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Immigration to the United States Was Not Always ‘Illegal’

Jorge Alverez of Mexico crosses the wall border between Mexico and the United States at the beach of Tijuana, Mexico May 6, 2006. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Jorge Alverez of Mexico crosses the wall border between Mexico and the United States at the beach of Tijuana, Mexico May 6, 2006. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Immigration to the U.S. Was Not Always ‘Illegal’
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As Americans celebrate their national holiday this week, the debate about who belongs in the country continues.

Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the government can restrict travel by citizens from five Muslim-majority countries. And President Donald Trump says he is enforcing a “zero-tolerance” policy on immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation.

Activists have objected to the policy, especially to border officials separating children from their parents.

Reporter Becky Little points out that discussions about immigration have been part of American life for most of the nation’s existence. What has changed over time is how the U.S. has dealt with immigrants and what it calls them.

Little says the term “illegal immigrants” is relatively new. She notes that, before the U.S. Constitution was approved, the people who came here were not immigrants. They were settlers seeking to create their own laws and enslaved Africans who came against their will. Little observes that “American immigration didn’t really begin until the late 1700s, when the United States became an independent nation.”

For about 80 years, most people who wanted to move to the U.S. faced few official restrictions. But Little points out that does not mean they were always welcome. Some Americans objected to Irish and Italian immigrants because they were Roman Catholic. They also blamed Chinese workers for low wages and the country’s economic problems.

In answer, the federal government set the first legal restrictions on immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned most Chinese people from settling permanently in the U.S. For Americans, this ban led to the idea that the Chinese-born people they met could be in the country illegally.

In the following years, lawmakers approved policies barring people from other parts of Asia. They also limited the number of overall immigrants, especially those coming from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

But there were few restrictions on people from Mexico who immigrated to or worked in the United States. That changed in 1965 when U.S. lawmakers passed a major immigration reform. The law made moving to the U.S. easier for some groups, but more difficult for people from Mexico.

Even with the restrictions, the number of people entering the country from Mexico did not drop sharply. In the 1950s and 1960s, some Americans freely called Mexicans “wetbacks.” The term was meant to suggest that a person seeking work in the U.S. had crossed through the Rio Grande River instead of entering the country officially.

The Washington Post notes that by the 1970s, the term “wetback” was widely considered to be insulting. Activists suggested the media and government use terms like “illegal aliens” or “illegal entrants.” Many officials accepted their advice. Even the Supreme Court began using the adjective “illegal” to describe people from any country who entered the U.S. without official approval.

But in the 1990s, the term “illegal alien” began losing some of its popularity. Some media organizations dropped it from their style books. They argued that actions can be illegal, but not people themselves.

In 2009, one of the high court’s justices, Sonya Sotomayor, officially used the term “undocumented immigrant” instead. She said the word “illegal” can make people think that “immigrants are all criminals” like robbers and murderers. In fact, a 2012 Supreme Court decision found that being in the U.S. without authorization is not a crime -- it is a civil offense.

However, the act of crossing into the U.S. incorrectly is a more serious violation, called a misdemeanor. But it is not as serious a felony, an act of violent crime.

In April of 2018, the Trump administration began bringing criminal charges against adults who did not use an official entry point into the U.S. President Trump has also helped bring the term “illegal immigrant” back into the media and public debate. He has used the term as a political candidate, in official statements as president, and on social media.

In June, Trump used Twitter to accuse the Democratic Party of not caring about crime. He said Democrats wanted “illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country.”

In answer, one Virginia congressman tweeted back his objections to both the president’s immigration policies and his language. Democrat Don Beyer noted that the verb “infest” is usually related to rats, mice, and other animals generally considered undesirable.

I’m Jonathan Evans.

Kelly Jean Kelly wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

style n. the way that written words are spelled, capitalized, etc.

authorization n. legal or official approval

misdemeanor n. a crime that is not very serious

felony n. a serious crime (such as murder or rape)

infest v. to be in a place in large numbers