The US needs to get in touch with its convict immigrant heritage

I am upset about an ignorant statement made by someone in authority about US immigration.  Although, not sure how much “authority” can be given to someone who is director of the US tenement museum. The comment was along the lines of people whose ancestors came here and became citizens somehow are similar to the “dreamers” of today.

Part of this was based on the fact that immigration laws weren’t that strict up until the late 19th-early 20th Century; however there were still immigration laws.  That is a flawed argument for a myriad of reasons: the basic one being that laws change.  You can’t legally try a case which happened in the past using current law or judge a modern case by outdated law.

Another issue at work here is the national myth that people came here for a better life, which wasn’t always true.  The US needs to get in touch with its convict immigrant heritage since, besides slaves, not everyone came here for a better life.

Prior to the US War for Independence, the US was the dumping ground for England’s convicts:

As the 17th century drew to a close, lawmakers sought a less harsh punishment that might still deter potential offenders; penal transportation with a term of indentured servitude became the more common punishment. This trend was continued by the Transportation Act 1717 (16 Geo. 3 c.43), which regulated and subsidized the practice, until its use was suspended by the Criminal Law Act 1776. With the American Colonies already in active rebellion, parliament claimed its continuance “is found to be attended with various inconveniences, particularly by depriving this kingdom of many subjects whose labour might be useful to the community, and who, by proper care and correction, might be reclaimed from their evil course”. This law would become known as the Hard Labour act and the Hulks act for both its purpose and its result. With the removal of the important transportation alternative to the death penalty, it would in part prompt the use of prisons for punishment and the start of prison building programs. (source)

Of course, the situation here was solved by Australia, but that is an aside. The term “indentured servant” sounds a lot better than convict. it also plays into the aspirational aspect of the US myth: “your ancestors came to America as a Servant in hopes of a better life.”

That plays out a lot better than your ancestors were shipped to the colonies to escape the noose.

Of course, it also puts a different light on early American immigration in that blacks weren’t the only people shipped to the Colonies against their will.  And do some research into indentured servitude in the Early North American Colonies if you are going to try and argue that it wasn’t as bad as being a slave.

Of course, trying to draw a distinction between slavery and indentured servitude is useful if you want to divide people up by race. Add “Bacons Rebellion” in Virginia to the reading list.

But the real issue here isn’t slavery or race as much as it is the aspirational aspect of immigration. As long as the myth is that people came here for a better life, one might “forgive” a person for breaking the law because they want a better life for their family.  On the other hand, Australia used to have cheap fares for immigrants up until recently, but now has incredibly strict immigration laws. Is there a lesson to be learned here?

Personally, I don’t think an unlawfully present person’s life happens to be better since they know they can be deported. The “dream” if there really is one is that people will someone ignore that the unlawfully present person is violating immigration law: even if it doesn’t come with strong penalties.

But the bottom line is all about the dream.  Maybe it’s time for a strong dose of reality.

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