Percentage Immigration Law Inflicts Hardships on Aliens and Companies (1921)

Cruel Cases Under New Measure—U. S. Authorities Lax In Not Attempting T0 Regulate Inflow Situation Abroad From Very Start


After a test of over three months, the law restricting immigration which went into effect last June, has been found defective in several important respects, its most objectionable feature being the hardships that it imposes upon steamship companies engaged in the immigration traffic and also upon incoming aliens.

It was a foregone conclusion that the three percent clause in the act would cause injustice to immigrants, although it could have been avoided. A little foresight would undoubtedly have revealed that in the race for passenger business the monthly quotas arriving at American ports would be exceeded before the time limit unless the State Department took the precaution to advise American consuls to regulate the issuance of passports.

New Plan Adopted

Representative Siegel of New York, who recently made a thorough investigation of immigration conditions, took up the subject with President Harding, with the result that a plan which should have been adopted in the first place was at once put into operation, namely, the issuance of a general order to American consuls in Europe instructing them to suspend the viseing of passports for prospective immigrants when the number of passports already issued approached the quota of immigrants permitted to enter the United States in any one month.

In a letter to the President, describing the experiences of immigrants, Mr. Siegel cited a number of cruelties growing out of the new law’s operation. He told of instances in which certain members of families had been admitted while others had been debarred when quotas had been exceeded. He emphasized particularly the enforced separation of parents and children. It is of interest that Mr. Harding, in replying to Mr. Siegel, said: “If I have the situation correctly presented the difficulty must be charged to dishonest steamship agents who have brought to this country innocent immigrants in spite of our continued warnings during a period of very great leniency."

In making this charge the President, it is understood, referred to certain irresponsible European steamship companies, unconnected with the North Atlantic Conference, whose methods of securing immigrant passengers were recently described by Dr. E. A. Ross, Professor of Sociology of the University of Wisconsin.

“The runners employed in this business," he said, “are often common laborers who have been here and who, in the hope of commissions, fill the imaginations of helpless peasants in the south and west of Europe with dreams of golden streets, help them to mortgage their houses and sell their cows, and then herd them and their families aboard the steamer."

Professor Ross told of one impressario of immigrants who, with a network of agencies and runners throughout Greece, made an income of $50,000 a year. Such a system does not easily put on the brakes, much less lend itself to the administration of the laws of the United States.

Reputable steamship companies have done their best to combat this injurious propaganda and to comply with the law, often sustaining considerable expense when presented from landing immigrant passengers by reason of some technicality. The task of regulating the inflow situation has been extremely difficult, and when quotas have been exceeded the companies have been punished by having to carry back the surplus aliens at their own expense and, in some cases, have been subjected to fines.

Now that this confusion has lasted for over three months it has at last become obvious that the examination and control of immigrants should be conducted abroad by vice~consu1s, health officers and immigration oilicials at the principal European ports, when passports could be issued and quotas for every ship definitely arranged. Chairman Johnson of the Hcuse Committee on Immigration introduced a bill to this effect some weeks ago, and the matter will be pressed for consideration when Conress reconvenes.

In the meantime, American consuls abroad, as already explained, will do what they can to control the situation for a more intelligent administration of the immigration law.

Lines Hard Hit

The restrictions on immigration, under the new law, naturally deprive steamship companies of a vast amount of passenger traffic, and have already involved a serious loss. It is evident that the figures of westbound traffic for the present fiscal year will show a striking decrease in comparison with the year preceding. The effect of the law was shown by the fact that arrivals in June, when the law was enforced, amounted to 16,853 as against 52,619 during May.

In view of the fact that legislation affecting this important branch of transatlantic passenger traffic is to be introduced in Congress, and that the administration of the present immigration law is likely to be revised, the view of some leading steamship companies on the subject are of special interest at this time. The writer, in making the rounds of the offices this week talked with representatives of the passenger departments, and found that practically all agreed that the present law is in urgent need of reform.

“The law imposes a heavy burden on both American and foreign lines,” said David Lindsay, Assistant Passenger Traffic Manager of the Interna— tional Mercantile Marine Company. “The first and second class business has not been anything like so good this year as in 1920, and consequently we have had to depend, to a great ex— tent, on third class business to cover our operating expenses. Under the new law third class travel has been reduced to a minimum.

“As to the present restrictions on immigration, those who have made a profound study of the subject believe that no obstacles should be placed in the way of travel; that every able bodied man who comes to this country increases business; and that a great degree of our national prosperity, in the past, has been due to a free inflow and outflow of peoplev of the immigrant class.

“The present law has restricted immigration to such an extent that the outgoing steerage travelers from January 1 to September 1 numbered 8,800 more than the incoming. After the end of November the third class accommodation on American and foreign ships will be almost empty. No transatlantic line can possibly maintain its services at a normal point unless its steamers, going and returning, can obtain an adequate number of passengers.

Quoras Nearly Filled

“The quotas of all nations except Great Britain, Russia and Germany, which have exceptionally large proportions, will be exceeded by the end of November under the law. That means that a South African or a New Zealander, belonging to countries within the British Empire, will be excluded on arrival here.

Poles, Jugo-Slavs, and Hungarians will also be excluded. Spaniards, Greeks, Persians and Palestinians cannot be admitted. At the present time all reputable companies are doing everything possible to keep within the quotas and have a vast machinery in operation with that object; but even with the best intentions it has been extremely difficult to meet the requirements of the law.

‘I wish to emphasize this point,’ added Mr. Lindsay, “that at this time, when every effort is being made to build up the American merchant marine, hundreds of ships are lying idle for want of business. The continued cutting down of passenger traffic will have a disastrous effect on passenger liners under the American flag.

This is a question that should receive the attention of Congress, when the revision of the present immigration law comes up for consideration. Transportation is the life of the nation. That is the whole gist of the problem.”

At the Cunard Line office H. P. Borer, Assistant Passenger Traffic Manager, strongly endorsed the proposal to have the examination of prospective immigrants conducted at European ports. “If the quotas were made up from the time of embarkation instead of on arrival," he explained, “it would be possible to control the situation.

As matters stand, it is very difficult for steamship companies to time the arrival of their vessels so as to enable their steerage passengers to come within the quotas provided by the immigration law. Consequently, it would be much better if the quotas could be figured from the date of embarkation on the other side instead of on arrival here. It would not make any difference in the number of immigrants to be admitted, but it would enable us to keep within the numbers and avoid the possibility of deportations.

“While many of the quotas will be exceeded by the end of November, some countries still have a fair proportion of unused admissions to their credit, irrespective of the quotas for October and November. Great Britain for instance is entitled to 21,000, Russia 10,000, Sweden 6,200, Germany 25,000, Italy 4,500, Norway 39,000, Denmark 1,500, France 1,400. When these credits and remaining quotas are exhausted, however, there will be no further immigrant traffic.”

A. T. Henderson, manager of the French Line’s passenger department, said that for years past he had advocated the examination and selection of immigrants before embarkation. This, he believed, would have prevented most of the hardships that have attended the enforcement of the restrictive law.

In speaking of the difficulty of complying with the regulations concerning quotas, Mr. Henderson pointed out that although the North Atlantic Conference, to which all reputable transatlantic steamship lines belong, had been striving to devise some method of keeping within the law it had been impossible to avoid the possibility of deportations.

“As to the restrictions on immigration, my view has always been that immigration will inevitably regulate itself. Large numbers of aliens have always come here when times were good and have left the country when times were bad. This has been the case for thirty years or more.

Personally, I believe that immigration should be unrestricted and that the examination and selection of immigrants should be made by American officials stationed at European ports."

Emil Lederer, Director of Passenger Trafiic of the United American Lines, agreed with other steamship officials that the examination of immigrants should be conducted on the other side of the Atlantic, and that in cases of dispute an appeal to the State Department should be permitted.

Departure Date Plan

“The suggestion that quotas should be figured from the date of departure instead of the date of arrival is an excellent one," said Mr. Lederer. “This would permit absolute control on the part of steamship lines. At present it is possible that a steamer carrying immigrants may be delayed by bad weather or other causes and will reach port after the quotas have been completed, the result being many deportations and much unfavorable criticism.

“The companies are working harmoniously together on the other side and are endeavoring to control the situation by checking up their passenger lists. Consuls have also been instructed not to vise any more pass— ports than the regulations permit. That will help matters considerably.

The immigration authorities, moreover, have taken a humane view of the situation and have shown much leniency. The bill presented by Representative Johnson, to station immigration inspectors at ports of debarkation should be passed without delay, as it would do a great deal toward putting an end to the present confusion.

Like other steamship men, I believe in unrestricted immigration with the provision that a careful ex— amination should be made abroad and only persons selected who would be of value to the country.”

Source: Carson, W.E., "Percentage Immigration Law Inflicts Hardships on Aliens and Companies" in The Nautical Gazette: America's Oldest Shipping Weekly -- Founded 1871, Volume 101, No. 13, Whole Number 2614, New York, Saturday, September 24,1921 P. 390-391, 405

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