Investigative Classics is a weekly feature on noteworthy past examples of the reporting craft.
America is a nation of immigrants – and it has always been a nation wary of immigrants. In an article published in the San Francisco Call in 1907, Harvard lecturer Sydney A. Reeves observed, “For 60 years we, as a nation, regardless of whether our continent yet contained undeveloped territory, as in 1847, or undeveloped possibilities, as in 1907, have been objecting strenuously to immigration.”
Reeves’ article also makes clear that the concerns about legal immigrants sounded a century ago are similar to those expressed today by President Trump and others concerned about illegal immigration:
Arrivals at Ellis Island, 1902.
Tales of murder, arson, blackmail and more horrifying crimes are clogging the newspapers nowadays. And with them comes again the ever new and ever old question. “Are the immigrant hordes that pour into America to blame?” Police Commissioner Bingham of New York outspokenly lays at the door of the immigrant the responsibility for the late outbreak of unspeakable crimes against little girls, and for this he has been harshly criticized in some quarters. … That portion of our citizens which is interested in the labor market is in chronic rebellion against this influx of cheap labor, destined to compete upon an un-American basis with American labor. Those of us who are interested in purity of politics see in the inflowing torrent a current supply of corruptibles upon whose votes political machines may be reared and supported.
Reeves, however, is no opponent of immigration. Instead, his article tries to use economics and other presumably scientific methods to demonstrate that immigrants are a boon to the country. His arguments are strikingly similar to those made today in favor of illegal immigrants. Chief among these are the claim that immigrants are less prone to crime than people born here:
One bad apple: wanted poster for Black Hand activity, 1910.
As to criminality, we can find none supporting the theory that in general immigration is of a criminal sort. Here and there may be found minor facts and figures on that side, it is true. The southern Italians, without question, are unusually illiterate and addicted to the settlement of differences by stiletto. So, too, are the mountaineers of American Tennessee. We even identify the Italians roughly with the Black Hand system of blackmail. The south Italians are but a small fraction of all immigration; the class of crimes to which they are prone is a minor one in our criminal records: the blackmail extorted by the Black Hand is but a drop in the bucket compared with the volume of extortion currently practiced by American businessmen, within and without the law, against American born victims. Viewing the situation broadly, there is no decisive evidence pointing to the criminality of the average immigrant. There is much pointing to his superiority over the average native American in industry, sobriety and the patient toleration of adverse conditions without outbreak.
A companion piece written by Robert Watchorn, an immigration commissioner at Ellis Island, echoed Reeves’ argument with the politically incorrect bluntness of his day:
It is not the scum of Europe we are getting, but the pick of the most earnest and hard working of its population. As to the morality of the immigrants of today, it seems to me that it compares favorably with that of our native born population.
Watchorn also noted how the changing composition of immigrant populations was stoking concern:
Reflection of the past? Central American migrants, 2018.
The modern immigrant of today, it seems to me, is greatly misunderstood. We hear a great deal of talk about the menace of the immigrant from the south of Europe. A few decades ago most of the immigrants came from Ireland, while Germany ranked second and Great Britain third. Italy and Russia sent comparatively few. Today the situation is practically reversed. Last year we received 267,000 from Italy, 192,000 from Russia and but 24,000 from Ireland and 30,000 from Germany. From Austria and Hungary some 292,000 reached our shores. It is unfair to say that the north of Europe is no longer represented. But are the immigrants from the southern countries dangerous or undesirable? The statistics of crime do not prove it. The Italian is a hard worker. We should remember that the Latin people were highly civilized when the north of Europe was peopled with savages. The southern countries may not have progressed of late, but the impulse is still there, and with unlimited opportunities of America before them who can tell what they may not accomplish in the future?