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“Birds of passage”
Jul 14, 2006

If you think the call for more stringent entry and immigration laws in the United States is something new, you’re quite wrong. Immigration and border security has always been a point of contention in the United States. 

U.S. politicians have always protested against the presence of  aliens in their midst (there are now 12-million illegal aliens in the U.S., slightly more than half from Mexico).

For example, over 100 years ago, four immigration bills introduced in the U.S. Congress applied to the Canadian border and the influx of unskilled workers — think of Canadians of that period as the Mexicans of today in the minds of American politicians.

The Corliss Bill was proposed to make “it unlawful for any alien to enter the United States — except for new arts or industries — and engage in mechanical trade or manual labor,” according to a May 20, 1896, article in the Winnipeg-based Daily Nor’Wester.

According to the newspaper, Republican Mr. Johnson “offered a sweeping measure to absolutely exclude all ‘foreign born’ laborers, skilled or unskilled ...”

Yet, another bill would have excluded all persons between the ages of 16 and 60 who couldn’t read and write English “or some other language.” To determine  literacy, a test was proposed.

Mr. Corliss “read the testimony of an inspection agent and others along the Canadian border as to the evil effects of the annual influx of the Canadian ‘birds of passage.’”

Nearly one-million French-Canadians crossed the border between 1840 and 1930 to work in New England’s textile mills and other industries. The reason was quite simple —  crushing poverty at home and the chance for a better economic opportunity in the U.S. 

During the second half of the 19th century, both Canada and the U.S. were undergoing rapid industrialization, but progress was quicker and greater in the U.S. and industrial wages were generally higher. The lure for Canadians was jobs at higher pay that were easier to obtain in the U.S.

Today’s “birds of passage” are the Mexicans and South Americans who climb, go under or through the fence along the Mexico-U.S. border for a better economic opportunity in America. These illegals look north and see that jobs are easier to obtain and employers offer higher wages than could ever be realized in their homelands.

According to the 1896 Daily Nor’Wester article, Republican Mr. Barthodt “argued that there was no question so much talked about and so little understood as the problem of immigration ... His bill was a moderate measure for the exclusion of illiterates.”

And just as today, the call to limit immigration encountered hurdles, such as claims that the proposed laws were discriminatory and only targeted specific groups.

Democrat Mr. Buck argued in 1896 that the literacy tests were an “insidious proposition” aimed at the races of Southern Europe — Italians, Greeks, Spanish, etc.

“Have not some of the Southern States adopted educational tests in their constitution to prevent natural-born (black) Americans from voting?” asked Mr. McCall.

McCall obviously felt that blatantly discriminatory measures to deny blacks their rights as American citizens could be adapted to resolve the immigration issue. It was he who originally proposed the education test for new immigrants.

“‘The right to vote is one thing,’  replied Mr. Buck (who happened to be from Louisiana which had by then imposed its own Jim Crow laws targeting blacks). ‘The right to come to these shores to work is another. I care not what political conventions may say, I am speaking my convictions.’ An educational test, he insisted, was valueless as a measure of man’s capacities.”

Canada is now prosperous and the numbers fleeing for economic opportunities in the U.S. is limited to the odd actor, athlete, comedian, singer or doctor. 

The fact that illegal aliens are economic refuges who primarily cross over the U.S.’s southern border has failed to enter the thinking of many American politicians who use the fear caused by the events of 9/11 to promote their own personal agendas. 

For example, Colorado Representative (Republican) Tom Tancredo is a proponent of strict U.S. immigration laws that would have a provision for the Department of Homeland Security to study the feasibility of erecting a fence along the Canada-U.S. border.

The recent arrest of 17 Canadians for allegedly planning to build bombs with three tonnes of fertilizer and use them on Canadian targets has given politicians such as Tancredo new fodder to use in their attack on Canada’s “porous” border.

The fact that the alleged terrorists were arrested on Canadian soil by Canadian police officers before their plot could be hatched is  not seen as relevant, because of a myth that is still widely accepted as fact in the U.S. — the 9/11 terrorists were the product of a lax Canada-U.S. border. The reality is that the terrorists gained enter from elsewhere — not Canada — into the U.S.

“Maybe this (the 17 arrests) will help Canadians see the need for something like that (new border ID), and not blame America, and not think of it being some antagonistic proposal on our part,” Tancredo told CanWest News Service.

In the years after 9/11, border security measures are being proposed in an intentionally created atmosphere of fear. But, a country living in fear is one that is in  continual search of enemies, real or imagined, and this search leads to sometimes unwise choices. 

The unwise immigration laws of 1896 were not enacted. But, the new law enforcing passports on Canadians entering the U.S. is scheduled to come into effect in 2008, despite the widespread opposition  of Canadian premiers, Ottawa and U.S. governors of states along the border. 

No Canadian can argue against the right of Americans to protect their borders, the only argument is that the reasoning behind border protection has to be put in its proper context.