Coming to America: Dysfunction Paves

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Famously liberal and progressive San Francisco is the birthplace of immigration law, which, of course, was then anti-immigration law intended to eject a population that political propaganda described as subhuman, unclean, criminal invaders out to steal American jobs.

Chinese immigrants, “Celestials,” were derided as China’s “dregs,” impervious to American law, slaves to an opaque internal system of rules and regulations that defied American government regulation, spies and saboteurs.

At its base the movement was blatantly, proudly racist.

“Question: Suppose there were no Chinese here, could you find white boys and girls to take their places? Answer: We have tried it and find we can.”

Chinese are “antediluvian men,” “impregnable to our Anglo-Saxon life.”

Within 25 years “this fair State will contain a Chinese population outnumbering its freemen. White labor will be unknown…”

White youth, “blighted by the degrading contact of their presence, have been swept into destruction.”

This is testimony before the 1876 California State Senate, which forwarded hundreds of similar arguments to a Congress that, persuaded of the peril, enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Similarly persuaded, President Chester Arthur signed it into law.

Here’s one irony: The man behind the effort to bring Chinese laborers to America was the highly respected diplomat Anson Burlingame, after whom the town is named.

He negotiated the Burlingame Treaty on behalf of the Emperor of China, which paved the way for importation of thousands of Chinese laborers. San Francisco newspapers scorned it as the “cheap labor treaty.”

Another irony: Behind the movement to get the Chinese out were the “Know-Nothings,” a practically vigilante political party that today might be described as alt-right supremacist, many of whose members were Irish immigrants, first- or second-generation descendants of those who fled the Irish potato famine of the 1840s.

They themselves had suffered the indignity of anti-immigrant propaganda when they first arrived. The San Francisco Call newspaper, for example, cartooned Irish as backward apes incapable of socialization, aliens out to steal American jobs.

But by the 1860s the Irish themselves were anti-immigrant. Irishman Frank McCoppin led the charge for Chinese exclusion. San Francisco Mayor McCoppin’s agitating carried a lot of weight with legislators pondering “a final solution” to Chinese immigration, which culminated in the Exclusion Act, an anti-immigrant screed that governed American policy, with a few significant alterations, for more than 60 years.

Of course, Italians, Germans, Japanese and Latinos all have had their turns in the barrel.

In 1936 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, pushing the federal government to close borders as wartime fears grew, hired hundreds of agents to collect the identities of any Germans, Italians and Japanese in the country.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Because it’s titled “The President Authorizes Japanese Relocation” it’s commonly believed that the order only resulted in arrest, detention and imprisonment of thousands of American Japanese, citizen and non-citizen alike.

In this area thousands of them, property and businesses forfeit, were interned at the former Tanforan horse racing track in San Bruno before being shipped off to camps in Utah, Nevada, Arizona and the interior.

But Order 9066 also gave supreme authority to the War Department to interpret who might be a potential spy or saboteur. Since Germany and Italy were on Hitler’s side, American Germans and Italians were declared enemy aliens. Nationally 3,200 Italians and 11,000 Germans were rounded up and more than 5,000 were jailed.

It was a studied strategy launched months and years before Roosevelt’s order.

Early in 1942, some government authority painted a line down the middle of Highway 1 on the Coastside from San Francisco to Monterey, bisecting Half Moon Bay down Main Street.

Italian and German aliens west of the line were ordered to move east to assure they weren’t spies positioned to sneak to the beach to signal invading navies.

Italian and German families were neither pure alien families nor composed of all legal citizens. Alien simply means without official residency or citizenship. It sweeps up everyone, those applying for citizenship along with illegals.

This mixed family situation where citizens and non-citizens share a household is another foundation upon which immigration law is built. Almost all family immigration categories require a citizen —usually a family member or permanent resident — to sponsor an immigrant. Non-citizen family members can spend years or decades as aliens among their citizen blood relatives while they wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn.

Even families of undocumented immigrants often have citizens — American-born children — in the household.

This is why many deportations break up families. Family separations are not new in the immigration business.

The Italian-German-Japanese roundup set in motion some bizarre chains of events in San Mateo County in 1942.

A Half Moon Bay newspaper tells the story of an Italian family that owned a restaurant on the west side of Main Street. The parents were non-citizen aliens. The children, having been born in Half Moon Bay, were citizens.  Barred from crossing west, the parents stood on the east to shout instructions to the children running the restaurant.

The late Leo Giorgetti was a notable who owned Woodlake Joe’s restaurant in San Mateo.

The Giorgettis were a Half Moon Bay farm family; Leo was born there. Government agents showed up at the farm in February of 1942 and ordered his mother out, leaving operation of the farm to the children.

Paula Uccelli’s Italian family lived in San Jose. Her grandmother’s family owned a deli in Monterey. Order 9066 made Grandmother Ferranti an enemy alien. With no place to go but San Jose, she left the deli behind.

Paula’s husband, the late Pete Uccelli, later owner of Pete’s Harbor, though Italian, was a citizen, and was drafted to go to war. He didn’t want to go. He had lots of friends at the produce market.

“He didn’t want to go and fight against people. He thought he would be killing a relative, somebody that he dealt with at the produce market that were really wonderful people,” she said. So Uccelli joined the Army Corps of Engineers and served in the Philippines.

It’s difficult to imagine what it must have felt like to go to sleep a taxpaying member of the community and wake up a hunted enemy alien, but the gears of government had been grinding in that direction for some time.

Jane Jarboe Russell in “The Train to Crystal City” wrote, “The day before Roosevelt signed the order, FBI agents had arrested 264 Italians, 1,396 Germans, and 2,209 Japanese on the East and West Coasts. The hunt for perceived enemies was on.”

San Francisco, again, was in the lead.

It owned property in Pacifica called Sharp Park, home to a golf course and a facility for “indigents” tucked away in an adjacent canyon.

Apparently anticipating internments and the war, the city kicked out the indigents in 1939 and turned the facility over to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which surrounded it with chain link, barbed wire and floodlights and prepared to receive enemy aliens, who showed up three years later.

At one point Sharp Park housed 400 Italian, German and Japanese men and women, whose immigration status had been changed from “alien” to “enemy alien” by Presidential decree. It even held some dangerous citizens of Mexico and Canada. Most were transient prisoners being shipped out to more permanent prisons, some bound for Crystal City, Texas, the first American internment camp for families, but some were interned there for long periods.

Among the least-known of the long-buried facts about Sharp Park is that it also participated in the U.S. government’s Enemy Alien Control Program, sometimes called the Axis Internment Program.

As early as 1941 the U.S. sent hundreds of FBI agents, “legal attachés,” to Latin American countries to coordinate the effort. The U.S., long before the war, had persuaded 16 Central and South American countries to arrest “Axis nationals,” Germans, Italians and Japanese, on the pretext that they could be enemy agents plotting against the U.S.

Without proof beyond a name and nationality, 6,600 internees — Peru alone rounded up 702 Germans, 1,799 Japanese, and 49 Italians — were arrested and shipped to America. In exchange, participating countries were given deportees’ property, businesses and bank accounts.

It was useful for the U.S. also because it proffered some internees as trade bait, exchanging them with the Axis powers, Germany, Italy and Japan; for American prisoners of war. Notably, one country did not participate in the Latin American internment program: Mexico.

Along with war and ignoble internments of American citizens, the 40s also saw a major change in immigration law.

A limited modification was made in 1902 that in theory admitted Chinese, provided they first obtained a certificate of residence from Immigration and Naturalization. The “green card” was born.

In the 1920s the law changed to a quota system, allowing the government to throttle immigration country-by-country, depending upon which were judged to be positive contributors to the business roundtable or the gene pool.

Finally, in 1943, anti-Chinese sentiment had subsided sufficiently that Congress was emboldened to repeal all exclusion acts. That allowed a grand total of 105 Chinese to apply for naturalization.

The twisting and turning family history of Dani Gasparini, former Redwood City mayor and Pen-TV program host, charts the state of immigration after the war.

Her mother and father were born in Weed, California, to non-citizen immigrants who were forced to go back to Italy by the Great Depression, with the American children, one family to one town and the other to the town next door. Incredibly, they shared the same story but didn’t know each other.

In brief: Her mother, Paulina Peruzzi, and father, Gino Pasquale Gasparini, met, were betrothed at 18, married and put on a boat to New York in 1948 with the clothes on their backs and $100.

At Ellis Island in New York, the newlyweds were confronted with the new immigration rules.

The Gasparinis had to prepare for immigration by obtaining a sponsor (a cousin in Redwood City), a bank account (which a relative opened for them), a job (with the San Mateo Scavenger Company), a place to stay (a converted chicken coop in Redwood City) and proof they wouldn’t be a burden on society (the $100).

What the family still can’t figure out is why they had to apply for naturalization and citizenship at all since they were born in the United States.

One possibility is that how a law gets written and how it is put into practice aren’t necessarily the same thing.

It also could be that immigration law doesn’t have to make sense because Congress is a sausage factory and, anyway, the President of the United States can do with it what he chooses, a prerogative Roosevelt established and the law makes plain.

Seventy-three thousand words laying out more than 60 categories, 143 pages of American law define citizenship “inadmissibility,” the grounds for rejecting immigrants. Of interest to Mexican and Latin American immigrants these days is inadmissibility for having to tried to cross the border without documentation, behavior some argue makes them automatic criminals.

Those 73,000 words try to cover everything, from name misspellings to lying to murder, but they all boil down to section 10 (f): “Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or nonimmigrants…”

The courts have, of course, interpreted the law, which accounts for the fact that most pro-immigrant groups’ answer to Presidential authority has been to say, “See you in court.”

This small sample of convoluted immigration experiences illustrates how bad treatment under color of law and authority suppresses and distorts history, unfairly changes the perception and self-perception of ethnic groups, usually for generations and sometimes permanently, and ignores a central fact about immigration — it is critical to the survival of nations.

On the last point, James J. Sheehan, Dickason professor of humanities at Stanford University and former president of the American Historical Association, points to the examples of Japan and Spain.

Japan has low birth rate and 2 percent net migration. Consequently it’s projected to lose 15 percent of population in 30 years. By 2050 every working-age Japanese will have one (statistically .96 of one) dependent to take care of who is not of working age (younger than 15 or older than 65). In other words, half the population will work to support the other half.

The same for Spain.

The trend is valid in most developed countries. Ten years ago every working-age resident of the U.S. had half a dependent to support. Looked at another way, for every two U.S. earners there was one dependent younger than 15 or older than 65. By 2050 there will be almost one-and-a-half dependents for every two Americans of working age.

The situation is the reverse in the developing world, places like areas of Central and South America, India and sub-Saharan Africa, where working-age populations are growing quickly.

They lose workers to developed countries which need them. Political establishments of some developed countries may not want them, but ultimately migrants produce mutual economic benefit. It has ever been thus.

Opportunity is the driver, as it’s been since the first wave of emigrants moved out of Africa and into central Europe 100,000 years ago.

Seven individuals with immigrant stories they agreed to share were interviewed for this article. Every one identified opportunity as the primary motivation for immigration, sometimes along with fear of violence or political upheaval in the home country.

Regarding the second point, how the history of immigration becomes distorted when cultures clash and only the dominant society gets to write that history, just two words: Sharp Park.

Italian, German, Japanese, Irish, Hispanic, whatever the group, those who have experienced immigrant discrimination, thusly shamed, rarely get over it, keep their silence, defer and deflect. To the victor goes the history.

Paul Kitagaki, Jr. was a South San Francisco-born teenager when, during a 10th-grade summer school history class, he learned about Executive Order 9066 and the Japanese internment center at Tanforan, so close to his house he could ride there on his bike in 10 minutes.

Shaken, he asked his parents if it were true. They admitted that, yes, it happened. End of conversation.

Years later, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, Kitagaki came to be in the Library of Congress leafing through Dorothea Lange’s collection of Works Progress Administration photos. Lange, most famous for pictures of Dust Bowl refugees, also photographed the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland Japanese roundup of 1942.

There, in her pictures, were Kitagaki’s father and his grandparents, American citizens, incarcerated at Tanforan.

Kitagaki, deeply disturbed, has channeled his shock and dismay into a lifelong project to push his subjects’ stories into the limelight and document what this tragedy wrought upon generations. He produced the “Gambatte!”  traveling photo exhibition, tracking down and re-photographing Lange’s subjects where she photographed them then.  A display of his pictures is on the walls of, appropriately, the Tanforan BART Station, which is the site of the old detention facility.

“I want to try to make sure that no one forgets what happened,” he said. “And that it never happens again.”

Immigration detentions these days are not roundups of American citizens, though, government being government, those things do happen. Still, what does happen sometimes is a close cousin to the Kitagaki experience.

The political conceit is that it is possible to keep out everyone without citizenship or visa, and just let in the desirables.

It is fair to consult history and point out that, under Presidential authority, as under Order 9066, similarly as under exclusion laws that were not wiped off the books until the 40s, thousands of people are being jailed, for indeterminate periods, at unpublicized locations under color of keeping out criminals who aim to steal American jobs. It’s also fair to point out that during the Japanese internment they at least kept families together.

Administration policy today is to separate children from adults, the presumption being that accompanying adults are paid smugglers or posers or worse. And that splitting up families will deter illegal immigration.

The local effect is that Catholic Charities in San Mateo County is handling the cases of 75 of these “unaccompanied minors.” It’s a loose term because federal bureaucracy and courts grind so slowly that some are aging out, but, since they are still in process, technically these 20- and 21-year-olds remain “minors.”

Though now together here, one Guatemalan family of five has an unaccompanied minor, a son, in the system. The father left for America in 2005, intending to go back to Guatemala after he’d earned enough to get his new family on its feet. The wife gave birth to the son in Guatemala.

The dangers facing Guatemalans today are well-documented. The father decided to bring the family to America, one at a time, the wife first. The son remained with the Guatemalan grandparents. For 10 years. As he waited, the American family grew, with two daughters born American citizens. The family decided the way to reunification was to present the son at the border as an unaccompanied minor.

Because the system attempts to place minors with a responsible relative or acquaintance in America, Catholic Charities coordinated the reunion with his natural family. They are together in San Mateo, waiting for processing.

Another case, not a Catholic Charities case, is a twist on that story. An undocumented father living in America worked for years to reunite with his only family, a son, finally succeeding by getting him to the border, where he became an unaccompanied minor and was domiciled in the United States. The father, exposed to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was deported.

There are thousands of citizenship cases working through the system in San Mateo County; Catholic Charities alone is managing 2,000.

One of the things to fear in the whole process might be success.

There is the case of Lulu Barajas, pregnant by her boyfriend and ordered by her parents to marry at 17. She became an illegal Mexican immigrant because her abusive husband wanted to cross.

His family in Mexico borrowed $5,000 to pay a coyote guide. Separated from her husband, Barajas was stopped at the border many times and sent back to Mexico each time.

Finding a hole under the fence on Otay Mesa east of San Diego, she and a small group made it across. There followed a four-hour ride stuffed in the trunk of a car with three others, she being seven months pregnant.

In Redwood City they both found jobs and a small apartment. Divorced at 23, Barajas began the legalization process under one of the eight categories of eligibility, victim of abuse. Thousands of dollars and 20 years later, she became a permanent resident. Four years later, quickly in government processing time, she received her green card. It will take several years and several thousands of dollars more before she can be naturalized. She didn’t give up for 24 years. The best news? Her American citizen son graduated from college in June. Barajas also has a college-graduate daughter and another son who just won a full scholarship to Sacred Heart School.

Why do some nationalities, such as Mexicans, have such difficulty? In 1965 U.S. immigration law underwent its last major revision, which, ironically, prioritized family reunification.

Today, immigrants have to have a green card, or permanent residency. To get a green card, one must have a visa, which are either family-sponsored or employment-based. Grossly oversimplifying, immigrants from 232 countries are competing for 226,000 family-sponsored U.S. visas a year.  Since no country can have more than 7 percent of that total, each nationality competes for a maximum 15,820 family-sponsored visas. There is a lot of fiddling with those numbers which results in Mexico usually being allocated around 35,000 visas.

In 2018 Customs and Border Patrol apprehended and turned back 521,090 at the southern border with Mexico. In only the first eight months of this fiscal year 676,315 were rejected.

For almost all visa categories, immigrants must have a U.S. resident or citizen sponsor or a promised American job. The only categories that allow “self-nomination:” victims of violence and asylum-seekers. Hiring a smuggler, or coyote, to get someone across the southern border these days costs $10,000 to $15,000 per person, according to undocumented persons here now. The high end includes false documentation that may permit a person to drive across.

The poorest don’t pay. They walk, these days in so-called “caravans.”

Currently the greatest number of those received at the border are from the crashed economy of Venezuela, where up to 4 million people are on the move, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Some experts predict that the numbers fleeing Venezuela eventually will exceed the 5.6 million who fled Syria’s civil war.

U.S. agencies deal with this vast surplus of applicants through “visa retrogression.”

In the family-sponsored categories most Mexicans seek, retrogression means applications filed in 1998, 21 years ago, will have a chance of being processed this year. That retrogression year may not budge for years into the future.

Asked when those in the pipeline might expect to get residency, a Catholic Charities immigration lawyer threw up his hands in frustration. “One hundred years,” he said. “They’ll be dead.”

Let’s not forget the Irish.

James Byrne, a San Francisco immigration lawyer and student of San Francisco’s Irish traditions and history, very carefully lays out the dynamics of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s snarled disentanglement from the European Union. If England makes a “hard exit” from the EU, the result likely will be a hard border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

That goes against the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of violent warfare between Protestant and Catholic Irish, authorities north and south. Those “troubles” fed a tide of Irish migrants, many illegal, to the United States in the 1980s.

If hard Brexit undoes all that and causes economic collapse in Northern Ireland, there will be consequences.

“If it does have an economic effect and if the European Union or Britain doesn’t make an effort to alleviate it,” Byrne said, “then I would expect that you would see more immigration from Ireland to the United States.

“Legal and illegal.”

As always.

This story was originally published in the July print edition of Climate Magazine. 

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