Ellis Island Era Immigration
Summary & Analysis
Alien Radicalism in American Life
It can surely be said that radicalism has never been a particularly powerful force in American life. We are, and almost always have been, a nation of political moderation. Even our Revolution was, in a sense, a revolution of restraint; it ended with independence, but not with mass beheadings of the old guard (à la France) or fundamental social upheaval (à la Haiti) or systematic expropriation of property (à la Russia). Alone among the world's major industrial powers, the United States never experimented seriously with socialism. In the twentieth century, neither right-wing radical fascists nor left-wing radical Communists ever attracted the support of more than a tiny fringe of the American public. The United States has never had a strong labor party on the left or a strong nationalist party on the right. American political battles, though often heated, have almost always been fought out between two parties representing the center-right and center-left of the political spectrum, with both sharing a broad consensus on the basic contours of the nation's social order.
But that moderate consensus, powerful as it has always been, has never been absolute. The United States has always produced its share of homegrown radicals, even if they've largely failed to revolutionize American society. John Reed, the left-wing journalist whose advocacy for the Russian Revolution earned him the honor of burial alongside V.I. Lenin in Moscow's Kremlin wall, was born and raised in sleepy Portland, Oregon. Big Bill Haywood, the charismatic one-eyed leader of the radical turn-of-the-twentieth-century labor movement known as the Industrial Workers of the World, hailed from conservative Utah. New Hampshire produced militant feminist, labor activist, and Communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Earl Browder and William Z. Foster, the two men who dominated the Communist Party USA from the Great Depression through World War II and into the Cold War, were both native-born American citizens. And an entire generation of radical black nationalist leaders—from Malcolm X to Fred Hampton to H. Rap Brown—were, to borrow Brown's famous phrase, "as American as apple pie." Still, these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Perhaps nothing demonstrates the long-term weakness of radicalism in American political life more than the fact that—with the exception of cultural icon Malcolm X—you've more than likely never heard of any of these people before.
The marginalization of native-born radicals from the American political scene made it easy to imagine that radicalism itself was—to invoke the name of the House of Representatives' famous anti-radical investigative committee—an "un-American activity." In this view, radicalism—especially the class-based radicalism of Marxism-Leninism—was a foreign problem, an affliction of the Old World that had no natural place in the New; to the extent that manifestations of radicalism did emerge in the United States, foreign-born troublemakers were likely to blame. And radical immigrants did play a disproportionate role in a series of high-profile incidents that roiled American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. From the Haymarket Riot to the assassination of President McKinley to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial to the formation of the American Communist Party, the menace of alien radicalism loomed ever larger in the American imagination.
Thus did federal immigration policy acquire, for the first time, a national security rationale. Every act of provocation involving foreign-born activists generated new calls for tighter border controls and new laws to make it easier to deport radical immigrants already in the country and to prevent new ones from arriving. Fears of alien radicalism thus played a key role in the immigration restriction movement of the early twentieth century, even as immigration policy itself became a potent weapon to be used by the government to break up radical movements. By framing immigration as a counter-subversive issue, mainstream Americans of the "era of exclusion" helped to ensure that radicalism would continue to be seen as an alien, "un-American" force in national politics.
From the Haymarket Bomb to the Anarchist Exclusion Act
In the 1870s and 1880s, the United States experienced some of the worst class conflict in its history. Rapid but uneven economic growth in this Gilded Age allowed successful capitalists to amass great fortunes at the same time as many wage laborers sank deep into poverty. While workingmen railed against the alleged depredations of the "robber barons," businessmen lived in constant fear of working-class insurrections, and industrial disputes often ended in violence. The conditions proved ripe for the development of the first strong nationwide labor movement in American history. In the early 1880s, an organization called the Knights of Labor grew quickly from a small secret society into a powerful mass movement, claiming more than 700,000 members at its peak. The Knights organized railroad workers throughout the country, then sought to use their leverage over the vital railroad industry to force other types of businesses to meet workers' demands for better wages and working conditions.
On 1 May 1886, an estimated 350,000 workers across the country went out on strike to try to win the right to an eight-hour workday. (Ten, twelve, or even fourteen-hour shifts with no overtime were then common in America's industrial workplaces.) Workers held huge rallies and parades in every major American city. In Chicago, a hotbed of labor militancy, as many as 90,000 workers marched in the May Day parade. Two days later, on 3 May, Chicago police killed four strikers picketing outside the McCormick Harvester Company. Outraged workers—led by a small cadre of anarchists—called a rally the next morning to protest the police brutality. On that fateful day, thousands of angry workers gathered in the city's Haymarket Square. Although the rally's anarchist speakers denounced McCormick and the police, they said nothing to incite the workers to violence. The crowd remained relatively calm and peaceful, even under the suspicious watch of a large contingent of Chicago policemen who monitored the scene from nearby. Then all hell broke loose. The police suddenly moved in to disperse the crowd, marching in formation toward the open wagon that the anarchists were using as a speaker's platform. Someone threw a homemade bomb into police lines, instantly killing a young officer. The panicked policemen then opened fire on the crowd, sparking a scene of violent mayhem. When the smoke finally cleared, seven policemen and at least four workers lay dead, with hundreds more wounded.
To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb that set off the Haymarket Riot. The police fixed responsibility on the anarchist organizers of the rally, but the strikers insisted that the bomb must have been thrown by an agent provocateur working for the police. Whoever was truly responsible for starting the horrific violence at Haymarket, the riot proved disastrous to the American labor movement—and to the reputation of American immigrants. Eight anarchist leaders—five of them German immigrants, and a sixth the American-born son of German immigrants—were tried and convicted of murder for their role in organizing the ill-fated rally. Four were hanged, one committed suicide in his cell, and the remaining three were pardoned in 1893 by Illinois governor John Peter Altgeld, who concluded that all eight Haymarket defendants had actually been innocent and that their convictions had been a grave miscarriage of justice.
Pardons notwithstanding, the damage to the labor movement had been done. Sensationalized newspaper accounts of the riot—often accompanied by an exaggerated engraving that depicted Haymarket Square as the scene of an apocalyptic pitched battle between the forces of order and mob rule—convinced many Americans that organized labor was inherently violent and subversive. The Knights of Labor, which had played no role whatsoever in organizing the Haymarket rally, saw its membership plummet by hundreds of thousands within months. The problem of industrial violence, many Americans concluded, was rooted not in economic inequality or unfair labor practices but rather in the subversive machinations of foreign-born radical agitators.
Predictably, Haymarket and its aftermath generated calls to pass new laws to restrict alien radicals' ability to enter the United States. In 1888, the Ford Commission—a congressional body charged with investigating American immigration policy—concluded that the unrestricted entry of foreign-born anarchists into the country had become a dire social problem. In 1901, after a crazed Polish-American anarchist sympathizer named Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley, Congress passed the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which authorized immigration agents to exclude would-be newcomers on the basis of their political beliefs. Anyone found to "disbelieve in or [to be] opposed to all organized government, or who is a member of or affiliated with any organization entertaining or teaching such disbelief in or opposition to all organized government" was to be barred from the country.26 Immigration officials used the new provision to exclude several thousand people a year, and also invoked it to justify the deportation of prominent foreign-born radicals already residing in the United States.
Wobblies and Reds
In the early twentieth century, the rise of two new radical workers' organizations—the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), founded in 1905, and the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), founded in 1920—did nothing to dispel popular stereotypes of foreigners as agents of destabilization and fomenters of class conflict.
The Wobblies (as IWW members were called, for reasons that remain obscure) sought to organize "One Big Union" of all workers, everywhere, united in firm opposition to the capitalist class. Wobblies preached a doctrine of absolute labor militancy, arguing that real compromise between bosses and workers was impossible and that sabotage was a legitimate tactic for workers engaged in labor struggles. While the most prominent Wobbly leader, William "Big Bill" Haywood, was a native-born American citizen, many other leading figures in the IWW movement were immigrants (including lasting left-wing icons Joe Hill and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones). Many rank-and-file IWW supporters, especially those in the marine and lumber industries, were also foreign-born.
In response to the threat posed by the Wobblies, many states passed "criminal syndicalism" laws, which made it illegal to belong to or associate with organizations, such as the IWW, that advocated violent social change. Since federal immigration law mandated the immediate deportation of any non-citizen convicted of a felony, these "criminal syndicalism" statutes put all foreign-born Wobblies—or even foreign-born workers who merely attended an IWW-sponsored rally—in jeopardy of expulsion from the country. In the 1920s and 1930s, local police forces and prosecutors across the country made more aggressive and frequent uses of such tactics to break up militant workers' movements.
The IWW fell into steep decline in the years during and immediately after World War I, a time of extreme nationalism and intolerance for political dissidents. (American Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, who won nearly 1 million votes in the presidential election of 1920, was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for delivering a speech critical of American intervention in the war.) While the IWW largely withered away by the early 1920s, many individual Wobblies simply moved on to the new Communist Party USA, which sought to expand the class struggle beyond the workplace to engineer a proletarian takeover of American society in emulation of V.I. Lenin's Russian Revolution of 1917. In the early years after its founding around 1920, the CPUSA had not only a predominantly foreign-born leadership but an overwhelmingly foreign-born membership. In the party's early years, as many as 95% of America's Communists may have been alien residents, most of whom were Eastern European Jews living in New York. (New York's Jewish community would remain one of the very few places in America even slightly friendly to Communists well into the 1950s.) Native-born Americans did not make up a majority of the CPUSA's membership until the mid-1930s.
Anticommunist Immigration Restriction
The prospect of Communist revolution was even more terrifying to most Americans than the threat of Wobbly strikes and sabotage. In 1919, as the American economy reconverted from mobilization for World War I to peacetime production, the country's industries were hit with a strike wave unprecedented in American history. This unexpected labor militancy, coming just two years after Russia's government fell to Communist revolutionaries, sparked an anticommunist backlash that historians now call the First Red Scare. State and local police joined the federal government and even private citizens organized as vigilantes in a sustained effort to expose and disrupt any and all Communistic activity. While the Red Scare would soon die down, forceful anticommunism would remain a pillar of American domestic policy through the 1950s, shaping immigration policy in important ways.
One of many factors leading to the passage of the 1921 and 1924 quota acts, which sharply curtailed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, was the hope that cutting off the supply of new Russians and Jews would deprive the CPUSA of new recruits. And in fact, the end of mass European immigration that ensued did force the American Communists to turn, out of necessity, to the native-born population to sustain its membership in the 1930s and beyond. Meanwhile, prosecutors and immigration agents continued to use "criminal syndicalism" charges to force the deportation of alien radicals already present in the country.
In 1940, Congress went a step farther, passing the Smith Act (formally called the Alien Registration Act), which explicitly linked the issues of anticommunism and immigration in federal law. The act required all non-citizen adults residing in the United States to register with the government, enabling federal agents to track the whereabouts of all non-naturalized immigrants in the country at all times. It also, more famously, made it illegal for anyone—citizen or non-citizen—to "knowingly or willfully advocate, abet, advise, or teach the duty, necessity, desirability or propriety of overthrowing the Government of the United States... by force or violence, or for anyone to organize any association which teaches, advises or encourages such an overthrow, or for anyone to become a member of or to affiliate with any such association."27 The law thus made it illegal to belong to the Communist Party. In the early years of the Cold War, more than 140 American Communist leaders would be tried under the Smith Act, and aliens convicted under the law—such as Claudia Jones, a charismatic Jamaican who worked as an organizer for the CPUSA in Harlem—were summarily deported from the country. Prosecutions under the Smith Act helped to virtually destroy the Communist Party USA by the mid-1950s.
In 1952, at the height of the Cold War, Congress passed the first major revision to American immigration law since the 1924 National Origins Act. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 enshrined anticommunism as a key principle of American immigration policy by making it easier for the government to deport any aliens suspected of subversive activity. Since immigration hearings were considered to be civil rather than criminal proceedings, the standard of evidence for deportation was lower than for criminal conviction. Immigration agents did not need to win jury trials (as in cases filed under the Smith Act) in order to deport individuals suspected of Communist sympathies. Any past connection, no matter how tangential, to any organization with any connection to Communists—which included many labor, civil rights, and civil liberties groups—was now enough to warrant exclusion. Before the law was finally revised in 1990, the McCarran-Walter Act's counter-subversive provisions were invoked to block the entry of thousands of suspicious individuals—including, no doubt, many real Communists but also such "dangerous" characters as Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, English novelist Graham Greene, French actor Yves Montand, and South American Nobel laureates Pablo Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez.28