An anecdote of such great interest from Vincent Cannato's American Passage that I don't think my words can do it justice:

Frank Woodhull’s experience at Ellis Island began in 1908 when he returned from a vacation to England. The Canadian-born Woodhull, who was not a naturalized American citizen, was heading back to New Orleans where he lived. As he walked single file with his fellow passengers past Ellis Island doctors, he was pulled aside for further inspection. The fifty-year-old was of slight build with a sallow complexion. He wore a black suit and vest, with a black hat pulled down low over his eyes and covering his short-cropped hair. His appearance convinced the doctors to test Woodhull for tuberculosis.

Woodhull was taken to a detention ward for further examination. When a doctor asked him to take his clothes off, Woodhull begged off and asked not to be examined. “I might as well tell you all,” he said. “I am a woman and have traveled in male attire for fifteen years.” Her real name was Mary Johnson. She told her life story to officials, about how a young woman alone in the world tried to make a living, but her manly appearance, deep voice, and slight mustache over her thinly pursed lips made life difficult for her. It had been a hard life, so at age thirty-five Johnson bought men’s clothing and started a new life as Frank Woodhull, working various jobs throughout the country, earning a decent living, and living an independent life. Mary Johnson’s true sexual identity was a secret for fifteen years until Frank Woodhull arrived at Ellis Island.

Johnson requested to be examined by a female matron, who soon found nothing physically wrong with the patient. She had enough money to avoid being classified as likely to become a public charge, was intelligent and in good health, and was considered by officials, in the words of one newspaper, “a thoroughly moral person.” Ellis Island seemed impressed with Johnson, despite her unusual life story. Nevertheless, the case was odd enough to warrant keeping Johnson overnight while officials decided what to do. Not knowing whether to put Johnson with male detainees or female detainees, officials eventually placed her in a private room in one of the island’s hospital buildings.

“Mustached, She Plays Man,” said the headline in the New York Sun. Despite her situation, officials deemed Johnson a desirable immigrant and allowed her to enter the country and, in the words of the Times, “go out in the world and earn her living in trousers.” There was nothing in the immigration law that excluded a female immigrant for wearing men’s clothing, although one can imagine that if the situation had been reversed and a man entered wearing women’s clothing, the outcome might have been different.

Before she left for New Orleans, Johnson spoke to reporters. “Women have a hard time in this world,” she said, complaining that women cared too much about clothes and were merely “walking advertisements for the milliner, the dry goods shops, the jewelers, and other shops.” Women, Johnson said, were “slaves to whim and fashion.” Rather than being hemmed in by these constraints, she preferred “to live a life of independence and freedom.” And with that Frank Woodhull left Ellis Island to resume life as a man.

That's a pretty powerful statement of how limited the prospects in life were for women in the 19th Century. Not much has been written about Frank Woodhull, but you can find the archived original news stories with a simple Google search.


Donald Trump and his supporters are absolutely right about one thing when it comes to immigration.

Hold on. I'm going somewhere with this.

It is correct to say that in the United States, and to an even greater extent in Europe, existing laws on immigration are poorly enforced. What they don't understand, though, is that immigration laws have never been enforced strictly, here or elsewhere. It is today and always has been a matter of political expediency to write strict immigration laws and a matter of economic necessity to enforce them with great laxity.

During the first great American hysteria over immigration in the mid-19th Century – the target of opportunity was the Irish, although over the remainder of the century it evolved to Italians, Poles, Slavs, and all nationalities of Eastern European Jews – restrictive immigration laws were passed not infrequently in Congress. And anti-immigration elites (and labor leaders like Samuel Gompers, who feared the dilution of wages) were regularly incensed to see how poorly those laws were enforced. Weak enforcement was, and is, no accident. During the Industrial Revolution, massive amounts of raw physical labor were needed to mine the coal, pour the steel, work the powerhouses, and many other varieties of hard, physically demanding, often dehumanizing work. Since few Americans could be found willing to work themselves to death for wages that ranged from mediocre to scandalous, the captains of industry of the day understood that they needed another source of labor. Eastern Europeans in particular – not a small of stature people by nature – were ideal candidates. And that's why I live in the United States right now, because sometime around 1910 a guy who looks kinda like me was willing to do literally any job for a chance to live here.

The country admitted millions of immigrants who should have been, by the strict letter of the laws, sent back to Europe. But big business has a tendency to get what it wants in this country, and they wanted bodies. Waving those bodies through the gates without too much regard for immigration laws first made our economy great, then made our society great.

Things are no different today excepting the direction on the map from which the immigrants are arriving. Business needs low cost labor for manual and other unskilled work. Political populism demands strict immigration laws to keep the nativist and xenophobic tendencies in the electorate satisfied. Everybody with power gets what they want – politicians get votes, industry gets labor. In a rare example of wants coinciding, the immigrants get what they want as well. As best anyone who has studied the matter now or historically can determine, what they want is little more than a chance to work like dogs for very little money in return for living here.

So, Trump is not wrong when he says immigration laws are enforced haphazardly. What he is too thick or too politically savvy to mention, though, is that people like Donald Trump are the exact reason that this situation exists. Capital wants labor, and American teenagers are not going to pick fruit in 85 degree heat for 14 hours per day with little complaint. If immigration laws were enforced at the level of the employer – imposing severe penalties for any workplace found employing undocumented immigrants – the problem would disappear. Of course that option is not on the table, because everyone in a position to affect these matters understands how crucial that low-wage labor is to our economy. Those guys stand in the Home Depot parking lot every morning at sunrise because someone is going to give them money in exchange for work, not because they enjoy the view.

The incentives are today what they have always been: win votes with rhetoric and laws, keep the cheap labor coming – and the money flowing – with indifferent enforcement. If our economic oligarchs didn't want and need immigrant labor, the wall would long since have been built.