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Immigration in the U.S. Hasn’t Changed in 100 Years

And I’ve got the freaky historical evidence to prove it.

Katlyn Roberts
Apr 28, 2019 · 14 min read
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Image by skeeze from Pixabay

ome along, dear reader, on a racist, xenophobic, antisemitic journey through time.

We’ll start slow by only going back a year, when former Chief of Staff John Kelly said a whole lotta nonsense in his May, 2018 interview with NPR. Try not to barf.

“Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into the United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS13. … But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing. … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills. They’re not bad people. They’re coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. … The big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States, and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

Fuck right off, John Kelly.

Now take a look at this letter from 1912 which quotes the Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York (Ellis Island) — a mister William Williams Esq.

You’ll notice that it’s a photocopy of the original letter and if you’re reading on a phone, I apologize for the small print. I guess I figured zooming in was a small price to pay for getting to read a super old, lost-to-history letter like you’re freaking Nancy Drew. So get your pinching fingers out and pretend they’re your magnifying glass.

It may also help if you read these sections with the voice of Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman in your head — as though this was a Ken Burns documentary and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” is playing on repeat in the background.

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Did you read it? I hope you read it. There’s going to be more.

William Williams Esq. may be talking about Eastern European Jews while John Kelly is talking about anyone with a brown face, but the sentiment is exactly — and I mean exactly — the same.

Let me give you some background as to how this incredible letter was brought to my attention and then I’ll go into the rest of it, ok?

Immigrating AWAY from the U.S.?

My mom recently got it into her head that my dad and I may be eligible for Romanian citizenship and therefore EU citizenship. I don’t know what could have possibly caused her to start imagining alternative options to living in the US…

(Pretend there’s a picture of Trump here. I can’t stomach the google image search.)

It turns out Romania’s pretty lax on their citizenship laws. All you need is a grandparent who was born there and you (and all your children) are in. According to an undercover investigation by EU Observer, even if you don’t have a grandparent who was born there, you can buy your citizenship pretty easily through back-channels for as little as €1,500. Ever since Romania joined the EU in 2007, there’s been an influx of new applicants from all over the world. The rest of the EU has tried to hint that Romania should cool it a bit on welcoming their lost kin back into the club, but Transylvania don’t give a bat’s ass.

For the record, I have a great-grandparent who is, indeed, from Romania. No backchannels necessary because my mom, Baby Boomer Hermione Granger, has decided that if my paternal great-grandfather’s birth certificate is out there, she’s going to find it.

She hasn’t found the birth certificate yet. What she DID find while sifting through the National Archives is so much better.

Educating the President:

My mother’s attempt to immigrate away from the country my great-grandfather immigrated to, just shy of a century ago, caused her to stumble upon this letter, penned in 1912, by a neighborhood of immigrants to the President of the United States, William H. Taft. The contents of the letter sent chills down her spine and she sent it to me via email with the subject line:

“This is so eerie. History repeats itself.”

This neighborhood of Eastern-European immigrants wrote to the President to call his attention to the comment above, which — again — was made by the Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island. The neighborhood was highly offended by the comments of the Commissioner and rightly so. He had called them out specifically for being the type of immigrants he deemed “unworthy”.

I’m telling you, this letter is a gem. When I read it in its entirety, I marveled at the neighborhood’s tactics for responding to the commissioner’s comments and appealing to the President. But before I get into their actual slapback, it’s important that I lay out how our “leaders” have been trying to pull the exact same hyperbole on us for well over 100 years. My jaw dropped to the floor when I read the comments of these two officials side-by-side — one from 1911 and one from 2018.

Anti-Immigrant Sentiment, 107 years apart, side-by-side:

We’ll start with the Commissioner from 1911. Remember Luther, Obama’s Anger Translator? The character brilliantly played by Keegan Michael Key to translate Obama’s cool-as-a-cucumber addresses into the anger we were all feeling on his behalf? William Williams Esq. sounds like Trump’s English translator — a character used to translate Trump’s incomprehensible racist nonsense into flowery, complete racist sentences.

What I’m trying to say is he’s articulate trash. Trash that oversaw the goings-on at Ellis Island at the peak of what we imagine to be the golden years of American immigration. And even back in 1911, this dude was insisting that “the new immigration, unlike that of the earlier years, proceeds in part from the poorer elements of the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.”

I call bullshit on these “earlier years”, Bill Billiams. Immigrants to the US have always varied in economic status and, these days, modern racist pricks like Kelly are waxing poetic about your time. The Emma Lazarus poem was cast in bronze and mounted inside the Statue of Liberty nine years before this letter was written, but you never really cared about tired, poor, huddled masses, did you, Bill?

Did you notice when you read the two statements earlier that one man’s “poorer elements” is another man’s “rural people”? Has rural always been code for poor or did that happen sometime over the last 100 years? When did it switch from “urban” to “rural”?

“Not bad people” is clearly today’s code for “backwards races” Different words, same intention.

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“Welcome to the Land of Freedom” courtesy of the Library of Congress

They both like this word “assimilate” though:

“…they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.”

“….backwards races with customs and institutions widely different from ours and without the capacity of assimilating with our people as did the early immigrants.”

Both monolingual men are overly concerned that people are saying stuff about them behind their backs:

“They don’t speak English; obviously that’s a big thing.”

“They often herd together, forming in effect foreign colonies in which the English language is almost unknown.”

But perhaps the most offensive aspect of these men’s comments has to do with how stupid and useless they seem to think immigrants are:

“In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. …They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”

“Many of those coming from these sources have very low standards of living, possess filthy habits, and are of an ignorance which passes belief.”

The only big difference I can find, really, in these two gentleturd’s statements is that Commissioner Commissioner Esq. actually called out a specific neighborhood -

The tenement districts of Elizabeth, Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City:

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So let’s hop back over to 1912 and take a look around. Because the racism and xenophobia of old white guys is super boring and predictable by now, but the way that this neighborhood responds to being slandered? Now that’s newsworthy.

The residents of the tenement districts of Elizabeth, Orchard and Rivington and East Houston Streets, New York City, will NOT be disrespected. They use the rest of their letter to assert that their neighborhood is filled with people who “…have come to this country for the purpose of establishing permanent homes, of rearing and educating their children as good Americans, and of enjoying the blessings of freedom, at the same time assuming and performing the obligations which residence and citizenship entail.”

Don’t mess with NYC:

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Remember when libel was something you could actually accuse someone of? Is that still a thing? If thousands of Jersey City Muslims sued Trump for libel, would they win?

The letter goes on to assert that a potential side-effect of Commissioner Bill Esq.’s statements is that they may “arouse unwarrantable prejudices against immigrants, especially among immigration inspectors, who are his subordinates and who, as has been pointed out by the Congressional Immigration Commission, are at present disposed ‘in a greater or less degree to reflect in their decisions the attitude of the Commissioner’, thus ‘tending to impair the judicial character of the Board’.”

(Read about the horrors being inflicted on immigrant communities by ICE agents in the Trump era.)

“Under the circumstances we are impelled, not only for self-protection but because we believe it to be our duty as citizens, to protest against these wanton and unjustifiable reflections upon us; against this attempt on the part of a public official to discriminate among those who have passed through the gate at Ellis Island, and who have become absorbed in the general population of this country.”

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Everyone (*cough* all the men) in the neighborhood signed this thing. The list goes on for three pages and it consists mostly of Jewish names. This is an important factor to consider.

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Jewish people experience a lot of prejudice here in America. There has been a resurgence of proud Naziism ever since Trump got into office. Anti-Semitic hate crimes rose 57% in 2017 from 2016 and have been rising ever since. That’s insane.

My dad’s Jewish. We lived in San Francisco, so I’ve never been that worried about him, but I won’t lie — the images from Charlottesville, particularly the VICE coverage by Elle Reeve, put the fear of God in me. And even though Trump seems to be getting along ever so splendidly with Israeli leaders (don’t tell me that doesn’t say something about Israeli leaders), he makes consistent anti-semitic remarks that show how he really feels.

I want to take this opportunity to make a teensy-weensy, semi-controversial point:

I think this letter probably got taken more seriously by President Taft because Jewish people, while certainly Jewish, are also white. I think that, had this letter been written by a neighborhood filled with POC, it would have been thrown in the trash and forgotten about like so many letters written by the refugee students of the woman who received last year’s National Teacher of the Year Award. (To clarify, she handed the student-written letters to Trump and Trump probably threw them away. I can’t prove that, but I believe it.)

My point is that, while anti-semitism is indeed a real and serious threat, the majority of white Americans have a much easier time empathizing with a marginalized community that at least looks like them. Privilege is a spectrum. Black lives matter. LatinX lives matter. Muslim lives matter. Get it together, America.

That doesn’t diminish what this neighborhood went through though. They were brave as hell to write this letter and not pull any punches. And you know the Chosen People don’t choose to be so bitingly sarcastic and clever …they just can’t help themselves.

They followed up with a detailed study of the statistics of the neighborhood:

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Ok guys, calm down.

But they go on to list every. single. establishment. in the neighborhood.

Religion and Education:

104 Congregations, 1 Cemetery Office, 2 Churches, 53 Hebrew Schools, 2 Public Libraries, 3 Private Schools, 9 Public Schools, and 3 Social Settlements (whatever that means.)


2 Bowling Alleys, 5 Clubs, 1 Dancing Academy, 7 Moving Picture Places (Endgame, anyone?), 5 Billiard and Pool Rooms (We got trouble!), 1 Theatre, 8 Halls and Meeting Room Buildings, and a whopping 112 Candy and Ice Cream Parlors. What could be more American than that??

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Is there really a need to list all of these establishments? Yes. Yes there is. Because Lil’ Willy Billiams the Commissioner Esq. has sullied their good name and Elizabeth, Orchard, Rivington and East Houston streets are not here for that. This neighborhood is prepared to be completely transparent if it means getting this guy off their back.

You wanna say something about our skills? Huh? You wanna tell us we can’t assimilate? That we have low standards of living? You wanna say something about the number of saloons we have? Huh? THEY’RE ATTACHED TO RESTAURANTS.

The list goes on for a while and I’m not going to include it all here but I find myself super fascinated with the businesses that have gone completely extinct over the last 100 years.

What the hell is a Millinary Shop? Google says it’s a kind of hat shop, but the list already has 28 Men’s Hat Shops and 14 Cap Manufacturing Establishments. You’re wearing a lot of hats, immigrants.

Did you know that there used to be such a thing as an “Egg Store”? That’s a store where you just buy eggs. They had 17 of them. Stores, not eggs.

2 Phonograph Stores. Very hipster.

36 News Stands. FAKE.

They even have a telephone exchange. And the fact that everyone else is doing it and the phones are getting kinda glitchy does not mean they’re going to upgrade to iOS 12.2.

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These people are striking, alright? Striking, Mr. President! We all know how America loves beautiful people. They didn’t have the Queer Eye guys back then, but they made it work.

And in reference to that comment about how they can’t read:

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Fascinating! So, if I’m understanding correctly, these tenements served as a kind of learning center for new immigrants where they could learn English, find jobs, spruce themselves up, and venture out.

While I don’t agree that assimilation into white Christian culture is necessary (there are plenty of self-sustaining culturally-specific neighborhoods across America and the only people pissed about that just want the land these neighborhoods are sitting on or are being riled-up by people who just want the land these neighborhoods are sitting on), William Williams, Commissioner Mess-quire certainly can’t complain about lack of assimilation anymore, can he?

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You guys… it ends there.

That’s the end.

I skipped a few parts, so if you want to read the letter in its entirety, have at it. I don’t know if that’s actually how the letter ended or if that’s all the National Archives have. I really wanted some kind of a final smack-down of a statement. “We practice our religion because to not do so makes us super anxious,” doesn’t exactly leave me with both fists in the air. Nevertheless, this was good. This worked.

Sort of.

In 1913, an immigration bill passed in the house which would have required that all incoming immigrants submit to a literacy test. I was surprised to learn that Taft …vetoed the bill. Though he was still kind of a dick about it:

“I do this with great reluctance. The bill contains many valuable amendments to the present immigration law which would ensure greater certainty in excluding undesirable immigrants. The bill received strong support in both houses and was recommended by an able commission after extended investigation and carefully drawn conclusions. But I cannot make up my mind to sign a bill which in its chief provision violates a principle that was, in my opinion, to be upheld in dealing with our immigration. I refer to the literacy test. …I cannot approve that test.

No doubt the law would exclude a considerable portion of immigration from southern Italy, among the Poles, the Mexicans and the Greeks. These exclusions would embrace in large part probably undesirable, but also a great many desirable people, and the embarrassment, expense and distress of those who seek to enter would be out of all proportion to any good that can possibly be promised for this measure. My observation leads me to the conclusion that, so far as the merits of the individual immigrant are concerned, the test is altogether overestimated. The people who come from the countries named frequently are illiterate because opportunities have been denied them. The oppression with which these people have to contend in modern times is not religious, but it consists of a denial of the opportunity to acquire reading and writing. Frequently the attempt to learn to read and write the language of the particular people is discouraged by the government and those immigrants in coming to our shores are really striving to free themselves from the conditions under which they have been compelled to live.”

Ew. Inner conflict.

Does Taft deserve a little credit for his empathy even though he called people “undesirables”? Probably not because it was literally the least he could do.

According to a blog on LiveJournal called Presidential History Geeks (Which so far has been a joy to dig through but who knew LiveJournal was still a thing?), the literacy act of 1917 included a literacy requirement which was vetoed by Woodrow Wilson as well, but overridden by Congress because there was a war on and people were antsy. “The law stated that immigrants over 16 years of age should read 30 to 80 words in ordinary use. After World War I, the number of immigrants, including those from Eastern and Southern Europe, remained high despite the literacy test.”

You know who would pass a literacy test these days? DACA kids. You know who wouldn’t pass a literacy test? Our own president, who doesn’t even read his own briefings (or proofread his tweets), whose paternal grandparents were born in Germany and whose own mother was born in Scotland, whose 3rd wife is from Slovenia. Can you believe that this guy, of all guys, is claiming to be the most American American to ever America?

Good thing good-guy John Kelly is still around to put that guy in his place:

“In an interview on stage at Duke University, former White House chief of staff John Kelly, who left the administration in January, tore into his former boss’s immigration platform, calling the wall a ‘waste of money’ and breaking with the president’s characterization of immigrants from Mexico and Central America as violent and dangerous to Americans. ‘They’re overwhelmingly not criminals,’ Kelly said. ‘They’re people coming up here for economic purposes. I don’t blame them for that.’

‘We don’t need a wall from sea to shining sea,’ the retired general added.”

Eric Lutz for Vanity Fair

Too little too late, Johnny! Though I can see now why you’re so impatient for other people to “assimilate. You “assimilate” into whatever policies suit your career faster than my mom can send me five more emails I may or may not read.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Katlyn Roberts

Written by

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Katlyn Roberts

Written by

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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