LA Times: How grandma got legal:
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, says his grandparents — Dutch immigrants who settled in Nebraska — didn’t try to get ahead by breaking the law. Rather, they made it through “frugality … hard work, grit, honesty,” he says. “They would be very upset about people who didn’t do it the right way.”
Such comparisons between past and present miss a crucial point. There were so few restrictions on immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries that there was no such thing as “illegal immigration.” The government excluded a mere 1% of the 25 million immigrants who landed at Ellis Island before World War I, mostly for health reasons. (Chinese were the exception, excluded on grounds of “racial unassimilability.”)
What’s more, statutes of limitations of one to five years meant that even those here unlawfully did not live forever with the specter of deportation.
In the early 1900s, immigrants from Europe provided cheap, unskilled labor that made possible the nation’s industrial and urban expansion. They shoveled pig iron, dug sewers and subway tunnels and sewed shirtwaists. Even then, people born in the U.S. complained that the newcomers stole jobs, were ignorant, criminal and showed no desire to become citizens. The rhetoric was often unabashedly prejudiced against Italians, Jews, Poles and other “degraded races of Europe.”
In the conservative climate after World War I, Congress slammed shut the golden door. For the first time, the U.S. imposed numerical limits on immigration. Congress gave the smallest quotas to Eastern and Southern European countries and excluded all Asians; it also created the U.S. Border Patrol and eliminated statutes of limitations on deportation. It exempted countries of the Western Hemisphere, however, in deference to agricultural labor needs and the State Department’s tradition of pan-Americanism.