Our Immigration Laws From The Viewpoint of National Eugenics


HOW far do our present immigration laws enable us to exclude those aliens who are physically, mentally, and morally undesirable for parenthood; those whose coming here will tend to produce an inferior rather than a superior American race; those who, in other words, are eugenically unfit for race culture ?

We, in the United States, have an opportunity which is unique in history for the practice of eugenic principles. Our country was founded and developed by picked men and women, and today, by selecting our immigrants through proper legislation, we have the power to pick out the best specimens of each race to be the parents of our future citizens.

The social responsibility which rests upon this country in this matter is overwhelming. We may decide upon what merits—physical, intellectual, or moral—the fathers and mothers of American children shall be selected; but we have left the choice almost altogether to the selfish interests, which do not care whether we want the immigrants they bring, or whether the immigrants will be the better for coming.

The social responsibility which rests upon this country in this matter is overwhelming. We may decide upon what merits—physical, intellectual, or moral—the fathers and mothers of American children shall be selected; but we have left the choice almost altogether to the selfish interests, which do not care whether we want the immigrants they bring, or whether the immigrants will be the better for coming.

Steamship agents and brokers all over Europe and eastern Asia are today deciding for us the character of the American race of the future.

It is no argument against practicing eugenic ideas, in the selection of our alien immigrants, to say that the New England country towns are full of hopelessly degenerate native Americans, who are inferior, mentally, morally, physically, to the sturdy peasants of Europe.

The degeneracy of our country native stock is probably chiefly due to the drawing off of the stronger and more capable men and women to the cities; to prolonged inbreeding, and to the continued reproduction of feeble-mindedness, which is rife in many of our country districts. It will not help to reduce the number of our native degenerates if we admit alien degenerates.

National eugenics, for us, means the prevention of the breeding of the unfit native, as well as the prevention of the immigration and of the breeding after admission of the unfit alien.


Should we not exercise at least the same care in admitting human beings that we are now exercising in relation to animals, to insect pests, or to disease germs? Yet it is actually true that we are today taking more pains to see that a Hereford bull or a Southdown ewe, imported for the improvement of our cattle, are sound and free from disease than we take in the admission of an alien man or woman who will be the father and mother of American children.

We do not hesitate to prohibit the importation of cattle from a foreign country where a serious cattle disease is prevalent. It is only in very extreme cases, indeed, that we have ever taken such a step in connection with the importation of aliens. Yet there are certain parts of Europe from which no aliens should be allowed to enter this country, for reasons which are eugenically of the first importance.

Our present laws aim to exclude some twenty-one classes of mentally, physically, morally, and economically unclesirable aliens. On paper the list of the excluded classes is long and formidable, and seems more than sufficient to accomplish our eugenic purposes; but the fact is that careful and unprejudiced students of immigration agree that these laws do not keep out the unfit so as to preserve the status quo, to say nothing of promoting eugenic improvement.

We already have an army of probably not less than 15o,000 feeble - minded in the United States, of whom only about to percent are in institutions, the rest being free to propagate their kind. And of those in institutions, the large proportion are kept there only temporarily, being at liberty for much of the time during their reproduction period.

The same is true of thousands of criminals, whom we shut up for varying periods of time, but allow, in the intervals when they are out of prison, to populate the world with children, much of whose inheritance is criminal. We are today legalizing the begetting of criminal children by failing to give permanent custodial care to habitual criminals.

Further, there are over 150,000 insane in the institutions of the United States alone, and of these many have already left offspring to perpetuate their insanity. In spite of this appalling situation—appalling from the standpoint of mere sentiment and of mere philanthropy—doubly appalling from the standpoint of eugenics, we have been admitting alien insane and alien imbeciles, and alien epileptics and alien criminals, partly because of a lax administration of the law under former administrations, partly because the law is incapable, under existing conditions, of effective enforcement.

The disproportionate increase of alien insane, of alien imbeciles, of alien criminals, and many other facts which may be ascertained by any person who is interested in this question, shows that, as just stated, our immigration laws do not now enable us to preserve the status quo.

Sir Francis GaIton has clearly shown that "each married degenerate produces on the average one child who is as degenerate as himself or herself, and others in whom the taint is latent, but liable to appear in a succeeding generation."

Further, it is well known that imbeciles have larger families than normal persons, and that they also have a large number of illegitimate children. Parenthood on the part of all these classes of persons, native or alien, is a crime against the future. To admit to this country the feeble-minded, the insane, the epileptic, the habitual criminal, those afflicted with hereditary diseases, is no less a crime against the future.

The ideal selection of our immigrants would be possible only if we could have a fairly complete history, running back a few generations, showing the hereditary tendencies of each alien. This is impracticable, so far as the immediate future is concerned. But there are some things we can do. We can insist that each alien, on landing here, should undergo a very thorough mental and physical examination at the hands of our Public Health and Marine Hospital Service surgeons.

These examinations would involve the stripping to the skin of each alien; the usual physical examination for physical defects; mental tests; tests for syphilis, and similar precautions. Is this too much to demand when the welfare of the human race is at stake ?

I have seen thousands of aliens landed, and I have marveled at the skill with which our surgeons are now able, by the most superficial examination as the aliens file by, at the rate of several a minute, to detect some of the physical and even some of the mental defects which put these aliens into one or another of the classes which may be excluded. But such a superficial examination is all wrong.

It is nothing short of a crime to admit people, as often happens in a rush season, at the rate of 3,000, 4,000, or 5,000 in one day at Ellis Island. On April II, 1910, 7,931 immigrants were inspected by the medical officers. Think of that! And these medical officers were supposed to detect any mental and physical defect which might exclude!

I believe that we ought to limit the number of aliens who shall be landed in one day to a certain number which could reasonably well be carefully inspected. We ought largely to increase the number of the surgeons detailed for that most important work of inspecting arriving aliens. We ought to enlarge the accommodations at some of our immigrant stations, in order that this work might be properly carried out.

Again, we can go a long way toward the accomplishment of our object by increasing the fines which the steamship companies now pay when they bring over an alien who is found, on our own examination here, to be an idiot, imbecile, epileptic, or suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease which could have been detected at the port of departure.

The fine is now only $100. The steamship companies pay little attention to the provision. They run their chances of having such aliens detected on landing, and in some cases they insure themselves against possible loss by obliging the alien to deposit $100 when he buys his ticket.

Now if we increased this fine to $500—and that is none too large—the steamship companies would themselves, without expense to us, make a much more thorough examination abroad before sailing.

Further, for the more effective detection of aliens who are physically, mentally, and morally undesirable, and who are already enumerated in our list of classes excluded by existing law, we should put immigrant inspectors and our own surgeons on board of all immigrant-carrying vessels. These officials, mingling with the immigrants on the voyage over, should see that they are properly treated and cared for; that they are not overcrowded, and that they receive adequate medical attention.

But, of far greater importance than that, these officials would be able to de= tect a great many cases of physical and of mental defect which we could not possibly detect in our necessarily hurried examination when these people land, and in this way we should be able to exclude and to send back far larger numbers of undesirable aliens than is at present possible, however strictly we may try to enforce the law.

In addition to these steps which we should take, and take instantly, to accomplish the more effective exclusion of the insane, the imbecile, the idiot, the tuberculous, and those afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious diseases, we ought to amend our laws so that it will be possible to exclude more aliens of such low vitality and poor physique that they are eugenically undesirable for parenthood.

The law of 1907 excludes persons "who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such mental or physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living." This clause has been found to be rather ineffective, partly because it has been taken to be an economic test and not a physical one; partly because of other provisions in the same act which largely nullify this section by making it possible to admit on bonds aliens who fall into the group here named.

Now aliens of such low vitality, poor physique, or suffering from such mental or physical defect that their ability to earn a living is thereby interfered with are, in the majority of cases, highly undesirable persons. They are not only themselves weaklings and unlikely to resist disease, but they are likely to have defective and degenerate children. Bonds will not prevent them from breeding.

We constantly speak of the need of more "hands" to do our labor. We forget that we are importing, not "hands" alone, but bodies, also. The vast majority of incoming alien immigrants are potential fathers and mothers, and the character of the race that is to be born depends upon the kind of alien bodies which we are allowing to have landed on our shores day by day. It is a tremendous responsibility which rests upon us.

Conservation of our natural resources: how much we hear about that. Conservation of American forests is important. So is conservation of American coal, and oil, and natural gas, and water supply, and fisheries. But the conservation and improvement of the American race is vastly more important than all other conservation. The real wealth of a nation is the quality of its people. Of what value are endless acres of forests, millions of tons of coal, and billions of gallons of water if the race is not virile, and sane. and sound?

Fearfully misguided has been most of our so-called philanthropy. We have housed and clothed and fed the defective, the degenerate, the delinquent, to such an extent that we have encouraged them to reproduce their kind in ever-growing numbers. We have spent increasing sums for asylums, almshouses, prisons, and hospitals, in which we have temporarily confined the insane, the pauper, the habitual criminal, the imbecile, leaving them free, during most of their lives, to propagate their kind. It is a fact, disguise it as we will, that we have taxed ourselves to support institutions which have resulted in increasing and not decreasing the number of the unfit.

We have before us an immediate duty of tremendous importance in caring for our own unfit; in seeing to it, by adequate legislation, that the insane, the habitual criminal, the feeble-minded, and similar classes are permanently segregated, so that they cannot reproduce their kind to be a further burden upon the nation, and in enacting laws which shall prevent the marriage of those whose offspring will be unfit.

But, in addition to our own very heavy burden of those who are defective or degenerate, we are adding every year, by immigration, many hundreds if not thousands of aliens whose presence here will inevitably result, because of their own defects or those of their offspring, in lowering the physical and mental and moral standards of the American race.

Biologists admit that they have much to learn about heredity. But of some things we are already sure. Enough is known to make it absolutely essential, if the quality of the American race is to be preserved, that there should be a far more careful selection of our incoming alien immigrants, on eugenic grounds, than we have ever attempted.

The need is imperative for applying eugenic principles in much of our legislation. But the greatest, the most logical, the most effective step that we can take is to begin with a proper eugenic selection of the incoming alien millions. If we, in our generation, take these steps, we shall earn the gratitude of millions of those who will come after us, for we shall have begun the real conservation of the American race.

The National Geographic Magazine, VOL. XXIII, No. 1, JANUARY, 1912


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