The Immigration Problem - Flood From Europe 1903

Group of Immigrants Waiting at Ellis Island, 1908.

Group of Immigrants Waiting at Ellis Island, 1908. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection. New York Public Library. NYPL # 79881. GGA Image ID # 14e5b9f7de

The report of the Commissioner General of Immigration has been issued for the year, ending June 30th, 1903, and it shows that all previous records have been broken in the number of aliens that have come to the United States during the twelve months included in the report.

A very prominent feature of the report, which we are sorry cannot be reproduced here, is the map and tables showing where this great increase of population has settled and the different percentages of occupation of the new corners. It is unnecessary to state that the great bulk of this addition to our population is of the unskilled class, designated as "laborers" or "no occupation," fully seventy percent of the sum total being in this class.

The remainder is not as desirable as the report indicates, for among the business men included there are very many whose business is on a decidedly small scale. Skilled labor is represented, but it in no wise compares with the number of laborers and those of no occupation, which amounts to the same thing, or worse.

Frank P. Sargent, Commissioner of Immigration, is to be commended for the out- spoken manner in which he calls attention to the grave dangers that arise from this great addition to our population. It is a new feature in governmental reports to point out dangers that may cause political effects, but it is the proper thing to do and it is to be regretted there is not more of it backed up by a determination to do something to correct the danger. The Commissioner General, referring to the question of distribution and naturalization said, in part :

"It is impossible for any but the most reckless or foolishly optimistic to consider the figures presented in this report without realizing their serious bearing upon our well-being. It is not alone that virtually 1,000,000 aliens have been added to our population within the brief space of one year, although that fact is one of large dimensions.

The constituent elements of this great army of invasion are to be considered, their individual character and capacity for useful work, their respect for law and order, their ability to stand the strain—morally, physically, mentally—of the life of their new surroundings; in other words, the power to assimilate with the people of this country and thus become a source of strength for the support of American institutions and civilization instead of a danger in periods of strain and trial.

To doubt that they possess such ability is to discredit unvarying human experience. Human beings vary not so much because of any inherent difference of nature as because of difference in the molding influences of which at every stage of development they are the product. All instruction of mind and training of body constitute a practical recognition of this fact.

The problem presented, therefore, to enlightened intelligence for solution is how may the possibility—nay, probability—of danger from an enormous and miscellaneous influx of aliens be converted, by a wise prevision and provision, into a power for stability and security ? If such a solution can be obtained, it seems the part of foolhardiness to make no effort to that end, to trust fatuously to the circumstance that though numerically immigration was years ago nearly as large in proportion to our population as it now is no very serious ill resulted from the failure to take any especial care in reference to it other than an inspection at the time of arrival.

"In my judgment the smallest part of the duty to be discharged in successfully handling alien immigrants with a view to the protection of the people and institutions of this country is that part now provided for by law. Its importance, though undeniable, is relatively of secondary moment. It can not, for example, compare in practical value with, nor can it take the place of measures to insure the distribution of the many thousands who come in ignorance of the industrial needs and opportunities of this country, and, by a more potent law than that of supply and demand, which speaks to them here in an unknown tongue, colonizes alien communities in our great cities.

Boat Docked in Front of Ellis Island

United States Immigration Island, Ellis Island, New York Harbor

Such colonies are a menace to the physical, social, moral, and political security of the country. They are hotbeds for the propagation and growth of those false ideas of political and personal freedom whose germs have been vitalized by ages of oppression under unequal and partial laws, which find their first concrete expression in resistance to constituted authority, even occasionally in the assassination of the lawful agents of that authority.

They are the breeding grounds also of moral depravity; the centers of propagation of physical disease. Above all, they are the congested places in the industrial body which check the free circulation of labor to those parts where it is most needed and where it can be most benefited. Do away with them and the greatest peril of immigration will be removed.

"Removed from the sweat shops and slums of the great cities and given the opportunity to acquire a home, every alien, however radical his theories of government and individual right may have been, will become a conservative—a supporter in theory and practice of those institutions under whose benign protection he has acquired and can defend his household goods.

Suitable legislation is therefore strongly urged to establish agencies by means of which, either with or without the cooperation of the States, aliens shall be made acquainted with the resources of the country at large, the industrial needs of the various sections, in both skilled and unskilled labor, the cost of living, the wages paid, the price and capabilities of the lands, the character of the climates, the duration of the seasons—in short, all of that information furnished by some of the great railway lines through whose efforts the territory tributary thereto has been transformed from a wilderness within a few years to the abiding place of a happy and prosperous population.

"Another means of obviating danger from our growing immigration is the enactment of legislation to prevent the degrading of the electorate through the unlawful naturalization of aliens. Undoubtedly such naturalization is now often granted upon very insufficient evidence of the statutory period of residence, a looseness in the practice of the courts which is fostered by the heat and zeal of partisanship in political contests. It rests with Congress to prevent such abuses and the consequent distrust in the popular mind of the purity of elections by establishing additional requirements to be complied with by aliens seeking the privilege of citizenship."

Aliens Landing from Barges at Ellis Island Station

Aliens Landing from Barges at Ellis Island Station

It is considered quite the thing for several of the daily papers to refer sarcastically to the ad vices given in the report, but sober reflection on the part of the man who works, and must enter into competition with this added million of wage workers, will show to him that it is no joking matter, but a serious one that affects his work and wages. In the opinion of the JOURNAL the Commissioner General is absolutely correct and should have the support of every man, woman and child in this country in his advice for corrective legislation.

A few extracts from the report are herewith presented :

An inspection of the report shows that of the total of 857,046 steerage aliens 613,146 were males and 243,900 were females, of whom 102,431 were less than 14 years of age, 714,053 ranged from 14 to 45, and 40,562 were 45 years old and over.

There were of these 3,341 who could read but not write and 185,667 who could neither read nor write, leaving a balance able both to read and write of 668,038. It also appears that 76,702 of these steerage aliens had been in the United States before; that 128,266 of them brought each $30 in money or more; that 511,302 had each less than $30, and that the total amount of money shown by them to the officers was $16,117,513.

Types of Aliens Awaiting Admission at Ellis Island Station

Types of Aliens Awaiting Admission at Ellis Island Station

As showing the comparative thrift of the races, attention is directed to the fact that the 71,782 Germans brought $2,480,634, while the 196,117 South Italians had but $2,159,017; that the 28,451 English brought $1,405,365, while about the same number of Magyars, 27,124, showed only $341,401, and the 32,907 Croatians and Slovenian but $407,117.

Exclusive of those denied admission at the land boundaries of the United States there were rejected, for various causes, altogether 8,769 for being diseased, insane, etc.

Most noteworthy features in this are those in relation to the rejections of alien contract laborers and persons suffering with dangerous contagious diseases. With respect to the former, it may fairly be assumed that the extra vigilance of the officers charged with the enforcement of the law has resulted in the detection and exclusion of the large number given, 1,086, which is in excess of the number excluded during any previous fiscal year since the establishment of the Bureau.

The Chamberlain, For Use of Boarding Officers, Ellis Island Station

The Chamberlain, For Use of Boarding Officers, Ellis Island Station

As regards the rejection of diseased aliens, I must reiterate the statement made in the last annual report that it exhibits upon the part of some of the transportation lines such a wanton disregard of the laws of the country as fully vindicates the wisdom of Congress in authorizing, by the act approved March 3, 1903, the imposition of a penalty for bringing diseased aliens to this country in those cases in which the existence of the disease was perceptible at the time of foreign embarkation.

Doubtless there are cases in which the transportation lines should not be punished, cases in which the disease may not be observable even after careful inspection by a competent physician. It is needless to say that in such instances, the power to penalize being in a measure discretionary, no fine should he exacted.

It is equally beyond question that in other instances the fine should be imposed, for there is no feature of the system of legislation devised to protect the people of this country from the dangers of an indiscriminate and unrestricted influx of aliens so important, from a physical point of view, as that intended to prevent the introduction of disease.

If some of the diseases are obscure, that fact simply emphasizes the need of greater precaution. The transportation lines, in those instances in which a doubt exists as to the nature or fact of disease, has within its own power complete protection from the risk of incurring the penalty by resorting to a refusal to take aliens who are, or may be, afflicted therewith on board their vessels.

Type of Aliens Awaiting Admission At Ellis Island Station

Type of Aliens Awaiting Admission At Ellis Island Station

On the other hand, if a diseased alien is once allowed to embark, neither the healthy aliens on the same vessel nor the people of this country can escape the evil consequences. These views apply, of course, merely to communicable diseases, on account of bringing which alone the fine alluded to may be imposed; but for reasons to be stated hereafter it is, in my judgment, time to exclude all physically defective and diseased aliens, including those who have reached an age when they can not reasonably be expected to support themselves much longer, if at all.

In 1897 the heavy immigration commenced and it has continued during the past years, varying according to the business conditions of the country. We find that the reports show that preceding every business depression the immigration has grown heavier and when the number had exceeded that of every other period business depression ensued and the country was left with hundreds of thousands of immigrants to support. It has not been one experience but it has been the condition every time since 1879.

The JOURNAL does not mean to say that increased immigration was the cause of business depression, for it was not, but it means to call the attention to the dangers of having millions of unemployed during times of business stagnation and to the influence of good business on immigration. Business runs in cycles, with its good and poor years, and the larger the number affected in poor years, the greater the disadvantages to the entire population.

The following table shows the figures since 1880

Year Number of Immigrants Year Number of Immigrants
1880 457,251 1892 623,084
1881 669,431 1893 502,917
1882 788,992 1894 314,467
1883 603,322 1895 279,948
1884 518,592 1896 343,267
1885 395,346 1897 230,832
1886 334,203 1898 229,299
1887 490,109 1899 311,715
1888 546,889 1900 448,572
1889 444,427 1901 487,918
1890 455,302 1902 648,143
1891 560,319 1903 857,046

The assimilation of the new comers has been fairly well accomplished and it is safe to say of the approximate twenty-one millions that have come since 1820 that the greater number have become thoroughly Americanized, but the late comers have been received in such vast numbers in so short a time that assimilation must be retarded because of the force of old world associations that will be continued in the new. Again, the class of immigration is now far different from that of several years ago. Then we received the agriculturist who assisted to develop the resources of the country, now we receive the ignorant, vicious, degraded and wholly undesirable people of the old world who congest the cities and lend all of the disadvantages of their previous condition to the ills that beset overcrowded communities.

Aliens Waiting For Tickets at Railway Ticket Office, Ellis Island Station

Aliens Waiting For Tickets at Railway Ticket Office, Ellis Island Station

Source: Railroad Trainmen's Journal, Vol. XX. December 1903. No. 12, Published Monthly by the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, D. L. Cease, Editor and Manager, Pages 877-881.

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