Last year, on a trip to New York, I visited Ellis Island, the immigration gateway in the early 1900s for so many immigrants, including several ancestors of my children.
It's impossible not to be moved by the resolve and sacrifices of those who came to America in those days for the chance of a better life. But what also struck me was learning that while the immigrants had plenty of economic and social reasons to want to come to America, the fact that they were able to come was the result of a conscious decision on the part of the U.S. government of the time. The feds took control of immigration from the states in 1890 and — amid a westward-growing economy and growing industrialization — kept the gates open, creating the Ellis Island facility as a processing center to manage the influx.
The process was selective only in the different ways it treated rich and poor. When immigrants who came over in steerage disembarked from the steamships, they got on barges and were taken to Ellis Island for processing. Those in first-class cabins got kid-glove treatment from immigration officials while on the steamship and were free to go once they got off the boat.
To see how open the door was, however, consider how few — only about 2% overall — were actually sent back. Rich or poor, almost everybody who had a sponsor and could muster the steamship fare and about $25 in savings got in. Only those with mental illness, criminal backgrounds, major physical illnesses or overt Communist or anarchist sympathies were turned away. The politics of the time dictated a nudge-wink aspect to some of the immigration officials' questions — despite the need for workers, if you indicated that you had a specific job waiting for you, you could be sent back because you might be "taking a job from an American." Saying you had a skill and would be looking for work with the help of a sponsor, however, made you good to go.
I thought about that Ellis Island process recently when I had concrete pavers installed in my driveway and learned that here in Pinellas County much of the paver-installation work is done by crews of young Brazilian men, who work as subcontractors for the county's licensed paving contractors.
I found myself sifting through, at a micro-level, the same questions that surround the national debate over immigration. In these days of 10% unemployment, why weren't more of the workers (there was one Anglo member of the crew) Americans? And why were they Brazilian rather than some other nationality? Were they documented? Here to live or just to work? And, if I had reason to think they weren't documented, what should the implications be for me as a consumer?
I learned that a pipeline of sorts had developed a decade or so ago between Brazil and Pinellas, starting with one or two skilled masonry workers. The pipeline had grown enough to staff several different crews, each managed by its own leader. Workers were all documented as far as the contractor knew. Nudge-wink? One of the workers told me that while there are plenty of good jobs in Brazil's prosperous economy, they paid so little that it was still more lucrative for him to travel to America, find a place to live, learn a little English, lay pavers and save money.
The question why a similar pipeline hadn't evolved for graduates, or non-graduates, of local high schools is, of course, more difficult. Is it really true that "Americans won't do that kind of work any more"? Or is it true that whatever good old American entrepreneurial spirit the Brazilian crew chiefs have is missing somehow among similar-aged and similar-skilled good old Americans? Or, even with high unemployment rates, are Americans accustomed to working at a certain wage level now loathe to take jobs that pay less (the paver crew members make between $125 to $200 a day, I was told)?
As the consumer in the paver transaction, I fared pretty well. My contractor is licensed and pays his taxes. I paid a reasonable price for what I wanted and got a high-quality job from some very industrious young workers. I don't know how much of their daily wage the workers were able to save, but the money they spend to eat, pay rent, clothe and entertain themselves is going into the local economy.
It seems to me the biggest differences between the immigration of today and the early 1900s, aside from the means of transportation available to immigrants, is the role that Ellis Island played. It didn't, after all, keep out very many people who wanted in. But in the course of helping provide supply to meet demand in the labor market of that era, it provided an orderly process that validated and even ennobled both the aspirations of the immigrants and of those who were already citizens.
America is still, amid all our economic troubles, a place with enough jobs and enough opportunity that others aspire to come here to better themselves. May it always be so. We can do a better job managing our borders, but we should only begin worrying when Americans begin finding it economically attractive to leave for places — with or without documents — where we don't know the language, have few legal protections and can make enough working at the lowest end of the economic spectrum to send money home.
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