Popular Science Monthly/Volume 66/December 1904/The Agricultural Distribution of Immigrants

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MANY of the evils resulting from the enormous immigration of aliens into this country during recent years have been much aggravated by the congestion of these aliens in the slums of our large northern cities. For this reason, most of those who have studied the immigration problem seriously have come to the conclusion that if these immigrants could be removed from the slums, and distributed over the agricultural districts of the west and south, all the difficulties which are now met with in educating and Americanizing these foreigners could easily be disposed of. The vastness of the problem of the city slum, and the impossibility, even with unlimited resources of men and money, of permanently raising the standards of living of many of our immigrants as long as they are crowded together, and as long as the stream of newer immigrants pours into these same slums, has naturally forced itself upon the minds of thinking persons. This note was struck in the last Annual Report of the Boston Associated Charities in the following words: "With an immigration as unrestrained as at present, we can have little hope of permanent gain in the struggle for uplifting the poor of our cities, since newcomers are always at hand, ignorant of American standards." And in a recent study of the Chicago Stock Yards strike, in which the miserable conditions are described under which the newer immigrants employed in the yards live, we learn that "from the poorest parts of Bohemia, Poland, Lithuania, and Slavonia, these immigrants have poured in great overlapping waves into the stock yards. The standard of living of each wave rises slowly, constantly sucked down by the lower standards of the waves behind."[1]

The fact has become increasingly obvious during the past few years that in the 'Little Italys' the 'Little Russias,' the 'Little Syrias,' in cur city slums, we are finding more and more difficult and burdensome problems of public and private charity; of police; of education; of religious training; of public health.

Go down to Little Italy, says a writer of New York, and it is Italy. It has not only its market of Italian foods and other stuffs. It has its Italian feast days and processions and celebrations; and there are thousands of persons there who can hardly know that they have come from Italy.... It is a similar story, of course, that has many a time been told about the Ghetto. It differs little from the Ghettoes of Europe, except for the touch of kindlier fortune. . . . A Syrian might go to sleep at home, and if he could sleep eight or nine days he might wake up in New York, and be perfectly at home in the Syrian quarter. . . . These quarters have long been here, and they are in all our cities. But the new thought is of their apparently indefinite extension.

The only remedies for such conditions are: a considerable restriction of immigration, and (not or) the distribution of the slum populations through the agricultural districts of the country. Although congress has repeatedly been asked, in the strongest terms, by very influential bodies of citizens all over the country, to enact further restrictive legislation, no laws at all adequate to meet the situation have been put upon the statute books. The powerful influences of railroad and steamship companies, and of large employers who want 'cheap' labor, have been able to turn the scale against what the majority of Americans without question believe to be the best for the country. The first of the two remedies above referred to not having been secured, there has been a decided swing of opinion in favor of the second. Any one who reads over recent literature on immigration will find constant reference to the 'solution of the immigration problem by the agricultural distribution of our immigrants.' That charity workers should have been so long finding out this (supposedly) excellent and effective remedy, which is lauded as if it alone were to be the panacea for all the ills resulting from immigration, is much more surprising than that the steamship and railroad interests of this country should be doing their utmost to 'boom' it as the one solution of the immigration problem, always carefully concealing their own interest in the matter, which is to increase their receipts through the transportation of all these thousands of immigrants, to secure cheaper labor, and to turn public attention away from the need of further restrictive legislation. The advocacy of the distribution plan by those having affiliations with transportation interests, or with enterprises which desire 'cheap' labor, especially in the less thickly settled parts of our country, will bear careful watching.

The relief which a distribution of the inhabitants of our city slums seems sure to bring to the charity workers and the philanthropists of our large northern cities, and the fact that such distribution is also being systematically, though not openly, advocated by powerful transportation and capitalistic interests, have caused this new idea to be welcomed with great enthusiasm, the selfish and unselfish interests working along the same lines, as is seldom the case in immigration matters. In all this enthusiasm for the new remedy it is natural that there is danger of going too fast and too far; there is a likelihood that we are urging distribution from our congested districts without caring sufficiently where the people whom we are anxious to get off our hands go to; whether the removal will accomplish as much as is expected of it; whether the people among whom these foreigners are scattered really want them; whether removal on a wholesale scale will not develop new agricultural colonies of aliens in which some of the evils of the slums will be reproduced anew; whether the effects of such dispersion on the communities among which the new settlers are located will be for the best of those communities in the long run; whether—and this is perhaps the most important point of all—wholesale distribution will really relieve the city's burden. It is because the writer realizes that distribution is a remedy for existing evils which may well be added to the more fundamental one of a further restriction of immigration, and because he realizes that many persons have advocated the distribution idea without giving it careful thought, that the writer desires to call attention to a few points which need discussion before we go any farther in the matter.

1. Expense.—To scatter the city slum populations on any scale large enough to be at all effective would require vast sums of money, if the thing is done intelligently. It is not enough simply to pay the fares of hundreds of thousands of persons from the cities to distant points in the west or south, but provision should be made for the new arrivals when they reach their destination, and they usually need care and oversight for a good many years. It is obvious that if immigrants who have just landed can be persuaded, or forced, to go at once into the country districts at their own expense, or at the expense of some railroad or capitalist desiring 'cheap' labor, philanthropic persons would be saved the immediate cost of the transportation. It must be remembered, however, that wholesale distribution by railroads or capitalists is not likely to be controlled by a desire to do what is best for the immigrants, nor for the people among whom they are scattered, but rather by purely selfish interests. Furthermore, the natural tendency of most of our immigrants is to remain in the larger cities, because of their desire to be with large numbers of their fellow-countrymen, because the majority of the newcomers have very little money and because the cities are the centers for manufacturing and mechanical industries, which are on the whole more remunerative than agriculture. The average amount of money brought by each immigrant during the last five years was sixteen dollars. In the Report of the Industrial Commission it is shown that the amount of money brought by immigrants from northern and western Europe averages considerably greater than that brought by those from southern and eastern Europe, but it is the latter class which it is chiefly desired to distribute. To be really effective, thousands of families should be removed from the slums of New York, and Chicago, and Boston, and other cities, every year, and the incoming of two or three times as many families of newer immigrants of the same standards of living should be checked.

2. Success thus far attained not altogether Encouraging.—The attempts which have already been made along the line of the distribution of recent immigrants from our city slums, admirable as they are, and much as they deserve support, have on the whole been sadly ineffective. The Jewish Industrial Removal Society of New York, with the aid of the Hirsch fund, has distributed many Jewish families in the country, partly in agriculture, but usually in trade. Last year this society sent more than 3,000 persons to 45 states, three per cent, being on record as having already drifted back into cities. Similar societies are at work in Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston, and the Italian societies are doing the same sort of work. Although in most cases the individuals thus removed have fared better in their new homes than in the slums, yet taken as a whole, the success 'thus far attained is not so encouraging as to lead thoughtful persons to be sanguine about the entire practicability of carrying out a successful scheme of wholesale distribution along similar lines. And while there have been successes in the past, there have also been many dismal failures, and in almost all such attempts very great difficulties have been met.

3. Most of our Newer Immigrants not adapted to an Agricultural Life.—It is a mistake to suppose that all immigrants can be turned into successful farmers simply by sending them into the country. The commissioner of immigration at the Port of New York says in his last annual report (1903): 'Thousands of foreigners keep pouring into our cities, declining to go where they might be wanted because they are neither physically nor mentally fitted to go to these undeveloped parts of our country, and do as did the early settlers from northern Europe' and this is especially true of most of the immigrants who, because of the steamship rate war, have been coming over to this country during the summer of 1904 for less than $10 a head. Such a rate makes it possible for the most ignorant and the most depraved inhabitants of Europe's slums to come here. Would a railroad fare of say $5 from Chicago to southern California induce the best or the least desirable of Chicago's residents to take advantage of the opportunity to go west? Long residence of successive generations in the Ghettoes of Europe has unfitted most of the Jews to be independent farmers; the Syrians and Armenians take naturally to non-agricultural occupations, and so it is with others. The majority of our recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe are too poor and too ignorant to be fitted for a successful farming life. In this connection Mr. Gustavo Tosti, Acting Consul-General of Italy in New York, who has given much time to the study of the conditions of Italians in this country, says:
There is a misleading idea in certain quarters that 'the agricultural distribution of Italian immigrants' should be obtained simply through the employment of a large number of Italians as farm workers and farm hands. This would be only a palliative measure. The character of agricultural work is, by its very nature, precarious. The Italian immigrants would thus find employment during a few months of the year, when, for instance, at harvest time, there is an enormous demand for labor. . . . But after a comparatively short period of occupation they would lapse into enforced idleness, which would undoubtedly drive them back to the industrial centers. The only way to get at the root of the question is to transform a large portion of our immigrants into landowners or farmers.

To transform ignorant laborers, with but a few dollars in their possession, into landowners, is not a matter of a day or a year. It involves an expenditure of time and money. It is a matter of the assimilation of the immigrant and of the elevation of his standards of living. Thus, neither the interests of those states which desire immigrants who shall at once buy their land, nor the best interests of the Italian immigrants themselves, as set forth by Mr. Tosti, are met in a wholesale distribution of ignorant farm laborers. The difficulty of having large numbers of farm laborers in idleness for much of the time, to which Mr. Tosti also refers, is already present, as may be seen in the following statement, clipped from a newspaper of last summer:

Several of the largest planters in the delta have made contracts with the labor agencies in New York to secure for them gangs of Italian immigrants, who are now being brought south by the coach load. . . . The Italian laborers who are now being imported will not have very much to do until the cotton-picking season opens, and the immigrants will be maintained by the planters in comparative idleness until picking begins.

4. Do the Country Districts want the Kind of Immigrants whom it is proposed to send to them?—No distribution of our immigrants should be thought of if the states to which they are to be sent do not welcome them. A few years ago, the U. S. Immigration Investigating Commission asked the governors of the different states what nationalities of immigrants they desired, and in only two cases was any desire expressed for Slavs, Latins, Jews or Asiatics, and both of these two cases related to Italian farmers, with money, intending to become permanent settlers. A canvass of the same kind, made within six months by some gentlemen who are interested in the distribution scheme, showed that these preferences have undergone no appreciable change. In every case, in this recent canvass, the officials protested against the shipment of southern and eastern Europeans from the city slums into their states. In the south to-day, owing to the lessened efficiency of the negro, the greater demand for field laborers, and the movement from the country into the towns, the need of pickers in the cotton fields is very great in some sections, and the demand for vast hordes of any kind of laborers—even the most ignorant of newly-arrived aliens—is referred to in the newspapers. But this demand for the cheapest labor without regard to the effects which the importation of such laborers will have upon the community, apparently comes from a comparatively limited number of capitalists, and from the southern railroads. The majority of the thinking people of the south, if they know something about the evils which have come in the train of the newer alien immigration in the north, will not look with favor upon the wholesale importation of cheap and ignorant alien, labor. Several of the southern states have emphatically stated what nationalities of immigrants they want, and their preferences are for people from the northern United States and for northern Europeans. Thus, South Carolina, concerning which a leading authority on the south has said that there is no state in the Union in which 'there is a more general desire for more white men who are willing to work with their hands,' has, through its legislature, recently voted that its new commissioner of agriculture, commerce and immigration must confine his activities in securing new immigrants to 'white citizens of the United States, citizens of Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, France and all other foreigners of Saxon origin.' The general demand in the south and west is for the intelligent 'settler who has means of purchase,' not for the newly-arrived, ignorant and penniless immigrant, who 'would require the fostering care of government or of wealthy private societies.' The land companies and large private owners of land are in search of purchasers who have resided in the United States for some years and are familiar with American customs, or else of immigrants with some money, coming from northern Europe. To send out to other states thousands of aliens who are not really desired there, simply because we think we can thus relieve ourselves of an unpleasant burden, is much like throwing our weeds over our neighbor's fence, into our neighbor's garden.

There doubtless is need of labor in the south to-day; the Italian is unquestionably well fitted to do much of the work which needs doing; and in those parts of the southern country where Italians have settled, they have proved their ability and willingness to do work at least equal to that of the negro in the cotton-fields; they are praised as industrious, thrifty, good citizens, frugal, and as having increased land values. On some railroads, also, they are reported as being satisfactory laborers. On the other hand, it must be noted that the most successful settlements have been those of northern Italians; that the greater desirability of the northern Italian is generally recognized wherever experience has been had with both northern and southern Italians, and that thus far the number of Italians in the south has been small and practically none of the less happy consequences of the congestion of separate nationalities have been noted. The favorable reports which have recently been made by Chevaliers Rossi and Rossati as to the conditions and prospects of Italian immigrants in the Mississippi delta; the plans which are being formed for the transportation of tens of thousands of Italians to the southern states, either by the new direct steamship line from Italy to New Orleans or by the train-load from the slums of New York and of other northern cities or direct from Ellis Island—it all sounds like an attractive program for the Italians. But does the scheme sound altogether as attractive to those southerners who have the best interests of their own country at heart, and who fully appreciate how grave are the social and political responsibilities which already weigh upon their fair land? The south should think twice before it allows its capitalists and its railroads to flood the country with 'cheap' and ignorant alien laborers. A leading newspaper of the south has recently said that the southern states want no such immigrants as have crowded the east side of New York and the factories of New England. Unless steps are taken by the south to prevent it, much the same conditions may be developed there within a few years.

5. Wholesale Distribution soon involves Foreign 'Colonies.'—One of the objects of the agricultural distribution of our recent immigrants is to prevent the congestion of the different nationalities in colonies, by scattering these people, as it is said, 'among the native population.' Now while distribution in country districts does, of course, in all cases, prevent such congestion as is characteristic of city slums, the tendency for recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to herd together in settlements of their own is almost as marked in the country as in the cities. Moreover, this unfortunate tendency—unfortunate because it retards assimilation—is in many cases fostered by philanthropic societies and by railroad and land companies. The following headings, clipped at random from newspapers of recent dates, show how distinctly the much-talked-of 'agricultural distribution' of our newer immigration tends towards the formation of alien colonies. "Poles going to Michigan. The Milwaukee branch of the Polish National Alliance of America has purchased 50,000 acres. It is planned to establish other large colonies." "The latest phase of the New Zion problem is to purchase a large tract of land in Wisconsin for the immigrant Jews from Roumania and from Russia." "Jewish colony for Michigan. Russian and Polish refugees to settle on the line of the Escanaba and Lake Superior R. R. They are brought by a committee in New York." "Hungarians coming to Texas. About 500 families from southern Austria to settle on line of Southern Pacific." "Hungarian colony planned. A $200,000 company to establish town sites in Jackson Co., Arkansas. E. E. Barclay, Immigration Agent of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern R. R., is the chief stockholder." (The last sentence is significant of the moving spirit behind many of these new colonies.) "Russian Jew colony in Alabama. The colony will consist of 40 Russian Jew families, and they propose to establish a manufacturing settlement, principally for the making of clothes." And so on, ad libitum. It is obvious that the establishment of such alien colonies is not conducive to thorough and rapid assimilation, and that, if this is the tendency of 'agricultural distribution,' the benefits to be derived from such distribution are certain to be much lessened.

The present view regarding our alien immigration is not that of criticism of, nor of prejudice against, any one nationality or group of foreigners. Hence the frequent outbreaks of impassioned defense of this or that nationality are both unnecessary and misleading. The sober thought regarding the dangers of immigration is that of apprehension that an ever-increasing mass of our alien population which keeps its identity is a great evil in our democracy. These alien colonies have for years been found in our city slums; the present movement is evidently going to plant them all over the country, in the farming districts. The thought of danger in alien colonies is, after all, not as new as many writers would have us believe. Washington, in a letter to John Adams, dated November 27, 1794, wrote as follows: "My opinion with respect to emigration [immigration] is that except of useful mechanics and some particular descriptions of men and professions, there is no need of encouragement, while the policy or advantage of its taking place in a body (I mean the settling of them in a body) may be much questioned; for by so doing they retain their language, habits, and principles, good or bad, which they bring with them." And Franklin expressed it as his belief that a homogeneous population is necessary to a successful democracy.

6. Effects upon the Sections in which the Distribution takes Place not always good.—To scatter among our rural communities large numbers of aliens whose standards of living are such that they are willing to work for the lowest possible wage, is to expose our native farming population to a competition which is distinctly undesirable. In the corn belt of the west, as Professor T. N. Carver has recently shown, the newer immigrants, because of their lower standards of living, have been able to put more money into land, buildings and equipment than the native American farmer; and hence have an advantage in the struggle for existence. Scattering our alien population of the more ignorant races simply spreads more widely the evils which result from exposing our own people to competition with the lower classes of foreigners. Again, in the case of the agricultural distribution of Italian and other alien laborers through the south, while it is perfectly true that these aliens will supplant the negroes in many—probably in most—occupations, the effect will undoubtedly be to cause a migration of the negroes to the cities—a result which those familiar with the conditions of negroes now congested in cities can not fail to view with the greatest alarm. Lastly, the more widely we scatter the newer immigrants, the more widespread will be the effect of the competition with the lower grades of aliens in causing a decrease in the birth rate among the older portion of our population. American fathers and mothers, as the late Gen. Francis A. Walker first pointed out, and as leading authorities have since reiterated, naturally shrink from exposing their sons and daughters to competition with those who are contented with lower wages and lower standards of living; and therefore these sons and daughters are never born. The agricultural distribution of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, and from Asia, will hasten still more the replacement of the native by foreign stock.

7. Agricultural Distribution of Immigrants will not solve the Immigration Problem.—But few of those who are now urging the necessity of relieving the city slum burden by distributing the slum population realize that such distribution will not, and can not, of itself, lead to any relief, as long as the tide of new immigration flows on unchecked. As Professor John E. Commons, one of the leading authorities on immigration in the United States, has recently said:[2]

To relieve the pressure in the cities without restricting the number admitted only opens the way for a still larger immigration; for, strangely enough, emigration has not relieved the pressure of population in Europe. In no period of their history, with the exception of Ireland, have the populations of Europe increased at a greater rate than during the last half century of migration to America. As a relief for current immigration, agricultural distribution is not promising.

It needs but little thought to convince any one that were it not for the continued influx of hundreds of thousands of ignorant and poverty-stricken aliens each year, there would, in few years, remain no such serious problem of Jewish charity, or of Italian charity, or of any other charity in our country as at present. It is a fact, so obvious as to need no argument in support of it, that the more we try to reduce the pressure of competition among the alien immigrants in our congested city slums, the more we shall encourage other aliens, as ignorant and as poor, to come over and take the places thus vacated. Distribution and a reduction in the numbers of our immigrants: both of these remedies are needed. Private charitable agencies are not likely to have money enough to carry out any scheme of distribution on a large scale; that will be attended to by the capitalistic interests which want the cheapest labor obtainable. Charitable societies and individuals should do their best to see that this distribution is intelligently directed, and that the alien colonies which are being formed in our farming districts do not become a menace. As to a reduction in the numbers of our alien arrivals, that is a work in which all who have at heart the best interests of their country, of the immigrants who are now here, and of those who are still to come, should join hands to accomplish. As Mr. Robert Hunter has recently said:[3] "If we let the steamship companies and the railroads, wanting cheap labor, alone, we shall not decide what immigrants will be better for coming, and what ones the country most needs. They will decide it for us." There are two feasible remedies for reducing immigration now before congress. One, the illiteracy test, which has the support of the great majority of those who have studied the immigration problem carefully, and which has been strongly endorsed by President Roosevelt, the commissioner-general of immigration, and the boards of organized charity throughout the country. The other suggested by Congressman Robert Adams, Jr., of Pennsylvania, which would restrict to 80,000 the number of new immigrants who could come to us from any one foreign country in any one year. In his last Annual Report the Commissioner of Immigration at New York said:

I believe that at least 200,000 (and probably more) aliens came here (last year), who, although they may be able to earn a living, yet are not wanted, will be of no benefit to the country, and will, on the contrary, be a detriment, because their presence will tend to lower our standards; and.if these 200,000 persons could have been induced to stay at home, nobody, not even those clamoring for more labor, would have missed them. Their coming has been of benefit chiefly, if not only, to the transportation companies which brought them here.

To exclude this surplus of undesirable aliens, and to distribute the others over our farming districts where they can find suitable work and where they are wanted, is one of the most important problems before the people of this country.

  1. The italics are the present writer's.
  2. The Chautauquan, May, 1904, 224.
  3. The Commons, April, 1904, 117.