The Man at the Ellis Island Gate
" What questions will he ask? " " How much money will he take ?" " Will he deal gently with us ?" These are the questions which pass from lip to lip among those detained ; for the subjects of the Czar speak of the State in the personal pronoun. In fact the State is scarcely known in their vocabulary.
It is the person of the ruler which they know, and which they fear more than they revere. The State they have known, was to them very personal ; but to the new State, they are just so much human freight which needs to be inspected.
In the past this has been done not only impersonally but inhumanely as well, and that it is now done more humanely and justly so far as possible, we owe to " the man at the gate."
He passed through the gate himself in the old Castle Garden days, when not much system prevailed, when boarding-house keepers were let loose upon us, frightening us half out of our senses and completely out of our change.
His dollars were few; but like the average immigrant of to-day he possessed a buoyant spirit, a strong body, keen wits, and bright eyes out of which shone good nature and the spirit of the mischievous boy.
He was admitted without difficulty, and drifted into Pennsylvania where he shared the lot of the miner, his labour and his dangers. The miners then were recruited from the strongest immigrant stock and when they felt themselves strong enough to organize, he became one of the leaders.
The fact that he led many a rescue party to save his entombed comrades, and that he displayed courage and intelligence brought him into prominence, and the Governor of Pennsylvania chose him as State Factory Inspector.
In this position he made enemies enough among the employers to prove that he was faithful to the task set before him, which was, to enforce the laws regulating the conditions of labour in workshops and factories.
Later he was appointed inspector at Ellis Island at a time when the condition of that federal post was anything but pleasing to those of us who knew them, and who were concerned for the well-being of the immigrant.
Roughness, cursing, intimidation and a mild form of blackmail prevailed to such a degree as to be common. The commissioner in charge at that time was far above all this, and though made conscious of the conditions was seemingly powerless to discharge dishonest employees or in any way improve the morale of the place.
The new spirit had not yet come into politics and the spoils still belonged to the victors who made full use of the privilege. Among those who did their full duty and who smarted under the wrong done to this weak and helpless mass, was the once immigrant, now inspector.
The conditions steadily grew worse; at least the complaints grew more numerous. Experiences like my own were not rare. I knew that the money changers were " crooked," so I passed a twenty mark piece to one of them for exchange, and was cheated out of nearly seventy-five per cent, of my money. My change was largely composed of new pennies, whose brightness was well calculated to deceive any newcomer.
At another time I was approached by an inspector who, in a very friendly way, intimated that I might have difficulty in being permitted to land, and that money judiciously placed might accomplish something.
A Bohemian girl whose acquaintance I had made on the steamer, came to me with tears in her eyes and told me that one of the inspectors had promised to pass her quickly, if she would promise to meet him at a certain hotel.
In heartbroken tones she asked : " Do I look like that ? " The concessions were in the hands of irresponsible people and I remember the time when the restaurant was a den of thieves, in which the immigrant was robbed by the proprietor, whose employees stole from him and from the immigrant also.
My complaints when I made them were treated with the same neglect as were those of others, until with the coming in of the Roosevelt administration they had their resurrection, a change was demanded and the demand satisfied. . . .
Mr. William Williams, who was just back from Cuba where he had rendered distinguished service, and who had come under the notice of the President, was tendered the office of Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island.
Upon his acceptance, the President's instructions were to " clean out the stables." A large measure of reform was inaugurated during the two and one half years of Mr. Williams's incumbency of this office.
In looking for a successor, the President consulted the records, evidently with the purpose of discovering one thoroughly conversant with the conditions, and of experience coupled with executive ability, sufficient to further extend the needed reforms. Mr. Robert Watchorn was chosen for this important office.
This official announcement in relation to the appointment appeared in the daily press at this time :
"Washington, January 16, 1905.
" Robert Watchorn will succeed William Williams as United States Commissioner of Immigration at New York.
The appointment will be solely on merit. Mr. Watchorn is now United States Commissioner of Immigration at Montreal. He has been in the immigration service for many years, and his record is perfect."
I ventured to ask the Commissioner one day if he had been given any instructions by the President as to the course to be pursued. He replied : " Yes, the President gave me instructions very brief but very pointed. Mr. Watchorn, I am sending you to Ellis Island. -- You will find it a very difficult place to manage. -- I know you are familiar with the conditions. -- All I ask of you is that you give us an administration as clean as a hound's tooth.' "
Should one desire any further evidence that Ellis Island is a difficult place to manage, let him turn to this incident and its sequel in Senator Hoar's " Autobiography of Seventy Years " (Scribner's):
During the Christmas holidays of 1901 a very well-known Syrian, a man of high standing and character, came into my son's office and told him this story :
a neighbour and countryman of his had a few years before emigrated to the United States and established himself in Worcester. Soon afterwards, he formally declared his intention of becoming an american citizen.
After a while, he amassed a little money and sent to his wife, whom he had left in Syria, the necessary funds to convey her and their little girl and boy to Worcester. She sold her furniture and whatever other belongings she had, and went across Europe to France, where they sailed from one of the northern ports on a German steamer for New York.
Upon their arrival at New York it appeared that the children had contracted a disease of the eyelids, which the doctors of the Immigration Bureau declared to be trachoma, which is contagious, and in adults incurable. It was ordered that the mother might land, but that the children must be sent back in the ship upon which they arrived, on the following Thursday.
This would have resulted in sending them back as paupers, as the steamship company, compelled to take them as passengers free of charge, would have given them only such food as was left by the sailors, and would have dumped them out in France to starve, or get back as beggars to Syria.
The suggestion that the mother might land was only a cruel mockery. Joseph J. George, a worthy citizen of Worcester, brought the facts of the case to the attention of my son, who in turn brought them to my attention. My son had meanwhile advised that a bond be offered to the immigration authorities to save them harmless from any trouble on account of the children.
I certified these facts to the authorities and received a statement in reply that the law was peremptory, and that it required that the children be sent home; that trouble had come from making like exceptions theretofore; that the Government hospitals were full of similar cases, and the authorities must enforce the law strictly in the future.
Thereupon I addressed a telegram to the Immigration Bureau at Washington, but received an answer that nothing could be done for the children.
Then I telegraphed the facts to Senator Lodge, who went in person to the Treasury Department, but could get no more favourable reply. Senator Lodge's telegram announcing their refusal was received in Worcester Tuesday evening, and repeated to me in Boston just as I was about to deliver an address before the Catholic College there.
It was too late to do anything that night. Early Wednesday morning, the day before the children were to sail, when they were already on the ship, I sent the following dispatch to President Roosevelt :
" To the President,
"White House, Washington, D. C.
" I appeal to your clear understanding and kind and brave heart to interpose your authority to prevent an outrage which will dishonour the country and create a foul blot on the American flag. a neighbour of mine in Worcester, Mass., a Syrian by birth, made some time ago his public declaration for citizenship. He is an honest, hard-working and every way respectable man. His wife with two small children have reached New York.
" He sent out the money to pay their passage. The children contracted a disorder of the eyes on the ship. The Treasury authorities say that the mother may land but the children cannot, and they are to be sent back Thursday. ample bond has been offered and will be furnished to save the Government and everybody from injury or loss.
I do not think such a thing ought to happen under your administration, unless you personally decide that the case is without remedy. I am told the authorities say they have been too easy heretofore, and must draw the line now. That shows they admit the power to make exceptions in proper cases.
Surely, an exception should be made in case of little children of a man lawfully here, and who has duly and in good faith declared his intention to become a citizen.
The immigration law was never intended to repeal any part of the naturalization laws which provide that the minor children get all the rights of the father as to citizenship.
My son knows the friends of this man personally and that they are highly respectable and well off. If our laws require this cruelty, it is time for a revolution, and you are just the man to head it. GEORGE F. HOAR."
Half an hour from the receipt of that dispatch at the White House Wednesday forenoon, Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, sent a peremptory order to New York to let the children come in.
They have entirely recovered from the disorder of the eyes, which turned out not to be contagious, but only caused by the glare of the water, or the hardships of the voyage. The children are fair-haired, with blue eyes, and of great personal beauty, and would be exhibited with pride by any American mother.
When the President came to Worcester he expressed a desire to see the children. They came to meet him at my house, dressed up in their best and glorious to behold. The President was very much interested in them, and said when what he had done was repeated in his presence, that he was just beginning to get angry.
The result of this incident was that I had a good many similar applications for relief in behalf of immigrants coming in with contagious diseases. Some of them were meritorious, and others untrustworthy. In the December session of 1902 I procured the following amendment to be inserted in the immigration law.
" Whenever an alien shall have taken up his permanent residence in this country and shall have filed his preliminary declaration to become a citizen and thereafter shall send for his wife and minor children to join him, if said wife or either of said children shall be found to be affected with any contagious disorder, and it seems that said disorder was contracted on board the ship in which they came, such wife or children shall be held under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe until it shall be determined whether the disorder will be easily curable or whether they can be permitted to land without danger to other persons ; and they shall not be deported until such facts have been ascertained."
Senator Hoar had touched however, only one of the many phases of the situation. As the President said, it was still " a difficult place." Yet under Commissioner Watchorn changes were soon visible.
The place became cleaner ; a new and better system of inspection was organized, discipline was maintained and strengthened, the comfort of the immigrants was considered, the money changers were watched, dishonest, discourteous and useless employees were discharged ; and above all, the institution in its remotest corner was open to any one who wished to come and inspect the place which is so important in our economic and social life.
Heartier welcome than the Commissioner gives to the visitor cannot be imagined ; and you may take your place among the dozen or more who have come and who are watching him as he decides the destinies of human lives.
The cases which come before him are those upon which the special courts have already passed ; so you will see only the wreckage of humanity ; those who upon landing are barred by a law which is indefinite enough to leave the way open to human judgment for good or ill.
Two undersized old people stand before him. They are Hungarian Jews whose children have preceded them here, and who, being fairly comfortable, have sent for their parents that they may spend the rest of their lives together.
The questions, asked through an interpreter, are pertinent and much the same as those already asked by the court which has decided upon their deportation.
The commissioner rules that the children be put under a sufficient bond to guarantee that this aged couple shall not become a burden to the public, and consequently they will be admitted.
A Russian Jew and his son are called next. The father is a pitiable looking object ; his large head rests upon a small, emaciated body ; the eyes speak of premature loss of power, and are listless, worn out by the study of the Talmud, the graveyard of Israel's history. Beside him stands a stalwart son, neatly attired in the uniform of a Russian college student.
His face is Russian rather than Jewish, intelligent rather than shrewd, materialistic rather than spiritual. " Ask them why they came," the commissioner says rather abruptly. The answer is : " We had to."
" What was his business in Russia ?" " A tailor."
" How much did he earn a week ?" " Ten to twelve rubles."
" What did the son do ? " " He went to school."
" Who supported him ?" " The father."
" What do they expect to do in America ? " " Work."
" Have they any relatives ?" " Yes, a son and brother."
" What does he do ?" " He is a tailor."
" How much does he earn? " " Twelve dollars a week."
" Has he a family ? " " Wife and four children."
" Ask them whether they are willing to be separated ; the father to go back and the son to remain here ?"
They look at each other ; no emotion as yet visible, the question came too suddenly. Then something in the background of their feelings moves, and the father, used to self-denial through his life, says quietly, without pathos and yet tragically, "
Of course." And the son says, after casting his eyes to the ground, ashamed to look his father in the face, " Of course." And, " The one shall be taken and the other left," for this was their judgment day.
The next case is that of an Englishman fifty-four years of age, to whom the court of inquiry has refused admission. He is a medium-sized man, who betrays the Englishman as he stands before the commissioner, and in a strong, cockney dialect begins the conversation in which he is immediately checked by the somewhat brusque question :
" What did you do in England ?" " I was an insurance agent."
" How much did you earn? " Four pounds a week."
" Why do you come to America ? " " Because I want a change."
" How much change, that is, how much money have you ? " " Forty dollars."
" What do you expect to do here ? " " Work at anything."
" At insurance ? " " Yes."
" The decision of the court is confirmed; deported, because likely to become a public charge." Evidently insurance agents are not regarded as desirable immigrants.
The next case is a sickly looking Russian Jew over forty years of age, with an impediment in his speech and physically depleted. He is guaranteed an immediate earning of ten dollars a week. The commissioner turns towards his visitors and asks, " What would you do in this case ?
" The answers differ, the majority favouring his admission. Although he values our judgment the commissioner is compelled to confirm the decision of the court. It is all done quickly, firmly and decisively as a physician, conscious of his skill, might sever a limb ; but it is done without prejudice.
He knows no nationality nor race, his business is to guard the interests of his country, guarding at the same time the rights of the stranger.
Work of this kind cannot be done without friction, for intense suffering follows many of his decisions. Yet I have found no one closely acquainted with the affairs of the island, who does not regard the " man at the gate " as the right man in the right place.
It is interesting to follow him on one of his rounds ; for he watches closely the workings of his huge machine. " Why don't you let those people sit down ? " A long line of Italians had been standing closely crowded against each other when they should have been seated to await their turn.
" Open that box," he says, to a lunch counter man, who forthwith opens box after box containing luncheons bought by the immigrants as they are starting westward ; boxes containing rations enough for a day or two, according to the length of the journey undertaken.
Out upon the roof, shaded, protected and guarded are many who still await the decision of the court. Little children who came all alone and who often wait for their parents, in vain; wives whose husbands have not yet come as they promised they would ; a promiscuous company of unhappy mortals of various degrees.
One child, a little girl, sees her father far away among those who come to claim their loved ones ; but the law still holds the child, and she cries : " Tate, Tateleben," and he calls back to her ; but his voice is caught by the wind, and the " man at the gate " has to be the comforter for a season ; and no one knows how long it may be before her own father will comfort her.
A blind old mother here awaits tidings from her son that she may be speeded on towards her destination, and when she hears his voice demands to know just when she may go ; and she, too, draws on the sympathies of the " man at the gate."
We follow him into a room which harbours some eight or ten young women marked for deportation. They are gaily attired and betray at a glance that they belong to the guild of the daughters of the street.
They claim to have come to America for all sorts of purposes ; but they were caught with the men who imported them, members of a firm whose business it is to supply the New York market with human flesh.
They know neither shame nor remorse ; it is all crushed out of them, and they brazenly demand to know just when they may go into New York to begin their careers. America will be none the worse for their speedy departure.
We have seen " the lame, the halt and the blind " and one is apt to think that they represent the normal type of immigrants ; while they are really but a small fraction of the mass which is strong, young, industrious and virtuous and which makes of the " man at the gate " an optimist.
He does not share the feeling that the immigration of to-day is worse than that of the past ; in fact he will say quite freely that it is growing better every day. He has his fears and forebodings ; but he knows that the miracle of transformation wrought on us, can still be wrought on this mass which is just like us, in that it is like clay in the hands of the potter, which may be moulded just as millions of us have been moulded, into the likeness of a new humanity. The danger, he does not hesitate to say, lies less in the clay than in the potter.
The visit over, we take the little boat for the battery, crowding through a mass of men who look up to the guarded roof where their loved ones are detained.
" Tate Tateleben " comes the painful cry of the little children, and one envies the man at the gate who on the morrow may answer these cries and give the children to their fathers and the wives to their husbands ; who may unite those who have been divided by long years and a wide sea. . . . But what if he cannot answer the cry of the children ?
The " man at the gate" need not be envied for the hard, daily task which awaits him ; the task of opening or shutting the gates, of saying : " This one shall be taken, and the other shall be left."
Clear and vivid before his eyes constantly stands the law, commanding him, on his allegiance, to refuse admission, not merely to those physically or morally tainted in such degree as to endanger the nation's life, but to those " persons likely to become a public charge."
He is not responsible for the law. He is responsible for its execution, even though his decisions sometimes are not less hard for himself than for those who find the gates shut against them.
It requires a buoyant spirit, a steady hand, a tender heart, and a resolute mind. He must be both just and kind, show no preferences and no prejudices, guard the interests of his country and yet be humane to the stranger.
To be able to say of " the man at the gate " that he accomplishes this in a very large measure is not scant praise ; and if here and there his judgment is questioned, it simply proves that he is as human as his critics.
Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906