Correction to This Article
A May 8 article on the history of immigration to the United States incorrectly said that Ellis Island opened in 1882. The New York portal for immigrants opened in 1892.

U.S. Immigration Debate Is a Road Well Traveled

About 16 million immigrants came through New York's Ellis Island entry point from 1882 to 1922.
About 16 million immigrants came through New York's Ellis Island entry point from 1882 to 1922. (Associated Press)

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By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

NEW YORK -- They were portrayed as a disreputable lot, the immigrant hordes of this great city.

The Germans refused for decades to give up their native tongue and raucous beer gardens. The Irish of Hell's Kitchen brawled and clung to political sinecures. The Jews crowded into the Lower East Side, speaking Yiddish, fomenting socialism and resisting forced assimilation. And by their sheer numbers, the immigrants depressed wages in the city.

As for the multitudes of Italians, who settled Mulberry Street, East Harlem and Canarsie? In 1970, seven decades after their arrival, Italians lagged behind every immigrant group in educational achievement.

The bitter arguments of the past echo loudly these days as Congress debates toughening the nation's immigration laws and immigrants from Latin America and Asia swell the streets of U.S. cities in protest. Most of the concerns voiced today -- that too many immigrants seek economic advantage and fail to understand democracy, that they refuse to learn English, overcrowd homes and overwhelm public services -- were heard a century ago. And there was a nub of truth to some complaints, not least that the vast influx of immigrants drove down working-class wages.

Yet historians and demographers are clear about the bottom line: In the long run, New York City -- and the United States -- owes much of its economic resilience to replenishing waves of immigrants. The descendants of those Italians, Jews, Irish and Germans have assimilated. Manhattan's Little Italy is vestigial, no more than a shrinking collection of restaurants.

Now another wave washes over. Fully 38 percent of New York's 8 million residents are foreign-born, nearly the same percentage as a century ago.

"It would be easy to say the short-run costs of immigration outweighed the benefits," said Joe Salvo, a director at New York's City Planning Department. "But the benefits are longer term. We wouldn't be the superpower we are if we hadn't let them in."

Advocates of stricter enforcement argue that those who came a century ago were different because they arrived legally. Movies and novels depict customs agents at New York's Ellis Island -- that keyhole through which 16 million immigrants passed from 1882 to 1922 -- examining immigrants and their papers with a capricious eye toward shipping back laggards.

Peggy Noonan, a former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan, wrote about her Irish forebears in a Wall Street Journal column: "They waited in line. They passed the tests. They had to get permission to come. . . . They had to get through Ellis Island . . . get questioned and eyeballed by a bureaucrat with a badge."

But these accounts are flawed, historians say. Until 1918, the United States did not require passports; the term "illegal immigrant" had no meaning. New arrivals were required only to prove their identity and find a relative or friend who could vouch for them.

Customs agents kept an eye out for lunatics and the infirm (and after 1905, for anarchists). Ninety-eight percent of the immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island were admitted to the United States, and 78 percent spent less than eight hours on the island. (The Mexico-United States border then was unguarded and freely crossed in either direction.) "Shipping companies did the health inspections in Europe because they didn't want to be stuck taking someone back," said Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at Hunter College and author of "From Ellis Island to JFK: New York's Two Great Waves of Immigration." "Eventually they introduced a literacy test," she added, "but it was in the immigrant's own language, not English."

At the peak of that earlier wave, 75 percent of immigrants landed in New York. Some, like Germans fleeing failed revolutions, sought democracy. Others, like the Jews fleeing Russian pogroms, sought safety.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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