My Ancestors Came Here… Legally?
James Fallows, commenting recently on the House of Representatives unanimously passing a resolution apologizing for the discriminatory nature of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, quotes immigration scholar Benjamin Railton on the implications for today’s immigration debates:
[T]he CEA wasn’t just the first restriction on immigration; it was the first immigration law period (this is the first of the three things in my book, the specific histories of immigration laws and lack thereof in America).
Prior to that, every immigrant was neither legal nor illegal, as there were no laws that applied to them. And even from 1882 to 1921, every immigrant not covered by that law (so basically any non-Chinese and eventually non-Asian immigrant; nor covered by the 1875 Page Act, which restricted only prostitutes and convicted criminals) was still neither legal nor illegal, as they continued to fall under the jurisdiction of no law.
I think this information makes a big difference, since so many of our arguments about immigration include the phrase “My ancestors came here legally” (meaning that they chose to follow the law), and it’s almost always entirely untrue.
Emphasis mine. Railton’s book is Redefining American Identity: From Cabeza de Vaca to Barack Obama.