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"They Should Come the Right Way – Like My Ancestors Did!”


If your ancestors successfully immigrated before 1917, Congratulations! Know that many other potential immigrants were denied entry, even when they tried to do it "legally":

  • No Asians: The Chinese were not allowed to enter the US beginning in 1862, with expansions banning entry to all Asians in later years. Portions of the Chinese Exclusion laws continued until 1943.


  • No women or children without men: In 1882, laws banning entry of "undesirables" or people unable to care for themselves without becoming a public charge took effect. The law effectively separated families and denied entry to women and children who could not prove that they had a husband or father who would take custody of them. Many couldn't prove it, even if they did have someone waiting for them.


  • No poor people: Beginning in 1885, anyone who had their ocean passage paid by someone else was denied entry. This law restricted entry by poor Europeans, particularly those from Eastern and Southern European countries.


  • No one with a questionable past: “Moral Turpitude” was entered into the list of those excluded. While actual crimes fell under this section, so did questions of female chastity, owning a firearm, failing to register one's address with the government, or becoming a "public charge" for any reason, including long-term illness. The term is still an immigration factor today, but it has never been legally defined.


  • No illiterates: In 1917, literacy tests were first administered to potential immigrants, and “illiterate” was added to the growing list of those who would be excluded from entry. At this point, there were 30 classes of “unfit” immigrants. Again, individual family members were identified and separated out from their families for exclusion.


  • Almost no one from Southern or Eastern Europe: By 1922, the numbers of admissions to the US had been cut by more than 75%, with almost all denials for those from Southern and Eastern European countries.



Maybe your ancestor did not enter "legally" - and just didn't tell that part of their story...

  • Human smuggling was first identified as a problem in 1914, and the beginnings of Border Patrol were established along the Mexican border to prevent entry by Europeans attempting to enter illegally. At that point, there were no restrictions for people coming from Latin America. In addition, Inspectors were installed at docks and ports to process applications for shore leave by sailors, attempting to curb high numbers of desertions.


  • Passports and visas from the immigrant's home countries were required beginning in WW1. For those who could not get papers, smuggling through Canada, Cuba and Mexico became a big business.


  • When people realized they couldn't get visas from their home countries, large numbers of Europeans emigrated to Latin America first, in hope that they could conceal their nationality and that they or their children would be able to emigrate from there to the United States.


In 1927, deportation proceedings were initiated for 26,000 people residing illegally in the United States - 1 out of 12 immigrants. Most illegal immigrants were not caught. Some estimates suggest that up to 25% of European immigrants entered illegally and established families, businesses, and became respected members of their communities.


Was one of them yours?



- Executive Director

August 07, 2019



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