War at the Door

INS Crackdowns and Bureaucracy Threaten America’s Tradition as a Nation of Immigrants

The Circle Line boat that ferries tourists to Ellis Island slows to a crawl as it passes the Statue of Liberty, giving passengers plenty of time to train their video cameras on that beloved beacon of bounty to those old huddled masses. The engine churns, the water sprays, and the looming green lady grows larger and larger. You can't help but provide your own private soundtrack. It hardly matters whether your imagination plays Irish ditties, Mexican danzones, Klezmer doynes, or Korean drums: sentiment gushes in, priming you for the Ellis Island museum, which invites you to envision yourself as a turn-of-the-last-century immigrant who has just disembarked from third-class steerage. And you do.

Though the exhibit doesn't shy away from chronicling the xenophobic currents in American history or the humiliations that greeted those streaming to these shores, it manages to avoid any references to recent debates over immigration or to the myriad snafus of the contemporary system. In an official introduction to the site, for instance, National Park guide K.J. Finley, dreadlocks bouncing from beneath her ranger hat, explains why you might have chosen to make the arduous journey to America in, say, 1905: "You're a peasant and you don't want to die a peasant," she says. "You need a job and you heard there were jobs here." Never once are you called an "economic migrant," which in today's derisive discourse would separate you from a more "legitimate" immigrant, someone fleeing political persecution. These days, new arrivals are slapped into the same categories as welfare recipients—as genuinely oppressed or merely poor, "deserving" or "taking advantage."

Nonetheless, the inspectors who stood behind the high little desks in the great hall of Ellis Island were the first enforcers of America's abidingly ambivalent immigration policy. The forebears of today's thousands of Border Patrol agents, deportation officers, and other functionaries of the ever expanding Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), those bespectacled, starch-collared men were charged with excluding from entry, first, Chinese people, and, more generally, as 1880s law put it, "any convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge."

Since then, the history of U.S. immigration policy can be read as the expansion of the list of those who must be refused: 1891 legislation added polygamists and "persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease"; 1903 law added anarchists. By 1921, baldly racist forces, riding the crest of the Red Scare, won quota restrictions, limiting immigration from any country to 3 percent of its representation in the U.S. according to the 1910 census. Later versions of that act choked off immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe; immigration from Asia had already been barred. And the story of Ellis Island as a gateway to the Promised Land was over.


But the contradictions in American policy—and the romantic way in which we insist on viewing that policy—were not. From the day of the first post-Civil War law about whom to let in and how to do it, the agency charged with carrying out immigration policy has had a paradoxical task: to welcome strangers and to shun them. It must, on one hand, defend American jobs against cheap immigrant labor and, on the other, enable business to import low-wage workers; embrace the needy and enterprising and "protect" the nation's founding Anglo-Christian culture and values; succor the refugee and slam the door on the rogue.

This tension tugs at the core of America's founding ideals. Even as the Declaration of Independence listed among the many "Injuries and Usurpations" of the British king his obstruction of immigration to America, Benjamin Franklin panicked about an 18th-century influx of "Palatine Boors," and demanded to know why "Pennsylvania, founded by the English, [should] become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?"

How from the tangle of clashing mandates can today's INS function coherently? By many accounts, it doesn't. Charged with facilitating immigration as well as containing it, the INS mirrors the schizophrenia of U.S. foreign policy, and many agree it is currently failing on both sides of its mission. And that's not only because it is, by the government's own report, a staggeringly inept bureaucracy that remains unaccountable to the public and even to the Congress that sets its agenda. It's the paradigmatic American agency, embodying the nagging question of the liberal state: Is government's role to provide services to people—or to police them?

In the wake of September 11, the stakes for the INS's striking the right balance are as high as they have ever been. Today, one in five Americans is first generation or foreign born. Even as the INS must reinforce its shields against those seeking to cross the border to do the U.S. harm, it must preserve the openness to the rest of the world that has forged the nation's identity. But the blundering, bunker-minded agency may not be up to the task. This week's look at the INS launches a periodic series of articles that will follow the agency at this critical moment, examining practices in the context of shifting policy. The INS's new commissioner, James Ziglar, recently said that he liked his job because "it gives you the opportunity to shape the future of the country." Given that he reports directly to zero-tolerance attorney general John Ashcroft, it's fair to wonder: Will the glory of American promise celebrated at Ellis Island still be recognized in the kind of country the INS is shaping?

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