Immigration Law of 1907 and Brief History of Immigration Acts


FEDERAL legislation upon the subject of immigration extends over a period of but a quarter of a century. The act of 1819 regulated the " carriage of passengers " (ocean passengers at that time for the most part were immigrants), but for nearly a century after the adoption of the Constitution Congress was content to permit the seaboard States to control immigration by local legislation.

The principal exception to this policy was the temporary act of 1864 encouraging immigration because of the scarcity of labor resulting from the Civil War. Immigration acts were also passed in 1862, 1869, 1873, and 1875; these were not general laws, but dealt specifically with coolie immigration and contract labor.

The Immigration Act of 1882

The act of August 3, 1882, was the first general immigration law, repeated .decisions of the Supreme Court having made it clear that immigration was a subject for federal rather than State legislation. This act excluded certain undesirable persons, provided for a small head-tax, and for co-operation of federal officials with State immigration boards.

The Immigration Act of 1891

In 1891 this law was superseded by a new act which codified the existing laws, definitely established federal supervision over immigration, strengthened the clauses relating to exclusion, and provided for the return of all debarred aliens.

Supplementary legislation approved in 1893 and 1894 provided for the appointment of commissioners of immigration at the several ports and the extension of administrative supervision.

During the period of industrial depression which occurred shortly after the passage of the act of 1891 vigorous efforts were made to secure decidedly restrictive legislation by requiring what was known as the "illiteracy test." Such a measure, indeed, was passed by Congress in 1896, but was vetoed by President Cleveland. This veto was soon justified by returning national prosperity, which brought such insistent demands for labor that the principal reasons for the existence of the proposed act of 1896 were, for the time being, removed.

The Immigration Act of 1903

In 1903, however, a third general act was passed, embodying the results of experience gained under earlier legislation. Inspection was made more rigid; the head-tax was increased to $2; sixteen specified classes of persons were excluded, and manifests were required of the steamship companies upon which should appear answers to nineteen questions concerning each immigrant.

From 1903 to 1907 the number of arriving immigrants rose to unprecedented totals. The following summary presents by decades the number of immigrants who have come to the United States since 1820, the earliest date for which record was kept.

Immigration by Decades: 1820 to 1900 Inclusive

Decade or Year Immigration
1820 13,385
1821 to 1830 143,430
1831 to 1840 199,125
1841 to 1850 1,713,251
1851 to 1860 2,511,060
1861 to 1870 2,377,270
1871 to 1880 2,812,191
1881 to 1890 5,246,013
1891 to 1900 3,087,564
1901 to 1906 4,933,811
Total 24,632,718

The far-reaching effect of the great population movement of the last three or four years led to a renewal in Congress of the agitation for restrictive legislation. Bills to regulate immigration were introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives early in the Fifty-ninth Congress.

Each body passed its own bill, and, in accordance with Congressional procedure, these conflicting measures were referred to a conference committee composed of Senators and Representatives. In February of the present year the conferees agreed upon a new bill, embodying the best features of the two measures, together with certain additional provisions. This bill was presented to both houses; passed, and was approved by the President February 20, 1907.

Thus, to a peculiar degree the new immigration law represents the maturest judgment of Congress, for disagreement between the two houses resulted in critical and impartial review by a small number of painstaking and able Senators and Representatives, foremost among whom were Senators Dillingham, of Vermont, and Lodge, of Massachusetts, and Representative Bennet, of New York.

The Immigration Act of 1907

The immigration act of 1907 is not a radical or restrictive measure. In the opinion of persons best qualified to judge, the new law is of value principally in codifying laws relating to immigration and in strengthening previously existing provisions, with additional legislation which in general tends to. strengthen Government supervision and more effectively exclude undesirable immigrants. Some of the more important provisions of the new law are these:

The so-called head-tax upon immigrants has been increased from $2 to $4. It is not expected that this tax will restrict immigration, but it will recompense to some degree the federal Government, and thus indirectly the nation, for the expenditure incurred before individual immigrants become self-supporting.

Outlying territories, such as Guam, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, have been exempted from the head-tax, in order to place no obstacle in the way of attracting immigrants to those localities, but the transfer of such immigrants from Guam, Cuba, Porto Rico, and Hawaii has been carefully safeguarded, in order that the occurrence of industrial depression in the islands may not result in the sudden removal of large numbers of undesirable settlers from outlying territories to continental United States.

This is the famous paragraph which may be called the " California compromise," since under it the President possesses authority to exclude Japanese immigrants.

The provisions excluding persons possesing physical infirmities, polygamists, and those who are suspected of immigrating for immoral purposes have been greatlystrengthened, and severe penalties have been prescribed, in clear language, for the enforcement of these sections of the law.

The new law also is an advance over its predecessor in that it includes the provision relating to contract labor, inadvertently omitted from the act of 1903. This provision is made effective for the first time by providing adequate detective service.

Heretofore the Immigration Bureau has kept a strict and accurate record of the arrival of immigrants, but the increasing tendency on the part of persons of certain nationalities to return to the mother country has not been measured statistically.

The final clause of Section 12 in the new act provides means for ascertaining how many aliens leave this country each year. By this important section it will now be possible to ascertain the net increase of population each year resulting from alien arrivals.

The passage money paid by immigrants to the steamship companies has become a large share in their total revenues. As might be expected, the companies have worked this mine vigorously by stimulating migration.

The new law places more responsibility upon the steamship companies, makes them liable for bringing in immigrants illegally, and compels them to return rejected aliens free of charge.

Under the old law the rejection of an immigrant was a source of greater profit to the steamship companies than his admittance, since the company thus reaped the benefit of double passage money. It is probable that this section will prove to be a very wise and timely provision.

The responsibility of the steamship companies in connection with the subject of contagious diseases is further emphasized by the new law. Under the earlier statute, steamship companies were compelled to pay a fine of $100 for bringing to the United States an immigrant afflicted with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease.

This provision in the law of 1903 resulted in turning hack many diseased persons at the ports of embarkation, but the law of 1907 extends this provision to include idiots, imbeciles, epileptics and persons afflicted with tuberculosis, provided, of course, that such disease or disability might have been detected at the port of embarkation.

Furthermore, Congress has extended from two years to three years the time within which an alien who becomes a public charge may be deported, and has placed half of the entire cost of removal to the port of deportation upon the person or persons who induced the undesirable immigrant to cross the ocean. If this is not practicable, it is charged to the immigration fund.

Inspecting Potential Immigrants Before They Sail to America

Surgeons may be sent to those foreign countries which will permit inspection of emigrants prior to sailing. This will prevent many persons suffering from diseases which would bar them from entering the United States from making a futile voyage.

It will also save many others who now contract diseases en route from the danger of infection. This system is now, with the consent of the Italian Government, successfully in use at various ports in Italy.

Weak provisions in the former immigration act relating to the place of entry of aliens and the separation of families have been strengthened, and a bureau has been established to encourage immigrants to go to those sections of the country in which labor is most needed, and thus, if possible, to avoid the congestion resulting from large numbers of newly arrived persons remaining in the populous seaport cities of the East.

Rigid inspection of child immigrants has been provided to prevent the virtual slavery which has heretofore often occurred, and greater space per immigrant on shipboard has been required.

This last provision (which does not take effect until January I, 1909) will not affect the larger and newer steamers, and will not materially affect the older ones. Out of 175 steamers bringing immigrants last year to the port of New York, more than half would not have violated this law had it been in effect, and the worst case of violation would have been an excess of but sixty-seven immigrants.

Finally, the law provides for the appointment of a commission of nine,—three Senators, three Representatives, and three persons to be named by the President,—who are directed to make a careful and exhaustive study of the whole question of immigration, and to report to Congress at the earliest practicable date, with recommendations for any future legislation which may seem to be necessary.

Those who are best informed emphatically approve of the new law. It is unquestionably a wise, intelligent, humane statute, far more likely to prove a success than if it included more radical provisions, likely to excite opposition.

Supplemented by such additional legislation as may be suggested by the report of the commission, the law of 1907 should prove adequate to deal with conditions as they at present exist.

Immigrants are now arriving in the United States in so great numbers that they affect the social, physical, financial, and moral welfare of the nation. The judgment of Congress that no investigation or legislation should he spared in order to deal effectively with this great problem will surely be approved by every thoughtful American.

Rossiter, William S., The Immigration Laws in the American Monthy Review of Reviews, Volume XXXV, No. 4, New York, April 1907.

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