Time for a New Ellis Island

Last week, Spirited Reasoners looked at the statistical reality of immigration. We observed that despite all the shrill claims that our southern border is being “overrun” by illegal immigrants, there were several periods during the past 200 years in which our nation absorbed desperate refugees in far greater numbers when viewed as a percentage of our overall population. Thus, when 1,285,249 people sought U. S. permanent residency in 1907—see: Table 1. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2017 | Homeland Security (dhs.gov) –that number represented a far greater percentage of the national population at that time—approximately 90 million—than do similar numbers of immigrants seeking permanent residence in the year 2021.

Since U. S. population is approximately almost 4 times greater than it was back then, our nation could theoretically absorb up to 5 million new immigrants this coming year if we had the will to do so. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The main point is that we’ve been here before. Not just once or twice, but in at least a dozen waves of immigration, including those fleeing oppression from trouble spots all over the world. For example, I’m currently reading Ron Chernow’s classic biography of Alexander Hamilton (I know, I know, it’s about time, right?) and have reached the part in which French royalists are escaping their country during the French revolution, a number of whom wind up in—guess where—the United States. And those of us who remember the denouement of the Vietnam War know all too well why there are now so many Vietnamese restaurants across the United States, when prior to 1970 there were hardly any.

Between 1820 and 1860, our nation saw millions of immigrants arrive from Ireland and Germany, so many that a backlash resulted in the creation of the Know Nothing Party. (Fortunately, that party never elected a President or achieved majority status in Congress.) Then from 1880 to 1920, millions came from China, southern, eastern, and central Europe. After an outright ban on Chinese immigrants in 1882, immigration quotas on all nationalities became official with the Immigration Act of 1924.

(See https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/immigration-united-states-timeline )

The arrival of these groups and their respective backlashes was arguably predictable, but what I find most interesting is Congress’s decision in 1897 to fund the reconstruction of buildings at Ellis Island, New York into what would become perhaps the world’s most famous immigration processing station.

What seems so necessary now, as we are shown, almost daily, media photos of glorified cages inhabited by children and their families at points along the Rio Grande River, is a processing center along the lines of Ellis Island. But, whereas refugees in prior decades tended to arrive by ship, the bulk of today’s refugees are arriving by land, so the center(s) might need a location further south.

To quote a song popular at the start of America’s entry into World War II: “We did it before and we can do it again.” We can induct millions of refugees into our nation with improved levels of efficiency and dignity. We have the resources. All we need is the will.