Many people assume that their family immigrated to the U.S. legally, or did it “the right way.” In most cases, this statement does not reflect the fact that the U.S. immigration system was very different when their families arrived, and that their families might not have been allowed to enter had today’s laws been in effect. In some cases, claiming that a family came “legally” is simply inaccurate—undocumented immigration has been a reality for generations.
Many of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws. Today’s requirements that potential immigrants have close family ties to qualified U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or have employment offers in particular fields, would have effectively restricted many of our families from coming legally to the U.S.
Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. The new nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.” There was no border surveillance to allow only those with proper documents to enter the U.S. Potential immigrants did not have to obtain visas at U.S. consulates before entering the country. Rather, immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island and other seaports), be inspected, and be allowed in if they didn’t fall into any of the excluded categories.
Prior to the 1920s, there were no numerical limitations on immigration to the U.S., but certain persons were banned from entering. The first “illegal” immigrants were people, like the Chinese, who were banned from entering the U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882. Over the years, immigration laws were passed that restricted certain categories of persons from immigrating, but no numerical limitations or quotas existed. Those persons barred from immigrating included Asians (except Japanese and Filipinos), prostitutes, paupers, polygamists, persons with “dangerous and loathsome contagious disease,” persons likely to become a public charge, anarchists and radicals, the “feebleminded” and “insane,” and the illiterate. The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter. Of course, some people lied about their health and political beliefs and entered “illegally.” The Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.
Every restriction generated illegal immigration. The Asian exclusion laws resulted in an “illegal” Asian population. As laws were passed to keep out less desirable Eastern and Southern Europeans, immigrants from those countries—as well as others who could not pass literacy tests, pay the head tax, or enter through the quota system—began to enter illegally. In 1925, the Immigration Service reported 1.4 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally. A June 17, 1923, New York Times article reported that W. H. Husband, commissioner general of immigration, had been trying for two years “to stem the flow of immigrants from central and southern Europe, Africa and Asia that has been leaking across the borders of Mexico and Canada and through the ports of the east and west coasts.” A September 16, 1927, New York Times article describes government plans for stepped-up Coast Guard patrols because thousands of Chinese, Japanese, Greeks, Russians, and Italians were landing in Cuba and then hiring smugglers to take them to the U.S. illegally. Many immigrants were also violating the laws of their home countries which required them to get permission to migrate, complete military service, or pay off debts prior to leaving.
Many European immigrants benefited from amnesties. Acknowledging the large numbers of illegal Europeans in the U.S., the government devised ways for them to remain in the U.S. legally. “Deserving” illegal European immigrants could benefit from various programs and legalize their status. The 1929 Registry Act allowed “honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity” to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the U.S. since 1921 and were of “good moral character.” Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940—80% were European or Canadian. Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 illegal Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through “pre-examination”—a process that allowed them to leave the U.S. voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a “touch-back” program)—or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in “meritorious” cases. Approximately 73% of those benefitting from suspension of deportation were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians).