Rep. Hansen Clarke and 3 Facts About Undocumented Immigration

One lawmaker makes a bold admission that sparks discussion of our country's history of undocumented immigration.

By Mu00f3nica Novoa Jul 13, 2011

At a recent event in Detroit organized by the Alliance for Immigrants Rights to address local racial profiling of Latinos by ICE, U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke took a step that few people — let alone politicians — take: he admitted that his father was likely an undocumented immigrant.

Clarke told community members, "I’m the son of an undocumented immigrant — and I’m proud to say that." Clarke spoke at the forum at Hope of Detroit Academy, a school targeted in March by ICE agents who are now being investigated after going after parents as they dropped their kids off at school.

Clarke is of African-American and Bangladeshi descent. His African-American mother raised him as a single parent after his father who emigrated from Bangladesh, passed away when Hansen was eight years old. Hansen, the first U.S. Congressman of Bangladeshi descent, told the Detroit Free Press his father was " ‘more than likely undocumented’ when he came to the U.S. His father immigrated in the 1930’s from pre-Partition India, then under British rule, and died in 1965." (We would have liked to link back to the Free Press article, but are tired of linking to articles with the i-word in the title, especially as this man did not call his father "illegal.")

In this anti-immigrant climate, Rep. Clarke took some political risk in admitting something about his family’s past that many other public officials would also be correct in disclosing. One of the most popular comebacks from a range of people — including minutemen border militia, hardcore immigration restrictionists like Numbers USA and the like, and both Republicans and Democrats — is that people need to get papers the "legal" way and "get in line," just like their parents or grandparents or some ancestor did.

Of course, that’s usually based on false logic. Our laws have changed. Let’s put aside for now the fallacy of "the line," which is really a labyrinth (though no one will say, "get in the labyrinth," doesn’t sound American or due-processy). In order for the "get in line like my ancestors did" argument to be valid, the people we are comparing (and ancestors we are romanticizing as the truly noble immigrants), would have to be judged by the same conditions and environment. Had our current laws been in place in the 19th century and at the turn of the 20th century, the wave of European immigrants would have been considered largely undocumented by today’s standards. Still we never hear restrictionists or elected officials talk about their rich heritage of "illegal European immigrants."

The Immigration Policy Center (IPC), which is the research and policy arm of the American Immigration Council, published a fact sheet that they call: "De-Romanticizing Our Immigrant Past: Why Claiming ‘My Family Came Legally’ Is Often a Myth." The break-down by IPC reveals the hypocrisy in the current debate on immigration. When people say this is a "country of immigrants," it is the images of European immigrants that are evoked. According to the IPC, until the late 19th century, federal oversight of immigration didn’t exist and there were virtually no laws to break.  There wasn’t any border surveillance and people didn’t need visas before entering. "Rather, immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry, such as Ellis Island and other seaports to be inspected, and then would be allowed in if they didn’t fall into any of the excluded categories." 

Here are just some of the facts, straight from IPC:

1. Prior to the 1920s, there were no numerical limitations on immigration to the U.S., but certain persons were banned from entering. The first "illegal" immigrants were people, like the Chinese, who were banned from entering the U.S.  The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882.  Over the years, immigration laws were passed that restricted certain categories of persons from immigrating, but no numerical limitations or quotas existed.  Those persons barred from immigrating included Asians (except Japanese and Filipinos), prostitutes, paupers, polygamists, persons with "dangerous and loathsome contagious disease," persons likely to become a public charge, anarchists and radicals, the "feebleminded" and "insane," and the illiterate.  The vast majority of people who arrived at a port of entry were allowed to enter.  Of course, some people lied about their health and political beliefs and entered "illegally."  The Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million immigrants from Europe who arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and World War I.

2. The first numerical caps on immigration and limitations on Europeans were not established until the 1920s – after the great wave of immigration to the U.S. The first permanent numerical limitations on immigration were not established until the 1920s.  The Quota Law of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that was based on race and nationality and heavily favored Western European immigrants, while closing the door to "undesirables."  Natives of Western Hemisphere countries were not subject to the quotas (but head taxes and literacy tests kept many from obtaining visas).  The law also established the first preference system for spouses and children of U.S. citizens.   For the first time, the 1924 law required immigrants to present medical certificates to the U.S. consul abroad and obtain a visa prior to arriving in the U.S.

3. Many European immigrants benefited from amnesties.  Acknowledging the large numbers of illegal Europeans in the U.S., the government devised ways for them to remain in the U.S. legally.  "Deserving" illegal European immigrants could benefit from various programs and legalize their status.  The 1929 Registry Act allowed "honest law-abiding alien[s] who may be in the country under some merely technical irregularity" to register as permanent residents for a fee of $20 if they could prove they had lived in the U.S. since 1921 and were of "good moral character."  Roughly 115,000 immigrants registered between 1930 and 1940–80% were European or Canadian.  Between 1925 and 1965, 200,000 illegal Europeans legalized their status through the Registry Act, through "pre-examination"–a process that allowed them to leave the U.S. voluntarily and re-enter legally with a visa (a "touch-back" program)–or through discretionary rules that allowed immigration officials to suspend deportations in "meritorious" cases.  Approximately 73% of those benefitting from suspension of deportation were Europeans (mostly Germans and Italians). 

Go here for full fact sheet from IPC.