When We Were the Strangers

Posted on February 18th, 2013 by

MarvinA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert.

On the eve of Valentine’s Day, 100 years ago this week, the lame duck president of the United States, William H. Taft sent a message to Congress conveying his refusal to sign the Dillingham Bill.  This veto delayed, but did not end, the efforts to close America’s borders to non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants, including millions of Jews desperate to avoid persecution and war in Europe.

Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont is now a forgotten figure, but early in the last century he was the leader of a movement to stem the tide of “undesirable” immigration.  From 1907 to 1911, concurrent with his Senate duties, he served as chair of the United States Immigration Commission (often called the Dillingham Commission).  The Commission spent thousands of dollars studying every alleged connection between Southern and Eastern European immigrants and social degradation, from prostitution to mental illness – and after publishing 41 volumes of detail, to no one’s surprise, concluded that something must be done to protect the nation.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that politicians claimed that immigration would be the ruination of our society.  Ben Franklin singles out the problem of German immigration in 1753:   I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us;   Still it was generally true for much of our early history that merely making it to American territory was deemed sufficient grounds for pursuing a pathway to naturalization.  Our first post-Revolution naturalization law offered US citizenship within two years!

Post-Reconstruction attitudes about race began to close the open door, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.  The whole new pseudo-science of eugenics sought to put a veneer of scholarship on age-old prejudices.  The Dillingham Commission opens its report with a “Dictionary of Race” that purports to be able to distinguish between the “races” of Northern Italians and Southern Italians, and repeats well-worn stereotypes about the “race” of Jews.

The Dillingham Bill (S 3175 of the 62nd Congress) that followed the Commission’s report brought a couple of new twists to previous attempts to control immigration.  First, it would impose a literacy test on all new immigrants.  Second, it would make steamship companies responsible for ensuring that their America-bound passengers could meet this test (imposing steep fines for failing to screen their guests).  Nearly every immigrant community, including America’s Jews, understood that these provisions could and would be used to stop immigration and they vigorously opposed the measure.

After all this wasn’t the first time that a “literacy test” had been suggested as a way to curb the rights of individuals.  Since 1890, such tests had become a legal fixture in the Jim Crow South, regularly used to bar African-Americans from voting.

A key question about literacy tests is who decides what “literacy” means and who evaluates the qualifications of the applicant.  Senator Simmons of North Carolina (who had built his reputation on a “white supremacy campaign”) proposed an amendment to the bill that answered this question in amazing detail:

That for the purpose of testing the ability of the immigrant to read, the inspection officer shall be furnished copies of the Constitution of the United States, printed on uniform pasteboard slips, each containing no less than twenty nor more than twenty-five words of said Constitution printed in the various languages of the immigrant in double small pica type…no two immigrants listed on the same ship manifest shall be tested with the same slip.

The advocates of the Dillingham Bill were not able to secure a super-majority to overcome Taft’s veto.   Immediately following their defeat, they switched tactics, dropping their demands for literacy tests in favor of national quotas that directly regulated the flow of people from around the globe. By the 1920s the quotas had blocked the vast majority of those seeking a new life in America from a path to legal immigration.

Reading the arguments on both sides in 1913, I was struck by how little the debate has changed in a hundred years.

The President’s veto message included the argument that the new immigrants added to the economic wealth of the country and were especially critical in supplying farm labor.  It also made a practical point that the cost of deporting large waves of immigrants would be too high.

On the other hand, the case made by Dillingham and his allies was that these new immigrants of 1913 were different in character than the old “aryan” immigrants; harder to assimilate, prone to live “with their own” in crowded urban areas, easily exploited by unscrupulous employers, and more likely to become wards of the state or engage in criminal activities.

One might of thought that a century of contributions to our society by the children and grandchildren of Dillingham’s “undesirable” immigrants might have put these arguments to rest but it appears to be one of the great continuities of American life.

This year, the Museum’s annual Risch Program on Immigration will take place on April 14 at 4pm in the Langhorne Auditorium of the University of Baltimore.  The program, entitled “Songs of Arrival, Stories of Refuge” will feature HIAS President Mark Hetfield and a musical program that links the Yiddish traditions of the early 20th century with performances by today’s immigrants from Africa, Latin America and Asia.   Our history makes it easy to understand this linkage.

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