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Flying the Quarantine flag

THE FORGOTTEN OF ELLIS ISLAND
Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911

 

The Open Door for Immigrants

by James Davenport Whelpley

Harper's Weekly, Vol. L, No. 2573, April 14, 1906, New York, pp 517-519.

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About 1,250,000 immigrants will land in the United States during the current fiscal year ending June 30, 1906. This is twenty per cent more than landed in the fiscal year of 1905, a year in which all previous records were broken. Over one million of the people to land this year will pass through Ellis Island, or more than half ever before landed at all the United States ports combined.

There is no reason to believe that the number of aliens coming to America seeking permanent homes will be less for several years to come, and every indication points to an annual increase. Conditions in the countries from which they are coming are more than ever favorable to their dislodgment. Transportation facilities have multiplied, and on January 1 of this year England partially closed her doors to many who will now turn to the United States direct as a place of refuge from harsh environment. The endless chain of the family connection is constantly in operation as never before. It is roughly estimated that $50,000,000 is now sent to Europe each year by alien workers in the United States, a large proportion of which sum is used for the transportation of relatives or friends westward across the Atlantic.

The countries losing this population have placed stringent laws upon their statute books in an endeavor to retard this westward flow, but without appreciable effect. It is a fight for breathing space, a struggle even for life, and all the laws and police regulations of Europe are futile to stop the stampede. Neither is there any indication that the conditions which arc now inducing people to leave Europe will be greatly ameliorated in the near future. Conditions in the United States are favorable to the reception of this mighty army of new arrivals. Industry is developing, workers are in demand. Without them the country cannot maintain its present pace. The percentage of unemployed is low and every expansion of activity means the absorption of a greater or less number of alien workmen, or the need of alien workmen to take the place of those already here who engage in new occupations. There is no indication that these conditions will change for some time to come.

Those who are inclined to belittle the permanent growth of population of the United States through foreign arrivals are quick to suggest that every outgoing steamer carries away a large number of immigrants returning to their native countries who must not be considered as having cast their lot permanently with the people of the United States. The force of this argument is not appreciable, however, for careful observations have shown that, while many aliens return to the older countries from the United States after a residence here of months, or possibly years, a large percentage of these people come back. Some go because of a desire to revisit their early homes, and possibly with the intention of remaining, but on every vessel sailing to the westward will also be found many of these same people who have been unable to settle down in their native countries for permanent residence after having been in contact with the freer and more active life of the western hemisphere. Nearly twenty per cent of those who arrived last year had been in the United States before. Their influence while in Europe is strongly towards stimulating the exodus. They are most effective colonizing agents.

Great alarm has been expressed by thoroughly sincere and intelligent people at this so-called alien invasion. Many alleged remedies have been suggested, and have even become so concrete in their form as to be presented to Congress in the shape of bills offered for enactment into laws. Some of these proposed measures suggest various ways of raising the standard of admission, some have gone so far as to suggest that only a certain number of immigrants should be permitted to land from any one country in a single year.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island to undergo examination before being permitted to land in New York.

The men who have been brought into closest contact with the so-called immigration problem not only in the United States, but through observations made at points of origin are practically unanimous in the belief that no danger, and to put it even stronger, much benefit, lies in this westward movement of the Old World population. They are also firmly convinced that there is but one direction in which effort should be extended in the regulation and restriction of immigration. Let the stream grow to such proportions as it may, hut see that it is thoroughly policed and made sanitary. The whole so-called "immigration problem" in its larger sense lies in this. Admit freely any man, woman, or child who is sound, physically, without criminal record, or, in brief, in whose person lies no danger to the community. The physical and moral standards are the only test which should be applied by law, and no law can be made so drastic as to overstep the bounds of justice and common sense in these directions.

The present immigration restriction law of the United States is good; but, with a few simple changes, it can be made much better. The administration of the law as it stands to-day is, without question, one of the most effective departments of the United States government. Its operation is far-reaching, in that, with no legal force at European ports of embarkation, it extends its all-embracing arm to cover the operations of the foreign transportation companies bringing emigrants to the United States.

At Bremen alone last year a single steamship company rejected 8,000 applicants for passage to the United States because of their being afflicted with trachoma or favus, two diseases which bar the admission of aliens to the United States. These 8,000 were rejected and reported to the American authorities individually by name and nationality, and thousands more were reported in bulk as having been refused tickets by the same steamship company's agents, because of their evident inability to pass the physical requirements of the American law. What happened at Bremen last year happened at every other principal port of embarkation in Europe. It is difficult to say just how many would-be emigrants were deterred from coming to the United States by the indirect operation of the American law at foreign ports. It is safe to estimate, however, that there were several hundred thousand.

From the first of July, 1905, to February 1, 1906, over 10,000 individual cases of actual rejection at the ports of embarkation were reported from Europe to the United States authorities. These, it must be remembered, are nearly all people who have already passed a satisfactory preliminary examination and are rejected only upon final inspection. The thousands who are refused tickets upon first application remain unreported.

Of those who came last year 11,480 were deported or sent back. Fully one-half of these people might without real danger to the country have been allowed to land, and several thousand of them did come to the United States a second time and successfully pass the examination for admission.

There are two causes for this apparent peculiarity in the administration of the law. One of these is due to the fact that an immigrant may be deported upon the decision of one Board of Review, and on his arrival the second time another Board of Review may allow him to land. The margin of doubt in the first case was sufficient to cause his deportation, and either this margin of doubt had disappeared on his second landing, or the second Board of Review took a different view of the case. The other cause is the existence in the present law of a clause whereby an immigrant can be deported as "likely to become a public charge." Under this section many able-bodied and entirely desirable workmen are sent back who, if they had been allowed to land, would have "made good."

It can easily he realized that it is to the advantage of the transportation companies that immigrants deported from the United States should, if possible, make another attempt to land. It means the receipt by the transportation companies of two fares for three passages instead of one fare for two passages. The deported immigrant who has been returned to a foreign port upon a narrow margin of doubt is thus made fully aware of the requirements of the American law, and on his second trip he takes good care that he complies therewith.

A general view of the Detention room at Ellis Island, the Immigrant Gateway to New York.

It has been suggested by practical immigration experts that the "likely to become a public charge" clause of the present law be repealed; and that all adult, able-bodied immigrants who come up to the police and sanitary standards should be allowed to land with the proviso that if, within three years of their landing, they become a charge upon the police or upon a charitable institution, they should be deported. It is believed that the country would benefit by such a change in the law, but the apparently radical character of the recommendation, and the fact that advocacy of it might endanger needed legislation of less controversial character, have withheld its appearance for the time at least. Seventy per cent of the deportations are under this clause of the law. Nearly all of the deported who return to the United States and successfully pass the second examination are sent away under this clause. Many a strong, hopeful, and willing worker has arrived at Ellis Island, and unwittingly been within half a mile of a job which was waiting for him or some other able-bodied laborer, only to be sent back to Europe, his hope and energy stricken down.

As to the desirability of those who are now coming to the United States, barring the small percentage of the really undesirable who escape even the present severe scrutiny of the government officials, figures speak for themselves. Of the 4,000,000 immigrants who landed in New York during the past five years, over eighty-two per cent, were between the ages of fourteen and forty-four, less than six per cent, were above forty-four, and the rest were children. Of those who landed, seventy per cent were men and thirty per cent, women. Over sixty per cent of the passengers landing at Ellis Island are in possession of prepaid tickets, to some other destination than New York city. It is the opinion also of the immigration authorities and of those who are in touch with the alien population of New York city that at least sixty-five per cent of those who arrive in this country with New York as their final destination move on to some other place. In 1905 less than 3,000 alien steerage passengers arrived at the port of New York who had no definite address to which they were to go upon their arrival.

To propose at this time the repeal of the law allowing the deportation of immigrants "likely to become a public charge" would probably cause alarm, and would undoubtedly excite sharp controversy. This suggestion must, therefore, be dismissed from present consideration, but it can be safely regarded as a possibility of the future in immigration legislation. it will come to pass in that good time when the subject can be treated Without producing symptoms of hysteria on the part of some very well-meaning people, and when the country at large is brought to a clearer realization of the necessary part played by immigration in the economic development of this country of wonderful resources.

There are improvements, however, which could be made at once in the already generally excellent immigration restriction law, and which could excite little intelligent or disinterested opposition. To allow the exclusion of the "feeble-minded" and "physically unfit" would give those who are changed with the administration of this enormously important work an opportunity to protect the community far more effectively than is now possible. Taken in connection with the present provisions of the law, this proposed change would constitute the last word as to the physical standard for admission of aliens. To render the stream physically fit and thus harmless to the great ocean of humanity into which it flows is all that can be asked. This can be accomplished in the manner suggested with but a. small percentage of error, such as is inevitable to a human administration of a theoretically perfect law.

The present law provides for a system of fines for transportation companies violating its provisions. These fines should be made heavier, and, in each instance of violation, exacted to the utmost limit of the law. At present the fines are small, so small indeed that risk of incurring the penalties can be taken without danger of serious loss through occasional detection. Then, again, the officials of the Federal courts are inclined to recommend leniency and are lax in their prosecution of violators of the immigration law. This is a matter beyond the sphere of the Bureau of Immigration, but is one which could be remedied through the executive power of the government and without further legislation.

A group of immigrants of Ellis Island who, having failed to meet the entrance requirements, are about to be deported.

The recognized evils of immigrant transportation are serious. They arise in nearly all instances from overcrowding and promiscuous herding together in large numbers. The law now requires 110 cubic feet of air space for each passenger. This could be doubled to advantage. Equally important and even more far-reaching in its beneficial effects would be a regulation providing that not more than four people should be allowed to travel in a single compartment, except in the case of families. This would necessitate small cabins instead of great barracks, and would manifestly serve to prevent overcrowding, give the immigrant greater value for his money, and, generally speaking, would have a restraining influence upon the number of people brought over by a single ship. There is a large percentage of profit to the transportation companies in the price now charged for an immigrant fare to the United States. The separate cabin might possibly be deemed a sufficient excuse for increasing the tariff. While this might work a hardship in some instances it would not be objectionable as a general proposition. Rate-wars have demonstrated that lowering the cost of the voyage lowers the general tone of immigration.

The question of immigrant distribution is one which largely adjusts itself to economic and social conditions within the United States. Intelligent effort is finding reward in securing the wider distribution of aliens upon their arrival in this country. The line of least resistance will be followed by the average home-seeker. As this is changed, either naturally or artificially, so the tide will run.

It will be found upon careful and dispassionate consideration that the so-called immigration problem resolves itself into securing intelligent and effective sanitary and police supervision and the adoption of such humanitarian measures as may be practicable to secure safe adjustment of the constantly arriving cargo to the needs and carrying capacity of the nation.


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