An Interview with the Commissioner of Immigration - 1906

Hon. Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island. Dun's Review, International Edition, July 1905.

Hon. Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island. Robert Watchorn (1858-1944) was Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island 1905-1909. Dun's Review, International Edition, July 1905. GGA Image ID # 1464c05b41

BASING predictions upon present figures, it may be stated upon the authority of Immigration Commissioner Robert Watchorn that the present fiscal year ending next June will record the greatest Immigration in the history of the United States. It will exceed the immigration figures for last year -- 821,169 -- by many thousands.

Is this fact a cause for National alarm, or is It a cause for National rejoicing? How shall the Immigration problem be solved? As a matter of fact, does it vitally require solution? What is this problem after all? Is it a bugaboo that we have reared, a sort of a National cry of wolf in which there Is no genuine economic basis, no adequate foundation In fact?

These questions and many like unto them may be set down as the result of a strenuous and a delightful morning spent with Commissioner Watchorn In the height of the early Spring immigration rush at Ellis Island, a rush which last week brought more than 25000 aliens to our shores.

"I have not the time to sit here and talk to you said the Commissioner, "but if you do not mind running as you read, so to speak, I should be happy to have your company," which, as a matter of fact, was just what the visitor desired.

And he ran and he read, and an illuminating summary of what he read may. be presented in a series of utterances on the part Of the Commissioner which are almost if not quite epigrammatic, and which at all events throw a sane and reasonable light upon this absorbing and timely topic of immigration. Here are some of them:

"We cannot have too much of the right kind of immigration; we cannot have too little of the wrong kind. We are seeing to It that we get the right kind -- and we are getting the right kind, of that I am certain. Consequently I believe that increased immigration of the kind we are admitting to our shores makes for the National; weal.

Prime Cause of Immigration

"The prime cause of immigration is the letters foreigners in this country write, to relatives and friends and to foreign newspapers. These letter writers have thrived, and they spread the news of their success abroad. The result is an influx of bright, ambitious men and women, the brawn and backbone of any country.

"Stop the United States mail to Europe for one year and you would bring foreign Immigration to an abrupt, an almost absolute close.

"Aliens, arriving through Ellis Island last year brought with them money aggregating $938,000. Shake more than 800.000 Americans together and send them abroad, and I doubt if they would make a good, certainly no better, showing.

"Of the 41,412 immigrants arriving here last January 34,363 were between the ages of 14 and 41 years -- formative years of youth and manhood; splendid years Five thousand two hundred and seventy-two of the January total were under 14 years of age and only 1,837 were over 44 years of age. So what did we get therefore? Was it not the youth and strength and vigor and ambition of foreign lands?

"Seventy percent of the aliens arriving here go straight out West, out into the open spaces-where they are needed. Eighteen per cent, went to the New England States, and only 12 per cent, stayed In New York City.

"In New York State at the present time, there are 12,000 vacant farms. This is the case to a greater or less extent in other States. Why? Because the native-born youth is hurrying to the cities; the foreigners are taking their places out on the farm lands and open spaces. Can you detect anything save an economic advantage in this arrangement? An advantage that cannot but fail to accrue to the National Welfare?

"If a steel mill were to start in a Mississippi swamp, paying wages of $2 a day, the news would hum through foreign lands in a month, and that swamp would be a beehive of humanity and industry in an incredibly short space of time.

"American wages are the honey pot that brings the alien flies."

Background of Commissioner Watchorn

From all this It would appear that Commissioner Watchorn Is a man who has gained something from his work. He impresses you as that sort of a man. He is a man of brawn, a man who knows how to use his hands for both the sporting and Industrial sense of the phrase. He grew up with the people; he was a coal miner as a boy and young man.

Later he was Chief Factory Inspector in Pennsylvania, and then he drifted into the immigration service, studying the alien problem for this Government at its very sources in foreign lands.

At one time he was an under Inspector at Ellis Island, and then from 1901 to 1905 he had charge of the immigration of the Canadian border, the back-door route to the United States.

He has been Commissioner at Ellis Island for just one year. All in all, it may be accepted that his experience gives anything he may say with regard to immigration peculiar weight.

And from what he has said, as quoted above, it may be gathered that he view immigration in a light essentially optimistic -- and he is a labor man, heart and soul, at that.

Examining and Passing 9,000 Immigrants a Day

As he talked, he stood in the great examination room, through which 5,030 aliens were passing without confusion, without noise, without the slightest disorder of any kind.

Of this five thousand-odd, 1,102 came from the steamship Prinz Oskar, 1,230 from the Calabria, 518 from the Caledonia, 1,001 from the Carmania, 1,179 from La Gascogne. The steamship Republic was steaming up the bay with 2,700 more, but --

"We don't get the Republic's 2,700 until tomorrow," said the Commissioner, "although we would not care much if they did come today. We often pass 7,000 in a day here; at a pinch, working nine hours, we can examine and pass 9,000 under the system which we have now instituted.

Organizing Arriving Immigrants for Processing

"You see, the water is too shallow for steamships to land the aliens direct at this island, and so they stay on the steamship until after she is docked. Then steamboats and barges bring them here.

The steamship companies used to dump their steerage passengers upon us in no order at all, and as a consequence, the work of examining and passing them was tedious and dilatory.

Now, however, the steamship companies, as a result of a vigorous three months fight I wages, arrange them in batches of thirty. Each batch of thirty is accounted for on a sheet, which gives statistics and all facts concerning them.

Each batch of thirty is lettered, A, B, C, etc., and the sheet which applies to a special batch bears a corresponding letter. In this way you see we are able to proceed with speed and precision.

"So far as the steamship companies are concerned, I may say that they are very loath to inaugurate innovations, but sooner or later, for one reason or another, they come to our way of thinking.

Penalties for Undesirable Immigrants

One very important fact that they have lately digested is that it does not pay for them to ship any old sort of an immigrant to this country. The reason why they have come to know this is that we catch the undesirable aliens at this island and make the company take them back at its own expense, plus also the cost of maintaining them while they are in this port.

We sent back so many persons in this way that the steamship companies finally issued letters to their agents all over the world saying that it was absolutely useless for them to send on would-be Americans who were ailing in body or mind, or who were otherwise ineligible to land under the Immigration laws of the United States.

"The refusal of steamship companies to carry undesirable immigrants is one of the greatest checks upon pernicious immigration that I know of. Last year, for instance, the various steamship companies refused to bring 20,000 aliens to this country, not through any deep regard for our laws, of course, but simply for their own interests, knowing that we would have sent them back even if they had brought them here.

This action on the part of the steamship companies has eliminated much of the distress and suffering we used to see on this Island -- the tearing apart of wives and husbands and mothers and children and the like.

When a husband or mother or child is refused passage at some foreign port the rest of the family usually refuse to sail too. If the steamship company allows a family passage, ailing member and all, then we have to send the ailing one back. Of course the family cannot go back with this ailing member free of charge, so they go on to their destination, while the undesirable member is deported.

"All this, of course, is pathetically disagreeable all around. But, as I said, the recent stand taken by steamship companies has obviated much of this sort of distress.

Here are the figures, which I give out for the first time, showing the number of persons rejected by the steamship companies of their own accord in the six months ended December 31 of 1905, excepting the number rejected by the North German Lloyd Line, which covers the calendar year of 1905"

Steamship Line Number Rejected
Cunard Line 1,156
White Star Line 900
American Line 269
Holland-American Line 712
Red Star Line 664
Anchor Line 233
Hamburg America Line 270
North German Lloyd 10,292
Rejected at the "Control Stations" 1,470
Total 16,026

The Commissioner, having abstracted the above figures from his pocket, swept his glance over the room, leading the reporter's eye finally to the overhead balconies, from either extreme of which depended huge American Flags.

"It shows them what the colors are, and what colors we expect them to love hereafter," observed Mr. Watchorn approves of nothing. "And they do come to love those colors, and in a year they will fight for them as heartily, as bravely, as any native born son.

Improvements in the Examination of Immigrants

We have made many improvements in this room. You see, when they land from the barges they are placed in a general reception from down stairs, and thence they are brought up into this examination room.

As you see, this place is divided by steel fences into twenty-two aisles, each aisle being lettered. As each batch of thirty immigrants comes up, they are shunted by ushers into the aisles corresponding in letter to those which the batches bear.

A doctor stationed at each aisle examines the aliens, and then they are sent through the aisle to the other end of the room, where they bring up against the desk of an Inspector, one at each aisle, where their financial condition as well as their moral standing in their own country and other important considerations are looked into.

"If they are satisfactory, the Inspectors pass them out of this room into various rooms as their destinations suggest -- the railroad room, the New England room, the New York City room.

Such as are not satisfactory are confined in the detention room, where in good time one or the other of our four boards of inquiry gives them the opportunity to show cause why they should not be deported.

Cases held up by the surgeons are placed in another detention room, where they are examined more in detail, or if the results of the superficial examination are borne out they are ordered departed.

The chief changes in this room of which I spoke a minute ago are the increasing of the number of aisles from fifteen to twenty-two and the widening of them from two feet six inches to four feed six inches, with the installation of seats.

Formerly immigrants laden with their bundles had to stand for hours in these narrow spaces, now they have ample room, with the increased advantage of being able to sit down while they wait.

Mr. Watchorn said further that the work in this room, so far as amount was concerned, as well as the present increase in immigration over last year -- the greatest immigration year on record -- might best be appreciated by the following table, which he compiled for the New York Times:

Fiscal Year 1905

  • Month | Admitted | Debarred
  • July 1904 | 45,487 | 598
  • August 1904 | 46,470 | 370
  • September 1904 | 34,793 | 400
  • October 1904 | 57,395 | 331
  • November 1904 | 55,861 | 384
  • December 1904 | 49,939 | 613
  • January 1905 | 46,231 | 1,321
  • February 1905 | 53,176 | 640
  • March 1905 | 105,115 | 422
  • April 1905 | 112,178 | 435
  • May 1905 | 104,928 | 723
  • June 1905 | 89,534 | 967

Fiscal Year 1906

  • Month | Admitted | Debarred
  • July 1905 | 61,509 | 1,061
  • August 1905 | 52, 028 | 913
  • September 1905 | 63,055 | 379
  • October 1905 | 69,068 | 198
  • November 1905 | 50,082 | 381
  • December 1905 | 52,082 | 274
  • January 1906 | 43,064 | 222
  • February 1906 | 57,033 | 256

You will see from this that almost every month of the present year shows an increase in immigration," said Mr. Watchorn, "and the record from now is going to show a still more decided increase which will continue, no doubt, until a panic or hard times sends foreigners scuttling back home again. Not all of our work here, however, is confined to the steerage.

Of the 821,169 aliens who arrived here last year 98,428 came in the cabin. Of this number we took 2,882 passengers to Ellis Island, and after thorough examination deported 102 of them.

Of the 722,741 steerage passengers, we departed 7,078 and the number of deportations would have been almost twice as great had it not been for the action of the steamship companies in refusing passage to questionable applicants.

An Appeal from the Special Inqury Board to Commissioner Watchorn at Ellis Island.

An Appeal from the Special Inqury Board to Commissioner Watchorn at Ellis Island. Aliens or Americans?, 1906. GGA Image ID # 1464cbebce

Not merely the dangerous elements are refused admission, but those who for reasons of ill health of mind or body, or inability to work, are likely to prove a hindrance rather than a help.

There is another big point that I should like to impress upon you in connection with this immigration question, continued Mr. Watchorn, and that is that from the immigration figures for any year the alarmist must deduct at least 40 percent from the total. I say this, not only because of the deportations, but because of the outflow of aliens to their mother land each year.

It is enormous. In five months of 1905, for instance, 19,803 aliens left here in the steerage for British ports, 25,546 aliens for Continental ports, and 16,436 aliens for Mediterranean ports - a five months record, remember. When we tabulate the total outflow of steerage passengers for 1905 I have no doubt you will find that it exceeds the total for 1904 - 365,149.

New York Times, Interview with Immigration Commissioner Watchorn of the Ellis Island Immigration Station at New York, June 1906

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