Depression Era Dreamers


Poll after poll says that most Americans favor putting the DACA dreamers on a path towards citizenship, but congressional hardliners like Steve King (R-IA), Lou Barletta (R-PA), and Glenn Grothmann (R-WI) believe that the dreamers should be treated like any other “illegal alien.”

It seems that the politicians most critical of immigration today are also the most likely to praise immigration in the past. They are apt to wax nostalgic on the virtues of the Ellis Island era when all the immigrants waited their turn in line and came here legally. Yet any conscientious reading of immigration history indicates that illegal immigration was a problem even in the good old days.

In 1933, in the wake of Great Wave immigration, the Roosevelt Administration appointed a committee to study operations at Ellis Island, as well as to repair what was then considered a broken immigration system. While immigrant arrivals were down due to joblessness and admissions quotas imposed by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the foreign-born share of the population remained high (11.6%). America was at the beginning of a long lull in immigration, but the Ellis Island Committee had no way of knowing this. They set about their task as if mass immigration might soon revive. Within a year, they had released a report that proposed a range of physical improvements to the immigration station and recommendations for the treatment of immigrants in general. The committee was especially concerned to correct “defects in deportation policy,” which resulted from the restrictive legislation of the 1920s.

The Ellis Island Committee were by no means “open borders” advocates. They had no interest in raising immigrant numbers while millions of Americans were unemployed. They were concerned, however, with the large number of undocumented residents in their midst. Some of these “underground immigrants,” to borrow a term used then, had slipped across land borders. It was not uncommon for immigrants who thought that they would be turned back at Ellis Island to travel to Canada or Mexico, then to cross an unguarded frontier. Others came via Cuba, a base for trafficking operations. Still others included merchant seamen who took up residence innocently, and stowaways who came with evasion in mind.

Among the unauthorized population were significant numbers of “unaccompanied minors.” A prime example were thousands of young boys sent by desperate families in Italy and Greece to smugglers posing as relatives in America. Ethnic bosses, or Padrones, arranged for “false fathers” to stand for the boys at Ellis Island. Once having cleared Immigration, the youths were put to work as newsboys or bootblacks on city streets. In addition to these boys, there were other children, who, like today’s dreamers, accompanied parents in ignorance of wrong-doing.

What did the Ellis Island Committee suggest should be done with these Depression-era dreamers? The committee stated, “To return to his country of origin an alien who was reared in the United States, and is therefore largely a product of his American environment, seems hardly justifiable.” In language that sounds remarkably contemporary, they asked, how could the government deport those who “have spent practically all of their life in the United States and may justly be considered the responsibility of this country?” Their recommendation was to accommodate the young people. “No alien who is brought to the United States under the age of 15 years and has resided here continuously five years from his original entry, shall be deported.”

The Committee went on to make other recommendations, one of which is particularly relevant to the contemporary debate about “illegal aliens.” Today, nearly 60% of the undocumented population has been here for 10 years or more; 31% are homeowners, and 33% have citizen children. These figures suggest that many have made a good start at American life.

Back then, the committee believed it made little sense to deport anyone years after they had entered, “solely because of illegal entrance,” particularly if that person had supported a family and obeyed our laws. Instead, members proposed legalizing any immigrant who had proven desirable citizenship material and could meet a test of admissibility and character. While nowhere in their report is found the term, “earned amnesty,” the idea seems to have been close to what the Ellis Island Committee meant. One suspects that they would disagree with contemporary immigration hardliners. Isn’t it ironic that politicians like Steve King can speak of Ellis Island as all sweetness and light, but urge that today’s dreamers be left to “live in the shadows” ?

About The Author

Martin Ford retired in 2015 as the associate director of the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.