basically zero.  She came fleeing poverty in Mexico, but she could not prove that she was fleeing persecution, and thus she did not qualify as a refugee.  And, the Diversity Visa Lottery—through which less than 0.5 percent of entrants win permanent legal status each year—is closed to Mexican nationals, as well as to those of the other countries that already send the most migrants to the U.S.  For my neighbor, there was no lawful chance to migrate.

My neighbor came anyway—illegally, entering across the southern border without inspection—and she has been contributing to our economy as a hard worker and as a taxpayer for decades now.  Unlike my ancestors, though, who came at an earlier time in American history and were able to work hard and eventually become Americans, my neighbor has no option of ever becoming a citizen of the United States under current law.

If Ellis Island “worked”—if, as a nation, we’re better off because of the 17 million immigrants who risked everything to make it in America—it is not because our policies at the time were highly selective, as Representative King suggests.  On the contrary, it is because America was still a land of opportunity for those who were willing to work exceptionally hard that our nation as a whole was blessed by the Ellis Island era immigrants.  Many of us still think we are that land of opportunity, but the reality is that the “golden door” has been mostly shut for a long time now.  Were we to open it just a bit—with a tough but fair process through which most of the 10.8 million immigrants who are currently undocumented could earn their way onto a path to citizenship and full integration—our grandchildren might reflect back a century from now and thank God for the immigrants at the turn of the 21st century who blessed our nation.


Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.  His blogs appear here on Mondays. 

Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated. 

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3 Responses to Historical Amnesia

  1. Tim Campbell says:

    Great blog, Matt!

  2. Lance Conklin says:

    Matthew,

    This is great Blog. I appreciate your historical perspective on immigration that is so missing with people and clearly congress.

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