Steerage Rate Wars
Immigrants and the Steamship Steerage Rate Wars
Printed in 1904 in the weekly U.S. magazine, The Nation
Further cuts in steerage rates went into effect on Monday. Immigrants can now obtain passage from several English and Scottish ports to New York for $10, where formerly they paid $25. This is the latest move in a rate war between rival steamship companies.
In consequence, however, much fear is expressed that the result may be to induce a large influx of highly undesirable aliens. The slums of Whitechapel, it is said, are prepared to discharge upon us a loathsome mass of poverty, filth, and disease, which, under the comparatively lax immigration laws of Great Britain, has for years poured in from Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Balkan States. According to Frank P. Sargent, Commissioner-General of Immigration, this noxious invasion has already begun.
We are inclined to think that the situation, actual and prospective, is greatly exaggerated. The immigration laws provide an adequate protection against dreaded inundation. Only a year ago these laws were re-enacted, added to, and in numerous ways made adaptable to present condition.
Under the new statute, practically all the objectionable aliens said to be tempted by reduced steerage rates may be excluded, and the responsibilities of the steamship companies increased. It groups objectionable immigrants under three heads — the physically and mentally deficient, the hopelessly poor, and the morally depraved.
It thus excludes all idiots, epileptics, and insane persons; all persons who have been insane for five years or who have had two attacks of insanity at any time. It is likewise prohibits the landing of all aliens suffering from loathsome or contagious diseases.
Under the second head come professional beggars, absolute paupers, and all who are likely to become public charges. Polygamists, anarchists — of philosophical or bomb-throwing variety — prostitutes, procurers, and persons who have been convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude,” are in the third class.
In addition, there is the contract laborer, with the much-enduring Chinaman. The law of 1903 also requires increased vigilance by steamship companies. They are forbidden to advertise, except in the most perfunctory way; and are made subject to a fine of $1,000 for every illegal immigrant they attempt to land.
They are required to make out complete manifests of all passengers, and answer a multitude of questions concerning their physical, mental and financial status. They must themselves deport all rejected immigrants, paying the expense of their maintenance while here. And the period during which they may be called upon to return landed immigrants who become paupers is increased from one to two years.
Though the new law has been in force little more than a year, it is said to be working well. In August last, the Government sent Mr. Marcus Braun to southeastern Europe to investigate its workings. His official report contains much that is pertinent to the present situation.
He found that the steamship companies, especially those engaged in the present rate war, were doing everything in their power to improve the quality of immigrants. They had curbed the enthusiasm of their agents, in some cases refusing commissions to those who improperly solicited business; and had taken every precaution to fortify themselves against diseased passengers.
In the main, Mr. Braun commends the English and German steamship lines for their rigid medical inspections. He also reports the cooperation of foreign Governments, especially Austria-Hungary and Italy. The mails are closed to alluring literature describing the American Eldorado.
Mr. Braun says that letters of this kind are confiscated by hundreds of thousands, so that the old abuse is practically ended. He found nothing to substantiate the popular notion that the Italian Government encouraged the emigration of undesirable subjects. On the contrary, it does everything to keep this very element away from America.
The Government, declares Mr. Braun, is in constant fear that the United States may pass laws against Italian immigration, which would be a serious thing for Italy, as whole towns in the southern part are supported mainly by remittances from America.
The Italian authorities, Mr. Braun found, had imprisoned several of the most notorious steamship “runners.” All over Europe it is generally understood that it is no easy thing to get into the United States. Thus, thousands of Russian Jews are sent to London, where they spend a probationary period of about six months, in the hope of putting themselves in sufficiently fit physical condition to gain admittance.
For the same reason, thousands of the prescribed classes land at Canadian and Mexican ports, with the hope of eventually slipping in over the border — unquestionably a real danger. The only immigration law generally despised and evaded is that against contract labor.
Thus there would seem to be no impending peril from present steamship rivalry. Like all wars, it is expensive. According to general belief, the companies lose money by every immigrant; and it is not likely that they will care to increase the expense by numerous $1,000 fines.
If they go to reckless extremes, our remedy is to enforce the laws. Such aspiring citizens as are undesirable we can keep out; such as are desirable, we are, of course, only too glad to let in. According to the latest immigration reports, a growing percentage of immigrants is excluded under the act of 1903.
Last year we sent back 8,769 at the steamship companies’ expense, against 4,974 in the previous year. The larger number of the diseased were Japanese, who of course, are not affected by the new steamship rates.
Evidently, however, our local officials have learned how to apply the new law; and it is to be presumed they will not hesitate, in the next few weeks, to make such use of it as occasion requires.
Source: The Nation, Volume 78, June 16, 1904, Page 465+