An exciting partnership with my second-cousin has yielded a treasure trove of documents from the elusive Olson side of my family. Finally! I am so excited to learn more about their story.
A hugely relevant portion for me is the journey Christine Nelson and her future husband, David Olson, took to immigrate to the United States in the mid-1910’s.
I think this story will be one many of us can connect to and will be familiar to us. It’s another Ellis Island story; men and women struggle to make the journey across the sea in overcrowded steamers to seek their fortune in a new free country. But perhaps there are many others who will find many aspects of this immigration experience unfamiliar. The face of immigration today has changed drastically and I think it’s important as an informed voter to compare those changes and make sure our romanticized understanding of immigration back then isn’t confused with the very different immigration process now.
There is no “line” for prospective immigrants to get into today. The traditional Ellis Island story Americans tell about the immigrant experience – the line of waiting hopefuls moving through the screenings of Ellis Island – is no longer happening. Most immigrants arrive by plane. Sure, they wait in line at customs but that is not the immigration process. There is no line to get into if you want to move to the U.S. with no prior connection. Nowadays, you’ve got to have family or a job offer to get a chance at permanent residency.
My research has revealed that the immigration process today is far more restrictive, complex, and expensive than it ever was for my great grandmother.
Of course, immigration was a hugely controversial topic in 1915 just as it is today. The controversy was limited to certain groups of immigrants (again, just like today). Swedish immigrants like my great-grandparents shared many cultural similarities with the Northern European descendants who defined American culture at the time, like race, religion, and this concept of the Protestant work ethic.
At the turn of the century, America was much more concerned about southern and eastern European immigrants than it was about western and norther Europeans.
Despite tension and political controversy, the actual immigration process around 1910 (when my great grandparents arrived) was relatively simple. Once arriving at Ellis Island, you would be processed and go through a medical examination and interrogation. If you passed these examinations, you would be released. No visa necessary, no green card necessary. Just show up, be healthy, and get through.
A new part of inspections in 1915 was the intelligence test, something both my great grandparents missed by a few years, recreated here in a clip from “The Golden Door”:
Once you entered into the country, naturalization required an oath of allegiance and a renunciation of loyalty to the home-country. One had to reside in the United States for 2 years and had to submit an application for admission as a citizen. The court fees were usually $1.50 to $2.50. (That’s about $35 to $60 in today’s dollar.) There were more contingencies and requirements, mostly about the prospective citizen’s beliefs in organized government and other cultural mores like monogamous marriage. These beliefs were not tested – there were no naturalization tests, per say. The prospective citizen merely had to swear their allegiance in the manner demanded.
My great-grandfather, David Olson, traveled to the United States in 1909 on the ship Hellig Olov (pictures courtesy of www.norwayheritage.com).
Though from Sweden, he departed from Kristiana, Norway, as he attests in his naturalization petition.
Christine, also known as Kristina, traveled from Sweden in 1913 and because all the naturalization records and petitions are completed by David, I do not know which ship she came in on. Based on the records, it seems likely that naturalization could be applied for by the husband on behalf of both himself and his wife.
Take a second to look through the information provided in the naturalization petition. Do you think it is sufficient enough information to know if a person should be accepted as a citizen of the United States?
Immigration: a brief historical context
Immigration policy became a heated issue in the early 1920’s, as the flood of southern and eastern European immigrants reached its peak and many Americans responded to the end of World War I with a fierce determination to return to isolationist foreign policy. Nativism became commonplace, the membership rolls of the KKK soared, and the Palmer raids saw hundreds of immigrants deported without due process as part of a larger Red Scare. The year 1919 alone saw more race riots than any other year in American history.
It was a battle for American identity. Were we a melting pot? A tapestry? Or were we going to take control of our own immigration policy to preserve a specific definition of American identity, consistent with the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant tradition of our founding fathers?
In 1924, the Quota Act was passed. The act provided that 3% of the number of immigrants who entered from each country in the 1890 census would be permitted to enter the United States. It also incorporated a literacy test and a higher tax paid by immigrants upon arrival (first introduced in 1917). Carefully note that it was the 1890 census – the the 1910 or 1920 census. This was purposeful so as to limit the number of immigrants coming from south and eastern Europe, many of whom came after 1900, while still allowing a good number of western Europeans in.
Immigration policy was not readdressed until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed. This policy maintained per-country quotas but abolished the National Origins formula of the 1924 law. It set 170,000 as the limit of immigration visas issues in a given year. It also created pathways for highly skilled immigrants and family members of people already in the United States.
In 1990, President George HW Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990. This act reformed the 1965 law, increasing the total number of immigration visas to 700,000 per year from 1992-1994 and then 675,000 after that. This act characterizes our immigration policy today, creating separate designations for work visas, pathways to citizenship through family ties, and establishing a diversity lottery for those with no American citizen to petition for them in the previously stated categories. The Temporary Protection Status was also created for refugees.
Based on the graphic, you can see the relative impact of these laws on immigration patterns over time. However, you may also notice that war and economic recession are far better indicators of immigration than policy is. In fact, total immigration has been in decline in the United States since the 2008 recession.
Today there are three main pathways to legally immigrate to the United States.
- Get an immediate relative to sponsor you ($535 petition fee and registration fee of $1,140)
- Get an employer to sponsor you (if you’re not “exceptional” in the fields of medicine, science, or business, you must get labor certification to prove that there are no American citizens who can fill the position; employer must file a petition for $700 and again, you must register for $1,140)
- Win a visa through the Diversity Visa Program (50,000 people randomly selected from over 8 million applicants; to apply you must have a 12-year high school education, 2 years work experience in occupation that requires min. 2 years of training or experience)
There is no “line” to get into. Period. Full stop. All available visas are used by these three pathways.
If you are an undocumented immigrant, the following paths are available to you if you want to stay (at great risk of getting denied and deported, not to mention great cost).
- Marry a citizen or legal resident (after your marriage, you must leave the USA and apply for permanent residency from your home country, risking being banned from returning for 3-10 years if you were in the country undocumented for over 6 months. You can apply for a waiver to keep from being banned for $630, plus $535 petition fee and registration fee of $1,140. It’s also important to note that there are rigorous interviews and home visits to verify that the relationship is legitimate.)
- Get an excellent education and become an exceptional candidate for employment in an area of demand (you must qualify as a DREAMer – a person who was brought to the US when they were age 16 or less, currently be 31 or less, and have an American education. Employer must file a petition for $700 and you must register for $1,140)
- Apply for Asylum as a refugee (free application fee, but registration fee of $1,140 for permanent residence after 1 year)
- Get a U Visa (must have suffered severe mental or physical abuse as a victim of a qualifying crime, have information about that crime useful to prosecutors, and be helpful in investigating and prosecuting that crime)
Once you are able to gain a legal permanent resident card, there’s the whole naturalization process to consider:
- Determine if you are eligible.
- Prepare your N-400 Application for Naturalization form, necessary documents, and application fee of $640.
- Submit form (takes about 8 months to process).
- Go to your biometrics appointment, where USCIS collects your fingerprints, takes your photo, and has you sign your name for electronic capture.
- Complete the interview (includes English and U.S. History/Civics test).
- Wait for the USCIS to approve or deny your application.
- Receive notice to take the oath of allegiance at naturalization ceremony and complete form N-445.
This adds up to at least $1,720. Odds are, there’s some sort of petition fee ($630 for family ties and $700 for employers). So that’s $2,350. This isn’t including the cost of airfare to return to your home-country, which many people applying as spouses of U.S. citizens must do in order to avoid overstaying their visa and becoming undocumented. Or the cost of a lawyer to help you gather all the required documents for your permanent residency and naturalization registration. And can you imagine if you’re trying to navigate this process with limited English skills or limited education, like many of our forebears did?
I’ll be the first to admit that my great-grandparents might not have been able to manage it. (Recall they paid less than $100 in today’s currency for their naturalization application and had limited English.)
Comparing immigration of pre-1924 to now is like using the Richter scale to measure the length of a full grown sea turtle. They are completely different. The most comparable phenomenon between then and now isn’t the immigration policies; it’s the nativist attitudes that have pushed the issue to the forefront:
Before we declare what should be done about immigrants coming to the U.S. without authorization or visas, we should know how the current system works and question for a moment if we could even pursue citizenship ourselves if we weren’t born with the privilege. Consider the following:
One third of American households cannot come up with a liquid $2,000 if an emergency came up. You need more than that if you want to become a citizen.
If you’re applying for permanent residency, many must submit an application at the US consulate in their home country. This is especially common for people who don’t have a student or work visa but are pursuing permanent residency through an immediate family connection. (Overstaying a travel visa = undocumented and carries heavy consequences.) How many of you could afford to travel to a foreign country and wait for an indefinite amount of time until you get approval? And if you are responsible for children? Who takes care of them during that time? And if you were working? How does your family survive without your income?
Oh, and what about the naturalization test? How many of you could pass it? We’ll soon find out as Minnesota rolls out our civics test requirement in 2018, requiring all Minnesota high school students answer 50 of the 100 USCIS short answer questions. Here’s the questions I gave my students this year. I picked 10 randomly from the set of 100 questions USCIS draws from.
The civics test is an oral test and the USCIS Officer will ask the applicant up to 10 of the 100 civics questions. An applicant must answer 6 out of 10 questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test.
- What do the 13 stripes on the flag symbolize?
- What is the President’s political party?
- What is the highest court in the United States?
- Name one American Indian tribe in the United States.
- What is the capital of your state?
- Who was President during World War I?
- What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
- What is the supreme law of the land?
- Name one US Territory.
- How many states are there in the United States today?
Obtaining a visa to live in the United States is hard, much harder than it ever was for many of our immigrant great grandparents and great great grandparents arriving before 1924. So let’s eradicate this “get in line” language from our discourse on immigration. It’s a fantasy that no longer applies – it hasn’t done for almost 100 years.