Photo 01 - A Would Be Citizen In The Trial Room At Ellis Island

Photo 01 - A Would Be Citizen In The Trial Room At Ellis Island

The Rising Tide of Immigration

To the man in the street, the enactment of stringent anti-immigration laws seems like locking the doors after the unwelcome guests have arrived and are gorged with the feast. Twenty-three million aliens took up their habitation with us between the years 1820 and 1905.

They have bred so rapidly and have assumed so largely the responsibilities of citizenship that today the foreign-born, with the sons and daughters, of the foreign-born and their immediate families, may be said to control the destinies of the American republic. Indeed, we are already a composite nation—whether we like it or no. Perhaps one day we shall amalgamate into a composite race.

In this connection I remember vividly a conversation with an intelligent Canadian editor, who, after acknowledging the many virtues of the Yankees, remarked with a certain condescension: "You are becoming a race of mongrels. For many years you have admitted, without let or hindrance, the scum of Europe to your citizenship, and you are now reaping the consequences.

That is why your politics are so corrupt, your trusts so tyrannical, your public sentiment so unorganized and feeble, your Anglo-Saxon traditions of conservatism and civic and financial morality so nearly extinguished. Canada, not the United States," he concluded, with sublime faith, "is destined to be the new world Anglo-Saxon nationality of the future!"

Coming myself of mixed Celtic and New England ancestry, I could not gainsay my friend as to the lessening importance of the Anglo-Saxon strain in the United States. But I differed with him—as most Americans would differ—in not regarding the mixture of races as the source of our ills.

Plainly some features of the great western migration—the mightiest tide of in-cursive humanity in history since the Teutons colonized the northern parts of the decaying Roman empire—have not been to our liking.

We should probably accept as a blessing the return to Africa of the Negro, that terribly insoluble element in our social chemistry; we are fiercely determined not to admit in any considerable numbers the yellow races of eastern Asia; and we view with a certain suspicion and dislike the rising flood of incomers from the near east, whether Slav, Hun, or oriental.

The British, the German, the Scandinavian, the progressive Hebrew, the more enlightened portion of the Latin arrivals we regard, on the contrary, as the mainstay of our strength and prosperity, capable of being rapidly Americanized and of uniting to form a new racial stock which shall take root and flourish in the new world even as the Anglo-Celtic-Dane-Norman prevailed in the British Isles.

The immigrants have not been without their faults, but it is stupid and silly to lay at their door the chief national shortcomings. The careless folly of Yankee legislatures has really been responsible for easy naturalization and the crimes against citizenship. The gigantic fortunes created by questionable methods under the aegis of the trusts have been made by native Americans.

Nevertheless, immigration presents some important problems of its own, and the attention of congress at next winter's session will be urgently directed to this subject by the reports of Secretary of Commerce and Labor Metcalf, Commissioner-General Sargent, Commissioner Robert Watchorn, and the recommendations in the presidential message.

What are the newer facts that are causing even the friends of the foreign immigrant considerable alarm? In the first place, the incoming tide is rising to heights undreamed of in the earlier days of the republic.

In 1898. the year of the Spanish war, the total number of arriving aliens fell to 229,299, the lowest figure recorded within twenty years. Since then, it has been rising as follows:

Year Number of Arrivals
1899 311,715
1900 448,572
1901 487,918
1902 648,743
1903 857,046
1904 812,870
1905 (approximate) 1,000,000

As will be noticed, the year ending June 30, 1905, witnessed a tremendous jump in the figures. Nearly 200,000 of this increase came through the New York immigrant station at Ellis Island, which admitted 821,169 aliens in 1905 as compared with 633,811 in 1904.

Tracing the Ellis Island arrivals month by month, one remarks that the tide set in earlier this season (in fact, right after the election of President Roosevelt), rose higher and stayed much longer at the flood. March broke the records with 105,115 arrivals; then followed April and May with 112,178 and 104,929 respectively; and June saw but a comparatively small falling off, bringing in 89,595 immigrants.

It would surprise no student of the subject should the annual immigration increase to a million and a half within three years, or to a round two million in from five to eight years.

The more prosperous our country, the more overwhelming (unless checked) will be the invasion; while undoubtedly a famine, a civil war, or a period of social unrest in any large part of eastern Europe would turn this present flood tide into a tidal wave.

Moreover, under the present laws, the number of applicants rejected and sent back to Europe is but a few beggarly thousands—an insignificant percentage of the whole.

Quality of the Newer Immigration aside, however, from mere numbers, the character of the newer immigration is what disquiets well-wishers of the republic.

Out of a total of 493,859 arrivals at Ellis Island for the ten months ending April 30, 1905, 90,328 were recruited from Italy, and no less than 257,089 from eastern Europe and Asia Minor.

Commissioner-General Sargent shows, in his last annual report, that the Slays are now far outstripping the other races in their rush for the new world, the Teutonic elements come second, the Iberic or Latin races a close third, and the Celtic a bad fourth. From one-half to two-thirds of the total stream is now composed of Russians, Astros-Hungarians, Calabrian Italians, and Hebrews of the Jewish Pale.

Fifty-four percent of those who came from southern Italy in 1904, according to their own statement, were unable to read and write; twenty-seven percent of those from the Russian Empire acknowledged their illiteracy, and twenty-Ave percent from Austria-Hungary.

Twenty-five percent of the Slays detained in our various state and federal institutions are serving penal sentences, and thirty-nine percent of the Iberians or southern Latins ! Of the 809 aliens confined in such institutions for murder, 253 were Italians; of the 373 confined for attempts to kill, 139 were Italians.

Only one-seventh of the 159,239 southern Italians seeking their fortunes in the United States could turn their hands to crafts of any sort; two-thirds were laborers with pick and shovel, or farm hands whose individual earnings would not exceed $400 or $500 annually.

Magyars, Poles, Slovaks, Croatians, and Slovenians make even a worse showing. Less than one-tenth of the Hungarians had a skilled occupation; over fifteen thousand out of a total of 23,883 were laborers and servants.

In fact, practically all the aliens of eastern Europe who are now coming to us (excepting the Hebrews, whose level of industrial efficiency is high) are recruited from a peasantry, the most backward and unenlightened in the civilized world. One wonders where they got the push, the initiative, to leave their homes and start westward.

Artificial or Forced Immigration

The fact has been established that in many cases at least the "push" comes from the outside. Each immigrant is a source of revenue

  1. to the sub-agent of the steamship and railway companies in his native town;
  2. to the village contractor or employment boss who illegally contracts to supply an employment agency in New York or Chicago with so many laborers per annum;
  3. to the general agents of the transportation companies, drumming up trade throughout Europe, and to the companies themselves which do an immigrant business of $50,000,000 yearly;
  4. to the employment agent, contractor, or pa-drone in America; and
  5. to the great corporations and manufacturing and engineering firms who hire these unskilled laborers at the lowest living wage.

With such powerful influences at work, such vast capital invested, and so much cunning and ability employed to hothouse immigration, it is not difficult to understand why the least desirable elements of the European population are wrenched from their homes and forced upon us.

In many instances there is the direct motive present in the minds of European local authorities to get rid of public charges.

When the steerage fare across the Atlantic sinks to $10 —as it did a year or so ago—the temptation to continental poor-law boards to foist their pauperized and semi-pauperized dependent, upon us becomes fairly irresistible.

Fraud, too, plays a great part in this forced or hot-housed immigration; the ,ale of forged or fraudulently substituted American naturalization papers has developed into an established business in Italy, Russia, and the Levant.

In all the many features of the odious immigration traffic stalks the malignant figure of Greed. From the great transportation companies and the trust magnates, who would scorn the imputation of fraud or wrong-doing, down to the lowest scalawag who forges a naturalization paper or coaches a wretched immigrant in a lie, it is the profits of the business that secure its perpetuity.

How are the authorities of the immigration bureau grappling with this forced immigration, much of which is illegal and all of which is undoubtedly pernicious?

The answer is that they are doing as well as could be expected with the inadequate facilities at their command and the painful lack of more severe laws. The medical examinations at the chief ports of entry are conducted by the so-called "double line" of doctors.

This sounds impressive, but it isn't. It simply means that there is one physician to take stock of the general facial and bodily appearance of each immigrant, and another to turn up his eyelids for possible indications of trachoma (a contagious bacterial infection of the eye in which there is inflamed granulation on the inner surface of the lids, prevalent in southern Europe.)

Compared to the rigorous inquisitions of an insurance company's examiner, the preliminary tests are ridiculously brief and superficial. Only the suspect cases are subjected to a rigorous private examination; the rest pass through the treadmill at the rate of several a minute. The non-medical examinations are also far from perfect.

The two cardinal evils of the system are (1) haste and (2) the taking of immigrants' statements in general at their face value, except in so far as they may be shaken by cross-questioning and reference to the records of the department.

Commissioner Watchorn is a competent and zealous official and he undoubtedly produces the best results with the equipment he has in hand. But if you will go down to the Ellis Island immigrant pavilion on a crowded day and see six or seven thousand aliens admitted between sunrise and sunset, you will realize the physical impossibility of giving each case the attention it requires.

The long-linked conspiracy to evade the alien contract labor and other immigration laws which extends from the head man of the Italian, Austrian, or Russian village way over to the purse-proud magnates of certain American industries—a conspiracy that is strikingly like Nihilism in that each party deals only with the next as he passes the immigrant victim along—is not to be ferreted out by a few questions as to violation of law nor by inquiries into the age, country, occupation, financial means, or destination of the immigrant.

Of course, the latter has been carefully coached. If he has no relatives in the United States, fictitious ones have been found for him. He may lie to his heart's content without serious danger of getting caught.

Does he look sturdy and able to win a livelihood by his own unaided efforts? Has he sufficient money to carry him to his destination, and something besides? Does he exhibit no obvious marks of degeneracy or mental feebleness? Do his naturalization papers, if they are presented, seem genuine on prima facie examination and cross-questioning? Is his name, description or photograph absent from the rogues' gallery of the deported? Then he is free of our country, to work us weal or woe.

The Great Problem of Distribution

Waiting for thier Train in the "Railroad Pen" at the Immigrant Station

Photo 2 - Waiting for their Train in the "Railroad Pen" at the Immigrant Station

The most ominous feature of the immigration problem is that we do not digest these newly arriving foreign hordes. In the trans-Mississippi and southern states are vast areas demanding a larger population not only for the proper tillage of the soil, but also in grazing, mining, manufacturing, and commerce. But the movement of immigrant population is not that way.

Most of the southern states, in particular, seem fenced off from the alien invasion as by a Chinese wall. Thus South Carolina received less than a hundred aliens in 1904, and North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas took less than a thousand each.

Such industrially progressive states as Virginia and Alabama received but 1,089 and 1,096 respectively, while the vast empire of Texas was colonized by only 2,797 immigrants. In other words, where the newer aliens are most needed, they least go.

Instead, they go to choke up the large cities in the east and nearer west, to displace native, Welsh, and Irish labor in the eastern coal fields, to furnish the immense amounts of unskilled and poorly skilled labor for the factories, building, and engineering works of New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, and Illinois.

They add to the gravity of our labor problem instead of diminishing it. But, worst of all, by their closely packed urban settlements and their intolerable congestion in New York, Chicago, and a few other leading cities, they form a social sore that threatens one day to fester into intolerable corruption.

It was not a happy thing that last year New York was obliged to receive more than a quarter of a million of the 800,00c immigrants; that Pennsylvania took 146,478, Massachusetts 58,411, Illinois 57,457, New Jersey 41,780, and Ohio 33,077.

Probably from sixty to seventy-five percent of our entering aliens find their way into our large cities and work there. Their one imperative requirement on coming to this country is immediate employment at day labor for cash. Vast public works in our big towns and railroad, mining, and other industrial enterprises outside give them this.

If they are not huddled in cities, they are herded in frequently unsanitary camps and settlements, over which county authorities, lacking adequate health boards, fail to exercise supervision. Industrially, their condition often remains for two or three generations little above that of serfdom, while socially they tend to continue, for a long time at least, as separate and distinct colonies of foreign population.

Remedies for Immigration Ills

What shall be done about this lower stratum of immigration,—those who bring us so little and whom we have been accustomed to exploit so freely to our own ultimate national disadvantage? Plainly, it would be un-American to restrict immigration along racial lines. But a money tax of $25 per head has been proposed and is looked upon with favor in certain influential quarters.

At present a head tax of $2 is exacted, the receipts whereof defray all expenses of the immigration bureau and leave a fair yearly surplus. While the much heavier tax now being advocated might reduce immigration one-quarter to one-half, there is no assurance that it would exclude very many of the ignorant and unworthy, and, on the other band, it would be a needless hardship to German, Scandinavian, and British settlers who invest their capital in agriculture and in homemaking here.

It is, moreover, questionable whether such a law would deal effectually with the wholesale importation of unskilled alien labor for employment in the east and middle west. If an employer can save $too a year on each green hand imported from abroad, he can afford to advance even a $25 fee.

A much wiser proposal than that of a head tax would seem to be a somewhat severe educational qualification. It would not be unjust to make literacy in his own tongue a requirement antecedent to the admission of every European alien.

Nay, more, this government might justly refuse to admit—except conditionally—those unacquainted with English; the condition being that within three to five years of date of entry the alien acquire a reading and writing knowledge of our language.

But this last would require a system of surveillance over admitted aliens which congress might be unwilling to adopt. In connection with the new educational test, more rigorous physical and medical examinations, and stricter tests as to occupation and mental ability could be provided for. Among the reforms suggested are

  1. an army and navy or a police standard of physical efficiency required of every male alien;
  2. extension of the list of banned diseases;
  3. exclusion of physical undesirables generally;
  4. proof of wage-earning capability by, practical tests;
  5. exclusion of classes of laborers with which the American labor market is at the time over-supplied.

Tests and examinations of the kind advocated would throw far more work upon the officials of the immigration bureau. The present system would have to be revolutionized; for one thing, the steamship companies would be forbidden to land more than 2,000 aliens daily at any one of the ports of entry. This would divert somewhat the stream of immigration from New York to other ports, while it would allow ample time to subject the applicants to the stricter tests provided.

Immigration Inspection in Europe

The commissioner at Ellis Island, Mr. Watchorn, put his finger on another reform of prime importance when he said:

"The nearer our American examination to the immigrant's own door, the better. The weeding out done here is only a bagatelle to the weeding out done by the steamship companies on the other side, and still less trifling in comparison with the weeding that might be accomplished were the law extended and the companies obliged, under adequate penalties, to reject all but the satisfactory applicants. United States inspectors might supervise these examinations at the port of embarkation."

This government will never possess a perfect system of sorting desirable from undesirable aliens until it is able to keep tab on them from the moment they entrain for America in their native commune, city, or village, up to the time of their landing at an American port.

We have already obliged the transportation companies to perform some of the preliminary inspection by fining them for all diseased aliens brought to these ports. Fines collected from the transportation companies for all other rejected cases would quicken them to a still livelier sense of their duties, and would probably lead them to ask voluntarily for United States inspectors at the ports of embarkation.

To trace the alien right from his native town will be found more difficult, but not impossible, should the department of state make a vigorous effort for the negotiation of treaties providing that each departing alien must bear with him identification papers from his local and provincial authorities viséd by the nearest American immigration agent.

This would do away with a great part of the naturalization frauds, would render evasion of the contract labor law more difficult, and would prevent the slipping through of previously rejected applicants.

More and Better Legislation Needed

Photo 3 - Aliens Awaiting Deportation at Ellis Island

Photo 3 - Aliens Awaiting Deportation at Ellis Island

The need of home legislation is also urgent. The present haphazard system of naturalization, as has been shown, invites fraud. Courts of the highest and almost of the meanest jurisdiction—federal courts, state courts, county courts, etc.—confer the privilege of American citizenship and give out all kinds of papers indicating the same.

A uniform naturalization law should carefully prescribe the form and reading of the document and, if possible, limit the power to confer it upon a few specified courts of high authority.

As for the alien contract labor law, that has proven an unfortunate piece of legislation because it does both too much and too little.

Too little, because the dealers in underpaid green labor for factories, mines, and big industrial undertakings have found numberless means of driving a coach and four through its provisions.

Too much, because it has prevented public authorities and employers of labor in the more undeveloped states of the union from holding out direct inducements to immigrants to come thither and develop state resources.

In brief, alien contract labor is not a bad thing when the alien up-builds rather than tears down our labor fabric; and some means should be devised by congress to encourage this sort of immigration, under proper safeguards and precautions, to the more backward states.

So we come to perhaps the most difficult question of all: How to get rid of the festering crowds of assimilated aliens that gather in our great cities? A prominent official's proposal is that a pavilion or exhibition hall of the states should be set up at Ellis Island with the advantages of each attractively set forth, and agents to arrange for the transportation and settlement of prospective colonizers.

Another proposes that the exhibition should be located on New York's East Side with a view to moving westward and southward not only the incoming aliens, but those also who have been in this country some time. Both are pleasant schemes, but their effectiveness, at least in their present shape, may be doubted.

The federal government itself ought to take a more active hand in the distribution of the aliens. The striking success of Canada in advertising extensively for a northwest immigration and holding out inducements to the right kind of settlers, thereby gaining a splendid agricultural population to till her wheat fields, is a shining example to us.

Catch the Immigrant Early

If we wait until the immigrant has arrived at Ellis Island, his destination is in most cases already fixed. We must advertise the south and west to him while he is still in his European home; if this be forbidden by present European laws, we must try to obtain their repeal through treaty negotiation.

Moreover, we must make the way easy for him (always providing he is of the picked class) as well as easy for the dweller in the overcrowded city tenement in New York or Chicago who seeks a home in the country.

"Making it easy" means a very low rate of transportation, land at a cheap or nominal figure, and the lending of sufficient capital to enable the colonist to make a start. Federal government, individual states, and private emigration societies might cooperate for these purposes.

Does this sound Socialistic? Perhaps it is. But if I mistake not, the American people are no longer frightened by the bogey of Socialism and are determined to improve evil conditions of all kinds, wherever they are found to exist.


  1. The present method of fining the transportation companies for bringing undesirable immigrants to these shores should be extended in the judgment of congress. The object of all such penalties should be the enforcement of a stricter examination of applicants by the companies themselves on the other side. In other words, force the companies to do the most of the weeding out and transport only satisfactory applicants.
  2. Compel the steamship companies to furnish the commissioner-general of immigration with lists and full descriptions of those rejected at the ports of embarkation.

    I favor identifying certain of the rejected applicants at our own ports, by means of the Bertillon system, so that, once having been declared unfit, it shall be made difficult for them to enter the United States anywhere.
  3. Increase the rigor of the physical examination by legislation, and station at Ellis Island and other crowded centers adequate forces of examining physicians to cope with these amended conditions.
  4. To entirely prevent fraudulent entries by forged citizenship papers, a uniform federal naturalization law should be enacted, and special naturalization courts should be established.
  5. State and county authorities should be compelled to furnish the federal government with reports of all aliens committed to local institutions as criminals, paupers, hospital patients, or mentally unsound. Possessing this information, we shall be able to trace and deport every alien who becomes a charge upon the community in which he is living.

MacMahon, Henry, "The Rising Tide of Immigration: Problems Presented by the Rapid Increase of Our Alien Population," in Public Opinion, Volume XXXIX, No. 10, New York, Saturday, 9 September 1905, p. 325-330

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