Why is Immigration Harder Than It Used To Be?

Most of us have seen The Godfather, Part II, right? Remember that scene where young Vito Corleone is in Ellis Island and, since he manages to convince the immigration guys he’s healthy, becomes a citizen in a short period of time with no problem, along with thousands of other immigrants? They didn’t need to know anything about America, not even how to speak English.

But now it’s a totally different story. I read somewhere that if you’re not marrying an American citizen you need some serious coin (to the tune of $30,000) as well as a relative who already lives in the US to sponsor you. Not only that, but you have to take a test…that’s in English.

When, how, and why did immigration to the US become such a difficult process? Why could the proverbial Vito Corleone in the early 20th century get in with barely a question asked while today Pedro Lopez has to learn english, pay thousands of dollars, and wait several years? Was it even that easy to become a citizen in the old days, or is it yet another example of the movie industry slaughtering history?

My WAGs: the population is larger (less space), we have less need for unskilled labor, travel is faster/cheaper/easier (more people coming in), we have more social programs in place…

Immigration was changed in the 30s and then again in the 60s.

Immigration was pretty free until the Great Depression. There were limits on Asian, particulary Chinese and Japanese, but it was open. In Catherine Reef’s book “Poverty In America” which explains this, is a great way to learn about this.

After the depression the quotas were marked WAY down. If anyone could afford to come over they’d have issues. But worldwide it was fairly easy to come and go. You always hear about artists and writers in the 20s, 30s and 40s, just moving to London or Paris or even Madrid and covering the Civil War there.

After WWII immigration was slowly reformed with discrimination against certain “types” slowly eliminated.

However in the 60s was the huge problem was it allows people who are related to you to come over. I live in a neighborhood with a lot of immigrants from Poland and Czech Republic. The sponsors are distant in terms of cousins or half cousins and it’s not checked well.

You don’t have to put up the money yourself, you can pay people to put the money for you. Not exactly like but similar to a criminal bond, where you pay a percent like fee and they put up the cash. I know a lot of Polish Organizations in Chicago do this.

It’s actually easier to get into America than say Canada or NZ or Australia. I worked with Starwood and was offered a JOB in Canada, twice, and Canada refused to let me in. They said, “If a Canadian can do your job, we won’t let you in. Starwood should look for a Canadian.” I have friends in NZ and Aussie who would sponsor me but when I looked for Starwood and got the transfer OK’d the governments said "No, if an Aussie (or NZ) can do the job, you have to give it them or keep looking).

So it’s a LOT easier to get into America. Judging from all the day workers from Poland and Czech Republic that line the streets of Belmont and Milwaukee in Chicago, it’s quite easy.

The short answer is politics. Here’s a Wikipedia article on the History of US Immigration.

Over time, the laws regarding immigration have varied rather considerably, based on on the perceived need for immigrant labor, the national mood toward outsiders, and often stereotypes attached to people of varying national origins.

If you visit the Ellis Island museum, something I highly recommend if you are in New York, the main exhibit is on the immigration requirements during the primary time Ellis Island was active. Although I don’t know exactly when Corleone was supposed to have immigrated, what you describe sounds like the Ellis Island process. However, once you got through Ellis Island, you were allowed to come into the US, not become a citizen.

Here’s a blurb from the Ellis Island website on what an immigrant would go through:

If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these “six second physicals.” By 1916, it was said that a doctor could identify numerous medical conditions (ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins) just by glancing at an immigrant. The ship’s manifest log (that had been filled out back at the port of embarkation) contained the immigrant’s name and his/her answers to twenty-nine questions. This document was used by the legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross examine the immigrant during the legal (or primary) inspection. At the museum there are also examples of cards used to prove that immigrants were literate in at least one language (including some highly obscure ones), which I believe was a requirement that came under a change of law during the period of Ellis Island’s operation.

In the 1920s the immigration laws changed to make immigration much more restrictive. Subsequent changes of law added to the burdens of those trying to immigrate.

Today, immigration is such a difficult political subject that there is little legislative will to improve or change what almost everyone agrees is a seriously broken system. The administrative system for processing immigrants is well known as a Kafka-esque disaster, but because those using it are, for the most part, well, immigrants with little political power, there is little incentive to improve it. Those who have the economic resources will hire lawyers and advisors who can navigate through the bureacracy (and even then, it sucks), while the little guys get chewed up.

Before the Great Depression, businesses pushed to have open immigration because they wanted the cheap labor immigrants provided.

Businesses are still pushing for that today, but the Depression made protecting American jobs an issue that had teeth and immigration started becoming harder to do.

Not true. The Great Depression had very little impact on immigration laws. The primary change from easy immigration to restricted and limited immigration occurred with the National Origins Act of 1924.

Books could be written (and probably have been) about why the political climate changed to favor restriction at that time. Part of it was the after-effect of World War I; wartime inevitably breeds distrust of foreigners. Part of it was the rise of eugenicist thinking in the early Twentieth Century; southern and eastern Europeans (to say nothing of Africans and Asians) were considered inferior breeds. Part of it was social dislocation resulting from industrialization and urbanization; rural areas were losing political influence and distrusted corrupt and alien big-city machine politics. Immigration restriction cut the flow of immigrants into cities.

You’re right. My memory of back then is pretty fuzzy being that I wasn’t born until several decades later. But, oh, they had styles back then.

This may have been true at some point in the past, but I doubt it is true now.

It is currently very difficult to get into America legally. If you marry an American, or are the parent of an adult American there is a path, but most other family relationship routes are so backlogged it is practically unavailable. If you have no family ties you basically need a Masters degree for a company to sponsor you, lower education levels are marked as “Unavailable” due to quotas.

And I’m talking about impossible versus possible here, not easy versus difficult. For the vast majority of people it is completely impossible to come to the United States. Not “very difficult”, impossible. Some people with specific employment and family situations have a shot, although I would hardly categorize the process of waiting, forms, interviews and careful planning of traversing statuses, etc as “easy”.

I have never seriously pursued immigration to Canada, Australia, NZ, etc, but I know some of those countries have a points system. I tried it out for Canada a while back, and as a college educated younger than 30 English speaking person it appeared that I had a shot, although I have no knowledge of whether the process would have been “easy” or “difficult”.

Anecdotally, among my South African friends who emigrated Canada, Australia, NZ and the UK were far more common choices than the US. Part of that is probably cultural, but I think another part of why the US doesn’t make the list is that it is so much more difficult, and often impossible, to do. Of course, I’m an exception, but I did have a very specific set of circumstances involving moving with a company that had a US presence, and my current marriage to a US citizen. The quotas are much more backlogged now - a few more years later and I would not have been able to move to the US, and consequently would not have met my lovely wife!