(submitted in response to Dick Feagler’s Sunday, April 2, 2006 Plain Dealer column “Immigrants always work their way here”)


April 2, 2006


Dear Editor,


Dick Feagler’s Sunday April 2, 2006 commentary “Immigrants always work their way here” offers a simplistic and inaccurate history of US immigration.  Feagler writes, immigrants “all wanted to learn English. They all passed a test and became citizens... Those were the simple rules.”


In a sense, the rules were simple.  For almost 150 years, there basically were no rules.  The few rules that did exist were often not rooted in reason, but instead had deeply racist undertones. In fact, fears over immigration due to xenophobia and prejudice predate the founding of our nation. "Why should [they] be suffered to swarm into our settlements, and by herding together establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should [we], founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to [assimilate] us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?"  These words were written by Benjamin Franklin in 1751 fearing the immigration of “Palatine Boors” who would “Germanize” us.


The first federal immigration law was not passed until in 1875 barring prostitutes and convicts.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first to prohibit immigration based on country of origin and banned Chinese laborers. For twenty years, Congress attempted to limit immigration and impose literacy tests, but these laws are vetoed by Presidents Cleveland, Taft, and Wilson as being “un-American.”  It wasn’t until the dawn of World War I in 1917, in a climate of rampant xenophobia when foreign language instruction was also being outlawed in many states, that the first immigrant literacy test law was passed by a veto-proof 2/3 majority.  The Immigration Act of 1921 was the first to place quotas on European immigrants.  Quotas on immigrants from Canadian and Latin American were not placed until the Immigration Act of 1965.


While discussing past immigration, Feagler does fleetingly acknowledge the presence of Native Americans in our “melting pot,” but he makes no mention of the importation of millions of African slaves who were forced to “work their way here.”  Our country has had a very checkered history in welcoming others to our shores.  We would be well served in the current immigration debate to avoid ignoring or oversimplifying our past.


Milton Alan Turner