A Brief History of U.S. Immigration: Not America's Finest Hour
A time to reflect: 100 years ago this week, my mother, age 3, arrived in America; she barely made it
A Brief History of U.S. Immigration Policy: Not America’s Finest Hour
A time to reflect: 100 years ago this week, my mother, age 3, arrived in America; just in time
One hundred years ago this week, my mother, Dina Tsinman, a toddler not quite 3 years old, arrived in America with her mother and grandmother, both widows. All three women, from the small town of Mglin in a part of Western Russia known as the Pale of Settlement, were headed for a new country, a new language, new names, and reconnection with family members who had left Mglin years earlier.
The Pale was a huge confinement area for Jews – about the size of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico combined. The Jews had been subjected to intensifying persecution within the Pale ever since it was created by Russia in the late 1700s. Poverty was widespread and occupational choices were limited, but the Jews mostly managed to get by.
Everything changed on March 13, 1881, with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. The pogroms (attacks on Jewish settlements; property destruction, murders) began almost immediately, the result of the Jews being widely blamed for the assassination. In fact, their only connection to it was that the organization that planned and carried out the assassination included two or three Jews among the several dozen people in its leadership group. The vile fiction that the Jews murdered the Tsar still can be found today on anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denial websites.
But the primary factor that drove many Jews to leave for America was the conscription policies of a corrupt government that seemed always to be at war. Young Jewish men were targeted for conscription terms of up to 25 years. They could not advance in rank. They were subjected to a concentrated effort to convert them to Christianity. In the end, many of these men, perhaps most of them, never returned home. Conscription often was a death sentence for the young Jewish men of The Pale.
One of the young Jewish men who fell victim to death by conscription was Leib Tsinman, then 25, Dina’s father. He died in battle against the Bolsheviks, who were trying to overthrow the Russian government. He was survived by his 20-year-old wife, Chaia Getmanskaja Tsinman — suddenly widowed and pregnant. Chaia gave birth to a daughter, Dina, around Christmastime in 1920.
The Getmanskaja-Tsinman women left Mglin by train for Riga, Latvia sometime in the early fall of 1923. There, they boarded a ship for a 1,500-mile trip across the North Sea, the Baltic Sea, and into the English Channel to Cherbourg, France, where they awaited their ship to America via Liverpool, England. They boarded the S.S. Coronia on October 23, 1923. Their passage was paid and their support in America guaranteed by Isadore Shafer, who had married Bertha Getmanskaja, one of Chaia’s five siblings. Isadore and Bertha Shafer had immigrated to America in 1912, and Isadore had done well as a tailor in Omaha. Dina, Chaia, and Chaia’s mother, Bronya Getmamskaja, thus were headed for Omaha, where the six Getmanskaja siblings and their mother would be reunited. Dina became Dorothy Silman; she would grow up in Omaha and marry Sam Garson.
All of this was happening during a complicated time in American history as well as in Russian history.
Dorothy, her mother, and her grandmother got out of Russia just in time. Jewish emigration from Russia had shifted into high gear in the aftermath of the assassination of the Tsar in 1881. From that time through 1923, when my mother arrived in America, more than 2 million Jews from Russia immigrated to the United States. At first, the departures numbered several thousand a year, then tens of thousands a year, and ultimately as many as several hundred thousand a year.
Within a year of the time my mother arrived in the United States, America had had enough of the Jewish immigration wave. In early 1924, Congress passed an immigration law designed to significantly reduce total immigration to the United States and to specifically target Jewish and Catholic immigration. The law also prohibited Asian and Japanese immigration, except from the Philippines, which was a U.S. colony at the time.
The cap for total annual immigration was set at 165,000, an 80 percent reduction of the average annual immigration before World War I. Limits also were set for immigration from each country. Going forward, the basis for determining how many immigrants would be permitted each year from a particular country was tied to the number of people already residing in America who had ancestral roots in that country. The largest quotas – and the bulk of the total number of immigrants who might be admitted – would be for the countries that already had the largest population groups living in America – Germany, United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, and Norway.
Up to 135,000 of the 165,000 allowable immigrants could be admitted each year from these five countries. In reality, the annual immigration numbers for these countries never came close to the totals allowable after the Immigration Act of 1924 became law.
Meanwhile, an annual total of only 30,000 immigrants was allowed each year from the other 30 countries of the Western Hemisphere. A total of 12,000 immigrants collectively could come from the post-World War I countries represented in the Pale – Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Latvia.
For Russia, the annual immigration quota beginning in 1924 would be just 2,248 persons a year. The waiting lists of Jews from Russia and the other limited countries wanting to come to America would be years long.
Within a decade or so, the limits would doom the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of European Jews trying to escape the Holocaust.
Catholic immigration fell dramatically because the limit for Italy was 3,854 persons a year. Italian immigration had reached 220,000 in 1921. The 1924 numbers would have been a little more favorable to both Jews and Catholics if the most recent census, from 1920, had been used to determine the quotas. But one of the explicit purposes of this new law was to limit both Catholic and Jewish immigration. The law, thus, took the 1890 census as its base year for determining immigration quotas by national origin. The totals of both Jewish and Catholic populations in America were much smaller in 1890 than in 1920.
The 1920 census finally became the standard in 1930. But the total immigration number was reduced from 165,000 to 150,000 at the same time. The net result was not significantly different. An additional 500 immigrants a year were allowed from Russia, 1,000 from Poland, and 400 from Hungary – still far smaller totals for these countries than prior to 1924.
U.S. immigration policy thus became anchored in the concept of using that policy to maintain purity of national origin. The details of how the policy achieves this goal changed over the years, but overall, there has been an ugly side to our immigration policy for most of the past century.
The authors of the Immigration Act of 1924 were Rep. Albert Johnson of Washington state and Sen. David Reed of Pennsylvania, both anti-Semites and advocates of using eugenics to guide U.S. immigration policy.
In his classic book, American Immigration, historian Maldwyn Allen Jones described Representative Johnson, as believing that “immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, most of whom were Catholics or Jews, arrived sick and starving, were less capable of contributing to the American economy, and were unable to adapt to American culture.” Johnson himself described the law as a bulwark against “a stream of alien blood” in America.
Johnson also brought in a leading eugenicist of the era, Harry Laughlin, as a consultant to his Senate Committee on Immigration and Naturalization. Laughlin had advocated a complete ban on immigration as early as 1919. In supporting the ban, he had referenced a quote from an unnamed State Department official referring to the recent wave of Jewish immigrants as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits.”
Senator Reed argued that limiting immigration from “war-torn stricken countries of Europe” – code for Russia and the other Eastern European countries – was essential to prevent a “baleful effect upon American wages and standards of living, and it would increase mightily our problem of assimilating the foreign-born who are already here.”
The bill was passed overwhelmingly by both the Senate and the House and was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. The law governed immigration policy in America for more than 40 years.
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Through the course of her lifetime – almost 90 years – Dorothy Garson faced more personal tragedy than ordinarily occurs through two or three generations. There was enough depression and despair in her life to leave most people emotionally crippled. Somehow, she rose above everything life had to throw in her path.
Losing her father before she was born was only the beginning. The rest of her story will have to wait for future columns.