Michael J. Hogan was an Irish American and former congressman for Brooklyn who served in Washington in the 1920s. In 1935, while working a plum gig for the Port of New York, Hogan hatched a $300 scheme with not one, not two but three Italian immigrants. In exchange for the cash, Hogan would provide papers to the immigrants. Hogan, as Tyler Anbinder writes in his excellent and comprehensive new book "City of Dreams: The 400 Year Epic History of New York," “promised to use his connections in Washington to obtain documents indicating that they had entered the United States lawfully.”
Of course, they had not.
Anbinder’s book comes out at a very important moment. One reason often cited for Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election is anger over immigration in general and illegal immigration specifically. At a rally in Ohio last week, Trump earned roars from the crowd when he brought up illegal immigration.
“We will restore the sovereignty of the United States. We will finally end illegal immigration, have to… We will construct a great wall at the border,” said Trump.
He also targeted immigrants from countries that make it difficult for them to be, what he termed, “safely processed.”
Look, let’s be clear: nobody is in favor of illegal immigration.
But there is an underlying assumption to Trump’s appeal. Many of his supporters – especially Irish Americans and other white ethnic Catholics – like to pretend that in the good old days, grandma and grandpa proceeded through Ellis Island in a calm, orderly fashion and got their papers all nice and legally.
And maybe that is true. Or maybe it just makes them feel better about themselves. Because Anbinder’s book is just the latest proof that for many Americans, grandma and grandpa were undocumented.
In 1922, New York’s “commissioner general of immigration conceded that” illegal immigration had “reached alarming proportions,” Anbinder writes.
“The Department of Labor, under whose aegis immigration fell, estimated that in 1927 there were one million illegal immigrants living in the United States, but the Times put the true figure at two million.”
By one estimate, according to Anbinder, between “100,000 and 300,000 new undocumented aliens were said to be arriving annually.”
Said Harry Hull, the commissioner general of Immigration, “The bootlegging of aliens has grown to be an industry second in importance only to the bootlegging of liquor.”
This is worth noting, first of all, because America, as a nation, did indeed survive this plague of illegal immigrants. Some illegal immigrants even went on to hold jobs and raise children who still walk among us today.
Yes, I know, the numbers of illegal immigrants back then were smaller. But so were the overall population numbers.
And I know, today we have to worry about immigrants pouring over our border. But guess what? We’ve always had to worry about that.
“For anywhere from $25 to $100, aspiring immigrants could find a boatman willing to transport them from Windsor, Ontario, across the Detroit River to Michigan in a skiff,” Anbinder notes.
“Taxi drivers from Montreal all the way to Vancouver also did a thriving business smuggling immigrants across the border. They openly solicited customers at the docks where the immigrants landed. Taxicab drivers in Winnipeg did the same at the city’s main train station.”
Of course there is the supposedly new issue of terrorism and security in our post-9/11 world. Tell that to those who were injured in the explosions which regularly rocked the New York and New Jersey waterfronts which were crawling with German saboteurs, not to mention Irish dock workers sympathetic to German anti-British aims.
The truth is this: Before the harsh 1920s anti-immigrant laws, it was hard to say who exactly was documented or undocumented, simply because the laws were not so clear. But you can bet there were plenty of illegal immigrants.
And yet we survived as a nation. Some people even think we were great back then.