Immigration: America’s Longest Debate
The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century or, the Progressive Era, witnessed several reform movements such as: the Prohibition movement, the Woman Suffragist movement, and the Anti-immigration movement. Each of these movements have had a lasting impact on the American fabric. The focus of this paper however, is the Anti-immigration movement in the Progressive Era. Many authors have written extensively on the topic and have provided this paper a firm base to stand in order to shed more light on the topic. The question which this paper attempts to answer is: what impact did the United States Immigration Commission have on the immigration debate of the Progressive Era, which led to the most sweeping immigration policies in American history? Based on archival records of the United States Immigration Commission, this paper argues that the various anti-Semitic and anti-immigration reports of the United States Immigration Commission added to the proliferation of anti-immigrant sentiments, and ultimately impelled Congress to assert tighter immigration restrictions in the Progressive Era.
The concept of race as it relates to immigration was not understood in the same way in the Progressive age as it is in contemporary time. Race in the Progressive Era was viewed through an ethnic prism, whereby Americans identified the other through ancestral and cultural differences. Therefore, the battle over immigration pinned Europeans against Europeans. People of color were largely prohibited entry into the United Sates. This interpretation of race created a strong sense of nationalism in America. Two schools of thought were formed to explain the phenomenon of race in America. Americans who credited the greatness of America to their “Anglo Saxon ancestry (Higham 133)” largely constituted the immigration restrictionist elements of the Progressive Era. Those Americans who saw America’s greatness in its emerging diversity generally fell in the pro-immigration camp. Many Americans however, accepted both of these ideas simultaneously and were mostly impartial on the debate. For our purposes, we will focus on the two extremes.
The old generation of immigrants largely came from: England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Germany between the years 1860-1890; those areas comprising mostly Northern and Western Europe of Anglo Saxon Ancestry. This first wave of immigrants was favored because of their racial similarities to American born whites. They arrived with pioneering and agricultural skills and spirit which the time called for. There was much land and enough work to support their immigration. Excluding the Irish, they were believed to be much easier to assimilate into the American society (Brown 25, Stephenson 9, Poyntz 34-35).
The new generation of immigrants mostly came from Austrian-Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Rumania, Russia, Serbia, Spain, Syria, and Turkey; those areas jointly recognized as South and Eastern Europe between the years 1890-1914. Their coming was largely influenced by industrialization and the various changes it brought about. Industrialization pushed European peasants and farmers of the countryside to the cities. These new city dwellers found social mobility to be difficult in Europe because the culture of serfdom was still prominent. Therefore, the new city dwellers were denied equal opportunity and equal treatment by the elites of their European societies (Handlin 2, 24-29, Stephenson 9). In addition, the working wage of farmers and laborers in much of Europe had significantly decreased, putting many farmers and unskilled laborers in a tight position.
To the new immigrants, America promised liberty, freedom, and economic prosperity; things that they were denied by their home country. As a result of these factors, South Eastern European immigrants made up 77 percent of American immigration between the years 1901-1910 (Dillingham 5-11, 1911). The new culture and ethnic makeup of this new stock was seen by American immigration restrictionists as a threat to the American culture and society as a whole because of their presumed backwardness (Higham 137). Immigration restrictionists feared that these strangers would mix with the pure Anglo Saxon races in America and permeate every aspect of the society and ultimately destroy their democratic state – as they were unaccustomed to the values and practices of democracy (Dillingham 54-55 Hadlin 24-29, Higham 137-156). Roger Daniels argues that nativist sentiments always existed in America. In the late 1830s-1850s anti-immigration attitudes were aimed at the German and Irish Catholic immigrants. Between the years 1870-1882 the target of anti-immigrationsts were Chinese immigrants. What differentiated nativism in the Progressive Era was the holistic hatred of all new immigrants (Daniels 265).
By the year 1907, anti-immigrant sentiments had reached its zenith. As a response to this situation, the United States House of Representatives established the Immigration Commission to go into Europe to conduct a survey on the causes and condition of countries from which immigrants came. The commission which was headed by Vermont Senator William Paul Dillingham, a staunch anti-immigrant, conducted its survey over the course of two months, splitting its time between the various pockets of European immigration (Dillingham 1-2, 1911). The findings of the commission exacerbated the immigration debate of the 20th century and ultimately provided peremptory evidence for the proponents of anti-immigration in Congress. The very “old” and “new” immigrant classification which has been adopted by many authors on the subject was coined by the commission in their attempt to distinguish the new wave of immigrants from earlier immigrants.
In this initial report and subsequent reports, the Immigration Commission laid the ground work for their case against immigration. Their first strategy was to make the case to the American public that the native countries from which new immigrants came did not favor immigration. These countries, according to the report, did not favor immigration largely because many of the citizens who immigrated were of military service age. Most of those who decided to leave their native lands were males 14 years of age and older (Dillingham 19-26 1911). Another reason why the native countries of new immigrants did not support immigration, according to the report, was that mass immigration led to “agricultural and economic loss” for the home country (Dillingham 27-28, 1911). Many of the immigrants, while at home, largely occupied low skill labor and agricultural jobs which paid them little to nothing. The immigration of this group left many of those jobs vacant, and those who were willing to do them sought a wage increase. Therefore, the immigration of these persons lead to a depletion of low wage labor force and ultimately higher costs for goods and services. The purpose for such an account of the European situation was an attempt to establish a link between negative immigration sentiments in the United States and the home country of new immigrants. It is basically the old notion that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The line of thinking is as follows: The countries from which immigrants are coming do not want them to leave because their emigration has a negative effect on their country. We don’t want the immigrants in our country because we don’t want them to negatively affect our system. It is therefore in the interest of every party to avoid immigration all together. This idea resonated with many Americans.
Of all the new immigrant groups, the commission saw the Jews as the biggest threat to the American establishment. First, the commission evidenced the fact that the Jews, unlike most of the other new immigrants, were skilled laborers. The implications are that Jews would easily compete with native born whites for skilled occupations and perhaps even worse; monopolize the various skilled trades (Dillingham 47-50 1911 Edmund, Andrews, Flynn, Paulding, and Charlotte 17). With the fear of a shrinking job market and increased competition already ingrained in the American consciousness, these reports served as an instrument to validate America’s fears. In addition, the commission also reported that generally, the new immigrants were more educated than old immigrants but that the Jews were among the most educated of the new immigrants. There existed this fear in the conscience of Americans which held that given their education, the Jews could easily infiltrate the American political system to create a “United Israel in America” (Dillingham 50, Edmund, Andrews, Flynn, Paulding, and Charlotte 17). Ironically, the same proponents of immigration restriction also argued that the Jewish immigrant was unknowledgeable of the U.S. political system and its operation, and as a result of this ignorance they often got their education from corrupt ghetto city party bosses who could easily bribe the new comers (Edmund, Andrews, Flynn Paulding, and Charlotte 38-39).
Besides providing a general overview of the immigration situation, the U.S Immigration Commission also conducted specific research surveys in various areas. In the June 15, 1910 report, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on the iron and steel industry in the Mid-West. Much like the previous report, this report was aimed at inflaming the fire of immigration restriction sentiments and providing further support to immigration restriction proponents. The report found that the number of immigrant iron and steel workers in the Mid-West exponentially grew between the years 1880-1890 and dropped off from 1890-1900. While the overall work-force saw a significant decrease, the proportion of white native to foreign whites completely changed (Dillingham 7-9, 1911).Whereas between the years 1880-1890 the general makeup of the iron and steel workforce was English, Irish Scottish, Walsh, Canadian, German, Norwegian, and Swedish old immigrants; between the years 1890-1900 the iron and steel workers largely comprised of Italian, Polish, and Russian new immigrants (Dillingham 16-18, 1911). In the year 1890, roughly 30,000 native whites worked in the iron and steel industry compared to nearly 25,000 foreign whites. In the year 1900, 10,636 native whites worked in the industry compared to 18,166 foreign whites (Dillingham 9, 1991). The purpose of this was to illustrate in raw numbers the increase of immigrants in the US job market and was an attempt to demonstrate that immigrants were taking over American jobs.
A few ambitious new immigrants went into the banking business as a source of income. Many new immigrants unaccustomed to the American way of life, who faced hardship at the hands of native born white Americans, naturally felt more inclined to do business with other new immigrants; especially those of their own ethnicity. Because of the negative attitudes Americans had of new immigrants, new immigrants were discriminated against in various aspects of American society, including banking. As a result of the growing new immigrant population, more and more private immigrant operated banks arose throughout the country. In the wake of immigration backlash, these immigrant run institutions faced detrimental scrutiny. In their 1911 report, the Immigration Commission reported the practice of cronyism amongst immigrant owned banks and warned that there was no accountability or supervision in immigrant banking systems (Dillingham 415). They sounded the alarm that immigrants were only using banks as a means of safe keeping their deposits and sending money back to their native countries (Dillingham 426). The commission noted that this practice had been taking place prior to the 1907 financial depression but became magnified after the crash. Furthermore, many of these private immigrant run banks operated illegally in states that outlawed private banking and often neglected to go through the process of regulations which the state required. The facts of this reporting further fed into the widely believed notion that new immigrants were disloyal and untrustworthy. This also played into the leading notion of the time which contended that immigrants were incapable of assimilating to the American way because they were too enshrined in their own culture and habits.
The commission further exploited American fears of the new immigrants by associating the new comers with anarchism, and communism. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. This event stirred within Americans, a deep detest for such persons. The German immigrant experienced much backlash for allegedly embracing the communist and anarchist ideology of his motherland (Stephenson 144). This experience would later lead to the prevision in the Comprehensive Immigration Act of 1917 which excluded anarchists from entering the US. Between the years 1914-1919, immigration to the United States was virtually halted due to WWI. Immediately following the war, the number of immigrants drastically dropped to a net total of 150,000 (Daniels 278).