Saturday, July 03, 2010

Could Joe Arpaio's dad be a legal immigrant today?

If you've ever had the misfortune of listening to Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio—last caught pledging to do a "sweep" for undocumented immigrants the instant the new Arizona law goes into effect—you might be forgiven for assuming that he was anti-immigrant.

But don't worry—Joe Arpaio isn't really anti-immigrant. He's just anti-illegal immigrant, as he hastens to explain:

"My mother and father came from Italy legally and made a good life for themselves. They worked hard but they were here legally. I have no problems with people coming into the U.S. to become citizens, that's what made this country great, but you must come into the country legally -- not illegally."

Ah, the wonders of legal immigration.

It turns out that Arpaio's dad, a native of Lacedonia, Italy, came to the United States via Ellis Island in 1923. Fortunately for him, he came in 1923, because just a year later Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, one of the most appalling and xenophobic acts in its history. The Act of 1924 was the first permanent limitation on immigration to the United States, the direct ancestor of our current system—and, by design, it made legal immigration by most Italians virtually impossible.

Congress had already passed the "Emergency Quota Act" in 1921, which limited immigration from any country to 3% of its current nationals in the United States. The 1924 act was visibly harsher, pushing the ratio down to 2%. But the new law also made a subtler change: it redefined the relevant population by using the census results from 1890, not 1920. Why? Because 1890, you see, was before Southern and Eastern Europeans began coming to America in large numbers. Before there were so many Italians...

Nicola Arpaio was a very lucky man.

Now imagine that a young Mexican laborer wants to come to the United States, much as the elder Arpaio did. Like the 22-year old Arpaio, he doesn't have immediate family in the United States (the route for almost all legal immigrants from Mexico), or possess any special education or skills. How can he immigrate legally?

The diversity visa lottery doesn't apply; Mexico sends too many family-based immigrants to qualify. The H-2A and H-2B temporary worker visas allow laborers to come for a few years, but sends them back afterward, never offering any path to permanent residence. Meanwhile, lacking advanced education or training in a skilled occupation, our aspiring immigrant is ineligible for every type of employment-based green card but one: the "other workers" subcategory of the EB-3 visa.

The fact that the worldwide cap for these "other workers" is 5000 each year might seem discouraging enough. But there is another complication. Through mid-2001, undocumented immigrants in the United States were allowed to apply to adjust their status to either a family or employment-based green card. This was a good policy in principle, of course—undocumented workers should have the opportunity to right their status. Congress, however, didn't adjust the total number of green cards to meet this new source of demand. Predictably, the waiting list for other workers has been backlogged at 2001 ever since.

This also means that only a fraction of the green cards in this category are given to new, legal immigrants. Indeed, from the State Department Visa Office's report for fiscal year 2009, we can determine exactly how many "other workers" green cards were given to residents of Mexico, rather than immigrants already in the United States adjusting their status.

The answer? 23.

You have to hand it to Joe Arpaio. Yes, his father legally immigrated to the United States—just one year before the force of anti-Italian bigotry made it almost impossible for his countrymen to follow. And now, if a young Mexican resembling Nicola Arpaio wants to come to the United States, Joe's response is that he should stay in Mexico, get in line, and hope that he's one of the lucky 23 granted passage from a country of 110 million.

After all, he wouldn't want to be illegal.


Norman said...

Glad to see you posting again, especially with something this solid.

The site layout has changed since I was last here, too. I like it.

Keep 'em coming!

Steven Rockford said...

Interesting point - If Joe Arpaio’s parents were treated the same way he treats Latino immigrants, he’d probably be sheriff in Lacedonia, Italy right now.

When I first moved to Arizona a few years ago, I thought Sheriff Arpaio was a joke. But he’s not. Unfortunately, many of our Latino brothers are forced into hardship just because Arizona wingnuts keep re-electing this bigot.

Great post Matthew.

Arthur said...

Interesting post. First of all, I agree with your points about how we need to reform the immigration system. It's deplorable that despite having the resources necessary to make it so we have an inflexible bureaucratic system of the 20th system running to problems of the 21st.

I take issue, however, with the idea presented that Arpaio, on account of his personal history as the child of immigrants, cannot be allowed to cast judgment. Hypocrisy does not indicate the lack of rectitude or the right to enforce the law. Or to put it more colorfully,the pot can still call the kettle black and the pot still be right.

Also, one should be judicious or cautious in use of history to make comparisons. America in the 20s was a different place in many respects. Maybe it was possible for manual laborers to arrive in the United States and make a good life? We lack enough information to make a comparison of two situations. True, perhaps under today's laws, his parents would have been illegal or given the boot. But that's under today's circumstances.

Oddly enough, as a tangent, I find that in American history there are often periods of "reactionary" movement. Consider the post-war periods. But I digress.

Moreover, I would venture to say that it is irrelevant I would add whether his dad could be a legal immigrant today.

What irritates me the most about this immigration debate (and to an extent about an unrelated issue, the current Gulf Oil Spill) is that we have failed in discussing this problem to really get at the root causes. In the case of immigration, I think we have failed to consider seriously the reasons and motivations for why people risk life and limb and break the law to come to United States and engage in menial labor.

I contend that it is, as with most things, a matter of economics, e.g. supply and demand.

Lack of opportunity elsewhere in what are arguably "failed states" drives people to where there are opportunities. Many immigrants, e.g. Irish, Italian, or Polish, left their homelands in 19th century for pretty much the same reason. Part of the fault for rise of the illegal immigration problem also lies with those who would employ and exploit illegal immigrants paying them substandard wages to keep costs down. Not only is it the fault of the employer; consider that since immigrant labor keeps the costs down for consumers, consumers enjoy the benefit of lower than legally possible prices for goods and services. In fact, some more conservative commentators (with whom I disagree but whose points deserve at least a mention) have added that immigrants take jobs American, lacking initiative or work ethic, will not take. In any case, it's all part of vicious system.

Arthur said...

(Having been cut off by's what I also wanted to say in my previous comment)

Returning to the arguments against illegal immigration put forth by Arpaio, the damage from illegal immigration comes from, thus, the furthering of an exploitative system. Immigrants will work for lower wages and off the books. They will not report horrible working conditions. All account of fear of being reported to the authorities or being easily replaced.

Disrespect for immigration laws, in general, could engender disrespect or unnecessary fear of the legal authority in general. Laws are only strong when they are respected or when people feel free to seek recourse with them. When someone who lives in fear of being deported, he or she might be less likely to report the crime or seek help.

The furthering of immigrant exploitation and the promotion of illegality in general are with what I think those like Arpaio take issue.

Now, the greater problem which needs to be addressed is how to combat the economic root causes of illegal immigration. It's very tricky. How do we fix economic conditions conducive to illegal immigration? (I might add that NAFTA, though meant to help has hurt the Mexican agricultural sector.)

Do we intervene in the affairs of other countries to stop this "hemorrhage" of people? And how? Surely, we must punish those unethical employers who hire illegal immigrants?

It's not enough to reform laws but it is also necessary to reform the problematic system that necessitated the reforms in the first place.

We cannot stop drilling and stop risking damaging the ocean until we ask ourselves why we need so much oil and make the hard efforts. We cannot stop the internecine drug wars until we combat and stop our own demand. We cannot resolve illegal immigration until we address the root economic causes. To paraphrase the Bard, the fault lies with us.

Anonymous said...


Your whole argument criticizing Arpaio is a logical fallacy. It is the same argument used by tax resisters who claim that they don't have to pay income taxes today because at one time the United States had no income tax. It is irrelevant that we once had a more liberal immigration policy. The people of the United States today have a right to set any immigration rules that they want. As an aside, why would do you want to take more unskilled immigrants with no close family ties when there is such an obvious glut of unskilled labor?

Matt Rognlie said...

Anonymous at 4:53,

I agree that the current citizens of the United States have the political right to restrict immigration in any way they want, but that doesn't make it a moral right.

The United States isn't rich because it's sitting atop some fixed quantity of natural resources, or because its inhabitants are naturally more industrious than those elsewhere. It's rich because it has an extraordinarily stable and well-developed set of institutions that have sustained economic growth for centuries. Allowing people to move from countries with weaker institutions (and poorer economies) to our own provides them with massive gains in welfare, at virtually no cost to us. (In fact, it's probably an economic gain for us, but even if it's a loss, it's vanishingly small compared to the benefits it creates.)

Now, because they're worried about a mostly illusory economic threat, or because they fear the dilution of their own culture, people will often oppose immigration -- despite the extraordinary potential for human betterment. This happens all over the world, and it's happened in America. But the vast majority of America's current inhabitants are here because earlier generations managed to suppress their restrictionist (and plain xenophobic) impulses to let in those who could benefit from working in America. And this is why I think that restrictionism is so dubious morally: to me, there is something extraordinarily crass and selfish about enjoying the benefits of migration and then shutting the door to others who seek to follow, particularly if there is no compelling reason for doing so. (And from where I stand, there is none -- only age-old tropes about jobs lost to the newcomers.)

All this is not to say that we should have completely open borders: that is impractical both politically and logistically. As I mentioned above, our prosperity comes from the strength of our institutions, and we can't let in such a massive influx that those institutions are threatened. But I believe we are morally obligated to welcome immigrants as long as their numbers are consistent with the stability of our society -- and we are very, very far from that level at the moment.

I also can't say that I agree that there is an "obvious glut of unskilled labor". At the moment we're suffering from cyclical unemployment induced by a recession, but I don't think that's the same as a long-term "glut".

Anonymous said...

Your whole point is a fallacy using backwards reasoning and failing to understand the facts surronding the situation.
You fail to even look at the reasons for less immigration, the problems with the chain migration of family, and the strain that low skilled workers put on the systems, and taxpayers, of the USA.
You indicate that Joe's father was a poor, low skilled immigrant. It is doubtfull that this is the case since he owned a grocery store.
You fail to tell people that the quota set by the 1924 Johnson-Reed act was a TOTAL of 165,000, for all countries. This makes it sound like the quotas were set to just exclude Italians. NOT so, The number of Italians was over 10 percent of those allowed from either GB or Ireland.
You fail to even acknowlage the need for immigration quotas.
Even though you claim to be an economist, you fail to address the economic problems of legal immigration of low skilled workers. This is especially important with the social programs that cost the country a lot of money and these programs ONLY benefit low skilled/low income people. This doesn't even take into account the economic, criminal, and civil problems brought on by illegal aliens.
You rant against Sheriff Joe when the real problem is people breaking the laws of this country. Not just the immigration laws but also many other laws, civil, misdemeanors, and felonies.
You are failing to even understand that a sheriff's job is to uphold the law, all laws. Joe Arpaio is doing what he was elected to do.

Matt Rognlie said...

Anonymous at 12:37,

First of all, one of the main points of my post was to point out that there is no legal outlet other than chain migration for most intending immigrants from Mexico, meaning that anyone without relatives in the US is forced to immigrate undocumented. My point is that there should be some kind of viable alternative for people who are willing and able to work in the US, which is why I'm confused by your emphasis on the problems of "chain migration" specifically.

But while we're on the topic of family-based immigration, we might as well clarify a few points. US citizens or permanent residents seeking to sponsor relatives for green cards have to prove a steady source of income equal to at least 125% of the poverty line for their combined family (including the relatives they want to bring over). Technically, they're even liable for any costs that arise should the immigrants they sponsor become public charges. (Look up the I-134 Affidavit of Support.)

Do you think that this is still not enough, and that family-based immigrants are likely to be a drain on the social safety net? Fine -- then maybe you have a reasonable position for supporting an increase in the requirement to 150%, or a further tightening of the rules for documentation of income (although it's not exactly easy at the moment). This is hardly an argument against family-based immigration in general.

I don't think many immigrants setting up grocery stores are considered "skilled" by the standards necessary to qualify for an employment-based greencard.

I'm also afraid that your knowledge of the Johnson-Reed act is incorrect: it had country-specific quotas, not a single "total" quota. In the years immediately after the act was passed, these country-specific quotas were allocated on the basis of population from each country in the 1890 census, a choice with no conceivable justification other than to limit the number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (who only came in large numbers after 1890). After several years, the relevant census date changed to 1920, but the proportions were then determined by "birth or ancestry", which still massively disadvantaged relatively new ethnic groups like the Italians and advantaged long-present ethnicities like Germans and Norwegians.

Anonymous said...

I'm always appalled by Arpaio's beautiful lies, because he well knows that all it took for his parents to "immigrate" was land in America from a boat and was welcomed with open arms. No need to apply for citizenship, no need to go through any lengthy process, just come in and start working.

Many Italians do realize growing up, that they and many other ethnic whites are a lower-class in the chain of the fictitious "white" race. They'll never be allowed to hold the esteem that fair-skinned Northern European or Germanic whites do. As such they have to overcompensate to prove their worth to society because they are neither a minority and neither a majority.

Anonymous said...

We need to draw the line somewhere. We are having enough of a hard time with a bad economy, feeding more people than we have resources for, it is dumb. If we let in everyone who wanted in we would not be able to support the load on our systems.

He is not a bigot for upholding fed law.

Anonymous said...

How hard is it to understand the word illegal?

Anonymous said...

And work they did, to help build this country and make it what it is today. Without legal immigrants this country would never be were it is today, and all it takes to tear it down is illegal immigrants to steal our jobs, sponge off our system and never pay taxes. No wonder our country is in danger. Try being one of those Italian immigrants, and then see how easy it was. They worked their a@@es off to help make this country great. Life was by no means easy back then. It would make people of today look like wimps. That goes for all legal immigrants, Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and many races. But they were here legally. That is the difference.

How about those of you that think it is ok for illegals to be here, adopt them if you want to, you support them, and feed them, clothe them, and pay their medical bills, then you can say it is ok. See if they will fight for your country. Will they pay your bills, let you buy a house in their country. Because in Mexico, you can not own a house or property if you are not a Mexican citizen.

Anonymous said...

And legal immigrant Mexican's helped build this country. Even some of us think it is wrong for illegal immigrants to come here without doing it the right way. We worked for our rights. Anything worth having is worth working for, sorry no hand outs, some of us can not fford it.

Anonymous said...

If you are an illegal immigrant, go home and do it right? Then I will welcome you with open arms. Until then if you are here illegally I should not have to support you. I have my own family to feed.

How would you like it if I broke into your country?? Actually breaking into a country is an act of war!

Anonymous said...

Here is a link to Joe Arpaio's Birth Certificate which indicates he was born in Italy.

jason haris said...

Hi Matt,
I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

RMP Property

Jennifer Kilgore said...

We are a nation of Laws. Sheriff Joe's parents are legal immigrants. End of story.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda, doesn't hold up in court.

Anonymous said...

A nation laws How came they only apply to the broke?
Illegal immigrants can't get welfare but corporations do
how about we get corporations of the government titty and we get politicians of the corporate titty ( nice circle depending on each other to rape and pillage this country and the people in it)
How about going after this law breakers this are the people making illegal immigration possible not the people looking for a better life like many before us .
Nation of law's sure!!!!!!! Smoke and mirrors

Anonymous said...

Only shameless selfish hypocrites can deny others freedom of movement on this planet but justify their own ancestors and themselves if they were in the same shoes and circumstances for better life and opportunities.

Anonymous said...

Even today, Italian Americans are still second class citizens..