Inspection of Immigrants (1908-1911)

Immigrants Undergoing Medical Examination at Ellis Island c. 1908

The loosely conceived notion that the federal government lightly regards the matter is erroneous. The well-meant efforts of newspaper and magazine writers to arouse the public to the realization of dangers from immigrants that confront us but suggest questions that have long received the earnest thought of the authorities. For one, the great question of immigration and naturalization should follow the other and make the question, but one has involved the study and labor of some of the brightest men of our times.

Persons who would like more comprehensive information upon the matter than can be given here will do well to read the Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce and Labor from year to year. The one for 1908 contains some thoughts of great interest. Permit me to quote from there:

The facility and cheapness of communication, especially in ocean travel, during the last two decades, which has contributed so materially to immigration to this country, has, as the figures I have referred to indicate, likewise contributed to emigration from this country to other lands. It has also influenced the migration from this country of native-born citizens to a much lesser degree.

Some regard this significant emigration of aliens and naturalized citizens as an additional objection to immigration in general, since many of this class who come to this country, and by industry and economy accumulate what will give them, in the land of their origin, a reasonable competency, return to it, either for a temporary sojourn or to spend their remaining years.

This subject has other essential aspects which should not be lost sight of. Notwithstanding the significant increase in immigration during the past decade, the wage standard of this country has not been lessened; on the contrary, it has continued to increase. In more recent years, the immigrants also have contributed quite materially toward transplanting new industries from the different countries from which they emigrated and toward expanding, among other industries, those that had already been transplanted and established.

One can also state that the immigrant laborer as a class usually finds employment at the bottom of the scale of industries, thereby leaving the higher grades, where work is more remunerative, to the native workman.

In a commercial sense, this emigration is not without significance. The immigrant who comes to this country lives here for many years and returns either to his own country or to some other naturally take with him the money he has through thrift and industry accumulated, and, to a greater or less extent.

American ideals, American tastes, and American requirements. These are consciously or unconsciously transplants. The consequence of this emigration upon our foreign trade, primarily upon our exports, is not inappreciable. The emigrant is a commercial missionary.

His desire for many of our manufactures, with the need of which he has become accustomed, has doubtless, to some extent, contributed to the export of such products, both directly and indirectly, to the country to which he has emigrated.

Immigrants Filing Past the Doctors at Ellis Island.

Immigrants Filing Past the Doctors at Ellis Island.

There is still a larger view, which one may adequately take, and should not be disregarded. When normal and not induced by oppression or persecution, this migration has a far-reaching influence in interpreting one nation to another, establishing closer relations, and promoting the world's peace. Charles Sumner, no doubt, had this phase of the subject in view, together with other causes, when he stated that "the national example will be more puissant than army and navy for the conquest of the world." In his "Prophetic Voices Concerning America."

A thoughtful reading of this quotation will answer most of the arguments advanced against our commingling with aliens. And, when we find that this department of government activity is one of the most potent agents in suppressing the white slave trade.

The perversion of labor attempted by heartless contractors for foreign labor, the attempt to force oriental labor standards upon our Pacific coast, the shipping of the morally and physically unfit to our shores, and other things; threatening our country, we will come to know that the government is very much awake to the interests that good citizens hold most dear.

The inquirer should then read the Annual Report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration from year to year. From the last reports received, a few data will be selected. The matter at large hardly concerns the scope of the present volume.

There are four lines of work: the bureau proper, the Chinese division, the division of information, and the division of naturalization. There is a working agreement with the steamship companies whereby the deported aliens are well provided. The laws require that every person entering has sufficient money for present purposes. Each immigrant brings in an average of about twenty-three dollars.

About 1.3 percent of the total number applying for admission are turned back; in 1908, there were 370 rejected for mental and nervous diseases, 3,740 for pauperism, 2,900 for contagious diseases, 53 for tuberculosis, 136 for criminality, 124 for prostitution, and other moral causes, 43 for importing prostitutes, and 1.932 for coming as contract laborers.

The department is making every effort to place these aliens in such locations and occupations as will be of most significant economic value to the country and the most excellent aid to the aliens themselves. The exploitation of possible or probable immigrants by steamship companies and European moneylenders are abuses now largely in check.

As a single illustration of the abuses investigated by the department, the following quotation from the 1908 report will indicate the conditions met by the officials and being corrected mainly by them.

One of the Bureau's inspectors, Mr. A. A. Seraphic, thoroughly versed in the Greek language and the customs and business methods of Greece, has devoted considerable time during the past year to investigate the Greek shoe-shining establishments of several of the large cities and has submitted an able and fascinating report, which would be quoted but for lack of sufficient space.

He prefaces his report with a description of the conditions under which young Greek boys are apprenticed or bound out in Greece and Turkey at wages ranging from $10 to $20 per year, finding employment with roving bootblack bosses, peddlers, café, and restaurant proprietors. Keepers of combination groceries and saloons also show that the hours of labor are incredibly long, often extending from six A.M. to twelve P.M. The food furnished by the apprentices is barely sufficient to keep body and soul together.

This he assigns as the principal explanation of the willingness of Greek boys to come to the United States under the padrone system and to be held in practical slavery by the padrones for terms of years under conditions concerning pay, hours of labor, and living accommodations which are abominable, according to the standards of this country, but are considerably better than those existing in their native land.

The Greek padrones have practically monopolized the business of bootblacking in the United States, which is explained by the fact that they obtain their labor under conditions, which preclude competition by persons of other races. The proprietor of a stand is able to derive an income of $300 to $500 a year from the labor of each boy imported.

The boys' wages range from a minimum of $80 to a maximum of $250, the average being about $150 per year. According to the locality, the boys must turn over to the padrones all tips collected by them, and such collections amount to from forty cents to two dollars per day.

The padrones keep the boys closely confined to their places of occupation and allow them to come in contact with outsiders only so far as necessary, the object being to prevent their learning of labor conditions in this country or becoming acquainted with the English language so that they can continue to practice imposition upon them.

As a rule, the places in which the boys live are highly unsanitary. These unsanitary conditions, especially in the sleeping quarters, close confinement to work in areas generally overheated and poorly ventilated, the stooping position which they must constantly assume, and the improper nourishment as a rule received, all combine to injure the constitution of the boys and render them anemic, debilitated, and subject to pulmonary troubles.

Inspector Seraphic further shows that as a rule, the importation of Greek boys is so arranged as to make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to secure evidence upon which either to deport the boys or to prosecute the importers. The plan principally followed is claiming fictitious relationships and coaching the boys to prevent their being broken down on examination.

Notwithstanding this handicap, however, up to the time of submitting his report, April 7, 1908, the inspector had been able to place in the hands of United States attorney's evidence on which two padrones of Boston were obliged to plead guilty, while in Chicago fourteen were indicted, six of whom pleaded guilty, two were tried and found guilty, and proceedings against the remaining six are still pending.

Hon. William Williams, the commissioner of immigration at the port of New York, very kindly afforded me every opportunity to investigate the work at Ellis Island and Dr. Geo personally. W. Stoner of the staff of Marine Hospital surgeons, detailed to the work of the medical division, gave me practical illustrations of the inspection and hospital work.

Since about seventy-five percent of the total number of immigrants arrive at this station, it is thoroughly typical of the work in general, except as one may find it along the Canadian and Mexican borders.

One cannot but be impressed with the humane way these strangers to our shores are handled, and I noted significant consideration from the commissioner down to the police.

I have had frequent opportunities to meet the United States Public Health and Marine Hospital Service surgeons and found them at Ellis Island, as elsewhere, physicians and gentlemen of ability and high attainment.

Observing the Immigrant Inspection Process

Immigrants Being Processed by Immigration Bureau Officials

At Ellis Island, they seem to me to essentially cultivate their powers of observation and to instantly recognize the clinical picture presented by the immigrant before them. The photographs I took there tell their tale, but the following narration gives an idea of inspection details.

I first visited the state quarantine station at Staten Island. I found that Dr. Doty and his able assistant essentially eliminate contagious cases (smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, and typhus fevers and plague). Still, no one is detained there except for quarantinable disease or exposure to that.

After the state officials finish their work, the Marine Hospital medical officers board the vessel. The latter examines the cabin passengers and usually completes their work when the ship reaches her dock.

Those entitled to land are promptly released, but those certified to the immigrant inspector must go through further examination or detention, according to conditions determined by the laws and the regulations.

Sick persons aboard are examined, and any aliens are transferred to the hospital at Ellis Island, an institution similar to any general hospital with isolation wards.

The hospital is not large, and immigration officials may assign severe cases to a contract hospital. In contrast, Ellis Island may send contagious cases to one of the special hospitals conducted by the New York City Department of Health and described in the section devoted to that work in the chapter upon "Local Boards of Health."

Immigrants Arriving on Barges at Ellis Island ca 1905

All steerage passengers are transferred utilizing barges to the immigration depot at Ellis Island. The initial medical examination there conducted is short, but the doctor places a chalk mark upon the suspected parties' clothing at the head of the line.

At the end of the line, the doctor supplements this examination by everting the eyelids in the search for trachoma and such other examination as may seem justified in separating the fit from the unfit.

These latter are turned aside from the line and sent to special examining rooms. Those who pass are sent to the registry room or before the boards of special inquiry.

The following extract from the book of instructions, issued by the surgeon general, shows the classes examined:

To carry out the provision of the immigration law, diseased, abnormal, crippled, and deformed aliens may be regarded as divisible into two general classes.

Class A: Those who are excluded from admission into the country by reasons of the existence of a disease or abnormal condition of a character expressly declared by the law itself to constitute a ground for such exclusion.

Class B: Those who present some disease or defect, physical or mental, which may be regarded as conclusive or contributory evidence to justify the exclusion, by the proper immigration officers, of the person in question as an alien " likely to become a public charge."

Under the present law, aliens of Class A must fall within one of the four Subdivisions of that class, viz.:

  1. Persons suffering from dangerous contagious diseases;
  2. persons suffering from loathsome diseases
  3. insane persons (also epileptics, under the law of 1903);
  4. idiots.


The following final quotation is from a paper by Dr. Stoner and read by him before the New York Academy of Medicine:

In cases certified under Class A - (1) persons suffering from dangerous contagious diseases; (2) persons suffering from loathsome diseases; (3) insane persons, also people with epilepsy (under the law of 1903), (4) idiots - the law is mandatory.

In those placed in Class B and certified (or a disease or abnormal condition "affecting the ability to earn a living" (as the certificate is usually worded), the immigration officer or boards of special inquiry have exercised discretion.

The medical certificate, in some cases, is regarded under the law as contributory evidence only or as one of several factors constituting a condition that renders an alien "likely to become a public charge."

For example, of 1,231 aliens certified for senile debility, a majority was landed; certain favorable factors in or about many o( these cases outweighing that of the medical certificate to such an extent that in the judgment of the board, the individuals affected were not likely to become public charges.

Immigrant Appears Before the Board of Inquiry ca 1907

On the other hand, upon special inquiry, an alien is denied admission on the ground that he is likely to become a public charge. He has a right of appeal to the department through the commissioner of immigration. Friends or relatives may offer a guarantee or bond against the likelihood of the alien becoming a public charge.

It is proper to say, however, that under the regulations of the immigration service, no application for admission under bond of a debarred alien will be considered, except in cases in which the deportation of the alien in whose behalf such application is made would involve the separation of immediate members of a family."

The present writer listened to the hearing of some of these unfortunate cases and found that the law is administered in a very compassionate manner.

Thos. S. Blair, M.D., “Inspection of Immigrants – Carriage of Animals from Infected Ports and Sections.” In Public Hygiene, Volume II, Public Carriers and Sanitation, Section No. VI, Boston: The Gorham Press, 1911, Pages 589-593.

The padrone system was an indentured labor system that preyed upon Italian immigrants to the United States.

Padrones are men who exploitatively employ or find work for Italian immigrants in America.

Bootblacking is the practice of caring for boots, shoes, and other leather apparel.

The eyelids are turned upside down for inspection


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