January 10, 1904. My great-grandfather George Kastris, a non-literate farmer from Greece, arrives in North America for the first time at the age of 25 through the port of New York, en route to Toronto, travelling back and forth to Greece several times until finally emigrating for good in 1925. You can see him on line 11 of this register (click to enlarge).
List or manifest of alien passengers, S.S. Savoie, Port of New York, Jan. 10, 1904
He had $10 to his name, and since this was his first trip, he spoke basically no English. Maybe he had a passport, but certainly no authorization was needed to go from the US up to Canada to work for as long as he liked, to stay with his brother-in-law. No chest X-ray, no green card lottery, no extreme vetting. I guess I’m glad to see that he was neither a polygamist or an anarchist, since those things could get you turned back. But you know that other than asking him “Are you an anarchist?” there was no way for the folks in New York to confirm that.
Now look at the guys above and below him, with their names like Jamal and Hussein and Kalil, from ‘Syria’ – actually you can see they are from Beirut, now Lebanon. Probably Muslim (though there are a few Lebanese Christian names further down the list too). Just a few dollars to their name, first time in the country, going to live with some relative, just like my grandmother’s dad George. I like to think they were all buddies (but that could just be my imagination). Just a bunch of brown dudes from the eastern Mediterranean, come on in to work in America, or Canada, doesn’t much matter, just let us write down where you’re going to end up and whether you have a ticket there already. Think about how normal it was to just come across the ocean in steerage on the S.S. Savoie in 1904, just a bunch of Greeks and Lebanese and Italians and whatnot. I wonder about the grandkids of those other guys, whether they’re old retired farts in Newark or Mississauga or wherever.
Now I’m confident that North America in 1904 was a pretty racist place. I’m not saying that everyone welcomed George and Jamal and Hussein and Kalil with open arms. From Know-Nothings to the Klan to goddamn Breitbart, anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new. My point is not to idealize 1904.
But ask yourself this: If your family came to North America as immigrants, whenever they came, do you have any sense of what papers they carried, what questions they faced, how they were treated? When we talk about immigrant societies, we’re not just talking about 1904 but the millions of immigrants and refugees, coming from all walks of life, from the Germans who Ben Franklin hated so much, to the hated papist Irish, to the Jews (side note: America, stop painting swastikas all over the place already! Don’t you watch enough stupid World War II movies to know that’s seriously screwed up?) And of course, the Mexicans and the Syrians and the Chinese. What gives you the right to tell today’s potential Americans that the country is full? When did you suppose that you, particularly, have the right to decide who can be American? On what basis comes the right to choose who counts as a good immigrant?
And then let’s not forget poor little Steve, come to America in 2008 to take some American’s job, an immigrant only because his great-grandfather ended up on this side of an imaginary line instead of the other side. Takes me about 20 minutes to get to work, not eight days, and I’m damn glad not to be in steerage class on the Savoie (although the Ambassador Bridge is in rough shape these days). But you know damn well that I’m not the immigrants they’re talking about. And then you have to ask yourself: why the hell not.