James Ottavio Castagnera: Immigrant Floods Are Recurrent

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mr. Castagnera, a Philadelphia journalist and attorney, is the Associate Provost at Rider University and author of the weekly newspaper column “Attorney at Large.”]

The nation’s first “immigrant crisis” of the new century, like a pimple on the body politic, is coming to a head. The president appeared on TV last week to try to pull the two houses of Congress together on the issue, while --- just incidentally --- pumping up his own sagging popularity balloon. Mr. Bush painted a picture of National Guardsmen patrolling our southern borders, while ICE operatives presumably raid domestic workplaces. Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, calling the last federal effort to control immigration a farce, offered an amendment requiring the Director of Homeland Security to certify border security before any amnesty program for current illegals could kick in.

Senator Sessions is perfectly right that the last major federal legislative initiative, exactly 20 years ago, legalized large numbers of illegals while failing to achieve enforcement measures to stem the flow. The 1986 enforcement fiasco, like the current “crisis,” was nothing new. A century ago, another Republican president, no less a light than Teddy Roosevelt, struggled with much the same problems.

In the early years of the 20 th century, a “Yellow Tide” (aka the “Yellow Peril”) was flowing primarily out of Japan, often via Hawaii. In 1907 anti-immigrant riots erupted in San Francisco. TR wrote to a Japanese official, “Nothing during my presidency has given me more concern than these troubles.” Americans placed much of the blame on the Niponese government for making exit from Japan a relatively easy process. Some war talk even ensued. More substantially, but no more successfully, the Congress enacted an Immigration Act. Like the 1986 statute, the 1907 legislation had little impact upon the influx of coolly labor on the West Coast.

In 1908, as Roosevelt sent the White Fleet into the Pacific on its famous around-the-world cruise, Secretary of State Elihu Root used this “big stick” to bully Japan into honoring a so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” to cut off coolly migration at its source. Root warned Ambassador Aoki that, unless there came “a very speedy change in the course of immigration,” the 16 th Congress was sure to pass a Japanese-exclusion act. The show of naval strength plus the threat of adverse legislation prodded the Nipon government to take action. The illegal influx decreased, though it never ceased entirely.

Then, as now, the lines were drawn between those who benefited from illegal immigration and those who felt threatened. As President Roosevelt was trying to promote legislation allowing for the naturalization of illegal Japanese living on the West Coast, the San Francisco Board of Education issued an order segregating Japanese school children. As labor unions in the “City by the Bay” agitated to repatriate the illegals, TR reminded the city’s citizens that they had happily accepted $100,000 in earthquake relief from Japan in ’06, and chided the unions that they were against the coolies “because of their efficiency as workers.” Indeed, the coolies were helping corporate America to build the West.

Today, too, as some 75% of ordinary Americans polled show little sympathy for the current crop of illegal aliens, these spiritual descendants of California’s 1906 coolies work for employers who are happy to have them. For instance, in an April cover story, Time Magazine found that 70 % of workers deboning chickens in an Arkansas plant were illegal immigrants. A recent NPR report focused on a New York employment service specializing in placing illegal aliens in bottom-feeder positions such as washing dishes for about $250 a week.

In 1886, the year the U.S. dedicated the Statue of Liberty, a Seattle mob put about half of that city’s 350 Chinese residents on a ship and sent them to San Francisco. Shipping “home” the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. today is a practical impossibility, as well as a humanitarian’s nightmare. In fact, the same Time poll that discovered a lack of empathy for illegal immigrants also revealed that 78% of those queried favor citizenship opportunities for illegals already in the states, who hold jobs, speak English and pay taxes.

This time around, too, some slivers of organized labor are actually advocating for illegal immigrants. The Service Employees International Union, which recently separated itself from the AFL-CIO, leads a maverick coalition that actively organizes the bottom rung of our national workforce.

These last couple of data points suggest that perhaps things, while despairingly the same in so many respects, may differ from a century ago on at least some important points. If so, we may hope that this time around the result of the current national debate will be a balanced, effective immigration policy that secures the borders while also securing the civil rights and liberties of all who are already within our borders.