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"Problems of Immigration"
American Decades Primary Sources. Ed. Cynthia Rose. Vol. 1: 1900-1909. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004. p287-291.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale
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Page 287

"Problems of Immigration"

Journal article

By: Frank P. Sargent

Date: 1904

Source: Sargent, Frank P. "Problems of Immigration." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Philadelphia: American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1904, 153–158.

About the Author: Frank Pierce Sargent (1854–1908) served in the U.S. Cavalry and participated in the campaign to capture the Apache chieftain, Geronimo. He later gained prominence working for the American Federal of Labor and was twice appointed to positions in the administration of President William McKinley (served 1897–1901). President Theodore Roosevelt (served 1901–1909) later named him commissioner general of immigration. As commissioner, he attempted to represent the interests of laborers, who generally opposed unrestricted immigration.


The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. Until the late 1800s, the preponderance of immigrants came from countries in northern and western Europe—England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia. Beginning around 1880, the immigrant tide began to swell, and a shift occurred in the countries of origin. The so-called "New Immigrants" came from southern and eastern Europe, and they were generally poorer and less well-educated than their predecessors. They were also invariably Catholic or Jewish, whereas the earlier immigrants, except for the Irish, had been predominantly Protestant.

A staggering number of immigrants came to the United States between 1900 and 1914. In 1900, the population of the United States was seventy-six million; between 1900 and 1909, nearly eight million people migrated to the United States. Over the next five years, an additional five million people arrived; nearly eighty percent were from eastern and southern Europe. By contrast, in the 1870s, approximately 2.7 million immigrants arrived; fewer than seven percent came from eastern and southern Europe.

Whether digging coal and iron from the ground or manning the steel mills of Pittsburgh or plying needle and thread in New York's garment industry, immigrants played a critical role in the growth of the American industrial empire. Indeed, industry required the plentiful, cheap, and relatively docile labor force provided by the waves of immigrants who came to the United States after the Civil War (1861–1865). The concentration of new immigrants in cities, and their large presence among industrial laborers, put them in an unfavorable position. It led millions of "Old Stock," or native-born, Americans to conclude that the new immigrants were the root of urban problems and the cause of revolutionary ideas promoted by the labor movement.

Immigrants, who often lived in squalid conditions in urban slums, were seen as the creators of the slums. Those who received subsistence support from political bosses in cities in exchange for votes were blamed for corruption in city governments. Many Americans attributed strikes and labor unrest to radical foreign workers, rather than to low pay, unsteady employment, and dangerous working conditions. Meanwhile, native-born workers accused immigrants of driving down wages and working as strikebreakers. Worse, perhaps, were the racial overtones often used to describe the new immigrants. All too often, critics ascribed immigrant-related problems to what they considered to be the inherently inferior characteristics of the Russian or Pole or Italian or Jew—inferior, that is, to the Anglo-Saxon or Teutonic peoples.

Despite the fact that the United States was a nation of immigrants and that immigrants were valuable to the economy, foreign-born people were increasingly seen as a threat to American society. The threat came not only in the form of more slums or radical politics, but also in the risk of polluting the Anglo-Saxon stock that had built America. In an age when Darwin's theory of evolution had been widely accepted, notions of a continuous struggle, not only of individuals but of species, drove many to conclude that it was appropriate for the "superior" Anglo-Saxon peoples to defend themselves from the "lesser races."


By 1900, the concern over immigration was having an impact on public policy. Two primary issues were at stake. Foremost was the question of Americanization of the immigrant. It was important, many Americans felt, to encourage foreign-born people to leave behind the customs and mores of their native lands and to adopt those of the United States. Language and political philosophy were paramount issues; also important was the adoption of American cultural and social habits, such as dress, food, and other norms. As a result, various Americanization programs were established, ranging from settlement houses to business-sponsored initiatives for foreign-born employees and their families.

The second issue was the limitation of immigration. As early as 1882, Chinese immigrants were barred from entry into the United States. In subsequent years, minor restrictions were passed to keep out various categories of people, such as criminals, the insane, anarchists, and polygamists. These restrictions, however, were very specific and did not, nor were they intended to, have an impact on the number of immigrants admitted to the country. Increasingly, however, a combination of factors began to Page 288  |  Top of Article
Orchard Street, an immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York City, in 1912. ARCHIVE PHOTOS. INC. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.

Orchard Street, an immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side of New York City, in 1912. ARCHIVE PHOTOS. INC. REPRODUCED BY PERMISSION.
generate support for serious restriction. Despite growing concerns, the open door for immigrants remained in effect until 1921. That year, and again in 1924, prohibitive and discriminatory immigration laws were passed, reducing immigration to a trickle. While restricting all immigration, the laws established quotas that specifically favored immigrants from northwestern Europe—Great Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany.

Primary Source: "Problems of Immigration"

SYNOPSIS: In the following article, which appeared in the bi-monthly publication of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Commissioner Frank P. Sargent describes the changing character of immigration into the United States. For twenty years, the shift toward immigrants from southern and eastern European countries had become increasingly evident. In pointing out the problems caused by the large number of immigrants and their concentration in urban ghettos, Sargent presents a case for expanded government regulation of immigration.

No question of public policy is of greater importance or affects so closely the interests of the people of this country for the time present and to come as that of immigration. It presents both a practical and a sentimental side. It cannot be dealt with as other public issues. It does not deal with the question of revenue. Its subjects are not inanimate like merchandise; they are human beings. They have aspirations, hopes, fears and frailties. The methods by which other laws are administered cannot, with regard to such a subject, be resorted to in the enforcement of the immigration laws. These laws, be it remembered, with one exception, are not laws of exclusion, but laws of selection. They do not shut out the able-bodied, law-abiding and thrifty alien who seeks to make a home among us, and to help at once his individual condition and the welfare of his adopted country. To such it is the part both of policy and good government, as well as of justice and fair play, to extend the hand of welcome. But it has long since been learned in the school of practical experience that the universal welcome which should be extended by a free people to those of oppressed nations, should be restrained by considerations of prudence and a regard for the safety and well-being of the country itself. Hence it has become an established principle of this Government to frown upon the efforts of foreign countries and of interested individuals Page 289  |  Top of Article and corporations to bring to the United States, to become burdens thereupon, the indigent, the morally depraved, the physically and mentally diseased, the shiftless, and all those who are induced to leave their own country, not by their own independent volition and their own natural ambition to seek a larger and more promising field of individual enterprise, but by some selfish scheme, devised either to take undue advantage of some classes of our own people, or for other improper purpose. That such a policy is a wise one, as well as obligatory upon the Government of this great country, is too obvious to require elaborate argument.

The total estimated alien immigration to the United States from 1776 to 1820 was 250,000. The arrivals, tabulated by years, from 1820 to 1903, aggregate 21,092,614, distributed among the foreign countries as follows:

Netherlands… 138,298

France … 409,320

Switzerland … 211,007

Scandinavia, which includes Denmark,
Norway and Sweden … 1,610,001

Italy… 1,585,477

Germany … 5,100,138

Austria-Hungary … 1,518,582

United Kingdom (Great Britain and
Ireland)… 7,061,710

Russia … 1,122,591

Japan… 64,313

China … 288,398

Other countries such as Roumania,
Greece, Turkey, Portugal and Poland … 1,984,779

The total number of arrivals for the fiscal year ending June 30th, 1903, was 857,046, divided as follows:

Netherlands … 3,998

France … 5,578

Switzerland … 3,983

Scandinavia… 77,647

Italy … 230,622

Germany … 40,086

Austria-Hungary … 206,011

United Kingdom (Great Britain and
Ireland) … 68,947

Russia … 136,093

Japan… 19,988

Other countries, such as Roumania,
Greece, Turkey, Portugal and Poland… 64,113

This is the greatest number that ever applied for admission in a single year. The nearest approach to this was in 1882, when 789,000 were admitted.

The character of the arriving aliens, however, during the past years differs greatly from that of 1882 and the years previous. Since the foundation of our Government until within the past fifteen years practically all of the immigrants came from Great Britain and Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries and were very largely of Teutonic stock, with a large percentage of Celtic. Fifteen millions of them have made their homes with us. In fact, they have been the pathfinders in the West and Northwest. They are an intelligent, industrious and sturdy people. They have contributed largely to the development of our country and its resources, and to them is due, in a great measure, the high standard of American citizenship.

The character of our immigration has now changed. During the past fifteen years we have been receiving a very undesirable class from Southern and Eastern Europe, which has taken the place of the Teutons and Celts. During the past fiscal year nearly 600,000 of these have been landed on our shores, constituting nearly 70 per cent of the entire immigration for that year. Instead of going to those sections where there is a sore need for farm labor, they congregate in the larger cities mostly along the Atlantic seaboard, where they constitute a dangerous and unwholesome element of our population.

About 50 per cent of the 196,000 aliens who came from Southern Italy during the past year were unable to read or write any language, and the rate of illiteracy among the rest of these Mediterranean and Slavic immigrants ranges from 20 per cent to 70 per cent, while among the Teutonic and Celtic races the rate of illiteracy is less than 1 per cent to 4 per cent. This change which has taken place during the past fifteen years has resulted in raising the average of illiteracy of all aliens from about 5 per cent in former years to 25 per cent at the present time.

What I desire, however, to call attention to, I have already indicated, and that is that in the enforcement of the immigration laws, since the subjects thereof are human beings, the treatment is two-sided. One-half of the work incumbent upon the Government has been done when those whose presence would militate against the interests of the people of this country have been detected and returned to their homes. Under the direction of the Bureau of Page 290  |  Top of Article
Early twentieth century immigrants to the United States sit with their luggage, waiting to be processed, on Ellis Island, New York. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

Early twentieth century immigrants to the United States sit with their luggage, waiting to be processed, on Ellis Island, New York. THE LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.
Immigration all aliens are carefully examined by immigrant inspectors and surgeons of the Marine Hospital Service at the ports of entry for the purpose of rejecting those not admissible under the provisions of the immigration laws. During the past year more than 1 per cent of those who applied for admission were rejected and returned to the countries whence they came. The total number thus debarred during the year was 8,769, for the following causes, viz.:

Paupers … 5,812

Afflicted with a loathsome or a
dangerous contagious disease … 1,773

Contract laborers … 1,086

Convicts … 51

For all other causes … 47

In addition thereto 547 were deported who were found to be in the United States in violation of law.

There still remains the larger question, the question that more individually and vitally affects the interests of our people. What shall we do with the thousands that are admitted? Shall they be allowed to form alien colonies in our great cities, there to maintain the false ideals and to propagate the lawless views born thereof as the result of their experience—foreign not alone from their origin geographically, but foreign as well to this country in their ideals of human liberty and individual rights? To answer this question affirmatively is simply to transfer the evils which may be admitted to exist in foreign countries to our own shores. Immigration left thus is a menace to the peace, good order and stability of American institutions, a menace which will grow and increase with the generations and finally burst forth in anarchy and disorder. It is thus necessary, as a measure of public security, to devise and put in force some means by which alien arrivals may be distributed throughout this country and thus afforded the opportunities by honest industry of securing homes for themselves and their children, the possession of which transforms radical thinkers into conservative workers and makes all that which threatens the welfare of the commonwealth a means to preserve its security and permanency.

Page 291  |  Top of Article

The Department of Commerce and Labor, through the Bureau of Immigration, should, in my judgment, furnish information to all desirable aliens as to the best localities for the profitable means of earning a livelihood, either as settlers, tradesmen or laborers. The States and Territories which need immigration should file with the Department such evidence of the advantages offered to aliens to settle in localities where conditions are favorable, so that the tide of immigration will be directed to the open and sparsely settled country. That the Bureau of Immigration should be the medium of distributing the aliens is to my mind as much of a duty as it is to decide to whom the right to enter shall be given.

There are confined in the penal, reformatory and charitable institutions of the eleven States from Maine to Maryland, including Delaware, 28,135 aliens. The Irish, Slavs, Germans, Italians and English make up 85 per cent of the total. There are 9,390 Irish; 5,372 Slavic; 4,426 Germans; 2,623 Italians, and 2,622 English. In the State of Pennsylvania there are 5,601 aliens confined in these institutions, 90 per cent of whom are of the same five races in the following numbers: 1,772 Slavic; 1,218 Irish; 1,078 Germans; 673 Italians, and 423 English.

As I have already stated, the question has two sides. The other side is the humanitarian. It refers to the claims upon our consideration of alien arrivals as fellow beings. This side equally demands of a just and humane government the adoption of practical methods for such a distribution of these people as I have already indicated. On their own account, and in consideration of their ignorance and helplessness, they should be taken out of the great centers of population, where restricted space compels them to live together in a very unhealthful and unsanitary condition, and where competition for the means of existence forces them to prey upon each other and upon American citizens engaged in the same pursuits by a system of underbidding for work, a condition which reduces the cost of labor and lowers the standard of living. Such colonization, furthermore, by its consequent disregard of sanitary laws, threatens the physical health of the communities affected.

I cannot, in the brief space at my disposal, do more than merely advert to the principal features of this great governmental policy regulating immigration, a policy whose administration, to some extent, has been confided to my hands. I feel with every day of added experience the gravity of the interests involved, and that it calls for all that is best and highest in ability and moral stamina to accomplish the best results. It would be impossible for any right-minded man—it certainly has been to me—to undertake such a task without soon learning how much it exacts. In every moment of doubt or uncertainty, however, I have endeavored to be governed by that fundamental principle of our Government which recognizes the sacredness of right and individual opportunity, whether the person affected has fortunately been born under the shadow of the stars and stripes, or whether, when the opportunity comes to him to exercise his own volition in selecting a home for himself and his children, he seeks that protection. Exact justice to all, irrespective of present or previous condition, is the rule by which I have endeavored to enforce the immigration laws, bearing in mind always that in any conflict of interests between my own people and those of other countries my primary duty is so to act that the balance will incline in favor of the citizens of this country, in whose service I am employed.

Further Resources


Clarke, Duncan. A New World: The History of Immigration into the United States. San Diego, Cal.: Thunder Bay, 2000.

Daniels, Roger. Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890–1924. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1997.

Handlin, Oscar. The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People. Boston: Little, Brown, 1951.


American Family Immigration History Center. Available online at ; website home page (accessed March 14, 2003).

"Immigration and the United States—Four Periods of Immigration." Available online at http.// ; website home page (accessed March 14, 2003).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
"Problems of Immigration." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 1: 1900-1909, Gale, 2004, pp. 287-291. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490200089

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  • "Problems of Immigration,"
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    • journal article (Sargent),
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  • Sargent, Frank P.,
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    • journal article,
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