Tuesday, October 23, 2007

'Could I see your papers, Mr. Sensenbrenner?'

50-minute trip for immigration know-it-alls
Staten Island ferry enlightens

By Thomas V. DiBacco

NEW YORK - This month marks the anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in New York's Harbor, an event that will go unheralded in large part because the monument is taken for granted today. But it wasn't always that way. When the statue, officially called Liberty Enlightening the World, was dedicated on a raw, rainy late October day in 1886, it brought to New York the president of the United States, Grover Cleveland, who formally accepted the belated Bicentennial gift from France, the nation's closest ally during the American Revolution.

"We will not forget," he said, "that Liberty has here made her home; nor shall her chosen altar be neglected."

Ironically, none of the speeches on that historic day interpreted the gift in reference to immigration, but because of its proximity to Ellis Island, where some 12 million arriving immigrants were processed from 1892 to 1954, the monument became the gold standard for open-door policies.

The statue is still relevant because of the current debate over immigration policy -- at least that's the thought I had as my wife and I took our first trip last week on the Staten Island ferry for a close-up look at her Lady and nearby Ellis Island. That ferry ride should be required of all the presidential candidates, as well as members of Congress, and know-it-all news pundits like Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly and CNN's Lou Dobbs, crusaders against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for illegal immigrants. It's only a 50-minute round trip, with 104 boat trips daily, and unlike so many other things in this world, it's absolutely free of charge.

The most impressive aspect of the water journey is how blessedly quiet it is, save for the sound of the ferry's motors. To be sure, on every trip hundreds of people board the ferry (an average of 625), including a good number of commuters who live on Staten Island. Tourists from numerous countries take silent, digital pictures, as do American visitors. But it's the gaze of everyone on the skyline that speaks, reflecting the mind's difficult downloading of the overwhelming majesty of the site and perhaps the harboring of thoughts about what earlier huddled masses underwent to get to this country.

For me, the journey rekindled the stories from my grandfather and father, both immigrants from Italy, about their struggle and survival in a nation so foreign to their native villages.

Even without knowing much about the history of immigration to the United States, looking at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island has a way of lowering the emotional barometer about policy today. For both monuments attest to the hard fact that immigrants came, were processed and, for the most part, became Americans in the best sense of that term.

In all candor and as a professor of American history, I don't have an easy answer to dealing with illegal immigration today from south of our borders. But what immigration history has taught me is that extreme penalties and restrictions don't work.

For most of American history, there were no federal rules, and immigrants flowed easily into the various states. When the federal government did intervene, after the Supreme Court in 1875 opined that regulation was a federal responsibility, national laws reflected prevailing public prejudices: first, restrictions against the Chinese and Japanese, then against southern and eastern Europeans. At the height of anti-immigration restriction laws in the 1920s, the supreme irony is that the pecking order of acceptability was in stark contrast to today's: Then, Latin Americans were warmly accepted, even encouraged.

But what is clear is that it's virtually impossible for anyone today to verify that their first ancestors to America carrying their surname were legal immigrants. States accepting immigrants kept some records but not systematically. Ellis Island authorities, which rejected only 2 percent of arrivals (on health grounds or the view they might become public charges), lost records in fires. So the whole notion that the immigration process in the old days resulted in a proper entry may well be nothing more than legal fiction for many immigrants. As for the federal laws, they were often conflicting and confusing: Restrictions based upon race, place of birth, sex and residence were officially eliminated in 1968, but the long-standing, sort-of affirmative-action policy of encouraging Canadians and Latin Americans was set aside in 1976.

Non-extreme ways to deal with illegal immigration would accept the view that policy should not be retroactive -- that is, it should not penalize already settled, working immigrants. And the idea of a required national identity card for all Americans is a lot of hooey, wrought with bureaucratic ballooning and invasion of privacy. Nor should policy concentrate on building a border wall that defies economic common sense and smacks of a Berlin-wall era. And if states, such as New York, choose to permit illegal immigrants to apply for drivers licenses (under the reasonable assumption such individuals, like any other New Yorker, would be easier to track), that's really their business.

As for the extremists like Dobbs, O'Reilly and U.S. Rep. James F. Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, who see prison or deportation as a proper treatment for undocumented immigrants, I'd recommend more than a trip on the Staten Island ferry. I'd like to see their papers -- that is, proof positive that their ancestors entered the country legally.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a professor emeritus at American University in Washington, D.C. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel.