22 December 2015

Our Immigrant Ancestors Did Not Always Arrive Legally! Illegal immigration is NOT new ...

(1903) Race and Occupation of Immigrants by Destination ...

I recently read an opinion piece, Think your immigrant ancestors came here legally? Think again (feel free to ignore the related, plus, more et al inserted “modern” political commentary links), that I found fascinating.

Editor’s Note: As always, this post is NOT an NGS political statement about current immigration policy, immigrants, or anything related.  It is about considering the history of our ancestors, how they might have behaved and the documentation we might find about them.

For me, reading the article, was like a light bulb went off and that was a bit embarrassing.  For all the research I’ve done, why haven’t I considered the possibility of my ancestors illegally emigrating?  I guess for two reasons – 1. I did eventually find all the main players in the passenger records of Boston and New York and 2. I knew that my great grandfather had illegally emigrated and just didn’t extend that thinking to immigrating (in his case because I did find all his “legal” paperwork).  The “story” (never documented) is that he tried to get out of Galicia (modern day Poland though a Russian speaker) three times before he was successful; he was attempting to avoid mandatory military service.

Just like we know that not everyone “registered” their births, marriages and deaths, even when required, nor recorded deeds, probate documents, etc., it’s not a big leap to consider the possibility that your ancestors initially came to this country illegally.

Did you know that there was no “illegal” immigration until the late 1800s?  This was because, until that time, there was NO regulation of immigration (Early American Immigration Policies (USCIS). And, the U.S. Border Patrol was not created until 1924. With the passage of time, more and more limits were imposed on who could immigrate.

Researching the internet, I have been challenged to document the “scope” of how many illegal (or unauthorized) immigrants there were before the 1960s when I start seeing some statistics.  If you know of any quality resource material on this topic, please do share.

A related interesting read produced by The Southern Poverty Law Center is 10 Myths About Immigration. Not all of it is related to understanding or documenting our immigrant ancestors and some of the myths are definitely relevant. I can tell you that my emigrant ancestors more than likely would not be allowed to immigrate today (some were “landless peasants” as stated on their passport), the first generation did not learn one word of English (my grandmother always talked about how she had to communicate in a kind of sign language with her grandparents since they refused to learn English and she was not taught Russian), and they worked at very menial jobs in smelly/unsafe factories. 

As always, do challenge your assumptions on how the individuals in your family behaved or were motivated; you just might find you have been looking in all the wrong places for their documentary history.

Have you discovered an ancestor who seems (or you know) came to this country illegally? What’s the basis for the knowledge – paperwork? family lore?

Editor’s Note: Related articles found regarding historic illegal immigration:

Editor’s Note: Thanks to the Polish Genealogical Society of America and its PGSA e-newsletter (December 2015 edition) for making me aware of this article.

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