Stephen R. Kelly: How French Canadian Immigration Helped Build America

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: NYT, Canada, immigration, Stephen R. Kelly, French Canadians

Stephen R. Kelly is a retired American diplomat and the associate director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Duke University.

DURHAM, N.C. — WATCHING the free-for-all in Washington over immigration reform, it’s easy to conclude that an airtight border has always been our national goal.

The trouble with this narrative, as I discovered when serving as the American consul general in Quebec City in the late 1990s, is that it flies in the face of our own history.

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, nearly a million French Canadians poured across our northern border to take jobs in New England textile and shoe mills. This movement, part of an even larger mass of Anglo Canadians also moving south, surged after the Civil War and ended with the Great Depression, with peaks in the 1880s and 1920s.

The majority of these job seekers — French speaking, slow to assimilate, mainly Catholic — entered without visas, work permits or passports, because during most of this period our land border with Canada was effectively wide open.

The United States not only survived this unregulated onslaught, it prospered. Indeed, our history suggests that having an open border with our continental neighbors isn’t such a bad thing....

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