What does it mean to be legal?

Today, I was reading a comment on social media that caught my eye. The person wrote, “My ancestors came to this country legally. They had no need of handouts” I did some research and found some interesting facts. My forefathers came to this country around 1900 and were also “legal”. So, what separates them from today’s immigrant population?

First, in 1900, requirements for staying in the U.S. were quite different from today. My great-grandfather came from Germany, and he only had to sign his name and pay fifty-cents ahead (thanks to an 1892 immigration act) to get permission for him and his family to enter at Ellis Island. Once they established residency and had proof of employment for five years, they went to the federal courthouse and became citizens. That was it.

It is true that my ancestors did not use federal assistance (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid). They didn’t have any assistance available. That was OK though because no one in the country had any other than their own families until 1935 (Social Security) and 1965 (Medicare and Medicaid). I feel reasonably confident that had assistance been available, my great-grandparents and grandparents would have taken advantage of it. They would have been fools not to do so.

My great-grandparents never spoke a word of English. They lived in a German-speaking part of their city and had no need to learn. Since there was no language requirement for citizenship, there was really no need. My grandmother was two-years-old when they arrived, and her parents raised her bi-lingual. That meant German at home and English at school. She did the translating for her parents when they needed it. Her children, my mother, and uncles, were primarily English speakers and only knew enough German to keep their grandparents happy.

Today’s immigrants and refugees have a much more difficult time of it. The “line” often referred to on social media can be decades long. For an example, the spouse of an American citizen without special skills can take up to two years to get a green card. With the current cap on Mexican immigrants at around 60,000 and a waiting list of approximately 1.5 million, someone “getting in line”, again with no special skills, can expect a wait of over twenty years! I mention no special skills because those with money and certain skills can skip the line, and we welcome them with open arms.

Some Immigrants may be willing to wait, but refugees? They are a different story. Many come from countries that are corrupt and rife with drug trafficking and gang violence. A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal estimated that in northern Mexico alone 250,000 people have disappeared, presumed kidnapped, and in all probability dead. I don’t see people in this situation willing to wait decades. I see them as desperate enough to take their families across a desert or swim a major river to get just a CHANCE to have a life – not a better life, just a life. I know that in a similar situation, I certainly would.

I guess my final word would be don’t judge today on what yesterday did. It’s like comparing apples and oranges. I am not saying that we don’t need better security on our borders. I am saying that it is time for Congress to get off its duff and revise an outdated approach to immigration and refugee status that in turn makes us more secure.


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