Below is an article
that appeared in the "New-York Daily Tribune" on
Oct. 3, 1909:
THE UNDESIRABLE IMMIGRANT DEFINED BY
Commissioner William Williams Wants
Him Kept Out Entirely.
by James B. Morrow
There is a new and yet experienced keeper at the big
gate that opens inward from the Atlantic, a stern man, reading the law
in the rigor and conscience of a judge, and yet with mercy and
compassion for all that.
Heretofore the policy at Ellis Island has been one of
indulgence toward the whole world, China, of course, excepted.
Everybody seems to be afraid of frugal, uncomplaining and industrious
China. Even William Williams said to me that the Chinese "might
ultimately drive us into the ocean."
"Besides immigration, in what other economic
question are you especially concerned?" I asked.
"I was never interested in immigration, as I
remarked before, until I came to Ellis Island. It has been said
that I have been a student of economic problems. The statement is
untrue. While at college I followed Professor William G. Summer
into free trade. After I left Yale and got into the realities of
everyday life I was compelled to readjust my views. I am now a
reasonable protectionist. Teachers at American colleges, by
stating merely one side of the subject, often make free traders of
their students. All economic questions should be fully explained,
and then left to the judgment, good sense and experience of the
young men who attend our colleges."
"Do you think Italian organ grinders are of any
practical, artistic or ethical value to the United States?" I
photo: William Williams,
Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.
"I don't see how they can be," Mr. Williams replied,
taking the question gravely, rather than jocularly. "And I would include
peddlers with the organ grinders. Yet they come. We may know that they
are to operate pushcarts and organs, but unless they are anarchists,
convicted criminals, polygamists, idiots, epileptics, paupers, insane
persons, are ill with some loathsome, dangerous or contagious disease,
or are likely to become charges upon the public, they must be admitted
to the country."
"What requirements in the way of cash in hand must an
immigrant meet before he can enter the United States?"
"There is no law on that branch of the immigration
question," Mr. Williams answered, "nor have I fixed upon a definite sum
of money that an immigrant must have when he reaches Ellis Island. I
think he ought to have $25 and a railroad ticket to the place where he
proposes to locate. Certain steamship companies are bringing men and
women to New York whose funds are entirely too meager for their support
against the time when they can obtain employment. Such action, I have
notified the steamship companies, is improper and must cease. I have
already given official notice that in most cases it will be unsafe for
an immigrant to have less than $25 in his pocket and a railroad ticket
for Chicago, St. Louis or the point of his destination. Still, men with
only $10 are passing through Ellis Island every day. You see, each man
must be judged by himself. However, I want the prospective immigrant to
understand before he starts for America that his interests and the
interests of this country demand that he have a certain amount of money
when he gets here. With less than $25 he is likely to become a public
charge. The law says such persons are not to be admitted. Thus the
decision is put upon me. Great Numbers of immigrants, practically
penniless, have been coming in recent years. They and the steamship
companies which bring them must realize that in the future there is
great danger of such persons being sent back."
"Isn't it easier to get into the United States than
in any other country of the world?"
"I am not informed as to that, but I know it is very much easier
for an immigrant to enter the United States than Canada, where there are
rigid regulations and where the laws are enforced. Every immigrant going
to Canada must have $25; if he comes from an Asiatic country, however,
he must have $200. When he arrives without the required amount of money,
a gift or a loan from a relative or friend already in the country does
him no good. Out of courtesy between nations, we permit an officer of
the Canadian immigrant service to observe the immigrants as they arrive
at Ellis Island. If a Russian or an Italian were to leave New York and
arrive at the border of Canada with $24, he would be denied entrance to
the country. So we tell the immigrants about the laws of Canada that
they may not spend their money for railroad fare and then be
"Are many aliens arriving from Northern Europe?"
"No; we are getting comparatively few Germans, for instance. It is
the same with the Irish, the Scotch and the English. The mass of our
immigration is now composed of people from Southern and Southeastern
"How can they be prevented from filling up the large cities and
oversupplying the demand for common labor?"
" I wish I knew," Mr. Williams answered. "As yet I have not made
many experiments, but the few immigrants I caused to be sent away from
New York were back again inside of two weeks. It is the nature of the
aliens who come here to live in the cities. Many of them are Jews. They
are small traders and merchants, and are physically and temperamentally
unfit to work on farms. In Argentina the government pays the railway
fare of the immigrants who desire to settle in rural districts. I
venture to say that if we went to the densely populated East Side of New
York and told the people the government would supply them with tickets
to the South and West, where farm labor is needed and wages are good,
scarcely any of them would agree to take the chance and move.
"The last census showed that most of the Poles in Illinois were in
Chicago, and that most of those in the State of New York were
concentrated in New York City and Buffalo. Of the total number of
Italians in Illinois, 72 per cent were in Chicago, and of those in New
York State 80 per cent were in New York City. The Russian Jew, as a
rule, settles in one of six states. Government reports tell us that the
slums of New York, Baltimore, Chicago and Philadelphia are made up in
large part of persons from Southeastern Europe, nearly half of whom
cannot read or write. The congestion of our large cities with newly
arrived immigrants is a very grave social problem, and I am free to
confess that I can give no help to its solution."
"Do any aliens, except Italians, return to their homes when times
"It was found two years ago, during the depression in business,
that other nationalities imitated the Italians in that peculiar respect.
Some persons believe that the ebb and flow of immigrants during periods
of prosperity and hard times is good for the country--that it is a
safety valve through which dangerous and explosive elements escape, to
the peace of society and the welfare of all. But such an opinion may be
entirely fallacious. Who goes back to Europe when the mines, mills and
factories stop? The good or the bad? If the bad return to their old
homes, this country is well rid of them. It is sensible to think,
however, that the good go, and that the bad remain.
"Most of our immigration," Mr. Williams continued, "is of value to
the nation. I shall say that 60 per cent of it is of such a character.
Perhaps 70 per cent would be nearer the facts of the case. Still, I
shall concede only 60 per cent by way of illustrating what I want to
say. Of the 40 per cent remaining, we can by law exclude one-half, or 20
per cent. Such excluded immigrants would embrace the classes I have
already mentioned--anarchists, convicted criminals, and so on--and
immoral women, procurers and other social outcasts. We can stop the scum
and dregs of Europe, but we cannot stop the remaining 20 per cent which,
though it may contain neither polygamists, idiots, insane or diseased
persons, paupers, nor former convicts, is undesirable in every respect.
The best and worst kinds of immigrants are comprehended by the laws we
already have. The undesirable minority to which I have referred, should
be properly described by statute, and efforts should be made to keep it
out of the United States.
UNDESIRABLES IN MAJORITY.
"It is well understood," Mr. Williams went on to say, "that the
peasant of Northern Italy, for example, is a better man than is the
peasant from Southern Italy. He is stronger physically; he is more
prudent and thrifty with his money, and he can generally read and write.
In Northern Italy 13 per cent of the population is illiterate, whereas
in Southern Italy 50 per cent of the population has no education
whatever. Yet for every Italian from the north we get six from the
south. I have said heretofore that the solid peasantry of Italy is
staying at home and not coming to the United States. Meanwhile the
immigration laws of this country draw no lines of difference between the
intelligent and useful alien and the ignorant man who can barely make a
"Whom would you include among the 'undesirable minority,' as you
call the hopeless 20 per cent?" I asked.
"Illiterate, poverty stricken persons of low vitality, who,
although they are physically able to perform only the cheapest kind of
manual labor, will live nowhere but in our largest cities. I claim that
they are a drag upon the American wage-earner, that their competition
tends to lower the standard of living in this country, and that they are
mentally and morally unfit for the right kind of citizenship.
Understand," Mr. Williams said, "that the law now gives them all the
privileges accorded to the German, the Swede, the Frenchman and the
immigrants from Great Britain. They are coming with the remainder, to
the profit of no one but the steamship companies. I am powerless to turn
them back. Nevertheless, it is my belief that they ought to be turned
back--that every immigrant who lands upon our shores should be a
national asset and not a social liability. If cheap labor is wanted,
then there is no logical objection to the Chinese, who can work hard and
who can live on less than almost any race in the world."
"How is it possible to detect a criminal when he attempts to pass
through Ellis Island and reach New York?"
"There are nearly forty questions which must be answered by
immigrants whose conduct or appearance arouses suspicion. But the number
of immigrants is so large that we haven't the time for a proper
examination of even those who seem to be of doubtful character. During
May, 1907, we received 115,000 aliens at Ellis Island, which meant that
our inspectors could give but two minutes to each immigrant. If a
criminal lies about himself and his record, and we haven't the time to
trip him up by his answers to our inquiries, he gets through, to become,
sooner or later, a citizen of this Republic. We pay for all kinds of
protection. The immigrant service is self-supporting, through the
operation of a head tax of $4 on each person who comes here. It seems to
me that the people ought to be willing to appropriate enough public
money properly to safeguard the principles and institutions of their own
country. We should have watchful agents at every port in Europe and
plenty of inspectors on Ellis Island."