For nearly three decades, American immigration policies have reenforced the false notion that undocumented immigrants are dangerous criminals. From Bill Clinton’s militarization of the southern border in 1993 to the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the September 11, 2001 attacks—and now to Donald Trump’s detention of asylum seekers in concentration camps—Washington has normalized the view that undocumented immigrants are a threat to America. A threat to be policed, detained, and deported. Though time and again proven untrue, this rhetoric—echoed in society as a whole—has only become more pervasive in recent years. Most horrifically, it was on display in the “manifesto” allegedly posted by the gunman who murdered 22 people at an El Paso Walmart last weekend.
In recent years, Democrats have tried to respond to the tightening noose around undocumented immigrants’ necks with tepid measures, but even those—such as a 2013 bill to offer a pathway to citizenship while increasing border militarization—have failed to shift perceptions. The latest proposal in vogue among Democrats, to try undocumented immigrants in the civil legal system, does nothing to stem the mass deportations that have surged over three administrations in the last two decades.
The only way to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of undocumented immigrants is to fundamentally change the narrative that views them as criminals and so, views them as a threat.
To this end, Democrats and immigration advocates should remind skeptical white voters that undocumented immigrants have long made America great. In fact, many of their own ancestors were undocumented immigrants, beneficiaries of an era of open borders.
While “my grandparents came here legally” is a common refrain among white opponents of immigration reform, it misses the flip side of American history: For most of its history, the United States has had open borders for white people. Many of our forebearers, including my great-grandfather, were undocumented immigrants, no different from Central American migrants today.
For the first century of its existence, the United States had completely open borders. Though it is now derided as a far-left fantasy, in the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth century, the idea of someone simply coming into a new country and starting a life there, without any papers whatsoever, was eminently normal.
In fact, it was desirable. While early American politicians hotly debated how and when immigrants could become U.S. citizens, there were no serious attempts to limit migration itself for decades. Even George Mason, a supporter of greater restrictions on naturalization, declared that he was “for opening a wide door for emigrants.”
And wide that door was. In 1850, the first year that information on native birth was collected by the U.S. Census, America had 2.2 million immigrants—roughly 10 percent of the overall population. These undocumented immigrants, taking advantage of an open border, became essential to the fabric of American society, and even the presidency—among them was the English, immigrant mother of Woodrow Wilson.
Open borders for people of color came to an end in 1875, with the passage of the Page Act, effectively prohibiting the entry of Chinese women, followed by 1882’s Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned men as well. Passed amid racist fearmongering, the limits on Chinese immigration set the precedent for the restrictive, abusive, and dehumanizing way all nonwhite immigrants have be treated by the U.S. ever since.
But for white men, open borders remained very much real. While the U.S. did pass laws affecting white immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, they were fairly limited: Collecting a small tax from migrants upon arrival, banning “lunatics” and carriers of infectious disease, and stopping anyone “unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” Even when a literacy test was introduced in 1917, it could be administered in the migrant’s native language.
Effectively, U.S. immigration policy into the 1920s said that if you were a white, able-bodied man, the border was open.
And through that border came record numbers of migrants. In 1890, immigrants as a share of the population peaked at 14.8 percent. And this era—from the 1870s to the 1920s—was not just one of rising undocumented immigration, but of a skyrocketing standard of living, as well. Life expectancy shot up, infant mortality declined, cities got electricity and plumbing, and workers began to win 40-hour hour work weeks and weekends off.
This is the America my great-grandfather, Samuel Freedman, came to in 1911, when he walked off the deck of an English ship onto Ellis Island. His migration bears little resemblance to that of today’s documented immigrants. He had no visa—the U.S. would not even issue them until more than a decade later. He was checked for lice and given a medical examination, yes, but he wasn’t asked to present a passport. In fact, he wasn’t asked to present any papers at all. Simply stating the name of the ship on which he had arrived was all that was required for a foreigner to come to America with the intention of staying.
In other words, my great-grandfather was an undocumented immigrant. And, if your parents, or grandparents, or great-grandparents immigrated to the United States before 1924—when xenophobic panic about Southern and Eastern Europeans spurred the first truly restrictive laws for white migrants—they were undocumented, too.
When Democratic candidates talk about decriminalizing the border, they’d do well to remind skeptical voters of this history. After all, it is not only their families who are in debt to undocumented immigrants, but much of what they value about this country. Undocumented immigrants like Carl Schurz (born in Germany) fought for the abolition of slavery. Undocumented immigrants like Rose Schneiderman (born in Poland) helped win women the right to vote and workers the right to a union. Undocumented immigrants are even responsible for some of America’s favorite foods, from the Valencia orange (Lue Gim Gong, born in China) to the hamburger (Louis Lassen, born in Denmark).
Of course, a history lesson alone won’t persuade whites whose anti-immigration stance is purely the product of racism—after all, that’s what created our current, restrictive system in the first place. But for those whose opposition comes more from ignorance and misinformation—victims of effective propagandizing from far-right internet forums, cable news programs, and White House talking points—talking about voters’ own undocumented forebears is a vital step to changing their minds.
As the Founding Fathers recognized, open borders are the key to making America great. Engaging with this history, contemporary Americans may well come to that conclusion, too.