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“They should just do it the right way, like my ancestors did.” How often have you heard something like that? If – like most of us – your ancestors immigrated, do you know exactly what they had to do to “do it legally” then?
I ask because in 1790 the way to immigrate legally was to show up and be white (non-whites could not be naturalized citizens). In 1870 (post Civil War) persons of African descent were made eligible for naturalization (and functionally so were other ethnicities). But… the Chinese Exclusion Act of of 1882 then banned further immigration from China (we had actively been bringing workers in for railroads and other labor)
So still, at that point, the way to immigrate legally was to show up, and not be Chinese…
In 1891 the Immigration Act said immigrants could not be carriers of contagious disease or polygamists – established the Bureau of Immigration (hence places like Ellis Island to process, screen for illness, etc. Some of my most recent immigrant ancestors passed through there). So still… legal was show up not be chinese, sick or have 2+ wives…
In 1903 we added anarchists, beggars and importers of prostitutes to the list of those who could not immigrate.
1917 banned other Asians except Japanese and Philippines (later was now a US territory). 1921 began quotas. Set numbers from different parts of the world – we still do that.
So – up until 1921, the way to “do it legally” was to show up and be a healthy white, with some other exceptions….
So if your ancestors arrived earlier than 1921 – “doing it legally” mean virtually nothing. But now? Now make it very, very difficult – especially for someone without wealth or from a predominantly hispanic country – to immigrate (it’s easiest from Europe, can still take years) The quota system means it can take someone from Mexico or Latin America 15-17 YEARS to do it legally.
Lots more info on the above here Pew Research summary of major immigration law changes.
And… if you happen to have been brought here as a child – say your parents came when you were an infant – there is currently NO LEGAL WAY to become a citizen. You grew up here. You don’t know your families home country, you might not speak the language, you likely don’t have paperwork from there either… can we have some empathy for folks in this situation? Please?  PS, now is a great time to add that for many, many of our hispanic neighbors, their families didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them. In 1848 huge parts of what had been Mexico became US territory and by 1912 most of that territory had become states…  
I’m told one of my ancestors first arrived as a Hessian mercenary. He came here being paid to fight for the British against the colonist rebellion. Instead, he spotted a nice farm girl also of German descent, settled down and started a family. He became one of us… and not even during the World Wars was my family’s “right” to be here questioned. The church I currently serve, founded by German immigrants in 1884, still worshipped in German until December of 1916.  Did they “do it right” in some way that today’s hispanic, asian, and middle eastern immigrants are not?
The previous administration deported 2.5 million people – but focused on those who had committed crimes other than being undocumented / fake soc (not stolen) soc numbers. Now we’re deporting people who have been reporting themselves to ICE and cooperating with our system as best they can… which means we’ve destroyed what little trust there was… this doesn’t make us safer or richer. It destroys families and rips apart communities while raising suspicion and fear… America… we’re doing it wrong.
 The issues are complex. My own starting point are the numerous injunctions in Scripture about welcoming the stranger, not oppressing the alien and remembering that Israel were strangers in Egypt. My denomination, The United Methodist Church’s Social Principles include this statement: “We recognize, embrace, and affirm all persons, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God. We affirm the right of all persons to equal opportunities for employment, access to housing, health care, education, and freedom from social discrimination. We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all.”
I believe we can do better. Rather than assuming “we” did it right and “they” aren’t, let us learn from history and find ways to go forward together, here and around the world.
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