The Slop Sink

At the heart of the tenement kitchen was the slop sink, a metal basin maybe a foot shorter than a standard bathtub, but a few inches deeper. Here the woman of the house washed vegetables and clothes, and on occasion herself and her children. Before indoor plumbing, that water came from a pump outside. It was carried up in heavy buckets for five floors of dark stairs, heated, then put to a multitude of uses.

I stood looking at a slop sink while touring the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this week and thought: Well, there’s a perfect metaphor for the illegal-immigration debate.

That debate is about preserving the economic viability of our local governments. It’s about providing health and education for the poorest among us. It’s about bilingualism and it’s about terrorism — who knows who’s sneaking across our borders. It’s about keeping America “American” and about doing justice to our own immigrant past. It’s about the faceless muscle of the agriculture and construction industries — and it’s about the face of the men and women who make our food and mow our lawns and watch our children.

Like the slop sink, a lot of stuff gets dumped into the illegal immigration debate.

The issue has been played out in recent weeks in the halls of Congress, where a House immigration bill aims to make it harder for employers to hire illegal immigrants and more difficult for illegal immigrants to stay here.

Democrats, who tend to favor more liberal amnesty policies for those here illegally, are looking on gleefully as the Republican Party splits over this issue, with the more hardline wing clinging to a no-amnesty position even as it alienates Latino voters. How do you say schadenfreude in Spanish?

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in Manhattan is worth a visit for several reasons, not least of which is the light the museum’s dark hallways can shed on one of today’s most contentious issues.

The museum itself is housed in a tenement originally built in 1865. Until its upper floor apartments were closed down by the landlord in 1935, 97 Orchard St. was home to some 7,000 people from more than 20 countries.

Visitors to the building see the apartments and hear the stories of two families, the Gumpertzes and the Baldizzis.

The Jewish Gumpertzes arrived around 1870 from Prussia. Their three-room, 350-square-foot flat lacked light, heat, running water, plumbing and gas. After her husband Julius mysteriously disappeared one October morning in 1874, Nathalie Gumpertz supported her four children as a seamstress. She heated the water for her slop sink on a coal stove in a room with no windows or ventilation. The only bathrooms were four wooden stalls down the stairs and outside. Nathalie’s youngest child, Isaac, died of dysentery.

The Catholic Balidizzis arrived just in time for the Depression. Thanks to public-health laws, their flat had ventilation, gas, running water and electric light — a palace compared to a generation earlier. But the family struggled to make ends meet, going on and off the public dole as Adolpho Baldizzi roamed Lower Manhattan with a toolbox, looking for work as a day laborer.

One lesson of the museum is how unromantic our immigrant past was. It was short, nasty and brutish — filled with the pain of leaving family and the familiar behind for a long shot at economic opportunity or freedom.

I’m one of those who fails to see how today’s illegal immigrants are that much different from the Gumpertzes and Baldizzis.

Well, the hardliners could respond, our people came here legally, with papers and a name on microfiche at Ellis Island to prove it.

But that’s only partially true. As Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute has pointed out, Americans did little to control immigration until the mid-19th century. But beginning in 1840, anti-immigrant sentiment grew, often linked to anti-radicalism, anti-Catholicism, protectionism and, in many cases, such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, bigotry.

Still, illegal immigration persisted. The Baldizzis came to America in 1923 in defiance of immigration quotas against so-called undesirable races, such as Sicilians like themselves.

And the Chinese population of New York nearly tripled in the decade following 1882 — and we all know what a drain the superlative children and grandchildren of those illegal Italian and Chinese immigrants have been.

None of this takes away from the serious social and economic problems illegal immigration now presents.

But as Jacoby has pointed out, we as a nation — conservatives like herself included — are better off focusing on assimilation. Business needs a flow of immigrant labor, immigrants need legal rights and protections and we all benefit when the Garcias — and others from points around the globe — have a way to move from the untouchable caste to citizenship, just as the Gumpertzes and Baldizzis did.

Yes — you knew I’d say this — we’re all in that slop sink together.