The year 1907 was a big one for immigration to the U.S. More than 1 million people immigrated to the U.S. that year, a record that wasn’t surpassed until 1990. And on April 17 alone, Ellis Island set a single-day record, processing 11,747 immigrants.
The growing immigrant population certainly hadn’t gone unnoticed. Earlier that year, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1907 to slow the influx of foreigners. It called for the barring from entry into the U.S. of “all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, … persons likely to become a public charge; … persons afflicted with tuberculosis or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease” and many other classes of migrants. This reflected a widespread belief that the worst problems of modern life — overcrowding, alcoholism, poverty, crime — were due to unassimilated foreigners.
So while the Statue of Liberty welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” the American people and their representative government were more selective.
On the surface, the goals of this legislation seemed worthwhile: loosening congestion in the cities where new immigrants tended to congregate, lowering health risks from communicable diseases, and reducing reliance on public welfare. But buried within that legislation — couched in the language of economics, science, and pragmatism — was an ingrained racism that favored immigrants of certain nationalities. Though the racist undertones in the Immigration Act of 1907 itself were subtle, those in the arguments for the act’s necessity were not.
In the following article, originally printed in the Post on August 24, 1907, F.P. Sargent, Commissioner-General of Immigration, noted that “during the last few years there has been a marked change for the worse in the character of the immigration into the United States. … two-thirds of the aliens admitted to our shores come from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia Minor.” These particular types of immigrants, he wrote, were “notably inferior” and “to a great extent afflicted with diseases of unpleasant kinds.” And not only would these undesirable immigrants pose an immediate threat to public welfare and local economies, but, as his argument goes, they will become “progenitors whose descendants will reproduce … the degeneracy of their forebears,” threatening the stability of future generations of Americans.
These arguments are remarkably parallel to much of the immigration-reform rhetoric we hear today; only the names have changed. Back then, legislators worried about the spread of “the dreaded Egyptian ophthalmia” (an inflammation of the eye); today, it’s AIDS and Ebola. Then, politicians warned about the “hideous and terrifying” influence of “the Black Hand (Italian mafia) and Anarchist societies”; today, they’re turning back Syrian refugees for fear of infiltration by ISIS and proposing walls to keep out Mexican “rapists and murderers.”
Passage of the Immigration Act of 1907 had immediate and long-term effects. It nearly halved the number of immigrants admitted to the U.S. the following year. It also established the Dillingham Commission, which was charged with examining and reporting on the state of immigration and its consequences. The findings of that commission were used for decades to justify sweeping changes in immigration law, leading ultimately to a cap of 150,000 immigrants per year in 1929 and regulations that heavily favored those coming from northern and western European countries.
(An Authorized and Corrected Interview with the Hon. F.P. Sargent, Commissioner-General of Immigration)
By René Bache
Originally published August 24, 1907
The new Immigration Law (which went into effect from July 1 of the present year) represents an important step by our Government toward the cure of the mischief of unrestricted admission of aliens into this country. It opens the way to the adoption of means whereby in the future a better control may be exercised over the inflow of foreigners, sifting out the undesirables and establishing a system of selection which will clarify the stream by removal of the dregs.
It will be interesting, then, to consider, first, what the new law accomplishes, and, in the second place, what it naturally leads up to in the way of methods likely to be adopted for the restriction of immigration.
To begin with, it authorizes the President to summon a conference of the nations, for the purpose, first, of regulating, by agreement among themselves, all matters relating to emigration to the United States; second, to provide for the mental, moral, and physical examination of aliens bound for this country by American officers at foreign ports of embarkation; third, to prevent the departure of such aliens, if paupers, criminals, sufferers from dangerous diseases, or belonging to other prohibited classes.
Also, the law creates a commission of nine persons — three Senators, three Representatives, and three men appointed by the President — who are going to Europe for the purpose of making a systematic inquiry into the whole immigration problem, from a European standpoint as well as from an American point of view. This commission, of which Senator Dillingham, of Vermont, is Chairman, will present a report to Congress that will doubtless be productive of judicious legislation for remedying the evils now existing.
Where the Immigrant Goes
In addition, the law authorizes the Secretary of Commerce and Labor to establish a Division of Information, the object of which will be to gather facts relating to the resources, products, and physical characteristics of each State and Territory, and to publish them in many languages, for distribution among admitted aliens at the immigration stations — the idea in view being to encourage them to distribute themselves over the country, instead of settling down in already-congested centers of population. At the same time, it is provided that agents officially appointed by the States may have access to the immigrants, to exhibit to them such inducements as they have to offer.
Now, this matter of immigrant distribution is one of steadily increasing importance. So strong is the tendency of aliens to settle in congested centers that seven in every ten of them come to this country with the intention of establishing themselves in thickly populated districts. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Immigration is being importuned constantly by agricultural, mining, manufacturing, and railroad interests of thinly populated sections, and even by some of the States, for advice as to how part of the stream can be turned to localities where farmers, miners, and laborers are needed.
It is certainly most desirable that this should be accomplished, and the Government is strongly disposed to encourage a plan which has been suggested for creating direct communication by steamer lines between Southern ports and European ports.
Poor Physique as a Bane
The above-mentioned commission is likely to recommend that a competent medical officer, in the exclusive employ of the United States, be stationed at each one of the principal foreign ports of embarkation, whose duty it shall be to inspect every emigrant bound for the United States before the latter is permitted to go on board of the steamer which is to carry him to America. If it be required by law that no alien shall be admitted at any American port who cannot present a certificate of health, mental and physical, signed by such medical officer, large numbers of very undesirable citizens, freely admitted under present regulations, will be excluded.
No serious difficulty should be found in persuading foreign governments to cooperate with us in reducing the flow of immigration, and especially in preventing people of the inadmissible classes from leaving their homes to come to this country. It may be taken for granted, indeed, that they are quite as much interested as we can be in the welfare of their citizens. An immense amount of distress and suffering is caused by the sending of diseased or otherwise undesirable persons from European countries to the United States — the result in such cases being that the unfortunates are either refused transportation by the steamship companies, or else are turned back after they reach America. Meanwhile, they may have sacrificed every dollar they possessed to make the journey, only to find themselves stranded and destitute in a foreign seaport.
A significant feature of recent immigration is the vast number of persons who on arrival have been described by the examining surgeons at our ports as of “poor physique.” A certificate of this kind implies that the alien is afflicted with a body not only ill-adapted to the work necessary to earn his bread, but also unfit to withstand disease. It means that he is undersized, poorly developed, with feeble heart action — in short, that he is physically degenerate; not only unlikely to become a useful citizen, but liable to transmit his feebleness to his offspring.
Of all causes for rejection, outside of diseases, that of “poor physique” should receive the most weight; for in admitting such aliens not only do we increase the number of public charges directly, but we welcome to our shores progenitors whose descendants will reproduce, often in an exaggerated degree, the degeneracy of their forebears.
The influx of aliens into this country now averages about 100,000 a month the year round. It used to be imagined that the supply would exhaust itself eventually, but there seems to be no prospect of anything of the kind. If good times continue, the flow is likely to go on steadily. On the other hand, if an industrial depression in the United States should arrive, there would be a marked diminution of the volume of the stream, the recent augmentation of which, however undesirable from some points of view, is the best possible evidence of our prosperity. Immigration is stimulated by the demand for labor more than by any other single cause.
Drawing from the Lower Grades
Unfortunately, during the last few years there has been a marked change for the worse in the character of the immigration into the United States. Until recently, the inflow was composed mainly of English, Irish, Scotch, Scandinavians, and Germans — people whose race characteristics and ideals in the main agree with our own, and whom, therefore, we could assimilate racially and politically. But, at the present time, two-thirds of the aliens admitted to our shores come from southern and eastern Europe and from Asia Minor. One in every five is from southern Italy. Germans comprise less than 8 percent of the whole; English, Scotch, and Irish combined are fewer than 10 percent.
Furthermore, the immigration which formerly came to us was largely what might be termed a natural immigration. It was the result of an impelling ambition in the minds of freedom-loving people to avail themselves of the opportunities afforded by a new, thinly-populated, and free country. Many of the present-day immigrants doubtless leave their homes from like motives; but, to a great extent, the movement is the result of a general unrest that exists among the laboring classes of southern and eastern Europe, and which is encouraged by the agents of the transportation companies scouring every possible locality for passengers.
Physically, as well as in other respects, these people of the new immigration are notably inferior to those of the old. They are to a great extent afflicted with diseases of unpleasant kinds, which, though common to the masses in the countries from which they come, are as yet almost unknown in the United States. It is unlikely that we shall remain unacquainted with the maladies in question much longer, however, inasmuch as aliens in large numbers are bringing them over; and already one of them, the dreaded Egyptian ophthalmia — known to physicians as “trachoma” — has spread alarmingly in the public schools of New York City.
The Trail of Trachoma
Trachoma is one of the most frightful of eye diseases, and exceedingly contagious. So widely does it prevail in the south of Europe that at the port of Naples, where our Government maintains a medical officer to examine embarking emigrants bound for the United States, 20,000 such emigrants were rejected on this account during the last year. For fear of this complaint, no family in southern Europe which can afford to pay for tuition will send its children to a public school. Should it become general in large cities of this country — and it is said that our climate favors its spread — it would almost destroy the value of the public-school system.
One feature of the new law is the exclusion of alien children under 16, when unaccompanied by parents. Hitherto they have been admitted, unless, in the judgment of our officials, there was some special reason for shutting them out in particular cases. The importance of the fresh departure in this regard lies in the discouragement it will give to the “padrone” system, under which large numbers of young boys, mostly Greeks and Italians, have been brought to this country and farmed out to sell flowers or newspapers on the streets, to work in factories and shops, or to do other kinds of labor. Through contracts made with the fathers of the children for a percentage of their earnings, the padrones hold them in literal slavery. They own the boys outright during the term of the agreement, pay them nothing, and give them barely enough to eat. In any of our large cities such boy slaves may be found today, toiling in bootblacking establishments, or engaged in other occupations.
It is likely that the total volume of immigration would not be more than half as great as it is but for the activity of the transportation companies in their hunt for human freight. Each steamship line maintains general agencies at important points, and these appoint sub-agents, who, in turn, enlist the services of all sorts of people to drum up trade. The companies themselves disclaim all connection with anybody except their general agents, and profess to know nothing of the efforts put forth to induce people to emigrate. As the system works, however, the movement is stimulated in every possible way, and the most remote agricultural valleys in northern, central and southern Europe are invaded by emigration missionaries and showered with advertising matter describing the opportunities offered by the New World.
Emigration as a Business
If the steamship lines waited for such business as would come to them naturally, thousands of people who start for America would never receive the initiative push necessary to dislodge them from their natural environment. But the business of persuading them to go is thoroughly and elaborately organized. The chief evil is the “runner,” who, in these days, is busily going about in eastern and southern Europe, from city to city, and from village to village, telling fairy-tales about the prosperity of immigrants in America and the opportunities offered in the United States to aliens. He claims to be all-powerful, and to have representatives in every port who can open the door of America to anyone.
The steamship agents look upon every emigrant from eastern Europe as one who must go to the United States, whether he wishes to do so or not. Such emigrants, passing through Germany, for example, are considered the legitimate prey of the German steamship companies and their agents. The agent sees very little commission in the sale of a ticket for London. If the emigrant insists that London is the place he wants to go to, he is told that he is a liar. He is an “American” — the technical term applied to all emigrants bound for the United States — and he must buy a ticket for America.
Accordingly, he is taken by a policeman to the emigration station, and is catechized about as follows:
Agent: “Where are you bound for?”
Emigrant: “To England.”
Agent: “How much money have you?”
Emigrant: “How is that your business?”
Policeman: “Don’t talk back! Show all the money you have. If you don’t, I will at once take you back to Russia, and hand you over to the authorities.”
Whereupon, the unfortunate emigrant takes out all the money he has from the various places where he keeps it concealed. The steamship agent counts it in the presence of the policeman, and then deducts the price of transportation, fourth class, to Hamburg or Bremen, and a steerage ticket to New York. What remains he returns to the emigrant, who is not allowed to ask any more questions.
At the present time certain foreign countries appear to be actively engaged in encouraging emigration to the United States. Having made futile attempts to check an exodus which threatens seriously to impair their economic prosperity, they are trying to minimize the evil, and even to turn it to their advantage if possible. With a view to this end, all the political, social, and occasionally religious resources of the countries in question are directed to maintaining colonies of their own people in the United States, instructing them to continue their allegiance to the countries of their birth, to transmit the money they earn here back to their native land, and to avoid all intercourse with the people of this country that would tend to the permanent adoption of American ideals. Agents are actually sent over to keep the colonists together, and to prevent them from imbibing a knowledge of and affection for the institutions of the United States.
The Cost to the Cities
To illustrate some of the disadvantages of our present method of handling the immigration problem, we may point to the enormous expenditures in our large cities for the support of indigent aliens; the records of the lesser criminal and police courts; the roster of our public hospitals, jails, asylums, and reformatory institutions; the gorged habitations of aliens in our cities; the struggle for bare existence in sweat-shops; the formation of large colonies of people wholly alien to American civilization in language, thought, aspiration, and life; and, finally, the introduction into this free country of such hideous and terrifying fruits of long-continued oppression as the Black Hand and Anarchist societies.
Among the means suggested for diminishing the flow of immigration is the enlargement of the prohibited classes by adding those who cannot read or write, and those whom age or feebleness renders incapable, wholly or partly, of self-support. As for the matter of illiteracy, it must be remembered that, while this disadvantage does not of itself necessarily render an alien undesirable, yet statistics show that much of the immigration that is undesirable on other grounds consists of persons who are illiterate. From southern Italy, for example, comes much of our least desirable immigration, and among those people, 48 out of every 100 can neither write nor read.
It is further suggested that, as an ultimate resort, a ratio might be established apportioning the number of alien passengers to the tonnage of vessels, so as to reduce the number of immigrants carried. This ratio could be altered from time to time as Congress saw fit, controlling the inflow absolutely. But all of these ideas and many others will be duly considered by the new Immigration Commission, and it will remain for the national legislative body considering its report to decide in its wisdom just what measures shall be adopted for the restriction of evils which, at the present time, are undeniably a serious menace to the future prosperity and welfare of our country.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now