The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú is an important read and look at immigration from many sides of the “line.” La Migra. Immigrants. Families. Emotional. Analytical. It was deeply humanizing read of a highly polarized conversation. I liked that Cantú shared his own emotional and philosophic turmoil, the inhumanity of the Boarder Patrol and the life experience of Jose and his family.
Like many of my generation, all of my grandparents immigrated from Eastern Europe, arriving with the great wave of immigration in the early 1900s. My partner of 21 years is an Asian immigrant. We went through H1B status, work permits and finally getting a green card. We are shortly going to begin the process of renewing her green card. I have been involved with many organizations that work with immigrants and have friends that are undocumented. I have been deeply saddened and concerned by the “Muslim ban,” separation of children and parents, the militarization of the border with Mexico and the racist and anti-immigrant sentiment of our current president.
Trump hasn’t just made it difficult to get into the country, he has helped to create a climate that is hostile to immigrants. Especially for poor immigrants. Getting food stamps is now grounds for being denying a green card and being deported.
However, I also do not abide by the level of political dialogue in this country about immigration. The right and the left have vastly oversimplified immigration history. For the right, immigrants are bad, criminals and drug dealers. For the left, the poetry on the Statue of Liberty is “Truth”:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door
Similar to the stain of slavery on the history of the US, the actuality of US immigration policy is not pretty or clean.
We have opened and closed our doors based on political, economic and other considerations many times. The impact on the lives of the people left out and the families divided has rarely been considered.
In 1655, Peter Stuyvesant wanted to turn away a boat of Jews fleeing Brazil and the specter of the Inquisition. Most of their families had fled Portugal to escape the Inquisition’s threat of torture and death. The Dutch West India Company allowed them to enter New Amsterdam on the condition that they did not become a burden. Once he let them in, Stuyvesant tried his hardest to make the Jews unwelcome so they would be forced to leave.
The first significant wave of immigration to the US was between 1850 and the early 1900s when 5 million Germans, 3.5 million British and 4.5 million Irish emigrated. We needed the labor. There was a backlash against Irish Catholic immigration, but no national legislation was passed.
Immigration did not become a federal responsibility until 1875. Prior to that, the states made their own laws.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese men from entering the US (Chinese women were barred 7 years earlier). In addition, the Act made it impossible for Chinese already in the US to become citizens. They could not leave the country and come back in. This Act was modified but not repealed until 1943.
From 1880s to the 1920s there was a massive immigration from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe to the US. More than 20 million people emigrated, most from Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. 4 million Italians. 2 million Jews.
Ellis Island was opened in 1892 to handle the influx. Immigrants were subject to medical examination, literacy tests and financial requirements. Many were sent back as soon as they stepped foot on the Island.
Again a backlash.
The Immigration Act of 1924 banned all Asian immigration and was the first to set immigration quotas through the National Origins Formula. The quotas were based on 2% of the number of people from that country that were in the US in 1890. This was deliberately done to dramatically reduce the number of Jews, Italians and other “undesirables.” The result was that Brits and Germans could enter, but good luck if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe.
As a result of the new law, the 1924 quota for Italians was 4,000. The prior year (1923), 200,000 Italians had immigrated. Incidentally, this was the year that the Border Patrol was established. People continued to pass freely through the border from Mexico to the US as it was not affected by the National Origins Formula.
The National Origins Formula was not fully abolished until 1965 and was one of the main reasons that Jews fleeing Hitler could not get visas to enter the US.
In the ensuing decades we have tightened or opened immigration for particular countries and groups for political reasons many, many times. This is not meant to be an exhaustive treatise on immigration, more a sampling of the history.
What I loved about Cantú’s book is the humanity that he brings to this history. The heartache, arrogance and immorality of being a border patrol agent. The pain of a family split up. The love of Cantu for his mother, friends, Mexico and history. The effort of Jose to cross the border at almost any cost to reunite with family.
I do long for an immigration policy that is humane, that allows hope for people all over the world searching for a better life. But I think we need to start with the reality of what immigration looks like in this country. And, I do not think it will be possible to create a humane immigration policy until the people of this country have a much stronger say in the political process. If, and when, that happens, we will need to touch each other and our histories and allow that to inform our decision making. And, we will need to understand immigration as an international issue with ramifications across many borders.
Cantú’s book is a good start in that direction. I think much is forgotten in all the debates and rhetoric. Real people, real lives, real hardships and real history. Cantu expresses that very passionately, honestly and clearly.
Sue Davies is a longtime independent activist and the founder of New Jersey Independent Voters. Your can follow NJIV on Facebook. She is a member of Independent Voting’s Eyes on 2020 National Cabinet, working to get the presidential primaries open to independents across the country. For the past 30 years, Sue has been a senior nonprofit executive in New York and New Jersey and now serves as an Adjunct Professor at NYU. When not organizing in New Jersey, Sue is often found traveling the world (www.travelforlifenow.com).