Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/Restricting Immigration

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The demand for the restriction of immigration is of comparatively recent date. There have been at various periods occasional outbreaks of religious or political hostility to the “foreign element,” but until about twenty-five years ago the incalculable services which immigration had rendered in the development of the country were universally recognized, and it was thought that in the same way it might render further and equally important services in the future. As late as 1864 Congress passed a law for the encouragement of immigration, and in 1872 legislation of a like character was at least attempted. In many States agencies were maintained for attracting immigrants from abroad. Since then a sentiment hostile to immigration has been gradually growing up. That sentiment was stimulated by the organized efforts partly of an anti-immigration league drawing its membership from various classes of society, partly of the labor organizations. Attention was called to the fact that the character of the immigration was changing for the worse. While formerly the overwhelming majority of the immigrants had come from Germany, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries, the tide was now running most strongly from Hungary, Russia, Poland, and Italy. An apprehension was excited that large numbers of European anarchists and other dangerous characters would descend upon our shores, spread their subversive doctrines among our people, and disturb the peace of society with lawless and bloody commotions. It was also pointed out that as our public lands were rapidly passing into private ownership, there was comparatively little room left for new-comers. From all this it was concluded that, if not the total discontinuance, at least a severe restriction of immigration had become imperatively necessary.

That restriction has been attempted and partially effected by various legislative provisions excluding contract laborers, and subjecting all other immigrants to a careful scrutiny as to their character, their physical condition, their means of support, and so on. Immigration has very much decreased, owing in part to the economic depression which has prevailed in this country for several years, and in part to our immigration laws, which make the transportation companies responsible for the return of objectionable immigrants, thus imposing considerable financial risks upon them; and the talk about the difficulties meeting the immigrant on his arrival here deters many persons from coming to this country who otherwise would have come. In fact, many of these have gone, or are going, to Brazil or to Argentina, where, in considerable numbers, they devote themselves to agriculture and cattle-raising, in competition with the farmers and ranchmen of the United States. Now a further restriction of immigration into this country is contemplated by the Lodge bill which subjects the immigrant to an educational test, obliging him to prove his ability to read and write in the English or any other language a quotation from the Constitution of the United States of not less than twenty words. From this test only the parents or grandparents of an adult “qualified immigrant” accompanying him, or sent for by him, are to be excepted. It is substantially the same bill which passed the last Congress and was vetoed by President Cleveland.

The principal arguments urged in support of such restrictions are the following: That immigration throws upon our shores hordes of undesirable foreigners, whose infusion into our social body, and whose eventual admission to political rights and privileges, will in a dangerous degree lower the standard of American citizenship; secondly, that it brings great masses of the pauper laborers of the Old World into direct competition with our laboring force, and thereby will lower the wages and the standard of living of American working-men; thirdly, that persons of bad character are coming, as well as paupers, who will fall to the public charge in our hospitals and almshouses; and finally, that we no longer have much elbow-room in this country anyway, and should guard against overcrowding. Even the most zealous advocate of restriction will admit this to be a fair statement of the complaint.

Now we are all agreed that this republic should not be a dumping-ground for the criminals and the cripples of the Old World. But, if it ever has been such a dumping-ground, it is so no longer. The law as it stands is amply sufficient to protect it. Persons who within one year become a public charge are returned at the expense of the transportation companies, and their number has decreased from 687 in 1862 to 238 in 1896. They will soon disappear altogether. No educational test is needed to that end. Nor will any educational test keep out unknown anarchists or other dangerous characters, for such persons are sure to be able to read and write twenty words of our Constitution in one language or more. The police and the courts are always capable of dealing with them if they do not conduct themselves properly.

We are likewise all agreed that, on the whole, the immigration from Italy, Hungary, Russia, Poland, and so on, may not be as desirable as that from Germany, Ireland, and the Scandinavian countries. It is also true that now and then complaint is heard from places in which such immigrants congregate in large numbers. But does any broad-minded American really think that two or three hundred thousand immigrants a year, most of whom are scattered over a vast extent of country, can permanently lower the standard of citizenship among a people of seventy-three millions? Does not every man of experience who has seen much of this country know that some of the States in which the foreign-born population is proportionately strongest are among the most orderly, best-governed, and most prosperous in the land; and that the descendants of the immigrants, though they be even Italians or Russians, are in the second generation well Americanized, and in the third hardly distinguishable in looks as well as habits and ways of thinking from the natives surrounding them? Has the assimilating force of American life and of our free institutions so completely run out that, in our congenial climatic conditions, we would despair of absorbing into our social body without serious danger a comparatively small number of people belonging to races which have shown themselves elsewhere capable of a high order of civilization? And as to the labor argument, is not there something supremely absurd in the idea that in this country, with its immense undeveloped resources, the interests of labor would be best promoted by keeping the producing force at the lowest possible ebb, for fear of an increased competition of labor? Do not the labor philosophers who entertain that idea see that the more producers there are in such a country the more consumers there will be, and the better the market for the products of labor? And do they not see also that the new-comers very quickly demand the American standard of wages, and will soon rise to the American standard of living?

In such a country, which is capable of nourishing five times its present population, it is simply ridiculous to speak of overcrowding. From such a country, with resources promising an increase of its wealth beyond calculation, it is more than grotesque to exclude by law persons with two strong arms and an honest willingness to work because they are unable to read and write twenty words of the Federal Constitution, or, if male immigrants happen to have wives who cannot read or write those twenty words, to oblige them to separate themselves from their wives — for this the Lodge bill substantially does. About this feature of the bill much more might be said for which there is not room here.

The truth is that this movement for the restriction of immigration, so far as it is honest, springs from a sorry misconception of certain troublesome problems before us, or from a sorrier lack of courage to face them. Symptoms of deterioration in our political life, or in the character of our citizenship, are observed, and some volatile intellects find it most convenient to dispose of the whole matter by simply saying that the “foreign element” is alone chargeable with it, and that the trouble can easily be cured by stopping immigration. Laboring-men are worried by a lack of employment in bad times, and their leaders with equal facility or unscrupulousness assign the competition of new-comers as the cause of it all, and shout for the stoppage of immigration as a sure remedy. If immigration were really stopped there would be a grievous disappointment among the believers. It would soon turn out that the immigrant was not the cause of the deterioration of our political life, nor the lack of employment; that the causes of those evils must be found, in the one case in the increasing intrusion of the mercenary spirit into our politics, and in the other in our economic conditions, which are in some respects aggravated by our laws; and that the pretended cure was mere quackery, which solved no problem and benefited nobody, but entailed upon us very serious inconveniences and losses by curtailing the laboring force required for various necessary uses, and by thus impeding our development.

Carl Schurz.    

This work was published before January 1, 1923, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.


Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz - 1898-01-08 - Restricting Immigration.PNG