, Newburyport, MA

July 26, 2013

Once upon a time of open borders

Bill Plante's North Shore
Newburyport Daily News

---- — I was taken by a New York Times column by Steven R. Kelly on Wednesday of this week dealing with the 1880-1890 surge of French Canadians into New England for two reasons.

He is a retired diplomat and current associate director of the Center of Canadian Studies at Duke University.

It was very well done and it got me to thinking.

My grandparents on both sides, the Plantes and the Cyrs, were among those who came in the early 1880s when there were no border barriers to immigration between Canada and the United States.

For those who may not be aware, the “Yankee City Series,” available in the Newburyport Public Library, detail how they and other immigrants of that period became part of the American scene.

In its time, it was important to many universities.

Mr. Kelly’s account and his conclusion are more relevant to this time in history.

It was no surprise for me to read that the 19th- and early 20th-century Canadians and their American-born young worked in shoe shops and mills way back when.

So had my mother and some of my aunts and uncles.

Many do equally mundane jobs for little pay, but there’s a difference.

French Canadians faced no registration requirements in most of the surge and were not illegal.

A great flood of Mexicans are.

America had been the coming to place for much of those from western and central Europe who faced a much feared challenge by U.S. customs of legal acceptance or rejection.

That was the difference in comfort levels between the French Canadians who came as they pleased, and those of other nationalities whose acceptance had to face the challenges of formal immigration.

Nevertheless, they were welcomed as employees, even as are the Hispanics by employers today.

A major difference between then and now is that there were no government-assisted programs of the kind now available.

Early Canadian immigrants, no matter their personal histories, had to make it on their own.

Illegal Mexican immigrants do as well, but with some state and/or federal governmental assistance.

We may live in a different world, but resentment is ever present. Illegals are Illegals, and collectively their presence has become a politically divisive reality.

They are eligible for some services — children, after all, have to attend school. People get sick. Someone has to pay for it, and according to those authorities whose responsibilities are to keep track of such matters, the major part of the burden impacts on state and local levels.

In the unregulated past, people fended for themselves because there was nothing even approaching what’s available by way of aid today.

All of that was “back when” and we live in a totally different world that appears to be on fast forward to what we know not.

What we do know is what divides us, and certainly what to do about the lack of immigration control is of major political consequence.

We can’t turn back the clock. We did do something about the northern border of the United States that slowed down migration from that source, but it was Canada that really resolved it by way of its own success.

We can build a fence, but like it or not, Mexico must do as Canada did. We won’t be able to take the fences down until Mexico does the same.


Bill Plante is a Newbury resident and staff columnist. His e-mail address is