Bill Long 11/14/10
A Conversation with Joe
The last few years have seen a spirited debate on immigration policy in the US. Issues galore have arisen: various kinds of amnesties for "illegals" already in the country; quota revisions; border fences; enforcement actions at workplaces; schooling and other benefits for children of "illegals," sending all the "illegals" back, etc. It really is a rather bewildering list of issues and problems. I had my own "immigration" discussion at church today with Joe, before the adult forum began, but it wasn't the typical kind--the kind that arouses all kinds of emotions in 2010 America. We talked about his immigrant family. As the conversation developed, some gaps in his family's "story" emerged, gaps that were pretty arresting to me and to him. Below is my memory of the conversation...
A Conversation between Joe and Bill
BILL: "Hi, I haven't met you yet, I don't believe. I am Bill Long.
JOE: "Hi, I am Joe......"
BILL: "Joe, I don't believe I have heard that last name before. Is it spelled........ [It was an Italian name beginning with "O"]?
JOE: "Pretty close. Actually, there is an "sc" after the "O." Originally the "sc" was an "x," but they changed it at Ellis Island, to make it easier, I suppose."
BILL: "OK, I see. That is interesting, Joe. So, who was it in your family that came through Ellis Island?"
JOE: "It was my dad, and he was 13 years old."
BILL: "Really. Now, when would that have been, Joe?"
JOE: "Hm. Not really sure, but let me think, I believe my dad was born in 1909."
BILL: "That would mean, Joe, that he would have entered the country in 1922 or around then. But, let me ask you a question. If he was born in 1909, and you were born in the early 1950s (he looked about my age), that would have made him about 42 or 44 when you were born."
JOE: "I was born in 1952 (as was I). I don't think he was that old when I was born."
BILL: "Well, is your dad still alive?"
JOE: "No, he died at age 84."
BILL: "So, did he die about 7 or so years ago?"
JOE: "Yes, that's it. How do you know?"
BILL: "That would mean, Joe, that your dad was born probably in 1919 rather than 1909. Was he in his early 30s, you think, when you were born?"
JOE: "Yes, that has to be it."
BILL: "Then, that would mean, Joe, that your dad would have entered the country about 1932, rather than 1922."
JOE: "I guess so..."
BILL: "I don't know all the details of the history well, Joe, but I believe that by the 1930s, Ellis Island wasn't really used much for new immigrants. As I recall, the US Congress passed some pretty strict immigration laws in the 1920s, because we had been "overrun" by immigrants from about 1880-1920, and Congress wanted to limit significantly the number of people who came in.
JOE: "Hm. What you say is interesting to me because I visited Ellis Island a few years ago, went into the big room with all the pillars, looked up on the computer for my dad's name, but I couldn't find it. They had no record of him being an immigrant who came through Ellis Island."
BILL: "Really. Now that is interesting."
JOE: "Come to think of it, dad was kind of known for telling tall tales in life."
Further Research on the Conversation
Well, I had to go home to see if my suspicions were correct about US immigration policy. I learned a lot, including the fact that in one decade, 1900-1910, the number of legal immigrants to the US was about 7% of the entire population. That far exceeds the numbers from our own day.
But I discovered other things that confirmed the "suspicions" I shared with Joe. First, the US Congress passed two restrictive immigration measures, in 1921 and 1924. It would reduce the number of legal immigrants in the 1920s to less than 1/2 of that number from 1900-1910. Even more significant was the fact that during the 1930s, when Joe's father came into the country, the immigration numbers were only 1/8 of that of the decade of the 1920s. In other words, immigration almost completely dried up in the 1930s.
Then, I looked at the history of immigration through Ellis Island. Sure enough, Ellis Island's status as an immigration center changed significantly in the 1920s. As this website shows, the Immigration Act of 1924 was the law that changed it.
"The main function of Ellis Island changed from that of an immigrant processing station, to a center of the assembly, detention, and deportation of aliens who had entered the US illegally or had violated the terms of admittance. The buildings at Ellis Island began to fall into disuse and disrepair."
I am going to have to tell Joe the bad news. In fact, it is highly unlikely that his dad ever set foot on Ellis Island. It is very strange that his dad would even have immigrated here legally in the 1930s, since so few immigrants were admitted in that decade. Most of those who were admitted, in fact, were Jews fleeing Nazi oppression rather than Italians from Naples and its environs.
It leads to only one conclusion: unless my new friend Joe can conclusively document that his dad legally entered the country, I am afraid we are going to have to send Joe back, with his wife and grown children, to the boot of Italy. It is only fair, don't you think?