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Why 'Legal Immigration' Doesn't Apply To Early Immigrants To The U.S.


In the ongoing immigration debate, there's this argument that you sometimes hear usually from people who favor restrictions on immigration. And the argument goes something like this. My ancestors came to the U.S. legally, so why can't people do the same today? Kevin Jennings is on a mission to point out why this argument is problematic. He is the president of the Tenement Museum in New York City, and he's with us now. Hi.

KEVIN JENNINGS: Thank you for having me on.

MCEVERS: So what's wrong with that statement?

JENNINGS: It's basically a meaningless statement because for most of American history, there was no immigration law. It wasn't until the 1880s that we had any federal immigration law of any kind, and it wasn't until 1924 that we began requiring papers of people coming to the United States. So when you say your ancestors came here legally, basically you're not saying anything because for most of American history, coming here legally meant getting off the boat.

MCEVERS: Like, there was no legal or illegal. Anybody could come.

JENNINGS: Exactly. At the Tenement Museum, we tell the stories of families that came in the 1800s and 1900s, and the majority of them just got off the boat and walked over to the Lower East Side and started a new life. It wasn't until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which was designed to - as exactly as it sounds - to exclude people of Chinese descent from entering the United States that we had any federal restriction on who could enter the country of any kind.

MCEVERS: You've written an op-ed about this in the LA Times, and you tell the stories of two women who lived in the building that your museum occupies today. Can you tell us about them?

JENNINGS: Sure. The first woman's Nathalie Gumpertz. She came in 1858. She was a German immigrant. She basically got off the boat and made her way to the Lower East Side, which was then called Kleindeutschland, or Little Germany, because everyone there was German-speaking.


JENNINGS: In fact New York was the third-largest German-speaking city in the world in 1860 after Berlin and Vienna. And Nathalie got married, had four kids, set up a whole new life - no big deal. Fifty years later, a different woman shows up - Rosaria Baldizzi - in 1925. She's facing a totally different set of circumstances because in 1924, we passed the National Origins Act which set quotas for how many immigrants could come here from different countries. It was deliberately passed to try and exclude people of inferior races, which back then meant people from Southern and Eastern Europe like Italians and Jews.

Rosaria came over to join her husband who had come first to America before the passage of the act to set up a home for his family. When Rosaria came, there was a very low quota on Italian immigration, so she had to come illegally. And she lived in the United States for 20 years before she was able to finally get citizenship. So whereas Nathalie was able to get off the boat in 1858, just start a new life, Rosaria had to live in the shadows for two decades.

MCEVERS: So what would you say to the argument that we're hearing that people coming to the U.S. now have to respect the laws of the land whether you like them or not? How does that sound to you?

JENNINGS: Well, I just would say to people who are saying that - careful what you wish for. If those laws had existed when your ancestors came, you'd probably still be living in Italy or Poland. The reality is, immigration law is a moving target in America. It has not existed for most of our history, and when it has existed, it has waxed and waned with different attitudes towards people coming into the country.

MCEVERS: Do you actually hear this from people at the Tenement Museum or elsewhere? You know, my ancestors came here legally. And when you do hear it, what do you say?

JENNINGS: Yeah. I mean, frankly this is something that has been bothering us at the museum for many, many years because we will hear that from visitors. And our educators of course know that that's not entirely true. We've had incidents at the museum where we've been explaining the history of immigration law in this country and how often it was based in racism. That passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was clearly racist. The passage of the 1924 National Origins Act was designed to exclude inferior races like Italians and Jews. And people become very angry. And we've actually had people walk out of tours because they feel like we are promoting an agenda, whereas all we're really doing is telling them the history of this country.

MCEVERS: Kevin Jennings is the president of the Tenement Museum in New York City. Thanks so much for your time.

JENNINGS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.