While the 1891 and 1893 Immigration Acts established inspection protocols that remained in place for decades, less is known about how US agents initially translated gatekeeping laws into the durable policy directives that had a profound effect on the migration of working-class people. Before the “qualitative” restriction of specific racial, social, and economic conditions transitioned to a period of “quantitative” or enumerated exclusion by the 1920s, the US government had to establish a structure to carry out the work of exclusion, but this early era of qualitative gatekeeping is less understood. Italian encounters with federal agents at Ellis Island show how the 1891 and 1893 laws empowered the administrative state to carry out the work of exclusion shadowed by the banality of bureaucratic decision-making. The records of the short-lived Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians (1894–99), the only outpost of a foreign government allowed to operate in the main processing building on Ellis Island, offers a rare snapshot of the gatekeeping process in its crucial early years. Given that Italians were the single largest ethnic group to be processed at Ellis Island over its sixty-two-year history and the primary target of inspectors in the station’s first decade, their experiences with bureaucratic exclusion illuminate how the United States moved to systematically control working-class migration.
An evocative piece published in Harper’s Weekly in August 1893 captured the day-to-day enforcement at the Ellis Island immigration station of two new American exclusion laws passed in 1891 and 1893. These laws had given the US government the authority to question and detain anyone who was not “clearly and without a doubt entitled to admission” at the place Italians would come to call l’isola delle lacrime, or “the island of tears.”1 Here the drama of individual lives clashed with the processes of a new but otherwise mundane bureaucratic system. On the island in New York’s busy harbor, the Harper’s reporter found “a strange, a stirring, and an instructive spectacle which is thus presented almost every day in the year upon the great airy second floor of the Ellis Island building.”2 The second floor had been organized into cages for “a motley crowd of immigrants, eating, walking, sleeping, sitting listlessly with folded hands, or soothing their children’s fretfulness; these are awaiting remittances or friends to take them on their journey, or else are suspects to be more closely inquired into by-and-by.” Even those not corralled into fenced pens looked pitiful as they sat on rough wooden benches and waited. “The smaller company opposite are no more miserable in appearance, though more wretched in their state. They are the rejected, to be sent home again on the next sailing of the steamer which brought them,” as the 1891 law had dictated.3 “Only the presence of counters here and there piled high with bread and bottles for those who care to buy, and a curious set of low iron fences forming narrow lanes lengthwise through the lower half of the room, disturb the prisonlike aspect of the place.”4
In the 1890s, agents of the immigration bureaucracy carried out their work with detached reserve day after day while “nervously defiant” immigrants seeking entry lined up before them. The 1891 Immigration Act required transoceanic shipping companies to collect specific passenger information in the ship’s manifest for inspectors to use in brief interviews. “If their answers agree with those recorded on shipboard they are passed on. If there is any discrepancy or any dubiousness of manner, the suspect is pounced upon by waiting officials,” Harper’s explained, “questioned closely, and either sent upon his way, or pushed into the cage to await final investigation by the established board below,” detained in the “cage of the rejected.” The magazine emphasized the obliviousness of the new arrivals whose fate depended on the quick decision of a single harried inspector.
While the 1891 and 1893 laws established inspection protocols that remained in place for decades, less is known about how agents initially translated gatekeeping laws into the durable policy directives that had a profound effect on the migration of working-class peoples to the United States.5 Over time, the “qualitative” restriction of specific racial, social, and economic conditions transitioned to a period of “quantitative” or enumerated exclusion by the 1920s.6 The US government had to establish a structure for exclusion before the rationale and the apparatus for numerical exclusion could be erected, but this early era of qualitative gatekeeping is less understood. Italian encounters with federal agents at Ellis Island show how the 1891 and 1893 laws empowered the administrative state to carry out the work of exclusion shadowed by the banality of bureaucratic decision-making.
Historiographical and popular political narratives emphasize how domestic power networks determine American immigration policy. But foreign actors have long had a role in shaping US gatekeeping.7 At the dawn of an American “movable empire,” migrants and their home country governments struggled to resist the prerogatives of US capitalists and government officials who “saw recruiting and moving laborers from far away as necessary to ensure productivity and discipline.”8 Historians working at the intersection of labor history and immigration policy have clearly defined the distinctiveness of US immigration law, in the broad administrative power that statute and case law created for agents to carry out increasingly strict gatekeeping of working-class migrants.9 Congress initially issued a series of restrictive laws beginning in 1882 that facilitated exclusion at the border. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the admission of a “lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge.” In 1891 Congress revised the law to give immigration agents the right to exclude any person “likely to become a public charge,” granting agents broad discretion to invoke what became known as the LPC clause. After renewing and tightening Chinese exclusion in 1892 by requiring all Chinese to register regardless of citizenship, the 1893 US Immigration Act required immigration inspectors to solicit information about occupation, marital status, literacy, money on hand, and a doctor’s examination of physical health to determine qualification for admission. The 1893 Immigration Act also created a Board of Special Inquiry to hear cases that could not be determined by a single inspector. Key to the gatekeeping apparatus, this body assumed an incredible amount of power over working-class immigrants’ lives through the unique authority statute and the courts afforded to gatekeepers. In a report to the Italian ambassador in November 1894, five months after he arrived at Ellis Island to serve as the first chief of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians, Alessandro Oldrini called the Board of Special Inquiry “the referee of the fate of many emigrants and the cause of their ruin.”10 Data collected by this office, located in the main processing building on Ellis Island, offers a rare snapshot of the gatekeeping process in its crucial early years.
The Board of Special Inquiry bore no resemblance to a court of law in composition or procedure; four inspectors heard cases while dressed in dark suits and caps with the bureau insignia rendered in silver.11 The number of people excluded grew dramatically from 1892 (when federal management and record-keeping began) to 1910, jumping from 22,515 people excluded between 1892 and 1900, to 108,211 excluded between 1900 and 1910, approximately a fivefold increase.12 A larger number of cases came before the board as a direct result.13 LPC exclusion formed the largest type of case heard.14 A finding against the immigrant brought about an order for immediate deportation. Excluded migrants passed their remaining time on US soil in the detention pens of the inspection station, which Harper’s had reported as “great cages” full of “the rejected.”15 The LPC clause gave inspectors and the board wide leverage to move against those immigrants deemed undesirable with the power of the “Finality clause” in the 1891 act, which unilaterally ruled immigration inspectors’ decisions final.16 Cavalier Egisto Rossi, the second-in-command and, after 1896, the chief agent of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians, described as many as four hundred Italians detained in a single day and ordered to return to Italy under the LPC clause in 1895.17
The stakes were high for Italians, whose number in the United States grew from 44,230 Italian-born persons in 1880 to 182,580 in 1890, swelled to 484,020 in 1900, and then surged to 1,343,125 a decade later.18 Italians spread out across the United States to find employment in almost every major American industry. The Italian-born dominated in needlework and textiles (especially silk), canning, and mining and lent their manual labor to build railroads, subways, roads, and bridges. Italians formed the backbone of the skilled trades of bricklaying, stone masonry, plaster and stucco work, particularly in the northeastern states and fast-growing cities at the turn of the twentieth century like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, where, while they found their skills frequently in demand, they were often isolated into ethnic enclaves.19 As the single largest ethnic group to be processed at Ellis Island over its sixty-two-year history and the primary target of inspectors in the station’s first decade, Italians’ experiences with bureaucratic exclusion illuminate how the United States moved to systematically control working-class migration.20
Italians entered into a new regulatory world shaped by recent legal precedents. What happened when migrants came face-to-face with the inspector? In the era before coordinated federal enforcement began in 1891, “state officials’ discretion dictated who could enter and stay in the nation and who would be removed,” establishing the procedural precedent for the new federal system.21 Tasked with enforcing increasingly restrictive laws, the Immigration Bureau created a distinctive bureaucracy that “lobbied against the interests of legal immigrants,” historian Roger Daniels argued, “especially those of color and those who seemed to them [the officers], un-American.”22 Herman Stump, the first superintendent of immigration, told Congress in 1892 that he viewed his new role “to secure more searching and scrutinizing inspections, made with a view to a more faithful and stricter enforcement of the laws.”23
Immigration law has long occupied a special place within the administrative state. The Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, created by the 1891 Immigration Act and expanded by subsequent legislation, from the very beginning was allowed a special privilege: to exercise independent administrative discretion to deal with arriving immigrants and decide without significant legislative or judicial oversight who can and cannot enter the country.24 As legal historians Lucy Salyer and Torrie Hester have argued, when Chinese migrants used writs of habeas corpus to challenge exclusion laws in federal courts, Congress steered immigration law onto a secondary track under the control of a new Bureau of Immigration, which allowed its officers vast administrative discretion.25 Isolating immigration law from judicial oversight greatly diminished the power of the courts to reverse decisions in exclusion and deportation cases, which blunted the Chinese strategy of attack on the growing gatekeeping apparatus and strengthened federal power.
Over a relatively short period the legal basis for broad gatekeeping power would be firmly established. At the same time that the federal government assumed gatekeeping authority from the states, three Supreme Court cases articulated the legal principles that propelled the first superintendent of immigration as he sought “stricter enforcement of the laws”: Chae Chan Ping in 1888, Nishimura Ekiu in 1892, and Fong Yue Ting in 1893.26 While the first two cases established a “lasting precedent” that supported administrative authority without significant judicial oversight in immigration matters, the Fong Yue Ting decision established a far more powerful basis for unchecked gatekeeping at the nation’s borders.27 The 5–3 majority decision in the case ruled the powers to exclude and to deport “rest upon one foundation, are derived from one source, are supported by the same reasons, and are in truth but parts of one and the same power,” and thus Fong Yue Ting affirmed the immigration agency’s right to deport and Congress’s right to create entry and exclusion policy.28 By 1893 the legal basis for deportation rested firmly in national sovereignty, from which the power to deport still derives today.29 Italians became the first group of non-Chinese to encounter en masse this new regulatory world defined by remarkably unchecked power to interpret and apply immigration law. Italians soon found themselves trapped in a legal cage defined by vague exclusionary provisions, where inspectors of the immigration service held the key.
For the United States, as for many other receiving countries at the time, immigration laws became a tool both to shape US society and to establish its right to determine who could (or could not) enter the country and who could naturalize. Chinese were the first targets of immigration restrictions because many Americans saw them as the quintessential “other.” Italians, called “the Chinese of Europe,” became one of the primary targets of nativists’ zeal for restriction.30 By the beginning of the twentieth century, immigration laws measured and categorized aspiring immigrants by socioeconomic class, literacy, criminality, political beliefs, diplomatic standing, physical and mental health, and sexuality. Officially rejected because they could not guarantee that they would be able to provide for themselves financially, the poor, and unmarried or unaccompanied women, became the primary target for expulsion, making the LPC clause about social control, and further expanding the right of the state to exclude.31 In 1896, Ellis Island Commissioner Joseph Senner turned to the pages of North American Review to affirm the effectiveness of the new gatekeeping legislation carried out by his officers. “I do not share the apprehensions of the distinguished and learned Senator [Henry Cabot Lodge] from Massachusetts, who is at present Chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, that ‘a great, perilous change in the very fabric of our race’ is impending from further immigration,” Senner wrote. “I can safely say that since the enactment of the law of 1893 no substantial number of undesirable immigrants have been permitted to enter the United States.”32
The royal Italian government responded on the ground to Italians increasingly targeted for exclusion by American inspectors. Their primary tool was a network that operated through the Office for Labor Information and Protection for Italians located inside the Ellis Island station and placed under the close supervision of the ambassador, and, second, through the overseas application of Italy’s first attempt to enact “remote control” through a comprehensive Emigration Law, initially passed in 1888 and significantly expanded in 1901.33 The office was the only outpost of a foreign government permitted to operate at the federal station in its first decade of existence. More commonly, immigrant aid groups provided assistance in the Castle Garden era before 1891 and after US authorities forced the office to close in 1899.34 In the middle of the 1890s, as federal officials at Ellis Island turned law into a functioning system to administrate immigration regulation, a handful of Italian bureaucrats worked in close proximity onsite at the station. The work of this largely forgotten staff of men directly influenced the work of immigration inspectors who carried out their duties otherwise unobserved, and unchallenged.35 For a few crucial years, the office worked to protect Italian migrants from rejection at the border. This close Italian-American relationship also placed a handful of government agents in the position to witness, and react to, the implementation of early US immigration policy as it was being transformed from law into action.
Italian records tell the story of how inspectors applied their discretion to European immigrants in the earliest years of Ellis Island, filling in the history of East Coast enforcement contemporary to the most significant decisions in Chinese exclusion cases brought about on the West Coast. In the first five years of unified federal immigration policy, Italians, through their dominating presence at Ellis Island, negotiated and shaped that policy on behalf of their emigrants. Nearly sixty-two thousand migrants from Italy presented themselves at the border for inspection by the newly professionalized agents of the Immigration Bureau in 1892, the first year of operation at Ellis, making up 10 percent of the total number processed.36 Numbers continued to rise through the end of the century. Italians accounted for 15 percent of all arrivals by 1894, and 25 percent in 1899.37
A binational perspective incorporating the Italian response to the practice of rejection at the border illuminates the early construction of a gatekeeping apparatus in the United States. An examination of the limits of Italian power to negotiate and shape immigration policy expands the history of working-class migration. The limits of American authority to enforce border controls becomes clearer. The LPC clause created a cage in which tens of thousands of Italians were forced to sojourn at the gates to America. While the ability of a small, focused group of officers of the diplomatic service to shepherd their migratory countrymen through the cage frustrated US authorities, this transnational history more clearly defines the scope and limitations of early gatekeeping. While Fong Yue Ting had confirmed the power to regulate immigration rested solely in Congress’s hands, the history of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians raises an important question about the unchecked power of the administrative state.38 Bureaucrats newly freed from judicial oversight and endowed with the power of exclusion by Congress had a check on their authority that, quite surprisingly, came from a simple outpost of a foreign government calling itself the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians.
The Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians
Housed in a single room on the first floor of the immigration station, the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians became the base of Italian presence and power, the physical expression of Italian attempts to shape American immigration enforcement. In a report to his government titled “Relations of the Office for Italians with the American Immigration Authorities,” the office’s first chief agent, Alessandro (Alex) Oldrini, described how he commanded the attention of two key bureaucrats: the commissioner of immigration, who kept his office on the island, and the commissioner of Ellis Island.39 Reflecting on the first year of the office’s operation, Oldrini observed the frequency with which American immigration officials invited him into meetings and conversations about the island’s operations. No “argument then of greater tranquility” existed between the Americans and the Italian office, Oldrini opined, than the invitation to attend a meeting of Ellis Island commissioners convened by Commissioner-General Herman Stump at the island the day after Stump’s return from a trip to Rome.40 Stump had invited Oldrini to speak to the level of coordination between the two nations, how Oldrini had “prepared with effective tips the best way to achieve the purpose of coordination of Italian and American immigration laws according to the criteria of the American Government.”41 This is the earliest-known exercise by the United States of what Aristide Zolberg called “remote control” — gatekeeping enforcement outside the receiving nation’s borders.42 From 1894 until the US government forced the closure of the office in 1899, Italians established a clear presence on the ground at Ellis Island in what Oldrini called “‘a State in the State’ a government concession that has no precedents,” at the intersection of American and Italian authority.43
The Italian government responded to the practice of exclusion at Ellis Island in the early years of the immigration station’s operation at the same time that they sought to comprehend the rules of gatekeeping. As the primary site to determine entry for European immigrants from 1892 until it closed in 1954, Italy’s government focused much of its attention on Ellis Island. A handful of men led the dialogue: officers of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including the ambassador to the United States in Washington, the minister of foreign affairs and his undersecretary in Rome, and, at Ellis Island itself, Alex Oldrini and his successor, Egisto Rossi. The consul of New York and US secretary of state are notably absent as the Italians dealt directly with Immigration Bureau, located until 1903 in the Treasury Department. The presence of the chief agent (accompanied from time to time by an assistant) as employees of the Italian Foreign Service outside the diplomatic corps brought Italians into a unique position to observe the process of inspection and question cases of exclusion. While this oversight had a very mixed effect on the overall treatment of Italians in the system, the Office of Labor Information put pressure on the United States to better define its process.
The origin story of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians reveals how Italian oversight challenged American authority and, at the same time, helped to strengthen it. The office began with a request Ambassador Fava sent to the US secretary of state in April 1894 “to establish in the ports of arrival ‘Bureaus of Labor’ or other similar offices, duly authorized and recognized by the federal authorities,” to encourage newly arrived Italians to settle away from crowded city centers.44 Three days later, on April 22, Fava wrote an upbeat message to the minister of foreign affairs, Baron Blanc, confirming his decision to enter through “amicable agreement” between the two governments to redirect Italian migrants to “agricultural centers” on landing at Ellis Island. Fava conveyed to Blanc the verbal assurances from Commissioner Stump that Congress would favorably receive the proposal.45 In June 1894, Ambassador Fava, through his personal relationship with New Hampshire senator William E. Chandler, chairman of the Senate Committee on Immigration and one of the most prominent advocates of immigration restriction then in the Senate, negotiated a proposal from Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle, who oversaw the Bureau of Immigration and served as the final arbiter for any exclusion law appeals.46 Following the unanimous passage of Senate Resolution Number 207 on June 11, Carlisle notified the ambassador he had directed Commissioner Stump to open what Carlisle described in straightforward terms as an information bureau. The space would be a
room on the first floor of the Immigration Station on Ellis Island . . . to be designated as a place for the display of such circulars, advertisements and printed matter, forwarded by State Boards of Immigration, transportation lines, corporations, and individuals, offering inducements to immigrants for settlement and employment, as may be approved by the Commissioner of Immigration at said port.47
What the secretary wrote next is more telling. Carlisle informed Fava, “In this room you can have stationed one or two persons who can interview and advise with Italian immigrants, who have been allowed to land, and give them such instructions as will promote their welfare.”48 Carlisle’s inclusion of the phrase indicated his adherence to the 1891 and 1893 US laws that defined inspectors’ duty to admit only those “clearly and without a doubt entitled to admission.”49 The letter emphasized that American agents “will be directed to cause all Italians, destined for the port of New York, to pass through this room before they are permitted to hold communication with any person not connected with the Immigration Service.”50
The office was initially intended to allay concerns on the part of both governments about the susceptibility of Italian migrants to the padrone system. Three years after the Chinese Exclusion Act became law, Congress moved under pressure from organized labor to limit another group of migrant workers. Advocates for the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law believed it would prevent the exploitation of ignorant working-class people by padrones, an anglicization of the Italian word for “bosses.” This important step in the creation of qualitative limits on immigration prohibited the entry of men who had contracted to work with a specific employer prior to their arrival in the country. The law impacted the public discourse that initially linked Italians in particular to the exploitative padrone system. Newspapers often led with shocking headlines that detailed the worst cases of abuse. In June 1895, Foreign Minister Blanc wrote to Fava how upset it made him to read judgments against Italian padrones in the “New Jork press.”51
Growing anxiety in Rome regarding the American climate and gatekeeping enforcement over the summer of 1894–95 led the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians at Ellis Island to focus its efforts not on snuffing out the padrone system but on the application of US gatekeeping law. More broadly, Fava’s reply to Carlisle revealed a careful dance of power at the same time that he watched the progress of legislative changes to immigration policy. His letter used delicate language that did not overtly challenge the American administrative authority to reject emigrants either in principle or in practice. “I am deeply grateful to you for this kind communication, and I shall have the pleasure in replying later to such portions of the same as relate to the opportunity afforded me by you one or two persons stationed in said room in order to promote the welfare of Italian immigrants,” the ambassador wrote.52 Fava’s missive initially appeared to embrace the treasury secretary’s power as the ultimate sovereign in the chain of bureaucratic authority over gatekeeping.
In June 1894 Congress debated how to attack the padrone system in between discussions focused on the need for additional restrictive legislation, with the Italian delegation following the overlap closely. On the same day Carlisle informed Fava of his special entitlement, he announced that the Treasury Department had formed an “Immigration Investigating Committee” composed of Commissioner Stump, Commissioner of Immigration for New York Dr. Joseph Senner, and Ellis Island Assistant Superintendent Edward McSweeney, to test the application of existing legislation. Fava thought Rome should know too, so he folded the notice published by the Government Printing Office into his report dated June 14.53 At the same time, Fava was corresponding with the man he called “my dear Senator” Chandler about the progress of restrictionist legislation targeting padrone labor practices, widely believed to be both perpetrated by, and victimizing of, Italians.54 Chandler introduced a resolution asking for the Senate to issue a statement on the padrone system. The brief Senate discussion of Resolution No. 207 captured Senator Chandler, Republican of New Hampshire, praising his friend Fava as “the energetic and courteous Italian Ambassador” and highlighting “the recent ‘deep interest’ shown by the Italian government in uprooting the padrone system.”55 The discretionary powers of immigration inspectors grew, in part by the work of senators like Chandler, who introduced legislation to strengthen enforcement of the Alien Contract Labor Law to combat padrones.56 In a personal letter to Fava, Chandler highlighted what he called the “creditable cooperative movement of the two governments” to this end.57 Initially, neither Rome nor Washington anticipated how Italians might resist or challenge US policy through what Fava called an “amicable” relationship.
Fava saw the office as a sign of preference granted to Italians under scrutiny by US immigration law. In a long report marked “urgent” to his own government back in Rome the day after receiving Secretary Carlisle’s letter, Fava noted how “these measures constitute a considerable concession made to us.”58 While Carlisle had added a clause in his original letter identifying only those Italians “who have been allowed to land” as eligible for the office’s services, and stipulated that all immigrants regardless of origin could use the services of this office, the right for Fava to designate two Italians to staff the room was a move that the ambassador interpreted as covert evidence of American favor.59 Fava told the prime minister that the power of selection conferred upon him was “intended to reject possible protests against the protection that actually, if not openly, our emigrants will receive from the federal authorities,” indicating preferential treatment.60 Two days later the Washington Post publicized his ideas when it ran the headline “Baron Fava Cares for His Countrymen.” Fava clipped the article and underlined one phrase: “At the request of Baron Fava, two or more Italians, representing the Italian government, will converse and give information to Italians.”61 Notably, the language of the Post reproduced almost verbatim his private, internal correspondence with the prime minister.62 It is likely that Fava leaked his letter to the press.
The first chief agent of the office, Alex Oldrini, was a man who had lived in New York for some time, who claimed a role in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s failed revolution for Italian unification in the 1850s and spent many decades engaged in philanthropy in the city. Often referred to as “Professor,” in 1894 he authored a chapter on the Italian educational system for the US Commissioner of Education, where he listed as credentials his membership in the Geographical Society of Italy, among other honorifics.63 Beyond these brief notes, however, biographical details remain elusive. His marked influence over the US-Italian relationship and the power he managed to exercise out of a single room on Ellis Island is striking, all the more so given his almost total absence in the historiography on migration and gatekeeping.
An Italian presence at the largest port of entry to the United States established a new kind of relationship between sending and receiving states that Italians would exploit to monitor American immigration enforcement. Detained immigrants could request testimony by family members already in the country, or the assistance of representatives of immigrant aid societies that formed among the mushrooming population of foreign-born in New York City. Italians were the only group that had reliable assistance at the island in these matters in the 1890s. In June 1894 the ambassador was worried by the newspaper headline “Decline to Feed Immigrants. Steamship Companies Refuse to Pay for their Meals in the Detention Pen”; it described an increase in detentions even though overall immigration was down from the previous year.64 What began as a hope for preferential treatment by immigration authorities quickly gave way to practical efforts by the Italian government to help migrants navigate the inspection process and avoid exclusion by the LPC clause. When Italians later filled the “detention pen,” Oldrini and Rossi were quick to point out in reports to Rome that the “patronage” of the office hurried the release of most of the migrants.65
While the US government had taken care not to publicly acknowledge special treatment for Italians, the agents of the office saw clear benefits. A series of letters and newspaper clippings sent between December 1894 and May 1895 between New York, Washington, and Rome focused on the relationship between the office and the men the Italians called the “American Authorities” at Ellis Island. Oldrini, citing a report from Foreign Minister Baron Blanc, emphasized the ability of the office to encourage more harmonious relations with a weak Italian state that needed the United States to accept its migrants.66 An editorial from an unnamed Italian American newspaper found in the ambassador’s archives called the office “a victory for us, because only Italy has a control on immigration to the ship, and so the emigrant is not only guided at boarding at home but also at the landing abroad.”67 The same newspaper concluded with effusive praise of the royal government’s prudent actions. “The Federal Government has admitted a check to the office of ‘Immigration’ at Ellis Island for Italian immigration. This control is exercised scrupulously and courteously at the same time by Prof. Oldrini,” the author assured readers, “and his work and that of Ambassador Fava in Washington and the Italian Government should be praised very much.”68 While the article lauded Oldrini (which is probably why he kept it), it more importantly acknowledged “a check” on an American gatekeeping authority otherwise free from outside challenge. Oldrini’s true value was more accurately described by an American editorial that emphasized his long tenure of residence in the United States, command of the English language, and thorough “understand[ing of] the immigration laws and the bureau’s rules.”69 Most significantly, the office’s first chief agent identified the practice of exclusion — the rejection of emigrants at the border — as the point where US and Italian law overlapped and where remote control began. “[It is] in the most delicate question of exclusions,” Oldrini reported to Rome a few months after opening the office, “over which more than other points, bring into contact the legal criteria of Italy and the US.”70
“Those Days of Exceptional Invasion”
Egisto Rossi, second chief agent of the office, described “briefly the two principal services of the Office; that is, the information branch and the patronage.” His language, in the style of high Italian common to diplomatic exchange at the time, diminished the outsize role that he and the office played in shaping application of American gatekeeping law. Over the following lines of text Rossi described how he facilitated the entry of millions of Italian migrants; 25,865 entered in the busiest months of 1896 alone.71 The Italian government’s close work seems to have reduced the number of detainees ultimately rejected. They believed their work prevented more stringent application of exclusionary law, and the records the office kept show this may have been the case.72
For the first eighteen years of operation, LPC, or “likely to become a public charge,” was the most common reason for exclusion at Ellis Island.73 As Congress never defined the amount of money an arrival had to carry on his or her person, Immigration Bureau inspectors were free to use the LPC clause at their own discretion to reject migrants. As little as ten or as much as forty dollars in cash might be demanded as proof of self-sufficiency.74 Gatekeepers’ focus on keeping out the poor has a longer history, tracing back to the abject poverty of Irish migrants arriving in the mid-nineteenth century that spurred states (which were in charge of immigration policy until 1891) to focus their mechanisms of exclusion on economic condition.75 By the late nineteenth century, Italians had begun to replace Irish migrants as the focus of legislators seeking to keep out the most destitute. The Italian government tried to warn emigrants of the function of the LPC clause, issuing circulars intended for distribution at ports of departure by agents of the government and shipping lines.76 In December 1894, Oldrini reported about the distribution by the Ellis Island commissioner of “secret instructions” to his inspectors. Oldrini recommended that his government focus on what he called the problem of “Public Charge . . . particularly where is the question of the money that every adult immigrant should have on arrival.”77 While he doubted the efficacy of the commissioner’s guidance to “in and of itself have a special influence on the said officers,” he acknowledged that this moment, with Congress at a standstill arguing over the passage of “additional restrictive legislation . . . it is useful here to point out that the special circulars and regulations of the immigration department have the effect of law.”78 Repeatedly over the next several years, the office stepped in to educate emigrants so that they would be better able to navigate the entry process at the gates to the United States.
Italians made up the majority of the detained at Ellis Island for several of the station’s early years as inspectors adjusted to the protocol outlined under the 1891 and 1893 statute. While specific details of individual cases have not survived, an overall assessment of the focus of US inspectors can be surmised from the Italians’ commentary. Fava took note in Oldrini’s December 1894 report of the impact that exclusion had on Italian migrants. By next year, Egisto Rossi, second chief officer at the Office of Italian Information and Protection, chose the months of April and May 1896 to highlight trends in the office’s second annual report. These months recorded the most traffic from Italy to the United States. Rossi emphasized the role the office played in supporting Italian migrants put in front of the Board of Special Inquiry when inspectors questioned their admissibility based on the LPC or Alien Contract Labor Law.79 Ultimately, while a significant percentage of arriving Italians were initially detained for further questioning, the majority of these people gained entrance to the United States. “How effective this sort of patronage for our emigration was during the year now closed [sic], can be seen from the statistics” that formed the bulk of Rossi’s comprehensive report.80
One newspaper corroborated Rossi’s view, reporting in the spring of 1896 how the detainee situation had reached a point of crisis so great it necessitated the creation of a “temporary detention pen.”81 The Italians’ reports paint a clear picture of conditions at the island and the functioning of the gatekeeping apparatus, showing how American inspectors struggled to process arrivals during temporary spikes. In three short months, Rossi observed, Italians numbering “far beyond the emigration totals of the other main European nations in the aforementioned quarter” poured into the station.82 US officials responded to “such an extraordinary confluence in a relatively short time” by detaining more people.83 The spike in Italian arrivals “was the cause of serious concerns on the part of the Immigration Commissioners and of greater rigors in the examinations of our emigrants. Hence the extraordinary number of those detained [in March, April, and May 1896, who] arrived in contravention with the American laws, and therefore obliged to undergo further examinations.”84 Despite the heavy-handedness of inspectors who initially detained 33 percent of arriving Italian migrants, slightly less than 7 percent of the detained were ultimately rejected, meaning that inspectors refused only 2.24 percent of all passengers in the busiest months of the second-busiest year for Italian migration then on record.85
The Italian experience shows how widely, but not stringently, inspectors applied the LPC tool in the first few years of enforcement at Ellis Island. While only 6.7 percent of the detained were ultimately rejected, of those sent back 77 percent were excluded under the LPC clause.86 “Suffice it to say that in some days this number ascended to more than 400, of which no small part were sentenced to return to Italy under the accusation of pauperism, i.e. ‘public charge,’ ” Rossi reported. While for these migrants “the patronage of the Italian Office it was of invaluable help,” the effectiveness of the interventions seemed only to strengthen the gatekeeping apparatus. In Rossi’s words, “the more effective [the Italian Office] became, the more rigorous these Authorities were in granting admission to our emigrants during those days of exceptional invasion, for which the Federal Commissaries had to provide new premises and new dormitories, and increase the number of service personnel at Ellis Island” in direct response to growing numbers of Italian migrants. Rossi concluded his account with a note of cautious praise for his government’s efforts. “On that occasion [Ellis] would have been called a more Italian than American island, where, despite such a great agglomeration, cause of so many exaggerated fears in the American and Italian press, there were no regrets of any sort.”87 In undertaking its work of “welcoming, advising, and directing emigrants upon their arrival,” the office had to take care not to be too successful, which they feared would encourage additional inadmissible migrants to undertake the journey. Its leaders struggled to affect the flow of emigration without altering its “spontaneity . . . [and] becoming an instrument of propaganda” that would encourage even more migration from the Kingdom that could further stoke restrictionism in the United States.88
Officers of the Italian government working in the busy halls of Ellis Island queried the Americans constantly as they sought to understand the frequently changing character of its immigration policy. While an internal report produced by the Immigration Restriction League actually confirmed Italians’ concerns of more stringent gatekeeping, noting a doubling in the overall rate of rejection from 0.5 percent of arrivals between 1892 to 1893 to 1 percent between 1894 and 1895, it appeared that Italians were measured against an even higher bar.89 Italian officials took particular notice of the shifting application of the LPC clause. Royal statistician Luigi Bodio pointed out the difference in enforcement of the LPC clause he observed between 1894 and 1895. Writing to an American audience in a version of an article he published in Italy in Nuova Antologia the year previous, Bodio sketched out the shifting picture of enforcement, a trend that Oldrini had warned the ambassador about back in December 1894.90 “In 1895 our 33,902 emigrants disembarking at Ellis Island had with them $362,000, that is, a little more than $10 apiece, including those who were rejected as ‘paupers’ and ‘undesirable immigrants.’ In the year preceding, the average to each individual was practically the same,” yet the number rejected was lower.91 Senner, the Ellis Island commissioner, reported in the pages of the North American Review in June 1896 “solely [due] to the strict enforcement of the latest law (of March 3, 1893) . . . Italians . . . form the largest percentage of the detained.”92 Like Bodio, Senner also used the pages of a widely circulated magazine to make his case to the public. He argued that his agents’ enforcement efforts were working when he cited “the number of persons returned within one year after landing as public charges decreased from 637, in the fiscal year 1892, to 577, in 1893, 417 in 1894, and 177 in 1895. This is self-evident proof of the increasing efficiency of the immigration service in preventing from year to year undesirable immigrants from landing.”93 By late spring of 1895 the frequency of rejection led the leaders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to adopt a new term — emigrazione clandestina, or “illegal emigration” — in reports that tried to identify migrants likely to be rejected by US inspectors. Fava and his government remained focused on preventing exclusion at the border.94
At the same time that Italian officials recorded a surge in arrivals, and the ensuing struggle of the Immigration Service to contain them, four Italian detainees attempted a daring escape that highlighted both the conditions of detention and the influence of Oldrini and the office. The episode in May 1895 roiled the remaining hundred men, women, and children held in a temporary “detention pen.” The American press covering the escape story offered a sympathetic view of the office even in the midst of a largely unflattering portrayal of Italian migrants. Nothing short of an address delivered by the chief agent of the Office of Labor Information and Protection calmed the “uproar.”
Over 100 Italians made a determined effort yesterday to break out of the detention pen at Ellis Island. They rushed against the gates in a body, yelling and waving their arms to scare the guards. The place was in an uproar in a moment, the scared women and children huddling into corners, and the attendants running about for extra guards. Finally, the Italian representative at Ellis Island, Prof. Aldrini [sic], mounted a desk and spoke to his angry countrymen. This had a quieting effect, and in half an hour there was quiet again in the pen. Four men had escaped over the railing earlier in the day, and made their way to the New-Jersey shore.95
This episode reveals how the Italian presence at the office mediated gatekeeping as it oversaw the execution of US policy, and the results of that work. The next year, Rossi described how the office “watched with the utmost diligence” to protect those rejected at the border.96 His annual report highlighted how the office navigated migrants through the sometimes literal “cage of the rejected.” If their detention or exclusion appeared to be “without legitimate reasons,” or ordered without a hearing before the Board of Special Inquiry, the office intervened. “Our Office is obliged to bring [these cases] to the attention of the authorities, and to promote their cause in the best ways.”97 The only legitimate reason for exclusion, in Rossi’s eyes, was “due exclusively to finding [oneself] in evident contravention” of American law. By the winter of 1896 — two years after the opening of the office, with its special privileges — Rossi did not question the underlying principles of gatekeeping and focused instead on fair application of the law.
Oldrini and Rossi attempted to make the Americans adhere to the letter of their own law, denying the inspectors discretion they tried to wield. The actions of Senner’s agents became a subject of attention on June 1, 1895, when Oldrini typed onto his letterhead a copy of the Code of Conduct distributed “to all Officers Privelege [sic] Holders and Employees US Immigration Station Ellis Island N.Y.” and included it in his report #59. Oldrini highlighted point 1: “The most humane and considerate treatment must be accorded in all cases to immigrants. They must not be justled [sic] or pushed and women and children especially shall be most patiently and kindly treated.”98 Senner’s directions compelled officers to report any “improper act” and emphasized his expectations for their behavior. As the leadership on the island struggled to maintain order and discipline within the ranks of inspectors, the records of exclusion provided by the Italian office show how LPC was widely but not stringently applied in the 1890s, and how Italians worked with US gatekeeping.
One case of LPC exclusion, the story of “penniless immigrant” Giuseppe Mintello ordered by the Board of Special Inquiry to be deported back to Italy, grabbed the attention of the American press in March 1897. Here, as in other cases, the Italian office played a decisive role in securing the migrant’s freedom. Despite earning the “sympathy of members of the board . . . he could give no satisfactory assurance that he would not become a public charge” and was summarily refused entry.99 But “the immigrant did not despair. Before he was taken from Ellis Island he wrote a long letter to Commissioner Senner, in which he recited a story of misfortune that touched the commission. Dr. Senner referred it to Dr. Rossi of the Italian Bureau on the island. Dr. Rossi recommended that Giuseppe be allowed to remain in this country.” Rossi was so trusted by the Ellis Island commissioner that Senner agreed to release the man at the last minute. Mintello was already aboard a steamship which “was to sail in six minutes” when a call patched through from the Anchor Line’s dock across the water in Brooklyn. “The gangway had been drawn in, but the message of good cheer reached the ears of the Captain and of Giuseppe at the same time. A rope ladder was flung over the side, and Giuseppe scrambled down with his scant baggage and hurried away, happy in the privilege of seeking his fortune in the New World.” Here the article ends. Another piece published a week later in Texas gave a similar story but included the tale of an Austrian subject excluded under the Alien Contract Labor Law, a man named Andras Kadalcheck whose brother had committed suicide the night before he was set to testify in front of the board.100 Both men were able to persuade Senner to intervene and reverse their standing deportation order. Senner “was moved to rescind his decision” in Mintello’s case, and the commissioner “took pity on him [Kadalcheck], and, cutting short the rehearing, allowed the man to land.” Both of these stories testify to the arbitrary nature of gatekeeping in these early years.
Taken together with the records of the work of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians at Ellis Island, Giuseppe Mintello’s happy ending to a tragic tale, and the press’s interest in cases like his, shows how transnational forces mediated the inspection process and thus the application of gatekeeping law. Trapped in a cage of legal enforcement of the LPC clause, Italians used diplomatic relationships to force the United States to better define the rules of exclusion in an era where officers applied guidelines in unpredictable ways. The culture of the inspection service at Ellis Island, while not rife with corruption in this period, was tilted in that direction, having survived across the transition from state to federal control.101 Meetings, letters, and reports generated by the two-room office requested clarification on the admissibility of specific categories of people under the law, a part of the larger Italian strategy that sought to understand American policy as it was being enacted. While historians such as Jane Hong and Julian Lim have begun to demonstrate in forthcoming work how transnational actors influenced US immigration policies of Asian exclusion, the sheer number of Italians dwarfed Asian migration at the turn of the century.102 The physical presence of “a state in a state” on Ellis Island mediated American gatekeeping as the system exercised its bureaucratic muscle.103
Luigi Bodio’s impassioned article, published in Italy in December 1895 and translated into English in April 1896, laid out the case for his government to protect immigrants. Bodio’s view reflected a significant strain within the Italian government more broadly.104 “If our peasants and workmen have greater difficulty in finding work in foreign lands, this state of things obliges us to be more careful in protecting our emigrants and removing the obstacles they encounter,” Bodio argued.105 He set out a clear and direct agenda for consuls to carry out on behalf of the Italian nation. “In short, far from discouraging emigration, we should aid it in every way, improving its quality and making it an aid beyond the sea to the influence of the mother country. It is a safety valve for class hatreds and social unrest, an efficacious instrument of human equality,” he wrote. “For us Italians, coming late in our development, it is also a school. The higher classes should see to it that it is kept healthy and is not left without protection.”106
On June 15, 1897, a massive fire ripped through Ellis Island. Since the flames destroyed almost all of the station’s buildings, including the main arrivals hall, the office reopened near the temporary immigration-processing station set up at the Barge Office on Battery Park, at the old Castle Garden. The fire fundamentally disrupted the work of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians. Luigi Bodio lamented the loss of carefully prepared records that he would no longer be able to use to analyze the immigration stream.107 At the temporary Barge Office quarters Rossi struggled to carry on, even after Rome sent him funds to replace his typewriter that had burned. He found the new location compromised by many of the same issues that drove the US government to relocate to Ellis Island in the first place in 1892 (namely, the inability to keep at bay predatory employers who gathered right outside the building and enjoyed easy, immediate access to new arrivals).108 Rossi complained that all emigrants should be required to meet with agents of his office first.109 Yet this was unenforceable without the cooperation of the American authorities, who had suffered a disruption in order themselves.110 A year after the fire, the immigration authorities had come to see the office not as an aid but as an interference. Mixed messages between New York, Washington, and Rome in April and June 1898 first augured the office’s closing, then reversed course when Fava reassured his government that it would remain open.111 Finally, effective January 1, 1900, the US government formally shut the office down, citing jealousy of other nations.112 While the Treasury Department had dragged the closing out for a year and a half, functions had effectively ceased in the winter of 1898–99.113 While American newspapers blamed the office’s inability to rout the padrone system, the Immigration Bureau did not want other countries to request the same privileges of oversight and proximity to the gatekeeping system that Italians had come to enjoy.114
As Alessandro Oldrini looked out at the lines of people Superintendent of Immigration Herman Stump called the “worst classes” awaiting inspection on August 28, 1894, he picked up his pen and wrote to the embassy in Washington. He did not try to hide his mocking of Stump when he broke into colorful euphemisms punctuated by the liberal use of exclamation marks. Seeing Stump’s fears of immigrant invasion as frankly ridiculous, Oldrini told the ambassador, “We know that Stump would make suggestions to the Italian Government, regarding its emigration, on the best way to diminish the flow of migrants because Congress reported the Superintendent ‘feels very ugly about it.’ Good lord, what jackasses!” he exclaimed in frustration. Oldrini struggled to understand why a country with territory as vast as the United States would ever need to restrict the flow of immigration — even that deemed less than desirable. “With 3/5 of the country a desert between two oceans!!” he shouted from the page.115 This letter was quite a contrast with the formal correspondence the two men frequently exchanged. As Harper’s depiction of the “pathos . . . in the cage of the rejected” had emphasized, immigration inspectors held the power to permit or deny the entry of thousands of arriving immigrants each day. Reports peppered with frustration at the action of these inspectors filled the pages of confidential messages exchanged between the office at Ellis Island, the ambassador in Washington, and the foreign minister in Rome, uncovering the transnational and sometimes competing forces of immigration restriction.116
A binational perspective on the regulation of immigration casts new light on previously shadowed corners of this early era in federal immigration policy. Julie Greene has argued that “mobility became a key terrain of struggle” for workers on the move in the Gilded Age; at the same time, US policymakers were constructing a gatekeeping regime under the close supervision of officers of the Italian government who were in constant communication with Rome.117 Italians’ concerns on the ground at Ellis translated into the language of their correspondence. In this period of Italian history the prime minister also served as the minister of the interior, a fact that amplified the ambassador’s concerns in the highest level of government and gave the prime minister’s domestic policies transatlantic impact. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to American gatekeeping with the first recorded attempts to create policy in dialogue with US law affecting the migration of working-class people, a dialectic that would become much more common in the twentieth century in the form of “remote control.”118 Beginning in 1901, Italian law mandated that government agents in the newly created Emigration Commissariat apply the same criteria to inspect departing migrants as Ellis Island inspectors would to prevent embarrassing and costly rejections at the border.119 From the very beginning, the Italian presence shaped the development of key gatekeeping practices: inspection, detention, and deportation. A handful of men in the Italian diplomatic service interacted daily with both the architects of gatekeeping and the foot soldiers tasked with interpreting the law at Ellis Island. Their closeness yielded an incredible record of documents and reports on a period little understood yet crucial to the development of a robust gate-keeping regime at the US border.
The relationship between a tight circle of influential bureaucrats — Stump, Fava, Oldrini, the secretary and undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the undersecretary of the Ministry of the Interior — shaped migrants’ interactions with American authorities. In late August 1894, the chief agent of the Office of Labor Information and Protection for Italians jotted off a quick telegram to the ambassador in Washington seeking guidance. “A visit to the [ship] Victoria this morning asked me to advise what to do regarding Italians. Restrict number coming I hear Congress says, that direction received in force at Ellis [Island] today; after lunch I will leave tomorrow I will follow in its entirety your advice [signed] Alex Oldrini.”120 This cable, in its brevity and its casualness, shows how closely Italian officers of the foreign service worked to manage the growing tide of migration and the threat of exclusion. Back in Rome, Giuseppe Solimbergo told his fellow members of Parliament assembled in December 1894 that the office “represents a true diplomatic success of our government.”121 In the first two years of the office’s operation, Ambassador Fava exchanged not a single letter with the US secretary of state regarding immigration. Indeed, the ambassador often went directly to Stump, sometimes with letters he labeled “personal,” bypassing the expected channel for diplomatic communication.122 Signs of their friendly relationship appear in letters that praise each other’s work, and Fava and his underlings weighed in constantly on American activity. The secretary of the treasury (who oversaw immigration at the time) wrote to Fava on April 12, 1895, “to express my satisfaction at the harmonious relations existing between the Immigration officials of our respective Governments, and the mutual benefits already resulting therefrom.”123
In a typical letter to Stump, Fava outlined his plans for cooperation with American authorities, and when one reads between the lines, his words highlight a striking degree of direct coordination between Oldrini’s office and US leadership. “I am glad to hear that Dr. Senner [commissioner of immigration for New York, overseeing Ellis Island] has been instructed by you to have Prof. Oldrini interview all Italians going to the State of New York,” he began. “This I am sure, will prove very useful for the suppression of the padrone’s system: all this,” Fava emphasized,
to have Dr. Senner well satisfied, as I know you are, that the government of the US can implicitly rely on the sure and active cooperation of the Italian Bureau of Ellis Island, which is placed under my own direct supervision, for the purpose of suppressing the evil which it is the intention of both our governments should disappear.124
Careful not to claim too much power, before sending off his letter the ambassador edited two crucial clauses in the final version, replacing direct statements of action with passive-voice phrases that distanced his government from direct intervention. Where he initially wrote “the government of the US will always find the sure and active cooperation of the Italian Bureau,” Fava replaced “will always find” with “can implicitly rely on.” Where he first used the phrase “have decided to destroy” in reference to the binational goal of ending the padrone system, the final letter read in the third person, “it should disappear.” This exchange captures the overall state of relations between the two nations. The friendly, even conciliatory, tone of official correspondence with American leaders failed to translate into markedly favorable treatment at the hands of US immigration inspectors. Yet the presence of the office blunted the power of LPC as a tool of gatekeeping, leaving ajar the door to what Harper’s called the “cage of the rejected.”
The relationship between Italy and the United States in the 1890s reveals the limits of both Italian and American authority to control migration, the boundaries of American gatekeeping in its early years coupled with the rise of “remote control,” and the limitations of Italy’s efforts to bypass the immigration authorities. As a result of direct observation of the practice of gatekeeping at Ellis Island between 1894 and 1896 by the officers of the Office of Labor Information and Protection, the Italian government would soon shift into a more interventionist strategy to prevent exclusion of its migrants. In 1896 Egisto Rossi celebrated the success of his efforts to force the United States to apply clear and consistent reasons for exclusion. It was not until the establishment of the Office of Labor Information at Ellis Island that the royal government was able to offer, in the words of its second chief agent, “invaluable help” on the “days of exceptional invasion” that made the island “more Italian than American.”125
The careful reports and frequent correspondence collected by the Italian ambassador reveal how Americans defined essential elements of their enforcement regime in the critical years after the courts upheld the principle of administrative authority in immigration enforcement. Instead of fighting restriction head-on, the Italian government initially took the strategy of cooperation with US policy with the intention to prevent further restriction, setting the stage for the growth of “remote control” in the next century. An American newspaper praised Chief Agent Alex Oldrini in 1895 for his ability “to unravel many complications that might be insoluble without him and more thoroughly to protect the newly arrived Italian immigrants more than they have ever before been protected.” The article then emphasized how Italian support for gatekeeping laws formed a fundamental part of this work. “He is as anxious to see the restrictive laws carried out as any of the United States authorities, for the simple reason that he realizes in that way only can those Italian immigrants legally entitled to land reap to the full the advantages of residence in the new world.”126
The disastrous fire at Ellis Island in June 1897 has sharply limited scholars’ studies of the mechanics of enforcement in its earliest years. For this reason most historians rely on European exclusion cases heard after 1900.127 Italian records fill a gap in the record of early federal gatekeeping at Ellis Island. While the outcome of cases decided by the Board of Special Inquiry before 1897 cannot be studied systematically, the daily interactions with the American bureaucracy captured by men like Oldrini and Rossi shine a light onto this otherwise darkened past. The federal government has long created a “cage of the rejected,” enlisting foreign powers to carry out “remote control.”128 In the summer of 2019, the United States began exercising its administrative power to create a policy requiring some migrants with asylum claims to stay in Mexico. Who is allowed to enter (where they are held in horrendous detention facilities) still seems arbitrary and capricious, much as it did in the early years of Ellis Island. Journalists have struggled to bring details about the “Remain in Mexico” policy to light. The specifics have come from the handful of lawyers granted access to detained migrants: only ten to fifteen applicants out of over seven thousand migrants sent to wait in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, had met with counsel by early July 2019.129 As contemporary crises at the United States’ southern border tragically demonstrate, the cage is not just a metaphor. While early immigration law enforcement in the United States fell under administrative oversight, the practice of gatekeeping has never been a domestically isolated phenomenon. The Italian record shows that this process has long been affected by transnational forces, as the pressures of Italian officers shaped the application of exclusion law.
Chap. 206, An Act to Facilitate the Enforcement of the Immigration and Contract-Labor Laws of the United States, 52nd Congress, 2nd sess., March 3, 1893. By 1896, J. H. Senner, the commissioner of Ellis Island, would emphasize the 1893 clause with a slight shift in the language. He wrote in the North American Review: “It is also true that since about the middle of March there have been detained at this port an unprecedented number of [Italian] immigrants, either for special examination or for deportation, but this condition was not due to any unusual undesirability on the part of these immigrants, but solely to the strict enforcement of the latest law (of March 3, 1893), which made it the duty of the Inspectors of the Immigration Service to detain for special inquiry every immigrant who was not clearly and beyond doubt entitled to admission.” Senner, “Immigration from Italy,” 649–50.
“The Detained Immigrant,” Harper’s Weekly, August 26, 1893, 821–22.
“Section 8 of the 1891 general immigration act stated that all decisions were final and the courts could not review the secretary’s decision.” Hester, “‘Protection, Not Punishment,’ ” 14–15.
“The Detained Immigrant.” Emphasis mine.
Jane Hong, comments at roundtable, “Immigration Advocacy Then and Now,” Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting, April 6, 2019, Philadelphia; Julian Lim, Jana Lipman, and Ana Minian, discussion of current research at panel, “Looking Outside the Nation: The Exercise of U.S. Migration Policy and Law Abroad,” Organization of American Historians annual meeting, April 5, 2019, Philadelphia.
Benton-Cohen, Inventing the Immigration Problem; Moloney, National Insecurities; Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers; Yael Schacher and Julia Rose Kraut, comments at roundtable, “Immigration Advocacy Then and Now,” Organization of American Historians annual meeting, April 6, 2019, Philadelphia.
Rapporto #79, “Emigranti Italiani Respinti [Excluded Italian Immigrants],” November 22, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Legazione Sarda e Delle Rappresentanze diplomatiche Italiane negli U.S.A. (1848–1901), Archivio Storico Diplomatico dell’Ministero degli Affari Esteri, Rome (hereafter Rapp. diplo. italiane).
Photo in Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island, 67.
Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 273, table A.1: Immigration to the United States, 1820–2000.
Figures from the INS cited in Evans, “Likely to Become a Public Charge,” 231.
“The Detained Immigrant,” Harper’s Weekly. The Board of Special Inquiry was initially created to deal with general immigration deportation proceedings, while an individual judge or justice in the judicial branch heard suspected cases of violation of Chinese exclusion laws. Hester argues that this policy created two separate tracks for the application of deportation prerogatives, one that applied to the Chinese and one that considered all others. General immigration deportations were heard by the Board of Special Inquiry that was made up of three immigration agents, who acted under the aegis of administrative law, not legal procedure. The secretary of the department that housed the Bureau of Immigration heard appeals and had the final say. Hester, “Protection, Not Punishment,” 14–15.
Hidetaka Hirota argues that the Finality clause “simply codified what had become the norm in the actual enforcement of immigration exclusion and deportation” in the treatment of European immigrants by the primary receiving states in the decades before the Federal takeover of immigration policy. Hirota, Expelling the Poor, 204.
Egisto Rossi, “2.o Rapporto Annuale, dal 30 Giugno 1895 al 30 Giugno 1896 [2nd Annual Report from the Office of Labor Information and Protection, from June 30, 1895, to June 30, 1896],” September 10, 1896, box 111, pp. 3–4. Rapp. diplo. italiane (hereafter cited as “Rossi, ‘2nd Annual Report’ ”).
Gibson and Lennon, “Historical Census Statistics of the Foreign Born in the United States 1850 to 1930,” table 4, Region and Country or Area of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population, with Geographic Detail Shown in Decennial Census Publications of 1930 or Earlier: 1850 to 1930 and 1960 to 1990; https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0029/twps0029.html (accessed October 25, 2019).
Prejudice, fears, and stereotypes about the “padrone” system confined many Italians to “little Italies” and labor camps where their relative isolation played a significant role in fostering labor radicalism, which was often transnational in nature. See for example Bencivenni, Italian Immigrant Radical Culture; Gabaccia and Ottanelli, Italian Workers of the World.
In the sixty-two years that Ellis Island screened immigrant arrivals, 2,503,310 Italians landed there. The second-largest group, migrants from Russia, numbered 1,893,542 persons, and the third-largest group were 859,559 Hungarians. Figures in Moreno and LeMay, “The Ellis Island Station,” 199.
House of Representatives, House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, Report from the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization under the Resolution of Jan. 29, 1892 (Affairs on Ellis Island), report no. 2090 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892), iv.
On the strategy of using petitions of habeas corpus, see Salyer, chap. 3; see also Hester, “Protection, Not Punishment.”
Nishimura Ekiu ruled that the agents enforcing immigration law had the power to set their own rules and trust their own judgment. See Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers, chap. 2, “Contesting Exclusion.”
Chinese-born Fong Yue Ting refused to register as required by the 1892 Geary Act, like tens of thousands of Chinese resident aliens who attempted to fight the restrictive law as a mass strategy. His case challenged the deportation order issued for his refusal to register, even though at the time, the US government refused to spend the estimated $7.3 million it would cost to enforce the law. Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers, 55.
Quoted in Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers, 52. In his sharply critical dissent Justice Stephen J. Field feared that this ruling allowed the government to exercise what he called “arbitrary and despotic power” in exclusion and deportation cases. See also Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers, 53–54, 57–58.
This summary of the history of exclusion is attributed to Braun-Strumfels and Marinari, “U.S. Immigration Restriction Reconsidered.” For more on the construction and application of the LPC clause, see Evans, Likely to Become a Public Charge.
On “remote control,” see Young, “Beyond Borders.” The 1888 Emigration Law was weak and had little discernible effect on emigration; however, the law of 1901 regulated the exit of Italians by creating a new agency, the Emigration Commissariat, with broad enforcement powers to improve the “safety, reliability, and decency of Italian emigration,” as historian Mark Choate has written. This law brought American requirements and standards to bear on the entire process from predeparture to arrival. The law formalized the paperwork issued at the village level; funneled departures to official ports; and required transatlantic shippers sail with a medical inspector and a doctor (typically a surgeon in the Royal Navy) to ensure that no migrants sailed inadmissible to the United States by reason of poverty or physical or mental disease. For more on this law, which he described as “truly historic social legislation,” see Choate, Emigrant Nation, 90–92.
The fire that destroyed the island’s buildings in June 1897 caused the relocation of all inspection functions back to Manhattan. This move inadvertently threatened the office’s standing, and despite their advocacy Italian diplomats were unable to secure new quarters when the island reopened in December 1900. See correspondence in box 112, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
While women worked at the island, only men held the role of inspector in this period.
Caroli, Italian Repatriation, 33, table 10: Immigration to the United States, 1861–1899.
Caroli, Italian Repatriation, 33, table 10: Immigration to the United States, 1861–1899.
Oldrini to Fava, Report #80, “Relazione dell’Ufficio Ital. colle Autorità Americane e l’Emigrazi-one,” December 1, 1894, p. 3, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane. See also Pitkin, Keepers of the Gate, on the history of the bureau.
Stump’s title shifted as Congress elevated the name and position of immigration management within the executive branch. Initially, Stump held the title of Superintendent of Immigration at the Office of the Superintendent of Immigration. By 1895, he would be promoted to commissioner-general of the Bureau of Immigration.
Oldrini to Fava, Report #80, pp. 4–5, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Oldrini, Report no. 80, “Relazione dell’Ufficio Ital. colle Autorità Americane e l’Emigrazione,” December 1, 1894, box 113, p. 3, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Personal to Secretary of State Gresham (re: establishment of Labor Bureau), April 19, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Telegram, Fava to Blanc, April 22, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane. In the telegram Fava mistakenly identified Stump as the secretary of the treasury.
This chain of command resulted from what Hester calls a “secondary track” that isolated much of immigration law from federal judicial oversight. Hester, “Protection, Not Punishment,” 14.
Carlisle to Fava, June 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Carlisle to Fava, June 13, 1894.
Chap. 206, An Act to Facilitate the Enforcement of the Immigration and Contract-Labor Laws of the United States, 52nd Congress, 2nd sess., March 3, 1893.
Carlisle to Fava, June 13, 1894.
“Sentenze arbitrali in materia di emigrazione,” June 1, 1895, box 111, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Letter of June 14, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Box 113, fasc. 2206. See also undated page of testimony in support of Senate Resolution 207, likely published in the Congressional Record on June 12, 1894, also in box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
June 11 and 14, 1894, box 113, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
W. E. Chandler, Senate Resolution, Miscellaneous Document no. 207, 53rd Congress, 2nd sess. (June 11, 1894), copy found in box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane. The exploitative labor practice was a frequent target for legislative reform by Congress and state governments that struggled for decades to combat it.
See correspondence and related documents spanning March 1892 to June 1894 in boxes 90 and 113. In the summer of 1892 Ambassador Fava tracked the progress of a Senate bill designed to strengthen enforcement of the 1885 Alien Contract Labor Law and endow inspectors with more tools to judge a migrant’s suitability for entry. W. E. Chandler, “S. 3240: A Bill to Facilitate the Enforcement of the Immigration and Contract-Labor Laws of the United States,” 52nd Congress, 1st sess. (June 6, 1892), box 90, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Undated, likely June 12, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“Urgente: Protezione degli emigranti,” June 14, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“This apartment will be open to all nationalities.” Letter, Carlisle to Fava, June 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“Urgente: Protezione degli emigranti,” June 14, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“Baron Fava Cares for His Countrymen,” Washington Post, June 16, 1894, newspaper clipping with notes in the ambassador’s hand. Box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Report 386/188, “Urgente: Protezione degli emigranti,” June 14, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“In Honor of Garibaldi,” New York Times, March 11, 1884. The article described Oldrini as “a compatriot of Garibaldi . . . whom he had followed through battles and exile” to New York in the early 1850s. This is doubtful. While no birth or death dates have been found, later references to Oldrini in the same paper describe his relief activity during World War I. An article published in 1918 identified him as the treasurer for a New York Committee of the National Organization for the Benefit of Soldiers Crippled in the War in Milan. The article directs persons wishing to contribute to send checks to Oldrini “in care of the Guaranty Trust Company, 513 Fifth Avenue.” If he had fought with Garibaldi, he would have been almost ninety years old by World War I. “Soldiers Approve Red Cross Canteens; for Crippled Italian Soldiers,” New York Times, February 10, 1918. See also Oldrini, “Chapter X,” 321–39.
Unattributed newspaper clipping, c. June 14, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 3–4.
Oldrini, Report #80, “Relazione dell’Ufficio Ital. colle Autorità Americane e l’Emigrazione,” December 1, 1894, box 113, Rapp. diplo. italiane. This report contained a number of edits in Fava’s hand.
Disregarding the intrusiveness of such “control,” the editorial reasoned that while “this protection continues to be condemned by those who believe in the autonomy of the individual, but is instead a necessity for Italians” because they are coming in “absolute” poverty. “Che fa il prof. A. Oldrini ad Ellis Island?” (New York, May 18, 1895), signed “g.v.,” box 111, Rapp. diplo. italiane. Emphasis in original.
“Che fa il prof. A. Oldrini ad Ellis Island?”
I. D. Marshall, “Italian Immigrants. Professor Odrini [sic] Looks After Them at Ellis Island,” New York Times (full name and date obscured, ca. 1895), box 111, fasc. 2195, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Report #79, November 22, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Calculated from Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 9–11. Related statistics on 2–4.
Italians were excluded at a rate of 1.89 percent out of a total of 66,425 arrivals in the fiscal year 1895–96 while by comparison, Chinese migrants entering in 1896 suffered a rejection rate of 11 percent out of a total of 3,925 arrivals. Bodio, “2nd Annual Report,” 9–11; Salyer, Laws Harsh as Tigers, 67, table 1: Chinese Admitted to the United States, 1894–1901.
Violations of the Contract Labor Law were the second most common reason for exclusion between 1892 and 1910. Bayor, Encountering Ellis Island, 40.
See discussion in letter from Oldrini to Fava, December 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane. See also Cannato, American Passage, 81.
Hirota, Expelling the Poor, chap. 7. Hirota views the creation of the flexible LPC clause as an extension of this earlier practice.
See, for example, Bulletin of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Italy, no. 48, serie 16 (April 1895), translated from the Italian by Oldrini to share with American officials, box 111, fasc. 2195, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Oldrini to Fava, December 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Fava forwarded to the minister of foreign affairs news of Oldrini’s discovery and a copy of the circular in question (which unfortunately does not appear in his files). He agreed that the directions, which he characterized as “not new or said to have a special influence on inspections, but nevertheless, they will certainly increase the proportional number excluded, especially of Italians who on this side represented a third of the total European emigration excluded last year.” “Ogg: Istruzioni restrittive copia l’immigrazione agli S.U.,” December 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
A deep economic depression struck in 1893 at the same time that the United States was setting up qualitative barriers to entry. The overall number of migrants arriving in the United States dropped significantly, recovering somewhat by 1900. Oldrini tracked a decline in Italian immigration through Ellis Island and gestured to this problem in his frequent and detailed reports to the ambassador. From 1891 to 1894, the United States reported half the number of immigrant arrivals overall than in the four previous years from 1886 to 1890 (overall figures from Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 273, table A1: Immigration to the United States, 1820–2000). Particular to the Italian case, Oldrini noted an increase in Italian arrivals to Ellis Island in 1895–96 that reversed what had been a four-year period of decline, demonstrating that the arbitrary application of bureaucratic exclusion did little to affect migration. While the office mediated the Ellis inspection process, their commentary reveals an initially intense focus on the LPC tool of gatekeeping.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 3–4.
“Crowded with Immigrants: Plans Made for Improvements at Ellis Island,” New York Times, April 5, 1896.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 5–6. Rossi wrote, “In the three months of March, April and May when our emigration reached an unprecedented figure, at 38,450, while in the same quarter of 1895 had been only 13,750 and in the 12 months ended June 30 of that year, the whole total did not even reach the 34 thousand emigrants, as we have already seen [arrive in the first six months of this year].”
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 6.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 6–7.
This figure is only slightly higher than the average rate of rejection estimated by historian Mae Ngai more broadly for all European immigrants between 1880 and World War I. Ngai estimated that only 1 percent of the 25 million European immigrants processed through Ellis Island were excluded between the years of 1880 and 1914. Ngai, Impossible Subjects, 18. Average Italian rates of rejection calculated from data table of April and May 1896 arrivals in Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 2–4, 9–12; and overall figures for Italian migration from Caroli, Italian Repatriation, 33, table 10.
Average figures calculated from data table of April and May 1896 arrivals in Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 2–4, 9–12.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 6–7.
“Annual Report of the Executive Committee of the Immigration Restriction League for 1895,” cited in Cannato, American Passage, 104.
Oldrini to Fava, December 13, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“In the fiscal year 1894–5 there were 731 Italian emigrants rejected out of 33,902 who had reached Ellis Island.” Luigi Bodio, “On the Protection of the Italian Emigrant in America,” Chautauquan 23 (April 1896): 42–46. Based on my own textual analysis I determined the English version is a mostly accurate but not line-for-line translation of Bodio’s article “Della protezione degli emigranti italiani in America,” Nuova Antologia 144 (December 16, 1895). Bodio would go on to become the first Italian commissioner general of emigration in 1901.
Initially described in report of June 12, 1894, box 113; see also reports in box 111, Rapp. diplo. italiane, that describe strategies that emigration agents near the Port of Naples had begun to deploy to outfox American inspectors.
“Four Men Escape from Ellis Island,” New York Times, May 8, 1895.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 3–4.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 3–4.
Box 111, pos. 155, pacco IV, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“Giuseppe Mintello Happy. Order for His Deportation Rescinded Just in Time,” New York Times, March 10, 1897.
Ferris Wheel (Ferris, TX), March 17, 1897, https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth18841/m1/7/.
Cannato argues that the island became more corrupt under the leadership of Assistant Superintendent McSweeney after 1897, until a congressional investigation intervened and shook up the leadership of the island. See American Passage, chaps. 6 and 7.
Two presentations at the Organization of American Historians Annual Meeting in Philadelphia, April 4–6, 2019, indicate notable work-in-progress. Hong, “Roundtable: Immigration Advocacy Then and Now,” and Julian Lim, on the panel “Looking Outside the Nation: The Exercise of U.S. Migration Policy Abroad.” But both historians focus on the twentieth century.
Phrase found in letter of December 1, 1894, box 113, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
See Grossi, “L’emigrazione italiana in America.” Grossi, a Roman Catholic priest who was canonized in 2015, extensively cited speeches to Parliament by Senator Giuseppe Mintello, who served from 1882 to 1895, when he was appointed consul general to Canada.
Bodio, “On the Protection of the Italian Emigrant in America,” 46.
Bodio, “On the Protection of the Italian Emigrant in America,” 46.
Letter dated August 2, 1897, in box 112, pos. 155, pacco VIII, folder 2199, Rapp. diplo. italiane. On the problems at Castle Garden, see Cannato, American Passage, chap. 2.
Supplement to the Annual Report, November 1899, box 113, fasc. 2204, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Letter, June 7, 1898, box 112, pos. 155, pacco VIII, folder 2199, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
“Italian Agency to Close,” New York Times, November 26, 1899.
See report from Count Vinci to Rome that asks for a new subagent to be named to the post at Ellis Island. This position apparently remained unfilled. “Ogg: Nomine del sotto agente ad Ellis Island,” February 28, 1899, box 112. See also Rossi’s final annual report of 1899, box 113, fasc. 2204, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
The Charge d’Affaires explained the decision thus: “That the American government having been from the other European Governments repeatedly requested to have the same privilege conceded to their desire, and not wanting to show any spirit of partiality found itself obliged to put Italy, regarding immigration, on the same footing as the other nations.” Letter, Count Vinci to Fava, April 13, 1898, box 112, pos. 155 a.
Letter, Oldrini to Fava, August 28, 1894, box 109, pos. 155, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Confidential message from Fava to Secretary of State and Prime Minister Baron Blanc, “Suggerimenti per frenare il rinvio non giustificato degli emigranti (confidenziale riservato a Baron Blanc),” November 29, 1894, box 113, fasc. 2206, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Telegram, August 20, 1894, box 109, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Letter, December 16, 1895, box 109, pos. 155, pacco 1 bis. no. 1, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Carlisle to Fava, April 12, 1895, box 111, Rapp. diplo. italiane. The office represented the sum total of Italy’s “immigration officials” in the United States in the 1890s.
Strikeouts and awkward phrasing in English-language original. Likely Fava’s own translation. December 16, 1895, box 109, pos. 155, pacco 1 bis. no. 1, Rapp. diplo. italiane.
Rossi, “2nd Annual Report,” 7.
Marshall, “Italian Immigrants.”
Elliott Young argues that “remote control was not ancillary to immigration restriction; it was the main mechanism for exclusion.” Young also offers a new periodization of policy history that shows racism was central to migration policy both before and after the Quota Act of 1924. See Young, “Beyond Borders,” 38.
Noel King and Monica Ortiz Uribe, “El Paso, Texas, Is at the Forefront of the Immigration Crisis,” Morning Edition, NPR, July 9, 2019. Ortiz Uribe defined “Remain in Mexico” — officially called the Migration Protection Protocol — as a “program that forces migrants to wait out their day in US immigration court across the border in Mexico, in cities like Juárez and Tijuana. The Trump administration claims that doing so helps root out migrants who are trying to game the system. So far, roughly fifteen thousand people have been sent back since the policy began earlier this year.”