- ‘The Hebrews Are Appearing in Court in Great Numbers’:Toward a Reassessment of Early Twentieth-Century American Jewish Immigration History
In mid-May of 1909, 18-year old Abraham Aker left his home in Samorz, Russia and headed west toward Germany. Once in Hamburg, he boarded the S.S. President Grant and set off for the United States. To historians, Aker’s journey is familiar. Eastern European Jews such as Aker, most of whom were young and who traveled unaccompanied, comprised approximately 2.5 million of the 25 million people who permanently settled in America between 1881 and 1924, the years of mass immigration. Yet, unlike most would-be immigrants, after landing on Ellis Island on June 24, Aker learned that his plan was in jeopardy. Immigration inspectors had identified Aker as “likely to become a public charge,” a ground for exclusion indicating that he had arrived without money and, presumably, if admitted, would be institutionalized in a hospital or a jail.1 By the late nineteenth century, “exclusion,” the legal term signifying the government’s decision to deny aliens entry, had become the central mechanism used by American officials to regulate the country’s borders. Immigration laws enacted in 1882, 1891, 1893, 1903, 1906, and 1907 formulated increasingly narrower admission requirements intended to distinguish between “desirable” and “undesirable” people, the latter of whom were prohibited. On July 2, despite appealing his case, and despite the intervention of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (later called the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society and widely known as HIAS) and the involvement of a leading immigration lawyer, Aker was returned to his place of origin through a procedure known as debarment. (“Debarment,” while technically distinct from deportation, often is and was used synonymously.)
Aker’s was an unusual case. Prior to the implementation of rigid quotas in 1924, most Jews who tried to become American immigrants succeeded in securing admission into the United States. Officials rejected and returned relatively few Jews—a total of less than 2 percent annually—to [End Page 319] their places of origin.2 Nevertheless, Aker’s experience was not an isolated one; debarment rates rose and fell according to who oversaw the implementation of country’s immigration laws, but 1909 saw a precipitous increase in immigrant exclusions.3 On July 2, 1909, the day Aker was debarred, at least ten other Jews were sent back with him.4 Moreover, between 1899 and 1922 alone, 321,874 people—of whom 23,672 were Jews—were denied admission to America, never having seen the country beyond the confines of Ellis Island. (In addition, during that same period, 2,911 Jews were returned to Europe after having lived in the country, because they were found to have violated admission standards within the first three-to-five years of settling.5)
Admittedly, twenty-three thousand-plus people constituted a small fraction of the overall Jewish immigrant population. Nevertheless, this figure is substantial, equivalent to many Jewish communities in the United States and elsewhere: The number of debarred Jews between 1899 and [End Page 320] 1922 alone exceeds by some ten thousand the 13,294 Jews living in Buenos Aires in 1909. It is more than five times the 4,200 Jews who resided in Atlanta in 1910, and it surpasses the twenty thousand Jews of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1917–1918.6 Further, debarment could have any number of secondary consequences beyond its immediate effects on banned aliens. If an underage child was excluded, his or her parents were refused admission, too.7 (Whether debarment statistics include relatives who were returned to their places of origin alongside debarred minors is unclear.) Moreover, knowledge of debarment possibly prevented other Jews from immigrating. It also stands to reason that debarred Jews’ family members, who relied on remittances to purchase America-bound boat tickets, could no longer come.8 In short, the tens of thousands of Jewish debarments that occurred prior to 1924 are important in both their primary and ancillary outcomes and debarred Jews’ families were probably affected in ways that remain unknown.
Beyond the tens of thousands of Jews debarred before 1924, there is a much larger category of people...