A Slap in the Face? Really?

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A Slap In The Face? Really?

Published in the Maryland Daily Record December 3, 2012

  One standard knock on amnesty for illegal immigrants is that it would show disrespect to those who followed the rules when they entered, and undermine the rule of law.  I quote amnesty foe Rep. James Sensenbrenner: “This would be a slap in the face to all those who have followed the law and have come to America legally.”[1]

An Experiment

Now I am the descendant of Europeans who all, so far as I know, arrived here legally. So I thought it was a reasonable experiment to ask myself how “slapped in the face” an immigration amnesty would have made my law-abiding ancestors feel.

There were a lot of British-surnamed forbears I don’t know much about who came to these shores in pre-Revolutionary times. Like as not, they arrived when the only immigration policy the Crown had for the British colonies was to shovel as many subjects onto the North American continent as it could, the better to balance Native Americans, and the Spanish and the French in competing colonies, and maintain a ratio of whites to African American slaves.[2] Otherwise put, the colonies’ immigration policy was simply the flip side of the mother country’s emigration policy. The idea that the government would try to block anyone from coming here would have seemed laughable to them. No big slap there.


My first ancestor to make a post-Revolutionary arrival (and to marry into those British bloodlines) was probably one Henry Motz, who came from what is various described as Germany and Holland, eventually working at the Pembroke, Maine iron works. There was no national immigration law then for anyone either to comply with or to disobey, and none when my great-great-great grandfather James Mincher immigrated with his wife Jane, from Birmingham, England sometime before 1816. He too became a hand at the Pembroke Iron Company. The Minchers and the Motzes would, I suspect, have been nonplused by the current debate. They wanted to come here, and they came: end of story. (The same would have held for my stepdad’s family; the Gohns arrived in Tennessee before 1900.) They “paid no dues” to enter legally.

Mincher and Motz children married, and became the parents of my grandfather Leon Mincher (Phi Beta Kappa, Bowdoin College ‘07). Leon worked as a banker, mostly, but fate sometimes directed him into different jobs. One day about 1912, for instance, he was peddling encyclopedias door-to-door, on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain. A pretty young serving-woman answered the door. I have no information about how many books Leon sold that day, but I do know that he and the serving-woman, Mary Elinor (“Nellie”) Dalton, were married in 1913.


Nellie, my grandmother, was born to a family of Irish-heritage farmers and shopkeepers on Canada’s Prince Edward Island. She went down to New England about 1903, at the age of 16, to go into domestic service because her family was down on its luck.

The posture of immigration enforcement faced by Nellie was different – a little – from what my earlier-arriving forbears had encountered. In Henderson v. City of New York (1875), the Supreme Court had established that the federal government, and only the federal government, had the right to regulate immigration. The municipal measure the Court struck down would have laid a tax on new arrivals to establish they were not paupers and to pay for the care of immigrants who were poor. The exercise of this newly-asserted federal power to regulate the entry of the poor was not immediately delegated to any enforcement agency; that happened only in 1891, with the creation of a Superintendent of Immigration in the Treasury Department,[3] partly also to enforce the laws passed in the late 19th Century against Chinese immigration.

Those laws were augmented over the years. By the time Nellie arrived, various pieces of legislation had rendered excludable, in addition to the Chinese: convicts, prostitutes, paupers, lunatics, idiots, insane persons, persons likely to become a public charge, persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease, persons who had been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude, polygamists, epileptics, professional beggars, anarchists, feebleminded persons, and children under 16 unaccompanied by their parents.[4] Significantly, though, anyone being inspected at the border would only need to show she was none of the above, and in she would come. As my cousin put it, all Nellie really needed to do was buy a train ticket.

Isadore and Rosina

The first of Nellie’s and Leon’s four children was my mother, Louise, who went to Radcliffe College in Boston. In one of her classes there she encountered my father Emile Smullyan, a Harvard grad student. Emile’s parents Isadore and Rosina had entered the country in 1907 under the same general regime Nellie had encountered in 1903. Isadore hailed from Zagare, on the border between Lithuania and Latvia, and became something of a refugee at a very young age. Zagare’s Jewish population seems to have dwelt there on sufferance of the nobility and the tolerance of the Catholic priest. Isadore’s father, Schumaria, the “Jewish mayor,” got crosswise with these authorities somehow and had to leave, as did the majority of Zagare’s Jews over the next few years. (Which turned out fortunately for them, as the Nazis killed off every single Jew remaining in the town one day in 1941.)[5] Young Isadore sojourned in Antwerp, in Johannesburg, and in London (where he met and married Rosina), before coming to New York.

When Isadore and Rosina sailed into the New York harbor, they were well-off enough not even to put in time on Ellis Island, which was reserved for the passengers in steerage. My grandparents disembarked in Hoboken and got right to work on their American lives.

To Sum Up

To sum up: Not one of my immigrating ancestors had to show a reason to come here or had to stand in line: they just came. Do you think they’d object to other people getting the same deal? I don’t.

Contrast that with the situation now. Since the 1952 passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, a would-be immigrant could no longer just show up.[6] He or she would generally need to show one of two reasons for being here: either a family relationship to a legal resident or citizen, or some U.S. employer’s demonstrated need of him/her. And in many legal categories of immigrants, lines are prohibitively long. For instance, immigrant visas are just now being issued for skilled worker applicants who applied November 22, 2006 or earlier.

Old White Guys Lack Standing

So while newcomers today may have considerable dues to pay, most of us old white guys with ancestors who arrived before 1952 lack standing to claim that amnesty would be a “slap in the face.” Certainly not Rep. Sensenbrenner, who was born in 1943 in Chicago.

And as to the rule of law, consider: The Minchers and the Motzes and the Daltons and the Smullyans and the Gohns – who didn’t have to wait in line or pay dues – gave the country a railroad conductor, shopkeepers, professors, a mathematician, a diplomat, a World War II naval officer who helped develop radar in the Pacific, a senior lab tech in the development of the Bomb, an architect, a skilled taxi fleet mechanic, a Hollywood actress, at least three lawyers, and much more. It would have been crazy to make their forbears wait in line or punish line-jumping, and it’s no saner to do it now just because the family names are apt to be Diaz and Chang and Ahmad.

The rule of law is a fine thing, when it’s not stupid law. Amnesty would eliminate one kind of stupidity. And my face, for one, would not be stinging at all about it.

My thanks to cousins Steven Szabo of Halifax and Deborah Smullyan of Boston, as well as my likely cousin Lawrence Schmulian of Edinburgh, for some of the genealogy in this piece.


[1]. The same points are made in slightly less emotional terms on the Congressman’s website, accessed 11/26/12, here.

[2]. There was considerable distress in the north of England, Scotland, and in Ireland in the mid-18th Century. The entire mercantile policy of the Empire encouraged and facilitated emigration to the Colonies.

[3].  Daniel W. Sutherland, The Federal Immigration Bureaucracy:  The Achilles Heel of Immigration Reform, 10 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 109, 112 (1996).

[4]. Alison Umberger, Free Trade Visas: Exploring the Constitutional Boundaries of Trade Promotion Authority, 22 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 319, 350 (2008).

[5]  See here and here.

[6]. Before the INA was passed, it was already getting harder to come in. The turning point was the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which set national quotas with an eye to stabilizing the ethnic mix. Together with subsequent legislation, these laws might have made it difficult for my Jewish ancestors to immigrate – and became a national scandal when Eastern European Jews were turned away during the Holocaust. But fortunately my relatives were all here already before 1921.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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  1. John Gray says:

    Good morning. I agree with every work of this article, but I think that you missed a point of Rep. Sensenbfrenner’s comment. I believe that “all those who have followed the law” refers not only to our past immigrant fore-parents but to those who have entered over the last decade or so. Many of the 11.2 million unauthorized have entered illegally or overstayed because they wented to work and be reunited with family members and did not want to endure a long wait. Visa avalability, for example, for Mexicans requires a very long wait. See the Department of State’s visa bulletin. Early versions of a comprehensive reform have provided one solution to this problem by not counting those who benefit from any enacted earned legalilzationi against the number of visas authorized for “those who have stood in line” and also by increasing the number fof visas for the latter.

  2. Hilary Knatz says:

    What a fascinating piece. You make a good point! My understanding has been that in American history there have always been complaints about the latest wave of immigrants. It’s just the ethnicities change over time. I wish people could remember that.

  3. I agree, as Professor Gray points out, that I did not entirely come to terms with the moral claim of the more recent immigrants who may have waited in line. But in brief my stance as to them is, I guess, inspired by the Parable of the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16, which preaches equal generosity to those who have “put in their time” and those who have not. And in any case, the thrust of my article is that in seeking to do justice to the early-comers, we deprive ourselves of the late-comers’ participation in our society, not to mention all of the Americans we could be getting — like the Americans who followed in my own forbears’ paths.