Think Your Immigrant Ancestors Came Here Legally? Think Again.

An article by Brian Donohue, recently re-published in the NJ.com web site, will interest many genealogists, especially in light of the political issues in the Presidential campaigns that are receiving a lot of publicity lately. Donahue points out that a high percentage of America’s immigrants have arrived illegally for the past 150 years or more. Most of them stayed, raised families, and the immigrants and their descendants have contributed greatly to America’s industrial might, military strength, culture, and more.

1800s-irish-immigrants

Donohue writes:

“The images burned into our brains of previous immigration waves come largely from newsreels and photos of immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island, one at a time, orderly, legally.

“There’s one problem with the argument. It’s utter hogwash.”

Donohue also points out that the immigrants of yesteryear did “exactly what today’s Mexicans, Chinese and Guatemalans are doing by the millions — get to the United States so they can feed their families, and worry about getting papers later.” He follows that up with several stories and also refers to newspaper articles written in the 1920s that described the problem. He also focuses on the millions of immigrants who did not come through Ellis Island. Instead, many (including about 50% of my ancestors) arrived overland by first going to Canada, then crossing the border into the U.S. where evading immigration officials was much easier than it was at Ellis Island.

You can read Brian Donohue’s article at http://www.nj.com/opinion/index.ssf/2015/11/think_your_immigrant_ancestors_came_legally_think.html.

49 Comments

Most people I talk to about this immediately insist their own ancestors came here legally. They won’t discuss anything else. The thing is that those ancestors of ours typically had to have permission to leave their countries of origin, too. Young able-bodied men, for example, usually didn’t have a chance of permission if a war was coming on, and there always seemed to be one in the making. I don’t know whether my maternal grandma and grandpa got permission from their home governments in Austria-Hungary or not. They came separately and met here. I’m just glad each made it, both through Ellis Island on this side of the journey prior to WWI. My paternal great-grandparents—I’m not sure if they got permission from their German authorities first. They’re here with many descendants. They all assimilated by choice and I’m blessed for their having done this.

Never allowing oneself to even consider the possibilities stops the conversation cold about what’s going on today. Good and bad people immigrated generations ago and the same is happening now. How we deal with it is determined by our own humanity, and I believe the discussion must begin with learning from history as it really happened.

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    While many young men came to the USA to escape compulsory military service in their home countries, probably without getting the equivalent of an exit visa from their home countries, that would not make them illegal immigrants as far as the USA was concerned. All they had to do to enter the USA legally was to meet whatever standards the USA had in place at the time of their arrival. In fact, the USA welcomed draft dodgers for many years. In fact, the American practice of giving instant citizenship to British sailors who jumped ship in American ports was one of the factors that led to the War of 1812.

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I have searched for my great grandmother’s immigration records without success, although I know she arrived in 1907. Her grandfather was a ship’s captain from Stolp, Pomerania and had done runs between Stolp-Amsterdam-Doboy, Georgia, USA. After I discovered that, it seemed very possible that my great grandmother may have hitched a ride with one of her grandfather’s contacts rather than coming by more standard channels.

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    What was not standard here other than she may have gotten a discount on the transportation? The majority of women, by the laws that existed then never had to generate records, they became citizens through their husbands,

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    What wasn’t standard is that there is no record of when, how or in what condition she may have arrived as is the case for many of my other ancestors for whom immigration records exist. Considering she immigrated at 14 and as far as I know, by herself, those are important aspects of her story.

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I think this article is hogwash. You’re right, “good and bad people” came here illegally [AND legally]. But your article would carry more weight if you cited some numbers. What PERCENTAGE, for example, were the illegal immigrants during the “Great Migration” from Europe from 1880 – 1920?

My experience in researching hundreds of Sicilian and Italian immigrants and their families has shown that the overwhelming majority (I’d say around ninety-five percent) can be found on valid ships’ passenger manifests, and that they then went through the required process to become naturalized U. S. citizens.

Your implication that foreign governments did not want their people to leave is suspect at best. In southern Italy, Sicily and many parts of Europe, economies were crashing and governments were glad to see “troublemakers” leave and reduce the social pressure.

Yes, some people stowed away and then melted into our society, contributing to or harming it, depending on their character. But I believe that an impartial analysis would show that they were by far in the minority, and their experience should in no way support the idea of completely open immigration.

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    There is no way to count (give percentages) for something that happened when there was no policing of borders. It was not uncommon for people to arrive in Canada and, for what ever reason, decide to come to the US, the same applies to Mexico. There was a reason the statue of liberty has that saying about inviting immigrants, it does not say how they must arrive. To try and discard the idea of illegal immigration in the early years of America is just sticking your head in the sand.

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    Oooh lets send all those ones from those early years that were not here with permission back where they came from. We’ll let them back in legally, really we will
    Those kids they all had will have to go too. Seriously people does this sound like sanity or just a group of disgruntled Americans who rather than stand by our foundation of welcoming those in search of the life we are so proud to brag to the world about are afraid of having thier share of the good life diminished by having to share with others.

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I wouldn’t mind finding a little scandal in the family tree. Makes it more exciting, more alive. I’ve found no records, no manifests, no immigration documents, to tell me how, when, or where my paternal 3rd great-grandfather and mother arrived from Italy in the early 1830s. If they were stowaways on a ship that sailed into port under cover of darkness, cool!

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This is seriously asinine. Let’s rewrite history to justify today’s political point of view. Most of the laws that are being broken didn’t exist when our ancestors came here. Like everything in society the laws have evolved since then out of need of necessity. One doesn’t have to look any farther than the author who doesn’t make a living writing about genealogy he makes a living writing pieces in which separating the fact and the opinion is a lot of work..

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    I totally agree. How did this op/ed piece even make the EOGN cut?

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    —> How did this op/ed piece even make the EOGN cut?

    I would hope that I would never ignore an article about our immigrant ancestors, their habits, their legal (or illegal) activities, their customs, and similar topics. Whether I agree or not with the article’s theme, I think it is a fascinating topic and one that all U.S. genealogists should consider when researching their own ancestors.

    Any future articles that seem to be well researched, and especially if they seem to contradict the assumptions of many of today’s genealogists, certainly will be mentioned in future newsletters, again whether I agree with them or not. I believe a contrarian view is just as important as today’s politically correct assumptions.

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    Sorry Mr. Eastman but, there was nothing well researched in this authors article. It was a poor attempt at shaping opinion by making apples to oranges comparisons. How about an article about how our ancestors came here to build a better life. An article about how hard they worked to fit in to make that new life work, We can compare that to today’s illegal aliens who are looking for a handout and expecting the United States to change to fit their needs.

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    —> How about an article about how our ancestors came here to build a better life.

    My assumption is that almost all of our ancestors came here to make a better life for themselves and their families. That was true in the 1600s and remains true today. Some came here for economic reasons, others came here for religious or political freedoms, others came here to escape persecution. For instance, a few weeks ago I spent some time talking with a man who immigrated here ten years ago from Syria to escape the military draft. Had he remained in Syria, he would have been forced into the Syrian Army, I think he said for ten years. That is an army and a government that presently is massacring large numbers of his countrymen in a war that he does not support.

    He decided to leave and look for a better life. He immigrated to the U.S. illegally but later became a legal immigrant and is now a U.S. citizen, is employed full time as a business professional, and appears to be well established in the U.S. He cannot go back to Syria because he will be arrested and imprisoned for draft evasion as soon as he steps off the plane.

    The details vary from one person to the next but almost all of the immigrants have one common thread: looking for a better life for themselves and their families.

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    “.Some came here for economic reasons, others came here for religious or political freedoms, others came here to escape persecution.” Everyone of those things has one thing in common; A better life. I noticed came for the food stamps wasn’t on your list.

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    That would qualify as a better life than what they had in “the old country.”

    I have no doubt that some of today’s immigrants are looking for handouts. I question what percentage that is, however. Is it 50%? or is it 2%? I don’t know. I don’t deal with all that many immigrants other than I used to work with a lot of software developers from India and a few from the various Caribbean islands. Of course, none of them were on food stamps. Of the few immigrants that I have known, such as the man from Syria who immigrated illegally that I mentioned earlier, none are taking food stamps. The man from Syria is now a U.S. citizen and a business professional who married a Syrian immigrant lady he met after his arrival in the U.S. They now have children and seem to be prosperous model American citizens today. Are they typical? I don’t know but I know they are not unusual. I’ll leave it to others to figure out the percentages.

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    I changed my mind. After what happened in Paris I think we too need to ignore what’s happening at our boarders.

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    Ken: i am certainly in favor of watching our borders (all of them), but I want our government to focus its efforts and available resources on rooting out the people who are most likely to cause us real harm — terrorists and individuals with a history of having committed violent crimes — rather than on removing people who were brought here as babies and have grown up to become as American as you or me and the thousands of other hard working honest people who just want a chance to become part of the fabric of America the same way our ancestors did. Wasting time and money on that kind of low-hanging fruit doesn’t make us any safer and, to the extent it diverts attention from the others, actually makes us less safe.

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    My problem is that a political opinion was behind the column, NOT genealogy, and it implied someting about immigrants that has not been proven to be true. We can conjecture all we want about past eras’ undocumented immigrants, but where is the proof? And to relate it to today’s politics is disingenuous.

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My family lived in northern NY and VT, not too far from the Canadian border for a couple of hundred years. People used to walk cross the border all the time without bothering to go to the nearest checkpoint to be counted. They’d just take the direct route through the woods on foot or on horseback. Although legal immigrants and cross-border visitors now find it more convenient to travel by some form of motorized transport (car, bus, train, etc.) through an official checkpoint, others still cross the US/Canadian border elsewhere. Has Mr. Trump said anything about building a wall along the Canadian border and asking Canada to pay for it, or is it only the Mexican border that interests him? I wonder why?

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Because there were immigrants who entered this country without going through channels, coming up with a number isn’t possible. Perhaps one can estimate by taking the US population at 2 points in time and subtracting the number of legal immigrants during that same period. Most that I’ve found were seaman on ships docking in the US; they liked what they found–and they simply stayed. This sort of thing has been going on for a very long time.

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Good article. I have “lost” several branches of my family because they went to the United States from Canada and immediately indentified themselves as born in MaurUSA in the ensuing census.

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Ange said it perfectly. I have been researching Italian American genealogy since 1982. I’d say 99% were documented.

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They also had to find a job and support themselves without any assistance from the government. My mother said that when she and her parents emigrated her father found a job in the steel mills and her parents went to English language classes when they arrived.

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    Thousands upon thousands of today’s illegal immigrants work very hard to support themselves and their families and do it without any government assistance. But, because they cannot get a social security number and employers are legally prohibited from hiring them, they are often forced to work “off the books” for sleazy employers (many proudly American born) who pay less than minimum wages, ignore safety requirements, don’t carry insurance, and threaten to have them deported if they complain. Many would love to learn English but are afraid that if they sign up for ESL classes they will be found out and deported. Many are victmized by criminals who know they won’t dare to report it to the police out of fear of deportation. Our ancestors had it easy compared to what some of these people go through. They only had to face ethnic and racial prejudice and discrimination and crushing poverty, and they were able to fight back against that without fear of being thrown out of their adopted country.

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It is ridiculous to talk about ‘illegal immigration’ prior to about 1906, with the exception of the deeply offensive Chinese Exclusion Act in the late 1800s. Immigration laws such as we know them today did not exist. There were some laws about disease or financial dependency but in general all kinds of workers were needed if not welcomed. Our pre-1900 ancestors were not illegal immigrants.

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    The first U.S. immigration law was passed in 1819 although it wasn’t very restrictive. The first really restrictive immigration law was passed in 1864 and then a series of laws over the following years added more and more restrictions. You can find all the details at http://www.fairus.org/facts/us_laws

    Prior to those laws, everyone was legally able to immigrate.

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    The point of the article is simply that if today’s laws had been in effect when our ancestors came, most of us would not be here today because our ancestors would have been turned away. And, if they had succeeded in getting here anyway, they would have been just as illegal as the folks who are coming here today.

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    Dick, The website in your reply agrees completely with what I said in my post. The limitations on 19c immigration were very minimal. There was not even an immigration access control center in NYC until 1855 when Castle Garden opened–and it was opened largely to protect immigrants from the criminals who preyed upon them. They had already been thru quarantine. To repeat, there was little ‘illegal immigration’ in today’s sense before there were large-scale immigration laws enacted in the 20c. No laws, no ‘illegal’.

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The difference from then to today is assimilation. The illegal immigrant that came to the US wanted to become part of the fabric and culture of the nation. Many immigrants forsakes their native language and learned English in order to find opportunity. Many of today’s “illegal” immigrants have no interest in assimilating they just want the handouts and do whatever they please with no regard to American culture.

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    The exact same complaint was made about many of our ancestors when they first arrived here, even people like the Irish and the Scots who arrived already fluent in the English language. They were too clannish, too devoted to the ways of the old country. Hogwash!

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    This is silly. The hispanic kids my kids are in school with assimilate pretty fast. Hispanics intermarry with non-Hispanics quite freely. Many Hispanics in the second generation barely speak Spanish, which is pretty consistent with (or perhaps even faster than) immigrants in the “good old days”.

    In contrast, I look at my own “ethnic” ancestors. Most or all of my (famine-era) Irish ancestors spoke English when they came, so their language wasn’t an issue, but it took four generations before one of them married someone who wasn’t of Irish ancestry. They remained culturally Irish, and separate in many ways from the non-Irish people they lived among in their small Upstate New York town. This was partly because they were Catholic, but there were Catholics of Italian, German, French, and Polish ancestry they could have married–but they didn’t, until the fourth generation.

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My grandfather is one of those people who immigrated but never went through official channels to do so. He had two reasons for subsequently hiding his true date of birth and true place of birth (which was Montreal, Canada). First, he was hiding his presence here from his first wife whom he left behind in Montreal when he skipped out to Cuba (through the US, as captured in the St. Alban’s list). Then once he arrived at the port of New Orleans from Cuba about 6 weeks later (captured in the passenger manifests), he indicated that he was on his way back home to Montreal, but never returned there as far as I know. His second reason was that this was about 1920 that he arrived, so he didn’t want to identify himself as a foreigner during wartime. He was never naturalized, but hid that fact by claiming to have been born in the US. I kept trying to find a birth record for him, following leads from the date and location of birth he mentioned in his SS-5, etc., but never found a record for him here. Later I found his baptismal record in the Drouin collection, showing that he was born ten years earlier than he or others had claimed on all official documentation (SS-5, census records, his death certificate), and that he was in fact born in Montreal as my father had long suspected.

In addition to never going through the naturalization process, he must have somehow hidden from my grandmother the fact that no formal documentation of their marriage was ever recorded (no license or certificate has ever been found). Again, most likely, to keep his whereabouts a secret from his first wife, as there was never an official divorce from her.

So there may be multiple reasons for not filing the immigration papers….

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I don’t understand why some of the writers above get so exercised about this subject. Dick’s article is informative, not meant to be a scholarly paper – which would have many facts, figures, graphs, etc. to illustrate the various points of the paper. Also, before ranting and raving you should check the facts re the subject. Geez people relax and thank Dick for bringing some of these things to the light of day so maybe we will think outside the box in our research!!!!!!

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Before we were even a country there were 2.5 million people in America. Some of these were my ancestors. Should we classify them as “illegal”?

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If the Indians had had written laws, I suppose all our ancestors would have been illegal. They didn’t exactly want us here, did they? The first written laws against immigration were essentially racist ones. Most people who today scream the loudest about illegal immigrants are not exactly concerned about Canadian or Norwegian immigrants, are they?

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To compare the current immigration situation to times past is laughable at best. The REASON they came is beside the point (who moves just because they want a different vista?) Of course people move because of the desire to feed their families, that’s still in place today, and always will be. This isn’t to condone or bemoan the current situation, but to add clarity.

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My francophone ancestors did not assimilate until the 1960s, and at that, they needed to be dragged kicking and screaming. Intermarriage with Irish and Italian-Americans did work wonders, but 100 years of ethnic neighborhood living and a dream of returning to Quebec and New Brunswick did not die…

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—> You must have been too young to have been on the force during Prohibition, when bootleggers regularly used that route to smuggle in booze and God knows what else.
I was. However, my grandfather was a French-Canadian descendant who lived in Northern Maine, a few miles from the New Brunswick border. He, and many of the others in the area, were frequent small time smugglers. He died when I was an infant so I missed talking to him. However, my grandmother (also a French-Canadian descendant) lived for another 25 years and I heard many stories from her, including stories about how she and my grandfather frequently crossed the border together in a very old and unreliable Model T Ford with many bottles of whiskey hidden under her long dress.
She told me that the customs agents were all men and would never ask a lady to step out of the automobile. Also, while both grandparents spoke English fluently, both of them conveniently “forgot” all their English when crossing the border. That kept them from having to give excuses and made-up stories to the customs agents. In those days, the customs agents and/or border patrol or whatever they were called did not have many or perhaps no French-speaking officers on staff. I believe that is very different today.
I wish I had a tape recorder in those days to record my grandmother’s stories for later generations!

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    People tend to see what they expect to see, don’t they. My grandparents used to drive to Montreal to buy their liquor. My mother and her little brother would be sitting in the back seat with a nice warm blanket spread across their laps. They would all be dressed in their Sunday best — a nice respectable family of conservative New England Congregationalists. The customs agents at the border never even tried to talk to anyone other than my grandfather. Once in a while one of them would ask to take a perfunctory look in the trunk, but it was always empty. That’s because the bottles of booze were all on the back seat, under the blanket, with my mom and uncle sitting on top of them and even holding a couple of them right between their legs.

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I definitely wasn’t around for prohibition! I think most people are not afraid of bootleggers. They, like me, don’t wan’t to be harmed. I am aware of the terrorist problem with our northern border. In my profession, there is little room for political correctness. We just see what is. So just as it was apparent who was responsible for yesterday’s attacks, it is as apparent who to be wary of coming across that border. It’s not a matter of being a afraid to offend anyone. It’s just reality. It is all about profiling. Now that will cause some heart attacks to be sure. But it’s the truth.

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Reblogged this on familytreegirldotcom and commented:
Dick Eastman’s article has some good information and something you need to consider if you have ancestors who were immigrants. Enjoy and follow Dick Eastman’s blog.

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Of course from the Native American/First Nations perspective, almost everyone is an illegal immigrant. And far from benign ones. Nobody’s ancestors arrived here with extra land packed in their trunks. Even the ones who “worked hard” and “made a life” displaced indigenous people, then they made laws to make it legal. But don’t ever claim they survived here without “handouts” – the feds starved, killed, or captured and removed Native people repeatedly the entire width of the continent, surveyed their lands, then allotted them as free rewards for homesteading or for military service to (mostly) white males.

Then they surveyed more lands and made them available for very little to canal building consortiums and railroad companies, giving them far more than they needed for rights-of-way on both sides to plat and sell as townsites and homesites. The companies kept those profits but even with that huge advantage over one third of the rail startups failed very quickly, sometimes without ever having sent an engine over their own tracks. Not that the land reverted to the Indians. None of this could have been done with local and state militias; it took a federal government to muster the armies required to dispossess that many people, assess and quantify so much land, and create a bounty system for the mass slaughter of indigenous peoples’ primary source of protein and materials. My covered wagon ancestors who left Iowa for Oregon City, OR in 1883 followed water sources along rail lines, which followed many old forts, which had been built to secure the frontier from Native Americans for the benefit of immigrant people and the descendants of immigrant people.

Even if my specific ancestors never made a single aggressive move towards a Native person, never shot a single buffalo, and participated in charitable works on behalf of Indians, they still benefited directly from the practices and laws devised and carried out by the federal government on behalf of an immigrant/immigrant-descended population that was entirely uninvited, and eventually unwanted, by the original Native American settlers. A population that just would not stop coming, would sign some 500 treaties of their own devising, and would break almost every last one. The attack by Peabody Western Coal and others the last few years on the Hopi-Navajo treaty-guaranteed water rights is just the latest in a long line. Perspective matters.

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The biggest and the MAIN difference between then and now is the welfare state.
American citizens are taking HUNDREDS OF BILLIONS of dollars from American taxpayers to sit on their duff and have fatherless kids, while the immigrants are doing the work. Shut down the gravy train and the situation will be different. Those people coming here illegally wouldn’t have a reason to come because they wouldn’t find a job.

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