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US Faces Great Eugenic Problem - 1917


United States Faces Great Eugenic Problem—Passage of New Law to Regulate Immigration Marks Great Advance—Essential Features of the Act. (Note 1)

By ROBERT DE C. WARD, Professor of Climatology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

There is widespread anxiety concerning the "dumping" of cheap European goods on our markets after the war is over. Of infinitely greater importance is the "dumping" of cheap European labor upon our shores after the war is over.

Goods from abroad concern pocketbooks only. Human beings from abroad enter into our national life. They contribute to the blood of the future American people.

They determine what our race is to he. It is the cargoes of men, and women, and children, not the cargoes of goods, that are the real problem.

We have reached a critical point in our immigration policy. The war has brought us suddenly face to face with a great experiment in restriction. The inflowing alien tide has, however, by no means ceased altogether.

During the period since the war began roughly about 1000 immigrants a day have landed on our shores. (Note 2) One thousand a day means over 300,000 a year.

A few decades ago, that was a large annual immigration. It only seems small in comparison with the much larger numbers—over a million a year—who have recently been coming.

Under ordinary conditions, nearly three-quarters of our immigrants are southern and eastern Europeans, but during the past two years the proportion from the British Isles, Holland, Denmark, the Scandinavian countries, from all of which there has been a fairly regular steamship service, has risen. while the proportion from many of the countries of southern and eastern Europe, and from Germany, has fallen.

Italy has kept on sending about her usual high percentage. Greece, owing to the threat of war, has jumped to a surprisingly large figure. Spain and Portugal have sent us many who are fleeing from possible military service.

From the war-ravaged Balkans hundreds of people have already come. The flotsam and jetsam from the disturbed conditions in Europe and Asia Minor—the backwash of the war—has begun to find its way to our shores.

From Syria, from Turkey, from Armenia, from Egypt, from Greece, from Siberia, have come refugees—the first trickles of the vast stream that will flow here when the war is over.


When refugees from war-stricken Europe are mentioned, there naturally arises in our minds the thought: "Is it right for us to prevent any of these people from coming here? Is it not un-American?"

This question each must answer for himself. My own convictions are perfectly clear on the matter. I do not believe that sentiment can solve great national problems.

I do not believe that the indiscriminate kindness we may seem to be able to show to some thousands, or hundreds of thousands, or millions, of European and Asiatic immigrants can in any conceivable way counterbalance the harm that these people may do our race if large numbers of them are mentally and physically unfit.

Testing Male Immigrants at Ellis Island.

Testing Male Immigrants at Ellis Island. Photograph © Underwood and Underwood. In 1914, the last year of heavy immigration, 6,537 aliens were excluded because of physical or mental defect which was thought likely to make them become public charges. Half of these were suffering from some loathsome or contagious disease, while 1,247 were mentally defective. Trachoma, a contagious disease of the eyes, is the commonest cause for exclusion, and four-fifths of these who were excluded for physical defects were suffering from it. Since the outbreak of the war, the number of immigrants arriving has much decreased, and the examiners have therefore had time to inspect them more thoroughly, with the result that a larger percentage than usual of defectives has been detected. The Journal of Heredity, April 1917. GGA Image ID # 14e9f013e7

Indiscriminate hospitality to immigrants is a supremely short-sighted, selfish, ungenerous. un-American policy. It may give us, for the moment, a comfortable feeling that we are providing a "refuge for the oppressed."

But that is as narrow an attitude as the one which indiscriminately gives alms to any person on the street who asks for money. Such "charity" may truly produce a warm feeling of personal generosity in the giver himself.

But alms-giving of this sort is likely to do more harm than good. It is likely to pauperize him who receives, and it inevitably increases the burden of pauperism and of inefficiency which future generations will have to bear.

It is in the highest degree ungenerous for us, who are the custodians of the future heritage of our race, to permit to land on our shores mental and physical defectives, who, themselves and through their descendants, will lower the mental and physical standards of our own people, and will tremendously increase all our future problems of public and private philanthropy.

We have no right to saddle any additional burdens upon the already overburdened coming generations of Americans. It is in the highest degree un-American for us to permit any such influx of alien immigrants as will make the process of assimilation and of amalgamation of our foreign population any more difficult than it already is. We all know that the situation is discouraging enough already.

I am satisfied that our policy of admitting freely practically all who have wished to come, and of encouraging them in every way to come, has not helped the introduction of political, and social, and economic, and educational reforms abroad," but has rather delayed the progress of these very movements, in which we. as Americans, are so vitally interested.

Had the millions of European immigrants who have come to this country within the last quarter-century remained at home, they would have insisted on the introduction of reforms in their own countries which have been delayed, decade after decade, because the discontent of Europe found a safety-valve by flying to America.

We are constantly told by our idealists that the "cream" and the "pick" of Europe has been coming here because it is discontented at home; because it wants political and religious and economic liberty; because it wants education, and better living conditions, and democratic institutions. Have we, in any way, helped the progress of all these reforms by keeping the safety-valve open?

By allowing and by encouraging to come here, after the war, the discontented millions of Europe and Asia, are we likely to hasten, or to delay, the coming of political and religious and social reforms in Armenia, in Syria, in Hungary, in Poland, in Russia, in Turkey?

As I see it, and my conviction is perfectly clear on this point, our duty as Americans, interested in the world-wide progress of education, of religious liberty, of democratic institutions, is to help the discontented millions of Europe and of Asia to stay in their own countries, and to work out there, for themselves. what our own forefathers worked out here for us. That would be the greatest contribution we could make to the progress and preservation of American ideals.


We are, however, not here concerned with the economic or with the political aspects of immigration. Our problem has to do with the mental and physical condition of those who are coming here, and especially of those who will come when the war is over. Our immediate, paramount interest is eugenic.

The marked reduction in the numbers of our alien arrivals since the war began has had both direct and indirect consequences of eugenic importance.

However large may have been the proportion of mentally and physically undesirable aliens who have been admitted to the United States since the war began. it is certain that the total number of defectives who have been landed has been smaller than during a "rush year."

This has lessened the supply of new cases of mental and physical disability for us to take care of. It has, temporarily at least, diminished some of the pressure upon our institutions. It has enabled us to do better work for those who are already here.

With the pressure which comes from the usual enormous inflow of aliens somewhat relieved, all our problems of public and private philanthropy have been immensely simplified. Our financial burdens have been lightened. We have, for the time being, had a little breathing-space.

Inspecting a Group of Female Immigrants.

Inspecting a Group of Female Immigrants. Photograph © Underwood and Underwood. Hitherto the exclusion of undesirable immigrants has teen difficult, because the force of examiners was not large enough to meet the rush of arrivals in the spring, and because the law omitted certain classes who should have been kept out. The new immigration act, passed by Congress in February, increases the inspecting staff and makes important new provisions for excluding those whose presence in the United States would be dysgenic. It also contains provisions which ensure greater consideration and safety for the individual immigrant. The Journal of Heredity, April 1917. GGA Image ID # 14ea2068a6

What a feeling of relief all of us would experience if we could he sure that no more insane, or feeble-minded, or diseased, or physically defective aliens would ever again be allowed to land at our ports.

How cheerfully and how hopefully we could then look forward to real progress in our care of the defective classes already in our midst, and waiting to be born of those who are now here.

The last report of the New York Children's Aid Society has very clearly pointed out the good that has resulted in its work from the temporary reduction in the numbers of immigrants.

"We are encouraged in our fight against inefficiency and ignorance," it said, "because we feel that the immigrants are really being educated through their children.

If the uplift forces in New York could count on a continuance of the present blockade of immigration, the worst of the evils of poverty could undoubtedly be ended in a few years."

This is no unduly optimistic view. A similar statement might with equal truth be made by educational and philanthropic organizations in all cities into which, in normal times, a large stream of immigration flows, All our charitable organizations have had their burdens lightened by the wide prevalence of "prosperity."

With the reduction in the inflow of unskilled foreign labor, and the extraordinary demand for labor which has existed in many industries as a result of the war, there is now very little unemployment; wages are high; the standard of living of our working lasses is rising.

The line is now clearly drawn between unrestricted immigration, which means low wages, cheap labor, and un-American standards of living; and a reasonable selection of immigration, which means better wages, more intelligent labor, and American standards of living.

Fortunately, a better selection will henceforth be made.


Early in February both houses of Congress passed, by more than a two-thirds majority, and over the President's veto, a new immigration act embodying several eugenic provisions which had been heartily endorsed by the Immigration Committee of the American Genetic Association.

It is a very great satisfaction to be able to report the final enactment of this legislation, which is of the greatest importance for the future mental and physical well-being of our people.

Among 'other things, the new act provides that every immigrant must be able to read 30 or 40 words in his own language; but an exception is made for those who on account of race or religious persecution have had no opportunity to get an education; and admitted aliens may also bring in relatives, even if the latter cannot read.

This literacy test has attracted so much attention that it is sometimes supposed to be the principal feature of the law.

As a fact, it occupies only one or two of more than 60 pages of the act as it was printed in customary form for the use of Congress. With the many exceptions which are made in its application, this provision seems to the writer a rather unimportant feature.

The new law is, in its essentials, a eugenic measure—perhaps the most comprehensive and satisfactory ever passed by Congress. The main features of it were summarized in the last report of the Immigration Committee of this Association (Note 3), but it may be useful to mention them again.

To the classes formerly excluded the bill adds persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority and persons with chronic alcoholism. The desirability of keeping out the latter is obvious.

The former phrase is a technical one which designates persons who may be quite sane in a certain environment, but who are unable to readjust themselves to a change in environment.

They may not be defective intellectually, but are defective emotionally. Hospitals for the insane, on the Atlantic seaboard, have been filling up with immigrants in recent years, partly because the change to a new and more strenuous environment was too much for some aliens: and it is believed that this new provision will permit the exclusion of many who Would become insane soon after arrival, even though they are not actively insane at the time of examination.


The new act excludes vagrants, and persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form, and attempts to prevent the embarkation of these and other excluded classes by imposing a heavier fine on the steamship company if they are brought.

This should lead to a more thorough examination at the point of departure. and prevent hardship on aliens who make the transatlantic voyage only to be rejected and sent home.

The new act provides for much more thorough medical examination of immigrants, especially with reference to mental diseases, by providing additional inspectors and giving them additional facilities.

At present, if an immigrant is found, within three years of his arrival, to belong to one of the excluded classes, he may be deported, even though he passed the first examination at Ellis Island successfully.

The new act increases to five years the length of time during which such deportation may take place. This Will enable us to get rid of many undesirable aliens, for whose defects we are not responsible, and who, if they stayed here, would be a burden on the United States and in too many cases would establish film of defective and delinquent offspring.

The new law strengthens the provisions regarding the "white slave" traffic; compels steamship companies when deporting aliens to give such aliens as good quarters as those for which they paid on the voyage to this country; makes possible the expulsion from the United States of alien anarchists and criminals, even when they have become such after arrival here; and in many other ways provides for the welfare of the alien as well as for that of the United States.

In general, it will be seen that the new law makes no radical changes in practice; it only strengthens those practices which have been found desirable, giving additional protection to both the United States and to the individual alien. Such a revision of the immigration laws has long been recognized by every expert as an imperative necessity.

The American Genetic Association, as well as every one who has at heart the eugenic welfare of the United States, has good rcason for satisfaction in the final enactment into law of a measure which cannot fail to result in a marked improvement in the mental and physical qualities of future alien immigrants.

Robert De C. Ward, "Immigration After the War," in The Journal of Heredity, (Formerly the American Breeder,' Magazine), Vol. VIII, No. 4 April, 1917, pp. 147-152.

Note 1: This paper was read before the thirteenth annual meeting of the American Genetic Association, in New York City. Dec, 27, 1916. It has been considerably modified since the passage of the Burnett, Act.

Note 2: This is true only up to February 1 of the present year. Since the beginning of the new German submarine campaign, immigration has fallen off much more.

Note 3: War, Immigration, Eugenics (Third Report of the Committee on Immigration, A. G. A.), in the Journal of Heredity, Vol. viii, pp. 243-248, June, 1916.

See also:

  • Second Report of the Committee on Immigration, JOURNAL OF HEREDITY, VOL v, pp. 291-300, 1914.
  • First Report of the Committee on Immigration, r1 American Breeders' Magazine, Vol. iii, pp. 249-; 255, 1912; and
  • Eugenic Immigration, by Robert De C. Ward; American Breeders' Magazine, Vol. iv, pp, 96-102. 1913.
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