Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/April 1905/The Problem of Immigration

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AS has been pointed out, the extension of our immigration inspection service to the Canadian and Mexican frontiers, and the splendid work done on the border by the immigration officers, have closed the last gateways open to violators of our immigration laws. Not only are the laws enforced rigidly at United States ports and border towns, but by agreement with the Canadian steamship authorities, American officers are stationed at Quebec, Montreal, Halifax, St. John and Victoria, B. C, for the inspection of immigrants destined to the United States through Canada. Our present immigration laws are effective against many of the most undesirable classes of immigrants and our immigration officers by their vigorous enforcement of these laws have acquired a reputation in Europe which has a deterrent effect upon the undesirable classes. Every defective alien deported to Europe advertises the fact that we will not permit 'paupers, diseased persons or persons likely to become a public charge' to land. But the law at present is ineffective as applied to the class usually referred to as 'persons of poor physique.' They are admitted because it can not be shown definitely that they are likely to become a public charge.' They have friends, perhaps, who live in the city and vouch for their ability to earn a living, or their skill in a sweat-shop occupation is accepted as evidence that they will not become dependents.

In the immigration question, two great problems present themselves, the separation of the undesirable from the desirable classes, and the distribution of our landed immigrants. President Roosevelt in his message to the Fifty-eighth Congress, December, 1903, with characteristic directness, strikes to the heart of the question, and gives the following concise expression of its problems:

We can not have too much immigration of the right kind, and we should have none at all of the wrong kind. The need is to devise some system by which undesirable immigrants shall be kept out entirely, while desirable immigrants are properly distributed throughout the country. At present some districts which need immigrants have none; and in others, where the population is already congested, immigrants come in such numbers as to depress the conditions of life for those already there.

This brings us to the question of what constitutes a desirable immigrant. The first requisite of a desirable immigrant is good physique. Without a robust constitution and average physical strength, the immigrant can not cope successfully with the hardships which he will be called upon to endure in his new home. The immigrant of poor physique is not able to perform rough labor, and even if he were able, employers of labor would not hire him. The large employers of labor expect and demand men physically strong enough to do a fair day's work. The only place where the immigrant with a poor physique can make a living is in the large city, where he becomes either a parasite or a competitor of American skilled labor. The unfair competition of this type of immigrant can be better understood if one takes into consideration his standard of living and the system of sweat-shop production.

There is no longer demand for foreign skilled labor in the United States. Skilled labor in its ratio to unskilled labor among Americans has steadily increased until now the American skilled laborer can supply every demand, and each foreign skilled laborer who comes here comes as a competitor of our own workmen. On the other hand, the demand for unskilled labor is increasing in proportion to the decrease of American unskilled laborers. This demand will continue until our present industrial and commercial expansion ceases. New lands are opened up by settlement or by irrigation. Intensive methods of farming make possible a great increase of rural population, and this agricultural expansion creates an increased demand for manufactures. Thus our industrial and agricultural expansion progress side by side, and for this progress we must have plenty of brawn and muscle—unskilled labor. Americans can fill the requirements of the skilled laborers and mechanics, but if capitalists had to depend on native Americans for the unskilled labor necessary for their projects, these projects would never be carried to completion, or, if attempted, would be certain of financial failure.

The introduction of improved machinery, with its enormous effect upon our power of production, made necessary increased numbers of unskilled laborers and without these sturdy workers the use of machinery would not be successful financially or otherwise, and we should retrogress to the position of manual production which we occupied twenty-five years ago. Immigration and machinery are both charged with displacing American labor and depressing wages, but they are simply new forces demanded and made necessary by the expansion of our industries. To prohibit either is to paralyze industry, to stand still as a producing power, and to stand still is only the temporary pause before retrogression begins. Commercial prosperity is simply this expansion of industry and trade consequent upon the development of new resources. This development is the result of capital invested. Capitalists before investing invariably demand assurance that sufficient labor is forthcoming to carry out the proposed work, and that the compensation of such labor will be compatible with its financial success. If this assurance can not be given to capitalists, they will not invest, industrial expansion ceases, and the wages of the American workers, as well as of the aliens, suffer from general business depression.

In order to be a desirable immigrant, the type of immigrant represented must be necessary. As skilled alien laborers are no longer necessary, they can scarcely be classed as desirable. The necessity for the unskilled laborer will be conceded by those who take the trouble to study economic conditions.

The aliens of poor physique, who are usually skilled laborers, go to the crowded city, to the dark, poorly ventilated and disease-infected tenement. The thousands of these city dwellers arriving every year perpetuate the tenement house problem, and retard the work of sanitation and reform.

Of remedies proposed for the further exclusion of undesirable immigrants, three are worthy of consideration: (1) Raising the head tax, (2) an illiteracy test, (3) a definite standard of physique.

Raising the head tax to 100 or 150 dollars is suggested by some as a means of restricting immigration. This procedure is open to serious objection for several reasons. It would not be selective in its action. It would bar all classes, good and bad, indiscriminately, and would be almost prohibitive to the races with the best physique and highest percentage of unskilled laborers. In case of those who come here as home-seekers and who are able to pay such a tax, it would deprive them of a sum of money which would be of great value in their struggle, and much needed at the very outset of their new life. The imposition of such a tax is a weapon of defense which might be used in the event of great danger from immigration, owing to absence of demand for labor here, but that possibility seems remote and this high head tax must be considered as a last resort, not likely to be needed. A moderate head tax will probably be the rule for the next few years. The present head tax of two dollars may be raised to five or ten dollars in order to restrict the volume of immigration, if, in the opinion of our lawmakers, restriction of the quantity as well as the quality of our immigrants is necessary. Any head tax moderate or high can operate only as a numerical restriction and can not be expected to regulate the quality of immigration.

In order to appreciate fully the effect of barring illiterates, it is necessary to consider the proportion of illiterates in each of the principal racial factors of our immigration. Consideration must also be given to the percentage of unskilled laborers furnished by each of these races, because, although the illiteracy amendment is intended to exclude the parasitic city-dwelling immigrant, it affects as well a large proportion of the races furnishing us with the bulk of our necessary unskilled labor.

The following table indicates the ratio of unskilled laborers to the total landed in 1903, also the percentage of illiteracy; only those races whose illiteracy is above 10 per cent, are given:

Race. Total Number
of Unskilled
Ratio of Unskilled
to Total Landed.
of Illiterates.
South Italian 196,117 118,000 59 per cent. 48 per cent.
Pole 82,343 51,000 63 "" 32 ""
Croatian 32,907 26,850 81 "" 35 ""
Slovak 34,427 21,400 62 "" 22 ""
Ruthenian 9,843 7,300 73 "" 49 ""
Lithuanian 14,432 9,550 66 "" 47 ""
Greek 14,376 9,700 68 "" 28 ""
Syrian 5,551 1,900 34 "" 54 ""
Hebrew 76,203 7,000 9 "" 26 ""

The first race (Italian) and the last three races (Greek, Syrian and Hebrew) given in the above table are notoriously city dwellers. The Italian and five races immediately following, Pole, Croatian, Slovak, Ruthenian and Lithuanian, furnish us with nearly all our unskilled industrial labor.

While it must be admitted that the illiteracy test would debar many thousands of undesirable immigrants and prospective dwellers in the tenements, it is doubtful if this result would compensate for the loss of 32 per cent, of such sterling laborers as the Poles, or 35 per cent, of the Slavs in general, in view of the fact that as large, if not a larger, proportion of the undesirable immigrants could be debarred by requiring a high standard of physique, without seriously affecting our supply of unskilled labor. The standard of physique should be definitely prescribed by law, so that the medical certificate of failure to reach the standard would be final, as it is now in loathsome or dangerous contagious disease, idiocy, epilepsy or insanity.

The standard required of recruits for the United States army, with a fixed minimum height and chest measurement, could be employed for this purpose. Every male immigrant between the ages of 18 and 45 should be required to pass such a physical test. Each family should be required to possess at least one male, supposedly the bread winner, who could come up to these requirements.

An aged person, if unaccompanied, should not be permitted to land, unless he or she possess a son, daughter or other near relative in America, who is willing and able to care for such aged dependent. This physical standard to be required of the persons specified in addition to, and not in place of, such other restrictions as are now in force. The requirement of a high definite standard of physique would have very little effect upon the most desirable alien races. It would fall heavily upon the parasitic and competitive classes, and, while it would not stop all the yearly alien reinforcement of the foreign quarters and slums, it would at least ensure that the reduced number of additions were of a physique rugged enough to withstand the influences of such an existence. It would not materially reduce the number of agricultural and industrial unskilled laborers and would permit the admittance of plenty of men physically able to do a fair day's work for their employers.

In the matter of distributing aliens over a wider area, two distinct classes must be considered, the aliens already established in colonies in our cities, and aliens in general who, through ignorance of opportunities offered in different sections of the country, in many instances go to the congested areas rather than to the places where their labor is needed. No plan for the relief of tenement congestion, by better distribution of aliens already established there, can be successful without a reduction of the number of yearly steerage arrivals, particularly Gf those classes which tend to congest the cities. Many schemes for the distribution of the aliens congregated in cities have been proposed; some are chimerical, others more practical, but the consensus of opinion among philanthropic individuals and representatives of charitable societies is that the process of distribution is necessarily a slow one. The city-dwelling immigrant must be here some three or four years before he knows enough of our language and customs to enable him to be self-supporting away from his own race. It seems also that distribution must be effected individually rather than by colonies. The experience of the great Hebrew charitable societies at least bears out this view. Their efforts at wholesale rural colonization have almost in every instance failed, and the colonies established with few exceptions required the paternal aid of the society constantly. On the other hand, the same organizations have distributed several thousand Jews, who have been here some time and have learned something of American ways, in various parts of the country, and these have been almost uniformly successful. As has been said, some of the Hebrew colonies, which were failures as farming communities solely, were made self-supporting by the introduction of clothing factories. The establishment of such industrial colonies is of distinct service in relieving the congestion in the cities, and should be encouraged in spite of the claim made by some that the competition from the rural shop is ruinous to the clothing trade. From all that can be learned the clothing industry in New York can sustain its own low standard in competition with any number of rural shops.

When one considers how slowly the work of distributing the excess alien population of the tenement districts goes on in spite of the best effort of societies, individuals or municipal officers, the necessity is at once apparent either to stop altogether the annual reenforcement of this tenement population, or, at least, 'so reduce the number of additions that the work may make some progress. As it is now, the good work done each year by charitable organizations and by philanthropists goes almost for naught. The splendid work of the New York tenement house and street cleaning departments is nullified to a large extent by the yearly addition of thousands of these alien tenement dwellers, for whom the tedious work of education in sanitary matters must be repeated from the beginning.

In regard to aliens in general, whether they desire to live in the city or in the country, many believe that something should be done at the port of arrival to educate them in the resources and opportunities which exist in various states. The commissioner general of immigration, in his annual report for 1903, recommends that Congress appropriate a sufficient sum to establish information bureaus at the various ports of entry, located in suitable buildings where exhibits can be shown and information given to arriving aliens by government or state officers. Such information would enable the immigrant to locate where his labor was needed and where the best opportunities were afforded for making a home. This plan seems feasible and, coming from such a high source, is worthy of thorough trial. The commissioner-general, in the strongest terms, urges legislation to establish these information agencies, with or without the cooperation of the states, not only because of the need of the immigrant's labor in certain sections, but also because of the good effect upon the alien.

After all, these two problems of exclusion of undesirable immigrants and distribution of aliens are closely associated. The class that clings most persistently to the crowded city is an undesirable class. And if, because of its poor physique, the majority were excluded, as it would be if we had a definite standard of physique, our problem of distribution would be very greatly simplified.

It is scarcely necessary to refer again to the baneful influence exerted by the congested tenement areas, both upon the immigrant and upon the body politic. Here the immigrant receives false ideas of personal freedom and political privilege and a distorted impression of our whole political system. Moral deterioration is a certain accompaniment of life in the slums, and physical degeneration is still more marked. His occupation is parasitic in character or at best competitive from a standard far below that compatible with decent living. And while this deadly struggle for existence is being waged by the immigrant in the city, the farmers south and west can not procure enough labor to harvest their ripened crops. What a different story could be told of these poor aliens of the tenement could they be directed to the proper sphere! Removed from the temptations which surround them in the city, from the depraved examples of slum life which everywhere confront them, they would find in the country the healthy, moral stimulus of contact with the soil. The demoralizing effects of over-crowding in the city would be neutralized by the pure air and invigorating influence of an outdoor life, and best of all, instead of being a diseased growth upon society, they would become producers, and each one would add his share to the sum of our country's wealth. Instead of absorbing false ideas of sociology and politics, the rural immigrant would have the opportunity of studying that bulwark of our institutions, the American farmer. What a different influence the honest, conservative farmer must exert over the alien immigrant from that of the ward boss of the city! How infinitely better as an example of citizenship for the foreigner's emulation!

Improved agricultural implements have removed much of the drudgery from the farmer's life. A profusion of good newspapers and magazines keep him in touch with the world, and his isolation is greatly reduced by the omnipresent telephone and trolley car. The rural mail delivery and the movement for better roads promise to reduce still further his isolation in the future. Thus the country will become not only more attractive to the inhabitants of rural communities, but it will also appeal more strongly to city dwellers. The present exodus of farmers' sons and daughters from the farms to the great cities will diminish in size, and the number of city-dwelling aliens migrating to the country will increase. In this great work of equalization of population many forces will combine and render mutual aid. The attractive features of the various parts of the country where labor is needed can be shown to the alien in many ways. Philanthropic societies and individuals are doing much at present and will do more in the future. The great railroad companies have a common interest with the various states, where the alien is needed and welcome, in distributing the alien and developing those states. The federal government can best combine and harmonize these forces by inviting their cooperation and furnishing an exposition building, as recommended by Commissioner-General Sargent, where the advantages offered by various sections of our country can be exhibited to the immigrants.