Read CHAPTER XI - THE GUARDED DOOR of Our Foreigners, free online book, by Samuel P. Orth, on

“Whosoever will may come” was the generous welcome which America extended to all the world for over a century. Many alarms, indeed, there were and several well-defined movements to save America from the foreigner. The first of these attempts resulted in the ill-fated Alien and Sedition laws of 1798, which extended to fourteen years the period of probation before a foreigner could be naturalized and which attempted to safeguard the Government against defamatory attacks. The Jeffersonians, who came into power in 1801 largely upon the issue raised by this attempt to curtail free speech, made short shrift of this unpopular law and restored the term of residence to five years. The second anti-foreign movement found expression in the Know-Nothing party, which rose in the decade preceding the Civil War. The third movement brought about a secret order called the American Protective Association, popularly known as the A.P.A., which, like the Know-Nothing hysteria, was aimed primarily at the Catholic Church. Its platform stated that “the conditions growing out of our immigration laws are such as to weaken our democratic institutions,” and that “the immigrant vote, under the direction of certain ecclesiastical institutions,” controlled politics. In 1896 the organization claimed two and a half million adherents, and the air was vibrant with ominous rumors of impending events. But nothing happened. The A.P.A. disappeared suddenly and left no trace.

For over a century it was almost universally believed that the prosperity of the country depended largely upon a copious influx of population. This sentiment found expression in President Lincoln’s message to Congress on December 8, 1863, in which he called immigration a “source of national wealth and strength” and urged Congress to establish “a system for the encouragement of immigration.” In conformity with this suggestion, Congress passed a law designed to aid the importation of labor under contract. But the measure was soon repealed, so that it remains the only instance in American history in which the Federal Government attempted the direct encouragement of general immigration.

It was in 1819 that the first Federal law pertaining to immigration was passed. It was not prompted by any desire to regulate or restrict immigration, but aimed rather to correct the terrible abuses to which immigrants were subject on shipboard. So crowded and unwholesome were these quarters that a substantial percentage of all the immigrants who embarked for America perished during the voyage. The law provided that ships could carry only two passengers for every five tons burden; it enjoined a sufficient supply of water and food for crew and passengers; and it required the captains of vessels to prepare lists of their passengers giving age, sex, occupation, and the country whence they came. The law, however good its intention, was loosely drawn and indifferently enforced. Terrible abuses of steerage passengers crowded into miserable quarters were constantly brought to the public notice. From time to time the law was amended, and the advent of steam navigation brought improved conditions without, however, adequate provision for Federal inspection.

Indeed such supervision and care as immigrants received was provided by the various States. Boston, New York, Baltimore, and other ports of entry, found helpless hordes left at their doors. They were the prey of loan sharks and land sharks, of fake employment agencies, and every conceivable form of swindler. Private relief was organized, but it could reach only a small portion of the needy. About three-fourths of the immigrants disembarked at the port of New York, and upon the State of New York was imposed the obligation of looking after the thousands of strangers who landed weekly at the Battery. To cope with these conditions the State devised a comprehensive system and entrusted its enforcement to a Board of Commissioners of Immigration, erected hospitals on Ward’s Island for sick and needy immigrants, and in 1855 leased for a landing place Castle Garden, which at once became the popular synonym for the nation’s gateway. Here the Commissioners examined and registered the immigrants, placed at their disposal physicians, money changers, transportation agents, and advisers, and extended to them a helping hand. The Federal Government was represented only by the customs officers who ransacked their baggage.

In 1875 the Federal Supreme Court decided that it was unconstitutional for a State to regulate immigration. “We are of the opinion,” said the Court, “that this whole subject has been confided to Congress by the Constitution; that Congress can more appropriately and with more acceptance exercise it than any other body known to our law, state or national; that, by providing a system of laws in these matters applicable to all ports and to all vessels, a serious question which has long been a matter of contest and complaint may be effectively and satisfactorily settled." Congress dallied seven years with this important question, and was finally forced to act when New York threatened to close Castle Garden. In 1882 a Federal immigration law assessed a head tax of fifty cents on every passenger, not a citizen, coming to the United States, and provided that the States should share with the Secretary of the Treasury the obligation of its enforcement. This law inaugurated the policy of selective immigration, as it excluded convicts, lunatics, idiots, and persons likely to become a public charge. Three years later, contract laborers were also excluded.

The unprecedented influx of immigrants now began to arouse public discussion. Over 788,000 arrived in America during the first year the new law was in operation. In 1889 both the Senate and the House appointed standing committees on immigration. The several investigations which were held culminated in the law of 1891, wherein the list of inéligibles was extended to include persons suffering from a loathsome or contagious disease, polygamists, and persons assisted in coming by others, unless upon special inquiry they were found not to belong to any of the excluded classes. Thus for the first time the Federal Government assumed complete control of immigration. Now also both the great political parties adopted planks in their national platforms favoring the restriction of immigration. The Republicans favored “the enactment of more stringent laws and regulations for the restriction of criminal, pauper, and contract immigration.” The Democrats “heartily” approved “all legislative efforts to prevent the United States from being used as a dumping ground for the known criminals and professional paupers of Europe,” and they favored the exclusion of Chinese laborers. They favored, however, the admission of “industrious and worthy” Europeans.

Selective immigration thus became a political issue in 1892, partly under the stimulus of labor unions, which feared an over-supply of labor, and partly because of the growing popular belief that many undesirable foreigners were entering the country. No adequate and just criteria for any process of selection have been discovered. In 1896 Senator Lodge introduced an immigration bill, which contained the famous literacy test, excluding all persons between fourteen and sixty years of age “who cannot both read and write the English language or some other language.” The bill was simultaneously introduced into the House of Representatives by McCall of Massachusetts. The debate on this measure marks a new departure in immigration policy. A senatorial inquiry made among the States in the preceding year had disclosed a universal preference for immigrants from northern Europe. Moreover, a number of States through their governors, had declared that further immigration was not desired immediately; and the opinion prevailed that the great influx from southeastern Europe should be checked. Fortified by such solidarity of sentiment, Congress passed the Lodge bill with certain amendments. President Cleveland, however, returned it with a strong veto message on March 2, 1897. He could not concur in so radical a departure from the traditional liberal policy of the Government; and he believed the literacy test so artificial that it was more rational “to admit a hundred thousand immigrants who, though unable to read and write, seek among us only a home and opportunity to work, than to admit one of those unruly agitators and enemies of governmental control who can not only read and write, but delights in arousing by inflammatory speech the illiterate and peacefully inclined to discontent and tumult.” The House passed the bill over the President’s veto, but the Senate took no further action.

In 1898 the Industrial Commission was empowered “to investigate questions pertaining to immigration” and presented a report which prepared the way for the immigration law of 1903, approved on the 3rd of March. This law, which was based upon a careful preliminary inquiry, may be called the first comprehensive American immigration statute. It perfected the administrative machinery, raised the head tax, and multiplied the vigilance of the Government against evasions by the excluded classes. Anarchists and prostitutes were added to the list of excluded persons. The literacy test was inserted by the House but was rejected by the Senate.

This law, however, did not allay the demand for a more stringent restriction of immigration. A few persons believed in stopping immigration entirely for a period of years. Others would limit the number of immigrants that should be permitted to enter every year. But it was felt throughout the country that such arbitrary checks would be merely quantitative, not qualitative, and that undesirable foreigners should be denied admission, no matter what country they hailed from. A notable immigration conference which was called by the National Civic Federation in December, 1905, and which represented all manner of public bodies, recommended the “exclusion of persons of enfeebled vitality” and proposed “a preliminary inspection of intending immigrants before they embark.” President Roosevelt laid the whole matter before Congress in several vigorous messages in 1906 and 1907. He pointed to the fact that

In the year ending June 30, 1905, there came to the United States 1,026,000 alien immigrants. In other words, in the single year ... there came ... a greater number of people than came here during the one hundred and sixty-nine years of our colonial life. ... It is clearly shown in the report of the Commissioner General of Immigration that, while much of this enormous immigration is undoubtedly healthy and natural ... a considerable proportion of it, probably a very large proportion, including most of the undesirable class, does not come here of its own initiative but because of the activity of the agents of the great transportation companies.... The prime need is to keep out all immigrants who will not make good American citizens.

In consonance with this spirit, the law of 1907 was passed. It increased the head tax to four dollars and provided rigid scrutiny over the transportation companies. The excluded classes of immigrants were minutely defined, and the powers and duties of the Commissioner General of Immigration were very considerably enlarged. The act also created the Immigration Commission, consisting of three Senators, three members of the House, and three persons appointed by the President, for making “full inquiry, examination, and investigation ... into the subject of immigration.” Endowed with plenary power, this commission made a comprehensive investigation of the whole question. The President was authorized to “send special commissioners to any foreign country for the purpose of regulating by international agreement ... the immigration of aliens to the United States.”

Here at last is congressional recognition of the fact that immigration is no longer merely a domestic question, but that it has, through modern economic conditions, become one of serious international import. No treaties have been perfected under this authority. The question, however, received serious attention in 1909 when Lieutenant Joseph Petrosino of the New York police was murdered in Sicily by banditti, whither he had pursued a Black Hand criminal from the East Side.

In the meantime many measures for restricting immigration were suggested in Congress. Of these, the literacy test met with the most favor. Three times in recent years Congress enacted it into law, and each time it was returned with executive disapproval: President Taft vetoed the provision in 1913, and President Wilson vetoed the acts of 1915 and 1917. In his last veto message on January 29, 1917, President Wilson said that “the literacy test ... is not a test of character, of quality, or of personal fitness, but would operate in most cases merely as a penalty for lack of opportunity in the country from which the alien seeking admission came.”

Congress, however, promptly passed the bill over the President’s objections, and so twenty years after President Cleveland’s veto of the Lodge Bill, the literacy test became the standard of fitness for immigrant admission into the United States. The law excludes all aliens over sixteen years of age who are physically capable of reading and yet who cannot read. They are required to read “not less than thirty or more than eighty words in ordinary use” in the English language or some other language or dialect. Aliens who seek admission because of religious persecution, and certain relatives of citizens or of admissible aliens, are exempted.

The debate upon this law disclosed the transformation that has come over the nation in its attitude towards the alien. Exclusion was the dominant word. Senator Reed of Missouri wished to exclude African immigrants; the Pacific coast Representatives insisted upon exclusion of Asiatics, in the face of serious admonitions of the Secretary of State that such a course would cause international friction; the labor members were scornful in their denunciation of “the pauper and criminal classes” of Europe. The traditional liberal sympathies of the American people found but few champions, so completely had the change been wrought in the thirty years since the Federal Government assumed control of immigration.

By these tokens the days of unlimited freedom in migration are numbered. Nations are beginning to realize that immigration is but the obverse of emigration. Its dual character constitutes a problem requiring delicate international readjustments. Moreover, the countries released to a new life and those quickened to a new industrialism by the Great War will need to employ all their muscle and talents at home.

It is an inspiring drama of colonization that has been enacted on this continent in a relatively short period. Its like was never witnessed before and can never be witnessed again. Thirty-three nationalities were represented in the significant group of American pilgrims that gathered at Mount Vernon on July 4, 1918, to place garlands of native flowers upon the tomb of Washington and to pledge their honor and loyalty to the nation of their adoption. This event is symbolic of the great fact that the United States is, after all, a nation of immigrants, among whom the word foreigner is descriptive of an attitude of mind rather than of a place of birth.