I’m unsettled by the popular notion that the United States should be highly selective in whom we allow in as immigrants.

The current wisdom is that we should admit only people with a high level of education, who speak English, and who can immediately contribute to our economy.

While I understand the motivation, I think it flies in the face of history and ultimately will impoverish us as a dynamic and productive nation. What proponents of this idea ignore is the energy and drive brought by precisely those immigrants they would deny entry.

The “desirable” populations seldom exhibit that kind of energy and drive. The “undesirables” enrich our culture and keep us from descending into a homogeneous and bland nation.

In the 1800s, increased immigration of Germans and Irish set the U.S. afire with No-Nothing anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiment. Perhaps the first group of people to be specifically targeted based on ethnicity were the Chinese who were prohibited entry by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

After the intercontinental railroad was completed, we had no further need for cheap foreign laborers and Chinese immigrants were seen as a threat to U.S. workers and to the culture and morality given to us by our English forebears.

Lest you think excluding Chinese immigration was a 19th-century aberration, Chinese people remained ineligible for U.S. citizenship right up to 1943.

Similarly, in the early 1900s, Italians were considered ill-bred, criminal and under the control of the pope. Immigration quotas were established by the Immigration Act of 1924 (the Johnson-Reed Act) to control the number of such undesirables allowed in. Supporters of the act sought to establish a distinct American identity by preserving its ethnic homogeneity. Sen. Reed told the Senate that the Johnson-Reed Act was needed because “earlier legislation disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard — that is, the people who were born here.”

The Johnson-Reed Act also established the Border Patrol, whose initial responsibility was to collect a $10 immigration fee imposed on Mexicans entering the U.S. on the southern border — aside from the fee, there was no barrier to entry, since cheap labor was needed. Many Mexicans paid the fee, crossed into the U.S. and became citizens.

The immigration story in the U.S. is one of fear, nativism, suspicion of any religion other than mainline Protestant, and ignorance. It’s not a story to be proud of.

This is also where the story gets more personal for me. My paternal grandfather was an “illegal.” It’s likely he was crew on a merchant vessel, jumped ship in New York, and joined the local Italian population. He met and married my grandmother in Brooklyn and together they raised a family that included my father, uncles and aunt.

Neither grandparent spoke English on arrival. My grandmother never learned to speak English; she and my parents conversed, not in Italian, but in a regional dialect. Illegal immigrants were not hunted down at that time because New York was building the subway system and needed laborers — the old story, foreigners are OK as long as we need cheap labor, otherwise, they’re a problem to be solved by exclusion. Sound familiar?

Eventually, Grandfather Salvatore established a livery stable where he boarded horses belonging to cart vendors. I have a photo of “Rosie the pasta-eating horse” from those days. I don’t know if my grandfather learned to speak English; he died in the 1928 Spanish influenza epidemic, long before I was born. A photo of him with his family shows a stern-looking man with a glorious handlebar mustache.

Grandfather’s death left Grandmother Theresa with four sons and a daughter, so she opened a produce store to support them. The eldest of her children, my Uncle Louis, earned a college degree (New York City colleges were free then) and became a high school Spanish teacher.

Uncle Gaetano, whose American name was “Thomas” and after whom I was named, learned trumpet and occasionally played with the big bands of the day. He and my father never made it to high school but instead took jobs with a company in the Bronx. Aunt Mary married a fine man who sold commercial kitchen equipment, Uncle Russel sold insurance.

Bottom line: My “undesirable” grandparents were productive members of society who raised children who were also productive. For them, education and self-betterment were absolutely paramount. They were strongly motivated to do well for themselves and their children.

This drive is the gift that is given to the nation by the very immigrants some want to exclude.

The descendant second-generation Americans (me and my siblings) turned out a Ph.D. mathematician, a Ph.D. computer scientist, a bank vice president, a pharmaceutical chemist, an accountant, the administrator of a surgical department in a large New York teaching hospital, and an electrician. Not bad for undesirables.

Please, please, the next time you hear someone say we need to filter out the undesirables and admit only people who speak English and already have the skills we think we need — remember the energy and drive brought by those they want to exclude. Think about how they enrich our culture with their music, cuisine, and art. We need those undesirables.


Thomas Anastasio lives in Hyde Park village with spouse Gina and golden retriever Jackie.

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