Ebb And Flow Of The Immigration Tide


[Mr. Sherwood traveled in the dual capacity of journalist and student of immigration with the United States Immigration Commission when it visited Europe and has written numerous articles on various phases of the subject—THE Editor.]

LITTLE attention has been given to the fact that, in the course of the year which is just closing, a marked change in the movement of immigration to this country occurred. It is only comparable in the recorded history of American immigration to the similar change which took place in the years 1907-8. There has been a great decrease in immigration coupled with an equally large increase in the number returning to Europe.

Between January and September 30, 1911, only 450,670 persons landed on our shore from the third-class cabins of the transatlantic liners. While some ardent restrictionist might assert that this total was large enough, yet it was less than two-thirds the number who came to us in the same class in the course of the corresponding period of last year.

The exact falling off was 278,424, or 38.18 per cent. Perhaps a knowledge of the fact that the number of those who sailed eastward in the steerage in the course of the nine months which closed on September 30 was 300,040, or 66.55 per cent. of the total of those who entered, and an increase over the number who went to Europe last year of 35.47 per cent., will cause our restrictionist friend to go to the length of throwing up his hat in his enthusiasm.

The remarkable character of this change in ebb and flow is recognized when it is stated that the ebb in normal times has been found to average about 30 per cent. of the flow. This notable alteration in the currents of the "great human tide" is undoubtedly to be interpreted as an indication of a considerable reduction in the industrial activity of the country which, owing to a more centralized control and a more conservative attitude of capital, has not exhibited itself in a violent form, and, therefore, until recently has been little observed.

Those who have comprised the bulk of the eastward flow, it is reported, have been "inside" men, that is, industrial workers. Early in September it was noted that "outside," or outdoor, laborers were joining the stream in larger proportion than is customary at that season. The conclusion is further emphasized by the marked reduction in the demand for labor in New York State shown recently in the returns made to the Bureau of Labor Statistics at Albany by the trade unions of the State.

These indicated that during the first half of the year the percentage of idleness among their members was higher than at any time within recent years, with the exception of 19o8, when the country was in the grip of a financial depression. The chief increases in unemployment were reported from the metal, building and transportation trades. These industries employ large numbers of alien laborers.

It is interesting to note in passing that in Canada, where aggressive emphasis is laid upon the need for agriculturists, farm laborers and domestic servants, and those of other occupations, are discouraged from immigrating, the disparity between the flow and ebb is greater than in the United States.

The immigration to the Dominion for the first nine months of this year, in contrast to that of this country, was greater than for the corresponding period of last year, but the ebb was only 18.12 percent of the flow. This, it will be recalled,, is about 12 per cent. below the average for the United States. It, however, was 6 per cent. higher than that for the corresponding period of 1910.

Only recently has the ebb and flow of immigration been accepted as a register of the condition of the labor market in the United States, or has it been recognized as. obedient to the law of supply and demand. We now realize that this country has tapped a supply of labor which is sufficiently automatic in the expansion and contraction of its current to meet. the needs of a land subject to such fluctuating requirements as is our own.

Prior to 1907 there were practically no available official data upon. which to base conclusions of this nature. Until that year no provision had been made by the Government for the collection of statistics showing the outward movement of aliens, although for a number of years steamship lines had been keeping. records. The immigration law which authorized the appointment of the United States Immigration Commission directed the gathering of such data.

About this time the steamship companies permitted the publication of their figures, and those interested in the subject of immigration were surprised to learn that the east-bound movement of the immigrant class for ten years at least had approximated one-third that toward the west. In other words, there was a normal flow toward Europe of large volume.

In the course of the Federal fiscal year of 1907-8, within which period the commercial and industrial activities of the country were suffering severely from a financial depression which has not been forgotten, the eastward movement more than doubled that reported for any previous year, while the westward was only three-fifths that of the preceding year.

In fact, in the course of the calendar year of 1908, nearly twice as many left the country as entered it. This demonstrated the part played by labor conditions in American immigration. The knowledge we now have regarding the ebb of the immigrant tide has thrown fresh light on the whole subject.

Prior to the departure of the United States Immigration Commission on May 18, 1907, from Boston for the Mediterranean, no effort so far as known had been made to discover the reasons for the constant easterly flow. The first work undertaken was the gathering of data bearing on this phase of the subject from the company of aliens on the steamer on which it sailed. The results were enlightening.

On the Canopic were approximately three hundred third - class passengers of Portuguese, Italian and Greek birth returning to their native countries. Of the seventy-seven Portuguese bound for the evergreen slopes of the Azores eighteen said they were going back to the old home because of sickness. When the body gave out they desired to return to the familiar scenes of youth and to their own physicians.

They wished' to breathe again the air which had once fed their lungs. Only five expressed a dislike for the great land for which they had forsaken their queer boxlike homes on the isles of the Atlantic. Thirty-one were going to visit the old scenes, the wrinkled parents, and to get their families. Eight said they would not return to America. All of the others expected to do so.

With the exception of eight, the remainder of the third-class passengers were Italian. Fifty of these, whose vigor of body had been impaired in the new land while they gave it of their strength, were homeward bound in the hope of finding again the health they had lost. Thirty-five, or nearly 18 percent of the whole number, were sufferers from nostalgia and did not think they would go back to America. But 113, or approximately three-fifths, were expecting to return.

Of the eight Greeks, two were visiting their native hills because of illness. Four expected to stay in Greece and the remainder were intending to return to the United States.

Here were exhibited several deeply human reasons for the journey to Europe. As the writer, day after day, walked among the migrants, talking with them and occasionally visiting the ship's hospital with the doctor to see those who were ill, he could not fail to note the answers presented in this concrete form to some of the criticisms of immigration made by persons unfamiliar with the facts.

Not infrequently one hears the complaint that the taxes are increasing because of the necessity for building additions to the hospitals and insane ayslums in order to accommodate foreigners. There is less ground for this murmuring than is generally realized. Doubtless, antagonistic feeling on this score would be modified if the extent was known of the desire of those of the so-called newer immigration to return home when ill. Who would not prefer home to a strange land when the body is ailing?

The fact that sixty-eight, or More than one-fifth, of those on the Canopic were leaving America because they were sick., taken with corroborating facts gleaned else- where, indicates that a portion of the normal eastward movement is a self-elimination of the unfit from our working forces. Those who cannot meet the conditions of American life and climate, in a measure, efface themselves.

Of those returning to recuperate, twelve were suffering from pulmonary ailments; some so ill that they were in the hospital. The ship's doctor stated that there were several cases of the disease on each eastward voyage. Endeavoring to subsist upon the diet they had been accustomed to at home and anxious to save money, they had had insufficient nourishment to meet the drain upon their stock of vitality under the labor conditions found in the United States. The winter cold and tenement-house life undoubtedly had also contributed.

To sum up, the steerage of the Canopic was a picture of the average immigrant quarters of a steamer bound toward the Continent in the spring of a normal year when the tide of aliens flowing westward is usually the stronger of the two currents. Recent investigation serves to confirm the conclusions drawn from the statistics of the first definite piece of work done by the Commission. It also adds support to the statements regarding the relationship between immigration and the labor market.

For the purposes of this article the third-class passengers of steamers sailing for different parts of Europe in October were questioned as to their reasons for going home. On one steamer bound for a North Sea port nearly 400 passengers were interviewed, while on another information was secured from more than 100.

On the former steamer 276 of those questioned were laborers, 37 skilled workers, 20 miners, and 18 of miscellaneous occupations. Of those willing to tell why they were going home, 104 stated that they were out of work, 22 that they were sick, and 41 that they were going for the purpose of visiting families, to marry and for other reasons of a social nature. Undoubtedly some of those who were sailing in order to make visits were doing so because they were unemployed.

This statement would also apply to those who gave no reason. The races most largely represented were the Polish, Russian, Magyar, and the minor Slavic groups of Central and Southeastern Europe. Polish and Slovak laborers comprised by far the larger part of those on the other steamer from whom information was secured. This vessel was bound for a German port. Of the number, 14 declared their reason for leaving this country to be lack of employment; 10, sickness; and 59, to make visits.

The length of time these aliens had spent in America ranged from a few weeks to twenty-three years. One Magyar, a laborer, fifty-six years old, an inhabitant of New York City who had been here since 1896, was returning to the old country because of sickness. American taxpayers will not be called upon to support him in his old age, for he said he did not intend to return.

One Pole, owing to the death of his wife, was taking his children home. He was refusing to ask this country to help him care for his family except as it gave him an opportunity for earning a living. He had been here only a year and expected to return to Boston, where he had worked as a laborer.

Another Pole, fifty years of age, a laborer, had been injured at Niagara Falls. He was going home after working in this country for only a year. Another of his fellow passengers had also suffered from an accident and was on his way back to the Fatherland because of it.

While sickness and visiting contribute to the passenger lists of the third class, the chief factor in filling and emptying the cabins is clearly the state of our labor market.' The mobility of the foreign labor supply when conditions become abnormal was demonstrated in connection with the financial storm of 1907. Apparently the disturbance resulting from Presidential elections is also reflected.

It may be recalled that the news of the election of Mr. Taft to the Presidency was followed by great popular demonstrations in some of the villages of southern Italy. The mayors of these communities were called upon to send congratulatory dispatches. The result of the election was interpreted as meaning an improvement in the demand for unskilled and semi-skilled labor.

The foreign laborer, it would appear, has learned to look upon a Presidential year as one in which the demand for his services is likely to be curtailed, owing to unsettled industrial conditions. In those years he returns to his native land in greater numbers and furls the sails of his ambition until the rough weather of a national election has subsided. The number who returned to Europe in 1904, a Presidential year, was nearly one-half the total of those who came to this country, a phenomenal eastward movement.

There is no means of determining the exact effect of the election of 1908 upon the flow toward Europe, for the country was then suffering from the effects of the financial storm of 1907. The Italian immigrant has been inclined to be a Republican in attitude in national politics, on the theory that there is a better demand for his labor when this party is in power and its policies in operation. Therefore, the news of Mr. Taft's election, following upon the depression of the previous year, was hailed with manifestations of great joy in the villages clustering about the crests of the hills of Calabria and Basilicata.

Even seasonal fluctuations in the demand for labor affect the alien movement across seas. In October, under normal conditions, the character of the passenger lists changes to some extent. Then the eastward flow grows in volume and is at its maximum for three months, while the westward decreases.

Large numbers of laborers whose employment has ceased for the year now take their way back home where the cost of living is lower and they may enjoy again the companionship of relatives and friends. The comfort of travel is so much greater than in the days of the earlier immigration that the incentive to return for the idle period is overpowering.

What is the subterranean means of communication which gives this international labor supply a sensitiveness to the requirements of this country so delicate that a reaction sets in before the press takes note of a new position of the pendulum? It is not difficult to explain how a slackness in the demand for labor may develop a refluent current.

A man finds himself out of employment and the prospects for the immediate future not good in this respect. He becomes one of many similarly idle who are buying steamship tickets. The cause of a quick response in Europe to an altered condition here is not so evident. What diminishes or augments the flow according to the needs of the country?

When the Immigration Commission was in Europe, the chief officials of one of the latest of the steamship lines of southern Europe to enter the emigrant business—a line which recently had suffered a loss of thousands of dollars through the imposition of fines at Ellis Island, and the expense of transporting back to Europe hundreds of rejected immigrants booked by its agents indiscriminately without regard to the limitations of the American laws—were anxious to obtain an official interpretation of the provision of the statute forbidding artificial stimulation of immigration.

They had learned through bitter experience the necessity for obedience to the law and had no desire to come into fresh contact with it. They wished to know whether the letters written home by those' already in America came within the purview of the statute. Their question proved that they had discerned the most powerful influence acting upon the flow of immigration.

The Commission, in an abstract of its report on immigration conditions in Europe, recently made public, credits letter writing of aliens in the United States and the return of emigrants with being the most potent promoters of the present movement of population, the former being the more important of the two.

"In fact," says the Commission, "it is entirely safe to assert that letters from persons who have emigrated to friends at home have been the immediate cause of by far the greater part of the remarkable movement from southern and eastern Europe to the United States during the past twenty-five years. There is hardly a village or community in southern Italy and Sicily that has not contributed a portion of its population to swell the tide of emigration to the United States, and the same is true of large areas of Austria, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkan States.

There is a tendency on the part of emigrants from these countries to retain an interest in the homeland, and in consequence a great amount of correspondence passes back and forth. It was frequently stated to members of the Commission that letters from persons who have emigrated to America were passed from hand to hand until most of the emigrants' friends and neighbors were acquainted with the contents."

In periods of industrial activity, as a rule, the letters so circulated contained optimistic references to wages and opportunities for employment in the United States. The reverse was true in times of industrial depression. This testimony is amply supported by the fact that nearly all European immigrants, when questioned on this point—as the law requires—say that they are going to join relatives or friends. Nearly 95 per cent. of those who came from Europe and Syria in the years 1908 and 1909 so declared, and it is noteworthy that the percentage from southern and eastern Europe was 97.

The fluidity of the supply of unskilled labor which has contributed so largely to the development of the resources of the country in the last decade, is a new characteristic in American immigration. The older immigration came to this country with the intention of remaining here permanently.

Driven from the old home by economic and political conditions and drawn here by the opportunities presented in a country seeking development, it braved the horrors of the steerage of the last century with no expectation of returning. The new immigration, provided with convenient and greatly improved means of transportation, has been attracted by the demand for muscle and a relatively low-priced labor, capable of keeping a practically automatic piece of machinery employed.

By nature less cosmopolitan than his northern brother, more closely knit to his native soil, more provincial, the peasant emigrant of central and southern Europe, comprising a large proportion of the new immigration, is a migrant primarily because he hopes to benefit his condition at home through the exploitation of his personal physical resources for a year or two in another land. It is not his original purpose to expatriate himself.

Contrary to the belief of many Americans, the governments of the countries from which this newer immigration is coming are not promoting it. They are not striving to rid themselves of a surplus population. They would prefer to have their people remain at home. Emigration is costing these countries laborers and material for soldiers.

It is drawing off their most ambitious and, therefore, most robust and industrious men. Were it not for the fact that freedom of movement is guaranteed in some of the countries from which there is a large outward flow, and may not be checked arbitrarily, it is probable that some governments would seek to reduce the emigration of their peasants. Even the restriction placed upon migration by Russia cannot arrest the current, although it may cut down in some degree the volume.

A by-product of this fluid international labor supply, which, indeed, is of far greater importance than the labor itself, is its social influence. It is, in fact, a missionary force comparable in its methods of action and power only to the great geological forces of nature. America, because of it, is learning lessons from the old world, and the peasant, at the bottom of the ladder, is being quickened socially and politically.

More than $275,000,000 of the earnings of immigrants, it is estimated by the Immigration Commission, was sent to Europe in 1907. The large sums of money sent home annually go into land and better homes, schools and clothing. The immigrant is quickened mentally by his contact with another civilization. Insensibly he discovers something of his rights and powers as a political unit.

When he goes home he is prepared to ask as a right what once, if he asked at all, he begged as a privilege. With the majesty and power of a mighty glacier, but more rapid in its action, the "great human tide" is planing off the social inequalities of Europe.

(Boston to Galveston, inclusive)
Total III Class Westbound Calendar Year Total III Class Eastbound
364,700 (Note 1) 1893 160,911
188,164 (Note 1) 1894 205,419
312.943 1895 148,484
298,446 1896 123,189
222,021 1897 123,222
254,336 1898 118,976
354,988 1899 113,857
458.934 1900 150,346
507,724 1901 137,532
697,741 1902 172,404
806,947 1903 245,527
696,740 1904 359,992
920,771 1905 232,432
1,109,526 1906 322,405
1,221,658 1907 527,881
354,183 1908 620,963
865,925 1909 267,445
904,183 1910 349,093
430,670 1911 (Note 2) 300,040

Note 1: Port of New York Only

Note 2: Through September 30

(Including Portland, Maine—the winter port of several Canadian lines)
III Class Westbound Calendar Year III Class Eastbound
  1893 4.175
  1894 4.980
15,303 1895 5,587
980 1896 1,571
18,264 1897 6,260
19,972 1898 5,540
33.923 1899 4.355
48.821 1900 5.974
41,802 1901 5,145
65,989 1902 6,158
87.979 1903 8,693
74,244 1904 14,271
89.575 1905 14,048
121,620 1906 18,963
164.649 1907 33,033
68,526 1908 40,961
89.735 1909 23,638
164,078 1910 34,266
152,979 1911 (Note 1) 27,721

Note 1: Through September 30


(They are about to board the steamship anchored near by, by means of small steamers such as that shown at the gangway of the wharf)

(They had prospered in the new land and were going back for a visit, having left
their savings in America. Two of them expected to marry before returning. They did not know that they were being photographed)

(The pair are a brother and sister 'at Naples. For some reason the latter bad been rejected at the examination. She slipped through a hole in the fence sun rounding the pier of the custom-house where the examination was held. and they are shown rearranging their baggage so that the brother may sail. They are unaware that the picture is being made)

(The younger. a nut-brown maid of ten. served the writer very intelligently as his interpreter)

The superintendent of the works said he preferred men who had been in America
because they were quicker)

(They are on their way to one of the North Sea ports)

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