Travels & Traditions: Immigrating to America, Part 2 - #810

BURT WOLF: Every person who lives in the United States is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. In every case they were people looking for a better life. Social tensions were always part of their experience. Immigrants were stereotyped and discriminated against. Many suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were “different”.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Even Benjamin Franklin, that great lover of freedom, was opposed to German immigration. He felt that so many Germans were coming here that they were going to take over the country and turn us into a nation that only spoke German.

BURT WOLF: Franklin complained that the Germans don’t look like us; they don’t speak our language, and they don’t share are values. These are the same arguments that have been used to oppose immigration for decades. And it begs the question---who is us.  These are the same arguments that were used against the Italians, the Irish, the Chinese, the Catholics, the Jews, and today they are being used against Mexicans and Latinos. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Well it’s no surprise that waves of immigration have caused waves of resentment and negative reaction.  That’s been the history throughout the history of the United States.  It is clear in the short term there is some disruption to the economy, to daily life patterns and so it’s a fact. But what we know in the United States, over time, is that these waves of immigration have brought great benefit to the country and the immigrants do find their place in American society and make a wonderful contribution to it.

The statute of liberty has become iconic in American society standing for everything that we prize but often times we forget what’s written on the base of the statue that great poem by Emma Lazarus talking about the tired, the poor, the homeless.  These are the people that came to the country in the millions and the great miracle of America is that they help build this country into the wonderful nation that it is.  So we might say that the stone that was rejected by the builder in so many countries, in America, became the cornerstone.

BURT WOLF: Lynda Zengerle is the Partner in charge of immigration practices at the Washington Law firm of Steptoe & Johnson. She believes that a point system might work. 

LYNDA S. ZENGERLE ON CAMERA: There are a number of countries now that have a point system.  Interestingly enough, most of them used to be colonies of the United Kingdom.   But Australia and Canada and I believe the UK all have what they call point systems.  You get a certain number of points for having a certain level of education.  You're given a certain number of points for having skills.  You get a certain number of points for not having any criminal violations on your record.  And when you reach the critical number of points, you're given permanent residency.

BURT WOLF: So how do you solve the problem?  What do you do with the twelve million people who are here?

LYNDA S. ZENGERLE ON CAMERA: You give them a way that will allow them to come out of the shadows, which is extremely important for everybody's sake, and having either paid a fine or pay some price - it can't be an amnesty.

BURT WOLF: So, let me see if I can summarize this.  For the twelve million people who are here illegally, we have to have some kind of system to bring them into a legal position where they don't have to hide but they have to pay some price in some way for having come in illegally so that it isn't an amnesty.

Congressman Charles Rangel is the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and for many years he’s been dealing with the issue of immigration.

CHARLES B. RANGEL ON CAMERA: People are not honest enough to admit that there is absolutely nothing that we can do with the 13, 14 or 15 million people that are here illegally.  And, so, as long as we talk about them having to go back to where they came from or searching for the path for citizenship, the dishonesty makes it difficult to come up with a plan that people can understand.

I mean, we have people arguing here as though the terrorists are coming across our Southern border.  And, so, therefore, we have to treat this like an act in the war against terrorism.  They know that this is not so.  And they also should know that if we had the ability to identify each and every person, Mexican or otherwise, extract them out of the general population and send them back where they came from, the economy would collapse.

This country is so beautiful and so great, and has such great opportunity that I can understand how anyone would want to come to the country legally or illegally in order to improve their quality of life.  But we have to be a country of laws.  And we have to respect it.  And we have to make certain that those who want to come in come in legally.  Because we've done such a terrible job in the past in terms of who is here and who is staying here.  And because most all of these people are hard-working people that are scared to death of exposing themselves for fear of deportation.  It seems like we got ourselves into a position that we're going to have to face reality and get on with it, and fix this thing in the future.

CHARLES B. RANGEL ON CAMERA: And what do I mean by that?  I mean, first of all, you make legal the people that are here.  And first find out who the heck they are, which is so important if we're talking about national security.  And to make them as whole as possible those who are deserving of citizenship.  The second thing that you do is to make certain that you don't have a guess-working program to come into the United States and to evaluate what do you have already in the United States so that you can take care of your long term needs.

How does an American treat these types of problems?  I would suggest, with sensitivity.  Thinking about locking up people, deporting people, keeping the kids and sending the parents back home.  To me, that's not America. 


BURT WOLF: By the end of the 1800s China was a madhouse. Its five most important port cities were under the control of foreign powers. Because they were port cities, the local Chinese were getting a look at the outside world and they soon realized that immigration to Europe or the United States was the best way to improve their lives.

The horrendous conditions in China were the “push”. The need for cheap and subservient labor in America was the “pull”. U.S. employers were so concerned about a supply of labor that they had our government sign a treaty with China that allowed Chinese immigrants to immigrate without restriction.

Able bodied men were recruited under a system that gave them passage to America in exchange for a period of work. They came to be known as “coolies” after a Hindi word for hired servant. But because they were usually forced to do the most difficult work they probably thought they were being called “ku-li” which in Chinese means “bitter strength”.

When the California gold rush came to an end the Chinese went to work on the railroads.

As usual they did the toughest work for the least money and virtually no credit.

This painting was made to commemorate the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad that connected the Eastern part of the United States with the west.  In spite of the fact that over 10,000 Chinese worked on the railroad, you can’t find one in the painting.

On the other hand, this photograph taken at the actual event is filled with Chinese laborers. It’s a clear indication of the difference between what immigrants actually contribute to our society and what our society wants to see.

1900 TO 1950

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 1920’s one of the most important political issues was limiting immigration. In 1921 the Federal government passed a law, for the first time, imposed numerical limits on the number of people who could immigrate to our country.  Clearly some kind of limitation was necessary but it’s sad that the Federal government chose to enact a law that was clearly racist.

BURT WOLF: During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, there were years when more people returned to Europe than immigrated to the United States. It wasn’t that things were economically better in Europe. It was the simple fact that it was easier to be poor in a poor country than in a rich one.


BURT WOLF: In 1945, The Second World War came to an end with eleven million displaced Europeans trying to stay alive.  Some were able to return to their own countries but for many their countries no longer existed. Some had been displaced by the Holocaust but there were also thousands of people trying to escape the Russian Army as it advanced to the west. 

In spite of the obvious need for assistance, American officials did almost nothing to relieve the suffering of the displaced persons. We had moved on to the Cold War with Russia and our priorities had shifted.

A series of laws were passed that were clearly designed to keep people from immigrating to the United States. One of the hurdles for anyone wanting to immigrate was the requirement of a document showing that the individual would not become a financial burden to the government. Their economic support had to be guaranteed. 

President Truman reduced the impact of that demand by allowing blanket guarantees for large numbers of people to be issued by social service organizations. The three most important were religious organizations representing Catholics, Protestants and Jews. These agencies began to play a major role in immigration and they still do.   

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: One of the first groups of immigrants to come to the United States described this new land as a shining city on a hill.  And it certainly has been that for generations of new Americans and in fact we can look at it a slightly different way because America has been so welcoming to so many diverse people, economically, racially, nationally. America truly is that shining city on a hill not just because of the way immigrants have perceived us but the way we have welcomed generations of immigrants.


BURT WOLF: For decades after The Second World War, our governments’ immigration policy was based on a series of contradictions. Some elements were liberalizing. The labor unions who had opposed new arrivals since the Civil War shifted their position and began supporting European immigration. There were two reasons for labor’s shift----first, during the Roosevelt presidency collective bargaining became a recognized part of American industry and the unions felt more secure, and second, many of the union members were the sons and daughters of the type of people who were trying to immigrate.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walters Act. It was clearly a response to the Cold War and our fear of communism. It tightened things up but it also put an official end to the ethnic and racial barriers that were preventing people from immigrating to the United States or becoming naturalized.  The key word here however is official. Administration is always more important than legislation. Congress can pass whatever law it wants to pass but whether that law is enforced or not enforced is the key issue.

MAN SWEARING IN PEOPLE: To defend the constitution and the laws of the the United States of America.

BURT WOLF: During the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the increase in legal immigration was mirrored by an increase in illegal immigration. The largest groups of illegal immigrants were from Mexico and Ireland. Ireland had large numbers of well educated and skilled workers, more than the Irish economy could employ. So many came to the United States with visitor’s visas and stayed on to work.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Throughout history the reasons for immigrating to the United States have always been pretty much the same.  If you thought your life was going to improve socially, or economically, you came.  If you didn’t think there was going to be a significant improvement you stayed put.  By 1965 Western Europe was in great shape.  And Western European immigration dropped off.  Eastern Europe however was in terrible shape and the Eastern Europeans wanted to come here.  But the Communist governments wouldn’t let them out.

MAN: Congratulations my fellow Americans.

BURT WOLF: Large numbers of people in the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia felt that coming to the United States would improve their lives and so they immigrated in larger and larger numbers.

MAN GREETER ON CAMERA: Congratulations sir, Good luck sir; congratulations, nice to have you.

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: In a way borders are more important than ever but we have to look beyond borders and no country as rich as the United States has as many miles of border with a country as poor as Mexico.  So even though questions of border security are absolutely important we have to look beyond our borders to make sure that economic opportunity, the rule of law, factors that we take for granted as Americans, others outside of America, also have the same opportunities in the future.

BURT WOLF: The Chinese were the earliest Asian immigrants to America and they now represent greater numbers than any other Asian group. China was a key ally during the Second World War and that led to the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and their right to become naturalized citizens. By the early 1980s, the image of a Chinese immigrant had completely changed from that of an underpaid laborer to a highly motivated member of a model minority driven to excel especially in science and technology. 

Following the Second World War, there was a massive increase in the immigration of Filipinos. The vast majority were nurses. English was the primary language of instruction in the Philippine hospitals that were training nurses and because the Philippines and the United States were closely associated in many areas, Philippine nurses were educated on the American model.

NURSE ON CAMERA: You don’t need the monitor anymore.


BURT WOLF: In 1980, during the administration of Jimmy Carter, Congress passed The Refugee Act, which was the first attempt in American history to add human rights to American foreign policy.

The act was a distinct change. It also introduced the right of asylum and created a new category of refugee. The category was set up to cover a person who was in the United States, either legally or on a tourist or student visa, or a visiting athlete or a performer, or illegally and claimed the right of a refugee. Eventually, the person must meet all of the criteria of a refugee or be expelled but unlike a refugee who is attempting to enter the United States this person is already in the country. The law also put a cap at 5,000 of this type of refugee per year.

For the first time in the history the United States it accepted the idea that it had an obligation to take in refugees---an extraordinary change in attitude when you consider how our government ignored the needs of refugees during and after The Second World War.


BURT WOLF: Mexican immigration legal and illegal is a special story. At the beginning of the 20th century a series of events pushed and pulled more and more Mexicans into the United States. The Mexican Revolution created almost twenty years of chaos throughout Mexico. That was the “push”.

The development of industrial farming throughout the American Southwest was the “pull”. Advanced techniques for irrigating the land, the introduction of the refrigerated railroad car and the development of a nationwide system for distribution created an ever growing demand for labor and Mexico became the source.

John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath immortalized the lives of people forced by The Great Depression to become migrant workers in California. But in reality, the majority of people working on the farms of California during the great depression were Mexican immigrants. 


BURT WOLF: It’s true that since 1970, the number of immigrants to the United States has risen but it’s still well below what it has been in the past. The common belief that we are being inundated with immigrants is just not true.

But reaching a balance is difficult. Too many immigrants and you run the risk of introducing a type of tribalism that increases the tension among groups. It can increase crowding, the cost of social services, and pollution. It can also limit the future possibilities for the people who are already here. 

CARL ANDERSON ON CAMERA: Of course in the issue of immigration we’ve got to have a strong reaction, effective reaction to criminals that come into our country or people when they’re here who break the law but to treat everyone in the same way, even when they come from desperate poverty in order to provide for their family, is simply not only mean-spirited but is unjust.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Immigration can produce social difficulties, but it can also produce a new vitality. Immigration changed American culture but it also proved that diversity, as well as unity, was the source of our national strength.

VARIOUS CHILDREN SINGING ON CAMERA: I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all. 

BURT WOLF: For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.