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Illegal Aliens

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I like Arizona. It has a dry climate, beautiful skies, and the Grand Canyon. But now it is about to be hit with a boycott, and may lose the granddaddy of federal civil rights law suits. What can be done to help the state?

This all seems to be about illegal aliens; everyone appears to be worried about then. A friend of mine, the grand-daughter of immigrants from Eastern Europe, told me that while she supported legal migration, she totally opposed illegal immigration. She is also a big hobbyist of genealogy, tracking her family roots overseas. Go figure.

So who are these evil-doers, that have everybody in a tizzy? And how can knowing this help Arizona? History is a useful guide in this case, or, as Al Smith used to say, "Let's look at the record."

This topic seems like one of those longstanding debates that goes back a long time, maybe even to the dawn of the Republic. After all, we've been arguing about this forever, had illegal aliens since the days of the Founding Fathers, correct?

Simply put: no. That is not accurate. The term illegal alien only dates from the 1920s, no earlier.

There is useful history here. While America has always had immigrants -- it was founded by people whose ancestors weren't born here, for crying out loud -- we didn't divide them into categories till fairly recently.

During the late nineteenth century, Americans were becoming concerned about newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe. We called this the new immigration, compared to the older streams from Northern and Western Europe. Places like the British Isles (excluding Irish--they were only good at being big city bosses) and Germany. We had our favorites, of course--the old was good, the new was bad--and we passed some mild restrictive laws, but no one knew from illegal aliens.

In 1914 the First World War started, and cut off the flow of people migrating from Europe -- anywhere in Europe -- to the United States. No one could get across war zones to make it to the ports, and passenger ships weren't going to buck the submarine threat, either.

Many Americans feared that after the war there would be a flood of immigrants, not from Latin America or Asia, but from the places that had been sending immigrants here before the war: Southern and Eastern Europe.

And in one sense they were right. With the end of the Great War, 1919 saw the second highest number of immigrants arrive at our shores of that entire wave of immigration; only in 1906 were the figures any higher.

Adding to the concern was the 1920 Census, which showed that for the first time in American history, 51% of Americans lived in cities. Forget the fact that the Census defined cities as any place with 2,500 or more residents--I've lived in apartment buildings with more people--the old ways of the small town and the farm were going. And immigrants were taking over from the native born.

So Americans took action. They passed the immigration bill of 1921.

This was a nasty bit of work. It set a total limit of immigrants allowed in each year at roughly 350,000. It also set a quota for each country, derived from their percentage of the population.

Put in as plain language as census descriptions ever get, each country's quota was based on how many people had either immigrated directly from, or else descended from, folks who had arrived from that nation.

This was a rotten game, designed to rig the results. If ten people had arrived in 1750 from someplace, anyplace -- let's just take... oohhh... Great Britain as an example -- the number of that original cluster's descendants would be huge by the twentieth century. And the base year was 1910, set back a decade to exclude from the figures all those who had recently fled the devastation in Europe.

But that wasn't sufficient. In 1924 we revised this with another immigration act, even lousier. This one cut the yearly total in half, to 165,000.

Even more important, it moved the base year to 1890, thus totally excluding from the quota count the entire generation of immigrants who had recently come and made their home in America, from Southern and Eastern Europe. The figures for some nations were moved way down under this revision, way up for other nations. Guess which kinds of places fell into each category?

Thus, these bills were specifically designed to keep out, not just too many immigrants, but immigrants from specific places, places that were undesirable. Places like Italy and Poland. Places that were Catholic and Jewish.

But these laws also changed our language. Because the quotas were so low from the countries where a lot of people wanted to emigrate to America, and so rich from countries where there weren't many people interested in coming here, there was pressure to beat the quotas, to come in over and above them. Thus we created for the first time, the terms "legal" and "illegal" aliens.

To put this bluntly -- but also as historically precise as possible -- the concept of illegal alien did not come about to describe people from Mexico, or Latin America, or even Asia. It was created to describe folks from Southern and Eastern Europe. If you are Greek or Russian or Polish (Catholic or Jewish), Italian or Slovak, your ancestors were the ones we created the term "illegal alien" for, to keep out the rest of your kind. And the folks who came up this idea probably wanted to send your family back as well, even if they had come over before the law was passed. You're the first generation of "illegal aliens".

So how can this help Arizona, in its current difficulty? The new bill says that law enforcement officials at any level can stop anyone and ask for their citizenship papers, force them to prove that they're not illegal aliens, or face dire consequences. Opponents of the law claim this will violate federal law, which bans racial profiling. And that would lead to big problems for the state.

So history provides a simple, effective solution for Arizona's dilemma. Simply look back to the traditional definition of illegal alien, and ask everyone for their papers. All those folks with funny European names, the children and grandchildren of the people who terrorized us years ago. Yes, that word. That's how scared we were of these people. Who knows what germs, disease, bombs, their descendants are carrying?

Checking all these white folks for their papers, and incarcerating those without proper documentation, will have a lot of impacts. First, it will make Arizona a safer place. Second, it will eliminate the charges of racial profiling that surround this law.

And third, it should do wonders for tourism to the state.

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