Passions rise, tempers flare, and sooner or later someone says: Why don’t they just come here legally, the way my grandparents did?
In any debate about illegal immigration, that argument, with its implied moral distinction between prior generations of purportedly law-abiding immigrants, and anyone here illegally now, invariably comes up.
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But while many people think their ancestors came legally, says immigration historian Mae Ngai, most families can’t know that with certainty. And the criteria for admission to the United States have changed so much since the late 19th and early 20th centuries that most comparisons of then to now are like apples to oranges.
“Before World War I, we had virtually open borders,” said Ngai, a professor of Asian American studies at Columbia University and
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