Feature

Editor's letter: Paths to citizenship

Washington finally appears to be coalescing around a plan to reform immigration policy.

Washington finally appears to be coalescing around a plan to reform immigration policy (see The main stories and Best columns: International). But as the issue is debated in coming weeks, let’s remember our history. As far back as the 17th century, Americans have viewed the latest wave of immigrants with ambivalence, if not disgust, and deemed many of them unworthy of citizenship. In colonial New England, Puritans incensed by the “accursed tenets’’ of the Quakers desperately tried to keep them from landing on their shores. Later, there was resistance to conferring citizenship on Native Americans and African-Americans, Chinese and Irish, Poles and Italians. Yet we are all still here.

And more of us than we’d like to admit—or even realize—have some ancestor who came to America through the back door, as a stowaway, deported criminal, debt dodger, or other delinquent. I recently learned about one of my own, a Dubliner named Peter Coyle. He served on a privateer that preyed on American and French merchant ships during the Revolutionary War until it was sunk and he was brought to Yorktown, Va., as a prisoner of war. When he was set free, no one made him leave, so he married an Irish girl and moved to Pennsylvania and then on to Kentucky. The sole requirements for American citizenship then were to be free, white, in the country for two years, and of “good moral character.” Somehow, Peter qualified, even though his loyalty to America wavered. According to an account written by his grandson, “While under the influence of intoxicating liquors, his mind would revert to his former allegiance and he would hurrah for King George of Great Britain.” I’m glad the guy caught a break.

James Graff

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