"What part of illegal don't you understand?"
This question -- usually launched by immigration restrictionists and aimed at immigration advocates -- is a good one. The United States considers itself a country of laws, and letting people off the hook for major legal transgressions isn't (officially) tolerated or popular.
But in assessing the status of "illegal immigrants" and the penalties they deserve for unlawful action, it's helpful to consider the severity of their transgressions. What should the penalty be for crossing the border unlawfully in order to sustain your family?
We also need to consider that laws change. Immigrants' reasons for leaving home and traveling to the United States have remained remarkably constant. End-of-the-world hysteria opposing immigration is also old. What has changed most is immigration law and how we classify newcomers.
The earliest European immigrants to North America -- mostly English arriving in Virginia and New England during the early 1600s -- were considered settlers in an open continent. Immigration was encouraged and restrictions about who could migrate were minimal.
In a reversal of the contemporary dynamic, these early European colonial immigrants excluded the native culture from the incipient social order and defined the colonies on their own terms, largely as the domain of English Anglo-Saxon Protestant immigrants. Restrictionists have mythologized these early immigrants and contrasted them with later waves of less desirable newcomers. But the composition of the early settlers would have horrified today's anti-immigrant activists.
Researchers estimate that England sent 50,000 convicts to America in the 18th century and a smaller number in the 17th century. Between half and two-thirds of all early immigrants to America were indentured servants. The earliest immigrants from northwest Europe included few high-born. Most were uneducated agricultural laborers. In spite of this, they were encouraged by the British government to travel to America to labor in the South's growing plantation economy.
Even in New England, where English immigrants typically possessed more agricultural and artisanal skills, most were defined as "ordinary workmen with moderate to low social status." Although higher socioeconomic status migrants followed later in the 17th century, the majority of immigrants continued to be drawn from the lower social classes.
In the post-Civil War era, new and large streams of immigrants began arriving from southern and eastern Europe. The Slavs, Italians, and Jews who arrived in the United States by the millions were seen as an existential threat to the country's Anglo-Saxon Protestant core. Groups such as the Immigration Restriction League sought to reduce immigration to prevent those deemed "undesirable