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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

On Boundaries and Borders

Coming from an immigrant background where all four of my grandparents came straight off the boat to America, I understand a bit about boundaries and borders. As they say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Without fences, there’s chaos, but even with fences, there are always exceptions to the rule.

You see, back then, in the early 1920s—do you realize this was going on about 100 years ago???—there were quotas regarding which nationalities could come into the US. It was a mess before, during and after the Immigration Act of 1921. Immigration numbers skyrocketed prior to this and certain ethnicities were seen as “undesirable”, along with those who were illiterate or diseased or handicapped, even from desirable areas.

The literacy test came from a commission set up to study this during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency which lasted from 1913 to 1921. As early as 1912, Congress had passed literary test legislation, which then President William Howard Taft vetoed. He firmly believed that illiteracy stemmed from a lack of education, not a low IQ. But eventually, the commission’s recommendation won, fanning the flames of prejudice and fear by suggesting that eastern and southern European immigrants would become poor and sick or turn to crime due to their lack of intelligence. Both Taft and Wilson vetoed the acts, arguing for America’s history, values and open-door policies.

Many early immigrants who arrived destitute and illiterate had risen to the challenges and established both loyalty to the country and extreme wealth. Yet, with World War I in 1917, Congress overruled Wilson and began administering a reading test to potential immigrants over age 16, while excluding anyone, literate or not, from China, India and Japan. Records indicate the test was quite basic and between 1918 and 1920, more than 99% of immigrants passed. In 1921, President Warren Harding signed the Immigration Act, effectively imposing a quota system from 1921-1924.

This was the time period of one of my grandmothers’ escape from Russia as a teen. Her father put her on the last boat out, headed for Constantinople. The Russian Revolution turned into the Russian Civil War with widespread war and famine and cholera; she was the only one of her family who made it out, her sister refusing to go. There, in a new land she languished, feverish and almost dying, for two years. I recall her story of awakening to a shaved head in a hospital bed, suffering from typhus and various maladies.

Eventually, her health improved and she sought a sponsor to legally come to America. Harding by now was calling for legislation to regulate the huge numbers landing on US shores. By 1921, 805,228 immigrants arrived and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was quickly enacted for Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, New Zealand and eastern and southern Europe. Emigration from Canada, Mexico and the rest of the west remained unrestricted as Congress understood the need for cheap agricultural workers in Texas and California. President Harding also requested immigration legislation to include only those races proving that they could adapt to American values, so yes, there were discriminatory undertones. By 1922, immigration dropped to 309,556 people as many worldwide tried to flee to a better life in the US.

The problem was, if a potential immigrant was discovered with a wooden leg, or found to be illiterate, or with a child born while enroute to the ship in a different country and therefore holding citizenship different from the parents, they could be turned back. The baby, for instance, would not fit into the same quota. Parts of families were left behind and sent for later, as happened in Benedetto’s family, with his grandfather arriving to America first, and bringing over his wife and then his children as finances and quotas allowed.

What. a. mess.

Yet, apart from this, unrestricted borders had proved to lead to uneducated, sick and criminal elements arriving in massive waves. Both allowing them in… and keeping them out… led to good people suffering.

My grandmother’s ship, as others, raced across the Atlantic, other vessels within view. Each had to arrive at a very specific time after the American fiscal year began and before the quota for their nationality filled, often within days. Many were sent back due to the quota. Those who made it in to Ellis Island and other ports could also be denied entry due to illness. They would be quarantined, examined again and either accepted or denied as new immigrants.

Her ship languished off the coast until a presidential order allowed it to land and she, along with 1,479 other passengers disembarked.  Some stayed and some, no doubt, were shipped back for various reasons.

Borders and boundaries have never been easy topics. My other set of grandparents arrived to the US and were wooed back to Russia by Communists working in America in the early 1920s; then, they became stuck there as their passports and money were seized by the comrades. When finally, through a series of literal miracles, they could take their family and leave Russia (now closed to emigration) and enter America (now closed to widespread immigration due to quotas), my grandfather knelt down and kissed. the. ground.

“God bless America” is more than a phrase.

Hard decisions will always have to be made. It will not always be fair. Exceptions to the rule may occur.

Yesterday again, I looked up my grandmother’s name, written in flowery script by a clerk at Ellis Island, filling in the briefest and most cursory information, not even recording her young age as she now entered her early twenties, on her own in life, and I marveled. She would live the rest of her days in America, her sister still back home in Russia, the rest of the family dead.

And thus it would remain. We all understood borders and boundaries, daring escapes and races to enter a land of opportunity. Bad elements sometimes slipped in and good people sometimes were prevented from entering.

That was almost 100 years ago. Not much has changed because many of the issues stay the same. We continue to be as compassionate a country as possible, our borders somewhat open… and somewhat closed.


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