Saturday, April 10, 2010


I'm reading a remarkable book, Vincent Cannato's American Passage, a history of Ellis Island, its predecessor, Castle Garden, and the evolution of immigration policy in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Cannato is a fine writer, a dogged researcher, and he has put together a compelling narrative.

One of the oldest traditions in American politics is the demonization of immigrants.  I've written about this at great length elsewhere in this blog: first the Irish were hated and mistrusted; then the southern and eastern Europeans were scorned and ostracized; today, we treat the Mexicans and Central Americans like pariahs.  Cannato goes to great lengths to document this sad tradition, spending a considerable amount of time on the work of William Williams, longtime director of Ellis Island, and on the research, conducted during Williams's tenure, of Dr. Henry Goddard, a psychologist.

Williams, a Wall Street attorney of old New England stock, saw it as his duty to keep America free of undesirables.  Ellis Island examiners would bar admission to anyone thought to be likely to end up "a public charge."  The bar to entry was set impossibly high: a skilled tailor with a crippled leg was sent back to Russia, despite his arguments that his deformity did not inhibit his ability to sew a suit of clothes.  Men were denied entry for having "sunken chests" and "dull eyes."  Many Jewish immigrants were turned away, their only crime being that they were "excessively short in stature."  Young French women traveling alone were almost universally assumed to be prostitutes, barred for "suspicion of moral turpitude." One young woman, so shamed and traumatized by the invasive examination frequently administered to young single women to determine their virginity, committed suicide. It was a cruel process.

Williams had good intentions.  It was a difficult job, safeguarding America's border.  Williams confessed that saying "no" was often difficult: it was one thing to espouse a theory of exclusion, it was another, altogether agonizing thing to look into the eyes of a hopeful immigrant, and tell him he must return to his homeland.  And Williams was a product of his time, the full flowering of the Scientific Age, when electricity lit homes and street lamps, and wonders like the telephone, the aeroplane, and the motorcar were bursting into the national consciousness.  When Dr. Goddard proposed to Williams that there was an objective, scientific means of determining fitness for immigration, a foolproof way to make a dispassionate and indisputable assessment of every candidate, the Ellis Island director jumped.

Goddard was a eugenist, convinced that human strengths and weaknesses were solely the result of genetics.  Strong parents begat strong children, weak parents begat weak children, and the more weak people allowed to parent, the more imperiled the nation.  He developed a intelligence test, based on the work of French psychologist Alfred Binet, that was designed to gauge the mental acuity of the immigrants.  To his shock, Goddard found that more than 80 percent of those tested failed.  Goddard even coined a term to describe these feeble-minded masses.  They were "morons," derived from the Greek word meaning "dull."   On the basis of Goddard's tests, thousands of lives were altered, thousands were denied entry to America.

The problem is, the test was deeply flawed.  Immigrants were asked the day of the week and the date.  After days, even weeks of travel, most were tired and disoriented, and had no idea of the day or date.  (It wasn't like steerage on the immigrant ships was equipped with Wi-Fi access.)  They were shown a painting of a little boy, a little girl, and a dead rabbit.  The children were weeping; the rabbit had been their pet, and they were preparing for his burial.  The immigrants were asked to interpret the work.  For most poor Europeans, the notion of a pet was beyond comprehension, and rabbits were raised for food and fur, not companionship.  The painting befuddled them.  Goddard misinterpreted cultural misunderstandings and situational disorientation for lack of intelligence.  Other medical experts at Ellis Island used cranial shape, finger length, posture, and quantity of body hair as justifications for deportation.  One Finnish immigrant, lantern jawed and stubby fingered, was actually held up as a possible descendant of the Missing Link.

Goddard rose to fame with his 1912 book, The Kalikak Family: A Study In The Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness.  Modern researchers dismiss the book as filled with factual errors and false conclusions, but in Goddard's day, it was heralded as proof that allowing the feeble-minded to procreate would only bring more feeble-minded people into the world.  Goddard became a leading advocate for birth control among the poor, to protect the human race from further intellectual dilution.  He also advocated the segregation of the feeble-minded in humane, controlled colonies, to protect them from themselves, and prevent them from commingling with the intellectually healthy.  In 1933, the book received a new printing in Germany, where it was favorably received by Nazi leadership.

To his credit, Goddard repudiated much of his work, arguing by the late 1920s, "It may still be objected that moron parents are likely to have imbecile or idiot children. There is not much evidence that this is the case. The danger is probably negligible," and frequently speaking out against eugenics in general, and the Nazi version of eugenics in particular.

But you can't change history.  

My great grandfather, Piotr Litwin, was less than five feet tall when he arrived at Ellis Island.  On the wrong day, with the wrong inspector, that might have been enough to make him "physically unfit" to enter this country.  Some of my ancestors arrived here illiterate.  That was enough to classify them as "morons," and earn them passage back to Europe.  Somehow, my people got through.  They were the blessed ones, the lucky ones.

It's hard for me, when I think about this, about how close we came to not being Americans, to not being at all, to countenance the lies, the innuendoes, the rancor directed at those coming to America from Mexico and the nations of Central America and the troubled lands of Africa.  Open the borders.  We have work enough to do, room enough to spare.  We are too good to be Goddards, too wise to be Willamses.

Next time, I hurl invective at an American president.  Sorry, all you residents of Greater Glennbeckistan, it ain't the one you're thinking of.

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