Only the Wealthy Need Apply

Friday, 07 September 2012 16:49

Immigration has always been a hot-button issue. This is the story of California’s reaction to a previous wave of immigration.


The Great Depression started in 1929, followed in 1931 by the major drought that left the Midwest a “Dustbowl,” forcing tens of thousands of people to leave their homes and head west. Families from Oklahoma, Arkansas and other states packed their belongings into Model T Fords and set out for California to build a new life. Rather than welcoming these newcomers whom they called “Okies,” California demonized them, editorialized against them, and even legislated against them. In 1933 California passed an “Indigent Law” making it a misdemeanor to enter the state without a visible means of support, and in 1936 and 1937 the police chief of Los Angeles set up checkpoints on Route 66 to enforce the law. The state created a legal climate that made it perfectly acceptable to restrict immigration. But soon the law was challenged in federal court as a violation of the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Sec. 8, Clause 3) of the Constitution, and in 1941 the Supreme Court ruled, in Edwards v California, that states could not restrict the flow of people between states.


This embarrassing episode is playing out again on the stage of Federal law, when Mexicans—or other people desiring to live here—are not allowed across our borders because they are “illegal,” and almost everyone thinks it is okay because it is the law. . History will tell a different story as we come to understand that telling people they can't come to live in the US because of Federal law is no different than what California tried—and fortunately failed—to do in 1933. Laws restricting migration were wrong then, just as such laws are wrong today.