What's The Problem Of Immigration?



I was an interested listener the other evening during a "smoke-talk" on immigration at one of the local clubs. While aware of the cosmopolitan character of the club's membership, I was hardly prepared for the diversity of argument that appeared as the talk gradually drifted into a general engagement.

Some of the arguments were more forceful than convincing; others evidenced a grasp of the subject not common among laymen; while a few were suggestive of that trivial attitude toward serious themes which some superficial reporters have described as typically American.

Now, I am no reporter, but I am sometimes a superficial observer. On this particular evening I became absorbed in a most suggestive aspect of the occasion. That is to say, as each speaker arose, I found myself guessing in advance, and with some success, his attitude toward the subject under discussion.

In such an analytical frame of mind I walked slowly home that night, wondering in what degree people are actually responsible for the opinions which they so earnestly maintain, or for that seemingly inevitable friction of human relations which constantly retards the progress of our race toward the millennium.

The personal equation, the bias of temperament, the play of individuality, are synonymous terms which, rightly interpreted, account for most of our mortal differences.

There is no incongruity in the existence of contrary opinions among a group of equally intelligent persons; nor can one consistently question the patriotism or sincerity of those who challenge his convictions; while the habit of imputing unworthy motives to political opponents is obviously incompatible with a rational conception of the inherent and, in a sense, irreconcilable differences which universally divide men into the three major classes of conservatives, liberals and radicals.

The significance of these terms is likely to be appreciated by the student of American history, who seeks an explanation of the animosities engendered among citizens whose patriotism has been equaled only by their intensity of conviction. For a concrete illustration, however, of the influence of temperament and education in deter. mining opinion, I unhesitatingly recommend a discussion, whether by experts or nonexperts, of the problem of immigration.

It is not difficult, in fact, to substitute for the foregoing and more common dassifica. lion of mankind a corresponding analysis based upon viewpoints in reference to the immigration problem. Thus we may show that men are divided in opinion accordingly as they are convinced that the federal government should (1) facilitate immigration, (2) regulate immigration, or (3) restrict immigration.


A correspondence between those who would facilitate immigration and the class of conservatives is suggested by the sympathy of the latter with the traditional American attitude of indiscriminate welcome to the oppressed of other nations, as well as by its responsibility for that broad exemplification which the laissez-faire doctrine has had in the United States.

Singularly enough, too, we find those elements of the population farthest removed historically from the conservative classes, working in unison with them. They are represented in part by national alliances of racial groups organized for the avowed and laudable purpose of facilitating the immigration to this country of members of their respective races to participate in its economic, political and social advantages.

The activity of these and similar organizations was especially manifest during the consideration by Congress of the present immigration act, approved February 20, 1907. During the months pending its passage, the debate on the proposed bills was not by any means confined to the members of the respective legislative chambers in the capitol.

Advocates, seemingly of all existing views, actively participated in the discussion in and out of Congress; experts and nonexperts submitted convincing testimony on all sides; associations representing the interests of capital, of labor, and of the nation, respectively, were given opportunity to be heard; and consideration of the bills was carried over from the first to the second session.

But in the act, as finally adopted, each of the two measures included in the original bills submitted to Congress, and calculated in some degree to reduce the quantity of immigration, were rejected. By the first of these measures it was proposed to apply the educational or literacy test, under the terms of which persons over sixteen years of age, unable to read the English or some other language, were to be excluded.

But it was further provided that an admissible immigrant, or a person resident in the United States, might bring in near relatives regardless of this test. According to the second of these restrictive proposals, every male alien over sixteen years of age was required to have at least $25 in his possession, and those under that age not less than $15. In the case of families the sum of $50 was to cover all the female members, as well as all the male members under eighteen years of age.

The rejection of these measures evidenced in part a direct effect of the influence of the factors desirous of facilitating immigration; it suggested the continuous activity of the transportation companies interested in the final result; and, by the force of contrast, it rendered conspicuous the negative influence—the "social inertia" —of the majority of the so-called substantial citizens of the country, who so often appear indifferent to questions affecting the public weal.

It was only natural if the superior zeal of the conservative forces should give Congress a somewhat distorted view of public sentiment.


The existing law corresponds in the main with a policy of regulating immigration. It expresses, or at least is not repugnant to, the sentiment of an influential number of the intelligent men of the country, who are to be classed under the head of liberals.

With these there is still the feeling that we in America can afford to be generous toward the people who come from countries less fortunate industrially and politically than our own. Inclined theoretically to emphasize the altruistic phase of immigration, these men are sometimes prone in practice to ignore the claims of alien victims of oppression, in favor of immigrants whose claims are due to intrinsic merits. But such an attitude, it may be urged, merely recognizes the national law of self-preservation.

I have suggested a correspondence between the present immigration law and the attitude of the regulationists. The relevancy of this suggestion may be more apparent by a rough analysis of the act of 1907. Certain sections of the act provide, in the first place, for the absolute exclusion of the classes of aliens universally deemed undesirable.

Under this head are included aliens afflicted with a loathsome or dangerous, contagious disease, as well as idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, the insane, and persons certified to have any other mental defect which may affect their ability to earn a living. The decision of the officers at the port of arrival, in the case of an alien belonging to any of the foregoing classes, is final, and usually results in prompt deportation.

Another group of excludables, that are privileged to an appeal, from the decision at the port of entry, to the department at Washington, includes those aliens called contract laborers, who seek to enter the United States under contract to perform labor therein; aliens who leave a criminal record behind them, as well as anarchists, polygamists, professional beggars and immoral women or girls; and persons who have been public charges abroad or appear likely to become such if landed in this country.

Provision is also made for the expulsion, within three years after landing, of aliens (1) who enter the United States illegally, (2) who become public charges from causes existing prior to landing, such as insanity or tuberculosis, which may not have been apparent at the time of arrival, and (3) of alien women or girls found to be leading an immoral life. With the exception of the last-named class, however, there is no provision for the expulsion of aliens on account of crimes or misdemeanors committed in this country. (Note 1)

The following statement, compiled from annual reports of the Commissioner-General of Immigration, shows at a glance some of the salient facts in respect to immigration for the past three fiscal years, ending June 30:

Year Total immigration Debarred (Note 2) Percent Debarred Appealed Landed on appeal Deported within three years years after landing in U.S.
1910 1,041,570 24,270 2.3      
1909 751,786 10,411 1.4 1,877 739 2,066
1908 782,870 10,902 1.4 1,630 764 1,955
1907 1,285,349 13,064 1.02 4,486 2,362  

The statistics for the fiscal year 1910, relating to appeals and to deportations after landing, have not yet been published. It is safe to say, however, that the figures, like those in reference to debarred aliens, will indicate a somewhat stricter interpretation of the law.

These statistics are suggestive of the tendency of the present law to regulate rather than to restrict immigration. In an estimate of the law's ultimate reach, however, we should not lose sight of its negative or indirect effect in deterring unknown numbers of defective and otherwise undesirable aliens who, but for the existence of the law, would surely seek and gain our shores.


While the main issue of regulation, then, is obviously confined to the improvement of quality, we may define the policy of restriction as intended not only to improve the quality, but also to reduce in some degree the quantity of immigration. Such a policy, too, in view of the apparent sentiment of the country at large, may be deemed relatively radical.

This is not equivalent to saying that the advocates of further restriction are themselves gentle. men of radical temperament. While such an inference would be justifiable perhaps in occasional instances, we should hardly characterize as radical many of the gentlemen whose names appear upon the letter-sheets of the Immigration Restriction League, with headquarters in Boston!

The labor organizations of the United States, represented in the American Federation of Labor, have repeatedly at their annual conference placed themselves on record in favor of the further restriction of immigration. Nevertheless, in the shaping of legislation, they have apparently failed to exercise an influence commensurate with the weight and importance of their organizations.

From the standpoint of the labor leaders the problem of immigration is not a theoretical question, but one entirely concrete in its nature. By reason of a lack of adequate restrictions, they assert, the United States annually receives thousands of immigrants who are destitute of resources both intellectual and financial.

The laborers of America are forced to compete with foreign workmen whose standards are much lower and whose necessities render them easy victims of the competitive system. The remedy calls for a tariff upon competition with labor as well as upon the products of labor — in other words, " protection on all sides."

Mr. John Mitchell, former president of the miners' union, has recently voiced what he believes to he the sentiments of the wage-earners of the country respecting the question of immigration. He summarizes the suggested additions to the present law in the form of three recommendations.

The first calls for an increase of the present head-tax of $4 to $10; the second provides that every immigrant who is not a political refugee shall bring with him not less than $25, in addition to the amount required to buy his transportation to destination (under the existing law immigrants are not required to have any specified sum of money); and in the third place, it is proposed to have an educational test by which immigrants between the ages of fourteen and fifty should be required to read a section of the Constitution of the United States "either in our language, in their own language, or in the language of the country from which they come."*

It is probable that the recommendations of Mr. Mitchell, which are in substantial accord with those of the Immigration Restriction League, fairly represent the present attitude of the radicals in reference to the question of immigration. There is also manifest a current feeling that the physical standards for admittance should be raised.

It is contended that the present law in practical operation does not adequately provide for the sifting of a considerable body of aliens, representing a generally inferior type, which tends to lower not only the vital but the economic standard of the community.

The Federal Bureau of Immigration refers to such aliens in its recent recommendation for adding to the excluded classes "persons economically undesirable," as well as by its suggestion that male aliens, within certain age-limits, be subjected to a physical test similar to that applied to recruits for the army.


We have been taught to anticipate all shades of disagreement among the people at large in reference to political and other policies involving collective action. But when the trained specialists —the scientific students — appear at odds concerning these same policies, how shall we explain the phenomenon ? I can only offer the lame excuse of human frailty.

Let us take, for example, the problem which has grown out of the congestion of immigrant population in the large cities of the northern and eastern states. A wide agitation, which enlisted the interest of experts as well as of laymen, crystalized in a provision, incorporated in the act of 1907, authorizing the establishment, in the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization, of a "Division of Information . . . to promote a beneficial distribution of aliens admitted into the United States among the several states and territories desiring immigration."

The immediate object of this provision was to counteract the evil effects due, it was alleged, to the concentration of immigrants in the more populous centers of the North and East, by diverting the stream of immigration toward and into the South and West. The point of view which inspired this legislation was and is shared by many accepted authorities.

Other students, on the contrary, do not hesitate to question the seriousness of this so-called evil. Dr. Walter F. Wilcox, of Cornell University, is inclined to scout the idea of an abnormal tendency on the part of the immigrant toward the large cities. He points out the fact that at least ninetenths of the foreign-born arrive at or, on arrival, go directly to the large cities, which consequently appear to be in a chronic state of submersion to the ceaseless flow of this human tide.

He affirms, however, that he has failed to discover any abnormal tendency on the part of the immigrants to stagnate in the cities. On the contrary, he asserts, they gradually and naturally disperse over the country from the larger to the smaller centers of population, in response to the allurements of economic advantage. He concludes that the distribution of immigrants is not a serious problem calling for federal intervention and aid.

Mr. Watchorn, former commissioner of immigration for the port of New York, holds a similar view and contends that the question of distribution is to be answered by the establishment of improved industrial conditions in sections where immigration is desired.


But what, then, is the central or fundamental problem of immigration? Is it possible, through a composite of the different views, to secure one which will he typical of all ?

It may, I think, be assumed that substantially all good citizens accept immigration as a legitimate, not to say beneficent, phenomenon of society. Of the total immigration of aliens above thirteen years of age for the fecal year 1909, 193,480 were manifested as illiterate — or about twenty-nine per cent.

In place of an actual test at the time of Arrival, however the declara- tions of the Immigrants are recorded as given, so that the statistics of illiteracy conceivably might be subject to revision.

The differences of opinion, in other words, are not concerned with the question of immigration or nonimmigration, but rather with a question which relates to the quantity or quality (or both) of immigration which shall be admitted to the United States. That is to say, the average citizen desires as much immigration as, in his opinion, is good for the country. This is to advocate as much immigration as properly can be assimilated. The key-note of the problem, then, may be expressed by the word assimilation, and the fundamental problem defined as that of maintaining assimilation on a par with immigration.

Yet it is one thing to define a problem, another to suggest practicable remedies. For the officers and employees who compose the Immigration Service, however, the remedies already exist In the immigration act passed by Congress and approved by the President, February 20, 1907.

By implication and in fact, then, the solution of the immigration problem rests with Congress, which determines through legislation what remedies are to be applied. It will be remembered, however, that the lawmakers in a republic are the servants of the people, who must be held ultimately responsible for the acts of their representatives; and that, in general, a majority of the members of Congress are practically receptive to the influence of public opinion

Note 1: In further reference to this class, and with a view to more adequate control of the so-called " white-slave traffic," Congress has recently added to the expellable groups those aliens engaged in or related in any manner to such traffic, and has extended the three-year period indefinitely.

Note 2: An analysis of aliens debarred by cause during the fiscal year 1909 shows a total of 4,402 as paupers or likely to become public charges, 2,3S2 as afflicted with loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, 1,172 contract-laborers, all others (including 413 returned under the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act), 2,455; total, 10,411.

the World To-Day, Volume XIX, NUMBER 3, SEPTEMBER, 1910

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