The Overland Monthly/1894/Is it Practicable to Regulate Immigration


In other words, are not the "expellant influences of Europe "coupled with "the attractive influences of America" too strong for us to resist? A recent examination of certain Congressional records and official documents suggested the disquieting question. In answer, the appended extracts from that record may or may not appear conclusive; but they certainly warrant the question, which in the light of more than fifty years of experiment and failure cannot well be deemed premature! Great as the evils of unrestricted immigration are admitted to be, history has yet to record any real restriction. The various barriers erected at Castle Garden and elsewhere do not seem to have deserved the name. They have had about as great an influence over the rising tide of immigration as that which is commonly ascribed to the familiar domestic utensil of Mrs. Partington, when applied to the waves of the Atlantic.

The materials for a history of our foreign immigration are abundant and accessible, needing only to be compiled and arranged. Indeed the full significance of the subject can hardly be estimated until we realize that it has a history, that the difficulties of today are practically the difficulties of twenty years ago, of thirty, and of fifty years ago, and that these difficulties and the ultimate peril are foreshadowed in the annals of the eighteenth century.

In tracing the record of immigration, it would be convenient to divide the past century into two periods of nearly equal length. The evils of immigration and its perplexities were first recognized about 1838, and since that time there have been frequent attempts to discover a suitable remedy. The half century of national existence prior to 1838 witnessed no efforts to regulate and no practical experience with the problem. It was a period of theory rather than fact, or rather the period when theory preceded fact.

But this period of theory should not on that account be ignored, as it had no small influence on subsequent events. Tradition ascribes to the earlier part of the nineteenth century, or the close of the eighteenth, the origin of several abstract political maxims, which have been thought to indicate our true immigration policy, and enable America to fulfill her responsibilities to "the human race." According to one of these maxims, the country was destined for the "asylum of the oppressed." Another, still more sweeping in scope, made it incumbent upon us to be "the refuge of the nations." In this practical age and period of stern fact it seems odd that these vague generalities should retain much force or vitality, yet they are constantly to be encountered in current literature.

The age responsible for them, however, was one of protest and revolt. The colonies of Great Britain had furnished a "refuge" and "asylum "for the victims of religious intolerance and political proscription, and such victims America was always to welcome. But to apply to present conditions the terms referred to seems almost absurd. And as has been so apparent in recent discussion, it involves a very plain matter in a hopeless confusion of thought. It is a condition which confronts us, not a vague and irrelevant theory. We are now affording an asylum to the insane, to criminals and paupers, instead of to the "oppressed "classes of the old world. As for "refuge," the word has become equally inappropriate. A paper read before a prominent workingmen's association some time ago bore the significant title, "The Refuge of the Nations or the Refuse—Which?"

Perhaps one reason for the perennial recurrence, so to speak, of the phrases in question, is the possible association they may have in our minds with the great leaders of 1789,—with Jefferson, for instance, or Washington himself. No association of the kind could be more misleading, however, or less warranted by facts. While the supposed views of these statesmen may have had considerable weight, their real ideas, although they have a direct bearing upon immigration, have been entirely overlooked.

It is most unfortunate, as well as singular, that such is the case. For to our Revolutionary era and its teachings we may turn with especial confidence. The signers of the Declaration and the framers of the Constitution did not confine their attention solely to the need of their own generation. The nature of their task compelled them to anticipate its results, and gave them an almost prophetic insight into the country's future. And so we find the leaders of 1789 debating many questions that have since come to assume great practical importance,—hence the special value of their writings.

Prominent among the questions referred to was that of immigration, and the views of our ancestors on this subject would surprise a generation accustomed to the extreme liberality of the present system. Indeed, it is safe to say that in no respect have we made so wide a departure from the principles and traditions of 1789 as in encouraging or permitting indiscriminate foreign immigration.

Not that the problem had then as sumed its present proportions. The journey from Europe to America a century ago occupied almost as many months as it now requires days, and arrivals were numbered by the hundred instead of by the hundred thousandBut the matter very soon became one of anxiety and apprehension, as the writings of Washington,[1] Hamilton,[2] Madison, and others clearly reveal. These statesmen evidently favored a very gradual immigration as best adapted to a rapid and complete assimilation. Nor was such a feeling confined by any means to the conservative members of the Federalist party. On the contrary, Thomas Jefferson, the oracle of modern Democracy, believed in careful selection and restriction. That great statesman, in fact, clearly foresaw and predicted some of the very evils which unrestricted immigration has brought in its train.

Perhaps the best way to point the contrast already alluded to between 1789 and 1893, is by aid of the imagination, picturing to ourselves the effect of certain features of our civilization upon the minds of Washington or Jefferson, had they the opportunity to behold them. Were these statesmen to return and visit some of our large cities at the present time, they might have reason to think they stood on foreign soil. They could walk for miles through the French quarter, the German quarter, the Italian, Spanish, Bohemian, or Chinese quarters, where a knowledge of foreign languages is actually of more value than their native tongue. Vast "colonies" of these people would appear before their bewildered eyes, inevitably taking the color of their surroundings, retarding the process of assimilation, and complicating in every way the moral, social, and political problems of the surrounding community.

Subsequent to the administrations of Washington and Jefferson, a considerable period elapsed before immigration claimed or received much attention. Prior to the discovery and application of steam, it had not assumed much practical importance. Some fifty years ago, however, the interest of the people began to awaken, mindful perhaps of the forebodings and warnings of a preceding generation.

The real history of immigration, as already stated, may be said to date from 1838, a period midway between our own time and the close of the Revolution, and we have no trustworthy record of the condition of affairs at an earlier date. But in 1 838 .Congress began a series of examinations into the abuses of immigration and naturalization, which, renewed from time to time, finally culminated in the labors of the Ford Committee of 1889.

With such a record at our disposal it is easy to ascertain the impressions and experience of those of our predecessors who have attempted to grapple with the problem within the period referred to. It seems to be frequently if not generally assumed, that only of late years has any considerable portion of our immigration been a positive injury, or even a doubtful benefit, to the country. Unfortunately, facts and figures disclose too plainly the fallacy of such an assumption. A few brief extracts from the first report on the subject will serve to disclose the condition that prevailed more than fifty years ago, and this report may be taken as a type of its class. It bears, in fact, a strong resemblance to those of a subsequent date, so that only brief portions of the latter need be quoted.

On July second, 1838, there was submitted to the House the result of the researches of a select committee of that body, prefaced by the following remarks:

To enable the committee to obtain all the information which was accessible, the following interrogatories (among others) were propounded to the Mayors of the respective cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and New Orleans: . . . What proportion of the immigrants bring with them the means of subsisting themselves and families? What proportion are paupers? What proportion of the inmates of poor houses and penitentiaries are natives?"

From the replies to these and similar questions the committee states "it is estimated that more than one half the pauper population, and that the most helpless and dependent, are foreign." The proportion of foreign to native population in the whole country at that time was less than five per cent, but of course this estimate does not apply to the urban population, where, then as now, the foreign element predominated, comprising, however, not more than fifteen per cent of the inhabitants.

In 1838 there were in the almshouse at Philadelphia 1505 Americans, and 1266 foreigners; in that at Boston, 596 Americans and 673 foreigners. On the twelfth of June, 1837, there were in the almshouse in the city of New York 3074, of which number three fourths were foreigners, and of 1200 admitted at Bellevue 983 were aliens.

While in 1838,

By the report of the resident physician it appears that of 1209 admitted to his department, only 206 were born in America. In the year ending in August, 1836, there were received into the Boston house of refuge 866 paupers, 516 of which were foreign. ... At a recent date it appears that the number of convicts confined at Sing Sing, New York, was 800, 603 of whom were foreigners.

A prominent official of New York, designated by the Mayor to make a report to the commissioners, stated that of the entire number entering the port of New York for the first part of 1838 two thirds "were without any occupation, or even the pretense of one."

During the first three quarters of 1838 no less than 38,057 aliens that had no occupation (a very large proportion of the whole number) "were cast upon the citizens of New York." To the question, How is the expense of the transportation hither of such as are poor defrayed? the answer is, "It is impossible for us to ascertain what number are actually forced or hired to leave their own country" but,—

The superintendent states to me that he has seen one of the passenger ships filled with paupers alone. When entire cargoes have come out, it has been ascertained that the parishes have paid their expenses. An English gentleman recently stated that he had seen the poor marched down in droves from the poor-houses to the ships. It is stated on authority that the passage of more than 30,000 persons have been paid in England, Ireland, and Scotland, to enable them to leave there for America."

From the foregoing citations one is driven to infer that at the period of the first inquiry a large proportion of the immigration was of a highly undesirable class, and the general prospect far from pleasing. But despite the agitation which followed, and the attempts that were made to improve matters, the lapse of a very few years found similar conditions prevailing. During the session of the twenty-eighth Congress, a resolution was introduced in the Senate, directing the Judiciary Committee to inquire into the expediency of immediately modifying the naturalization laws, to prevent the recurrence of the gross and extensive frauds upon the ballot box that had recently been perpetrated, and to prohibit the further introduction of paupers and convicts into the United States. Some of the speeches made on this occasion indicate the unmistakable need of the proposed action. This took place in 1845. In the following year resolutions of a similar purport, passed by the Massachusetts legislature, were introduced in the House by Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, which led to a protracted and at times a heated debate.

Some ten years later the discussion reopens, and while differences of opinion were manifest as to the proposed methods of securing relief, the existing abuses were freely admitted, and a voluminous report was submitted on evils of foreign immigration, and recommending changes in the naturalization laws. Once more in 1869 and 1870 the question came up, and Senators Davis, Frelinghuysen, Bayard, Thurman, and others, took part in the ensuing debate. Finally, we had the investigation of 1888. Its revelations are too fresh in the public mind to need more than a passing allusion. But any one who may feel disposed to refresh his recollection, or comprehend the serious nature of the present outlook, will find interesting information in the report, furnished by his Representative to Congress, on the importation of contract labor.

As has been already intimated, the most casual acquaintance with the records suffices to disabuse the mind of an impression that only recent immigration has been deleterious in its nature. The statistics to the contrary are too clear and circumstantial. For a long time past very many of the immigrants to this land have been unwholesome, undesirable, unwelcome additions to its population. Serious and disturbing, however, as such a conviction must be, there is another consideration involved of vastly greater consequence and importance. A noticeable monotony pervades the history of immigration. The earliest and latest reports evince a strong, one might say an ominous, similarity. In 1838 we had paupers and " assisted "immigrants. More recently it has been paupers and "contract laborers,"—a choice of evils, truly!

The real significance of a comparison, therefore, and the real gravity of the problem, consists in the fact that the situation has confirmed virtually unchanged, so far, at least, as any efforts on our part are concerned. And whatever changes have occurred in the character and volume of immigration, from time to time, have been for the worse and not for the better. A steady increase in quantity has attended a perceptible deterioration in quality. The committee of 1838 was justified in thinking and in stating that their report "presented a combination of facts that cannot fail to arrest the attention of the American people, and to establish the necessity of immediate legislative action." "Legislative action "was taken repeatedly, then and at subsequent times. But so partial and temporary has been the relief afforded, that the committee of 1889 found the condition of affairs to be about the worst in our history.

What has been accomplished since that report? Measures designed to afford some relief were passed by Congress during the session of 1891, although without adequate appropriations to enforce them, and various individuals have been debarred from landing. But by this time we are well aware that the undesirable classes are not numbered by units or tens, but by hundreds and by thousands. Will further legislation reach the latter? No question can have a more direct and immediate bearing on American civilization.

As for the law lately passed, (March, 1893), it is open to very serious objections. Some of its provisions have been tried and found wanting. When the bill in its present form came up for passage in the House, all the remarks made, with but a single exception, indicated the lack of confidence in the proposed remedy. One speaker lamented that the bill went so short a distance in the direction it professed to go. Another member, thoroughly familiar with the subject, said in summing up the defects of the bill that it was not worth passing. But even were adequate laws passed, the question of vital import to the country is, whether such laws will be enforced and made effective. Many stringent regulations appear in the annals of immigration, but no radical or permanent reform. Agitation, legislation, superficial and temporary improvement, recurrence of the evil when public attention is diverted, about describes the situation.

Perhaps the exclusion of the Chinese may be instanced as one exception in the long list of failures to regulate immigration. Chinese exclusion is somewhat of a misnomer, as the constant arrivals from Mexico and British Columbia plainly bear witness. That the entrance of the Chinese has been greatly checked, however, may freely be conceded. Restrictive laws were framed at last that seem to have met the test of constitutionality. But it required (1) a struggle of years on the part of a whole section of the country, that was (2) practically a unit on the Chinese question. And then (3) the Chinaman had no vote.

No treatment of the subject would complete without at least passing reference to the published report of the special Treasury Commissioners who were detailed to investigate abroad the mysterious influences that underlie the present criminal and pauper immigration from Europe. The same papers that] published, some time ago, outlines of this report, contained also accounts of the united efforts of press and pulpit in New York City to reform and purify the social and political atmosphere. Much stress is laid in the commissioners' report upon the organized system and combination to transport beggars, criminals, and imbeciles, to this country, in which foreign officials are largely implicated. This, however, is no new thing. The friendly governments of Europe have engaged for years in this work, and are responsible in no small degree for the social condition of our large cities; although when these same conditions precipitate an outbreak like that at New Orleans, the same governments manifest much surprise as well as horror at the occurrence.

This commissioners' report does not contain any especially novel features, though it indicates the persistence and deep-rooted nature of the evil. It is referred to here, because in the columns of the press it stood in such striking antithesis to the accounts of the union of press and pulpit to promote municipal reform.

In an article published two or three years ago the writer endeavored to show that many of the greatest industrial and social problems of our generation—intemperance, Mormonism, etc.,—are traceable largely, in some cases almost entirely, to unrestricted immigration. The past and present character of that immigration revealed in -the official record and in this latest report, shows too plainly why its influence on intemperance, polygamy, the relations of capital and labor, have been so profound and so pernicious, to say nothing of the more obvious effects upon pauperism, insanity, and crime.

And the injury will continue and increase until the character of immigration has radically changed. The municipal reform of our large cities, in particular, recently advocated so earnestly, cannot make much headway while thousands of criminals, paupers, and contract or unskilled laborers, continue to pour in. As was suggested in the former article referred to, the undertaking of various proposed municipal reforms, without reckoning with the chief cause of the trouble, resembles an attempt to cleanse the stables of Augeus, with the difference, it may be added, that the stables were cleaned by turning on the stream,—the cities, when it is turned off.

Is it practicable to regulate immigration? and if so, why have we thus far failed?

John Chetwood, Jr.


  1. No such thought has been apparent in recent discussion. It is generally assumed that immigration evils will be corrected, and various remedies are proposed. But practical men manifest great distrust of the remedies. During the recent debate in Congress an experienced member of the House declared that the present laws are of no practical use, and that the examination of arriving immigrants was a mere farce. In short, the remedies don't reach the disease.
  1. Sparks's Life and Letters of Washington. Vol. xi. pp. 2 and 392
  2. Works of Hamilton. Published by order of Congress; Vol. vii, pp. 774-6.