From the Pale to the Golden Land
Ellis Island: Port of Immigration

Home       l       Site Map      l      Exhibitions      l     About the Museum       l      Education      l     Contact Us       l      Links

The Undesirable Immigrant Defined by an Expert
as reported by the New-York Daily Tribune

Ellis Island, View of Immigration Station, cir 1902-13.

cir 1902-13.
courtesy of the New York Public Library's Digital Gallery.

Below is an article that appeared in the "New-York Daily Tribune" on Oct. 3, 1909:


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."

William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island.


"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 asked.

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 disappointed."

"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 Europe."

"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 are bad?"

"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.


"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 living."

"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."   next ►►






Home       |       Site Map       |      Exhibitions      |      About the Museum       |       Education      |      Contact Us       |       Links

Copyright 2008-9. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved. 
Image Use Policy.