Skip to main content
Members in the News

Pawelski: Yesteryear’s immigrants wouldn’t make it today

Opinion: Yesteryear’s immigrants wouldn’t make it today (


A common immigration phrase we hear today is “My family immigrated the right way.” But what is considered “legal” or “right” depends on when your family arrived.

My great grandmother immigrated from Italy in 1903. The sole immigration document is the ship’s Manifest of Alien Passengers for the Commission of Immigration. Prior to 1924, a rudimentary immigration system existed. The arriving immigrant needed to show no discernable health issues and have good moral character (not a criminal, polygamist, anarchist, beggar, or importer of prostitutes). While the 1882 discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act was still in force, for many western Europeans the door to America was open.

Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited how many people could enter the United States, created an admissions quota, and banned Asian countries. My grandfather, Samuel, was born two years after enactment. While he was an American citizen and World War II veteran, prejudices persisted for both first and second generation immigrants. As time passes, our nation’s collective memory forgets the ugly parts of the immigration journey – xenophobia, prejudice etc.

Early in his career Sam sold insurance while completing his teaching degree. He changed the family surname in 1958 because Italians were not “viewed as trustworthy.” My mother was too young, but my eldest aunt recalls practicing the new name in cursive before entering third grade.

This is a tiny sliver of my family’s story. Honestly, the immigration piece is the least memorable. However, many Americans do not realize that my family’s story would not be possible today. Today’s immigration system is completely different. The process is now almost impossible depending on country of birth, occupation, or income. If an Italian national sought to immigrate today, their options would require large amounts of money, a high level of education, a job offer, a family connection, or luck.

A green card could be sought through a family member, achievement (professional athlete, accomplished scientist etc.), investment ($800,000+), working as a manager/executive for a multinational company, employer sponsorship, or the Diversity Lottery (a lottery system). This list is by no means complete, but a sampling. Green cards are numerically limited each year and there can be a lengthy wait depending on category and country of birth. Each green card category has associated government filing fees, which are separate from any attorney fees. Given the cost, uncertainty and wait, this is not a simple process.

What if the Italian immigrant enters at the Southern border? The migrant is processed as a potential asylum seeker (photo, fingerprints, etc.), detained or released into custody, given an immigration court date (could be 10 years into the future), could be bused to another city, and does not have the legal ability to work until a work permit is processed. Work permit application processing backlogs go on for months.

My family did not immigrate the “right way” per today’s rules, rather we had an easier system. It feels like today, with technology and social media, we are more interconnected as a nation, but also so far apart in seeing eye to eye to address this issue in a humane fashion. We must move away from fearmongering and enforcement-only approaches. We need to have ongoing discussions on how to address our immigration system with real solutions. It is time to modernize the rules and meet this moment in history.

Anthony Pawelski practices business immigration law in Massachusetts and serves as a media liaison and state legislative relations liaison for the New England Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association


More posts by