Labor, True Demand and Immigrant Supply

by Arthur J. Todd

A Restatement of the Economic Aspects of Immigration Policy

Recent historians and economists have been showing that it was anything but pure and unadulterated sense of brotherhood that prompted many of our forefathers’ fine speeches about opening the doors of America to the down-trodden and oppressed of Europe. Emerson, fifty years ago, in his essay on Fate noted the current exploitation of the immigrant: “The German and Irish millions, like the Negro, have a great deal of guano in their destiny. They are ferried over the Atlantic, and carted over America, to ditch and to drudge, to make corn cheap, and then to lie down prematurely to make a spot of green grass on the prairie.” Indeed it would not be hard to show that there was always a real or potential social surplus back of our national hospitality to the alien.

The process began long before our great nineteenth century era of industrial expansion. Colonial policies with regard to the immigrant varied according to latitude and longitude. Most of the New England colonies viewed the foreigner with distrust as a menace to Puritan theocracy. New York, Pennsylvania, and some of the Southern colonies were much more hospitable, for economic reasons. That this hospitality sometimes resembled that of the spider to the fly is evident from observations of contemporary writers. That it included whites as well as negroes in its ambiguous welcome is equally evident.

John Woolman writes in his Journal (1741-2): “In a few months after I came here my master bought several Scotchmen as servants, from on board a vessel, and brought them to Mount Holly to sell.” Isaac Weld, traveling in the United States in the last decade of the eighteenth century, noted methods of securing aliens in the town of York, Pennsylvania: “The inhabitants of this town as well as those of Lancaster and the adjoining country consist principally of Dutch and German immigrants and their descendants. Great numbers of these people emigrate to America every year and the importation of them forms a very considerable branch of commerce. They are for the most part brought from the Hanse towns and Rotterdam. The vessels sail thither from America laden with different kinds of produce and the masters of them on arriving there entice as many of these people on board as they can persuade to leave their native country, without demanding any money for their passages. When the vessel arrives in America an advertisement is put into the paper mentioning the different kinds of people on board whether smiths, tailors, carpenters, laborers, or the like and the people that are in want of such men flock down to the vessel. These poor Germans are then sold to the highest bidder and the captain of the vessel or the ship holder puts the money into his pocket.”

These may be, it is true, extreme cases of the economic motive for immigration. But they are quite in line with eighteenth century Mercantilist economic philosophy. Josiah Tucker, for example, in his Essay on Trade, 1753, urges the encouragement of immigration from France, and cites the value of Huguenot refugees. “Great was the outcry against them at their first coming. Poor England would be ruined! Foreigners encouraged! And our own people starving! This was the popular cry of the times. But the looms in Spittle-Fields, and the shops on Ludgate-Hill have at last sufficiently taught us another lesson … these Hugonots have … partly got, and partly saved, in the space of fifty years, a balance in our favour of, at least, fifty millions sterling…. And as England and France are rivals to each other, and competitors in almost all branches of commerce, every single manufacturer so coming over, would be our gain, and a double loss to France.”

The obverse side of the case appears in British hindrances to the free emigration of artisans during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Laws forbade any British subject who had been employed in the manufacture of wool, cotton, iron, brass, steel, or any other metal, of clocks, watches, etc., or who might come under the general denomination of artificer or manufacturer, to leave his own country for the purpose of residing in a foreign country out of the dominion of His Britannic Majesty. Recall the difficulty early American manufacturers encountered in introducing new English improvements in cotton manufacture; a virtual embargo was laid upon the migration of either men or machinery. Recall, too, an expression of American resentment in our Declaration of Independence at this English attitude: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose, obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners, refusing to pass others to encourage migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.”

On the whole, the economic motive seems to have been uppermost in the minds of both those who fostered and those who opposed foreign immigration into the United States, up to, say, 1870. Likewise in perhaps more than ninety-nine of every hundred cases the economic motive holds in the mind of the present day immigrant, or his protagonist. Escape from political tyranny or religious persecution, at least since the revolutionary period of 1848, has operated only as a secondary motive. The industrial impulse is all the more striking in the so-called “new immigration” from the Mediterranean and South-Eastern Europe. The temporary migrant laborer, the “bird of passage,” roams about seeking his fortunes in much the same spirit that certain Middle Age Knights or Crusades camp followers sought theirs. This is in no way to his discredit. It is simply a fact that we are to reckon with when called upon to work out a satisfactory immigration policy. At least its recognition would eliminate a good deal of wordy sentimentality from discussions of the immigration problem.

Professor Fairchild discovered that three things attract the Greek immigrant. First and foremost, financial opportunities. Second, corollary to the first, citizenship papers which will enable him to return to Turkey, there to carry on business under the greater protection which such citizenship confers. There is a hint here to the effect that mere naturalization does not mean assimilation and permanent acceptance of the status and responsibilities of American citizenship. Third, enjoyment of certain more or less factitious “comforts of civilization.”

But the Greeks are by no means untypical. The conclusion of the Immigration Commission as to the causes of the new immigration is that while “social conditions affect the situation in some countries, the present immigration from Europe to the United States is in the largest measure due to economic causes. It should be stated, however, that emigration from Europe is not now an absolute economic necessity, and as a rule those who emigrate to the United States are impelled by a desire for betterment rather than by the necessity of escaping intolerable conditions. This fact should largely modify the natural incentive to treat the immigration movement from the standpoint of sentiment, and permit its consideration primarily as an economic problem. In other words, the economic and social welfare of the United States should now ordinarily be the determining factor in the immigration policy of the Government.”

This delimitation of the immigration problem to its economic aspects led the Immigration Commission to recommend a somewhat restrictionist policy. That they were not without warrant in so delimiting it is evident from the utterances of such ardent opponents of restriction as Dr. Peter Roberts and Max J. Kohler. The latter, writing in the American Economic Review (March, 1912) said: “In fact, the immigrant laborer is indispensable to our economic progress today, and we can rely upon no one else to build our houses, railroads and subways, and mine our ores for us.” Dr. Roberts’ plea is almost identical.

What a glaring misconception of the whole economic and social problem is here involved will appear if we add a clause or two to Mr. Kohler’s sentence. He should have said: “We can rely upon no one else to build our houses, railroads and subways, and mine our ores for us at $455 a year; for workers of native birth but of foreign fathers would cost us $566, and native born White Americans $666 a year.” (See Abstracts of Rep. of Immigr. Comm. vol. i., pp. 405-8.) These are the facts. This is the social situation as it should be stated if a candid discussion of the problem is sought.

Now what are the economic arguments for restricting somewhat the tide of immigration? Several studies of standards of living among American workingmen within the past ten years have shown that a large proportion of American wage earners fall below a minimum efficiency standard. Studies of American wages indicate that only a little over ten per cent of American wage earners receive enough to maintain an average family in full social efficiency. The average daily wage for the year ranges from $1.50 to $2. One-half of all American wage earners get less than $600 a year; three-quarters less than $750; only one-tenth more than $1,000.

Take in connection with these wage figures the statistics for unemployment. The proportion of idleness to work ranges from one-third in mining industries to one-fifth in other industries. In Massachusetts, 1908, manufacturers were unemployed twelve per cent of the working time. Professor Streightoff estimated three years ago that the average annual loss in this country through unemployment is 1,000,000 years of working time. Perhaps one-tenth of working time might be taken as a very conservative general average loss. But the worst feature of the whole problem is that, in certain industries at least, the tendency to seasonal unemployment is increasing. Ex-Commissioner Neill in his report on the Lawrence strike said: “… it is a fact that the tendency in many lines of industry, including textiles, is to become more and more seasonal and to build to meet maximum demands and competitive trade conditions more effectively. This necessarily brings it about that a large number of employés are required for the industry during its period of maximum activity who are accordingly of necessity left idle during the period of slackness.” (Senate Document 870, 62d Cong., 2d sess., 1912.)

If we recall still further that the casual laborer, who suffers most from seasonal unemployment, is the chief stumbling block in the way to a solution of the problem of poverty; that he furnishes the human power in “sweated trades:” that immigrants form the majority of unskilled and sweated laborers; if we remember that there is not a shred of evidence (except the well-meant enthusiasm of the protagonists of the immigrant) to show that immigration has “forced-up” the American laborer and his standard of living, instead of displacing him downward; if we remember that probably 10,000,000 of our people are in poverty, and that though the immigrant may not seek charity in any larger proportions than the poor of native stock, yet he does contribute heavily to our burden of relief for dependents and defectives: we are justified in assuming that an analysis of the causes of poverty confirms the evidence from studies of wages and standards of living as to the depressing effect of the new immigration, in particular, upon working conditions for the American laborer.

Consider, too, the question of “social surplus.” Several American economists, among them Professors Hollander, Patten and Devine, agree that we are creating annually in the United States a substantial social surplus. But it is evident from the figures of wages and standards of living quoted above that the American laborer is not participating as he might expect to participate in this economic advantage. Three factors conspire against him. First, we have yet no adequate machinery for determining exactly what the surplus is, or how to distribute it equitably. Mr. Babson with his “composite statistical charts” has made a beginning in the mathematical determination of prosperity; but it is only a beginning. Second, organized labor is not yet sufficiently organized nor sufficiently self-conscious to perceive and demand its opportunity for a larger share. The significant point here is that recent immigration has hampered and hindered the development of labor organizations, and thus indirectly held back the normal tendency of wages to rise. Third, inadequate education, particularly economic and social education. The adult illiterate constitutes a tremendous educational problem. Over 35 per cent of the “new immigration” of 1913 was illiterate, and this new immigration included over two-thirds of the total. Ignorance prevents the laborer from demanding the very education that would give him a better place in the economic system; it hinders the play of intelligent self-interest; and it actually prevents effective labor-organization, which is one of the surest means of labor-education. Jenks and Lauck, after experience with the Immigration Commission, concluded that “the fact that recent immigrants are usually of non-English speaking races, and their high degree of illiteracy, have made their absorption by the labor organizations very slow and expensive. In many cases, too, the conscious policy of the employers of mixing the races in different departments and divisions of labor, in order, by a diversity of tongues, to prevent concerted action on the part of employés, has made unionization of the immigrant almost impossible.”

For these reasons, and others, we are driven to the conclusion that future policies of immigration must be based on sound principles of social welfare and social economy, and not upon the economic advantage of certain special industries. Whether we want the brawn of the immigrant must be determined by what it will contribute to the general social surplus, and not by what it adds to A’s railroads or B’s iron mines.

We are told that the three classes of our population demanding unrestricted immigration are large employers of unskilled labor, transportation companies, and revolutionary anarchists. Since this is by definition an economic and not a philosophical question, we may neglect the third class. To the other two classes should be directed certain brief tests of economic good faith. Take at its face value their claim that European brawn by the ship-load is indispensable to American industry. It is becoming an accepted maxim that industry should bear its own charges, should pay its own way. American industry has long fought the contract-labor exclusion feature in current immigration law. Suppose we frankly admit that it is much better for the immigrant to come over here to a definite job than to wander about for weeks after he arrives, a prey to immigrant banks, fake employment agents, and other sharks. Suppose, accordingly, we repeal the laws against contract-labor. Let the employer contract for as many foreign laborers as he likes or says he needs. But make the contractor liable for support and deportation costs if the laborers become public charges. Also require him to assume the cost of unemployment insurance. Exact a bond for the faithful performance of these terms, guaranteed in somewhat the same way that National Banks are safeguarded. Immigration authorities now commonly require a bond from the relatives of admitted aliens who seem likely to become public charges, but who are allowed to enter with the benefit of the doubt. Customs and revenue rules admit dutiable goods in bond. Hence the principle of the bond is perfectly familiar, and its application to contract-immigrants would be in no sense an untried or dangerous experiment. It would establish no new precedent: for precedents, and successful ones, are already established, accepted and approved. It would be understood that all admissions of aliens can be only provisional, with no time limit on deportation. It would be understood further—and the plan would work automatically if the contractor were made such a deeply interested party—that intending immigrants must be rigidly inspected, that they be required to produce consular certificates of clean police record, freedom from chronic disease, insanity, etc.

The result of such a scheme would probably cut away entirely contract-labor; for it would not longer pay. But this does not mean barring the gate to all foreign labor. As an aid to the employer and to our own native workingman, we must, sooner or later, and the sooner the better, establish a chain of labor bureaus throughout the Union. The system must be placed under Federal direction, largely because the Department of Labor would be charged, ex officio, with ascertaining the “true demand” for immigrant labor, and it could only accomplish this end effectively through such an employment clearing system. This true demand would, of course, be based not only upon mere numerical excess of calls for labor over demands for jobs, but would also take into account the nature of the work, working conditions, and above all the prevailing level of wages. According to this true demand the Department would adjust a sliding scale of admissions of immigrant laborers.

Much might be said in favor of an absolute embargo upon all immigration until such a body as the Industrial Relations Commission has time to make an authoritative economic survey of the whole country, or until the Unemployment Research Commission recently called for by Miss Kellor could make the three years’ study contemplated by her as the only way out of the unemployment morass. Twenty years ago men of the type of General Walker frankly urged that the immigration gates be closed for a flat period of ten years or so. But the sliding scale plan contemplates no such radical step. Indeed it is radical in no sense whatever. The proposed immigration act now before Congress (The Burnett Bill, H.R. 6060) paves the way for it, and provides a working principle, which apparently is accepted on all sides. Section 3 includes this clause: “That skilled labor, if otherwise admissible, may be imported if labor of like kind unemployed can not be found in this country, and the question of the necessity of importing such skilled labor in any particular instance may be determined by the Secretary of Labor….” A really workable test for immigration, superior by far to the literacy test or any other so far suggested, might easily be developed by simply enlarging the scope of this clause, making it include unskilled as well as skilled labor. No machinery other than that contemplated by the present act would be required.

The immigration problem can never be satisfactorily handled until we fix upon some such means of determining just what the economic need is. There is no danger of hindering legitimate industrial expansion in times of sudden business prosperity: for the transportation companies may be safely trusted to supply in three or four weeks aliens enough to fill all the gaps in the industrial army. Neither would injustice be done to the immigrant himself. On the contrary, he would be assured of a job and respectful consideration when he arrived. The “dago” or the “bohunk” would acquire a new dignity and a more enviable status than he now occupies. The selective process thus involved would much improve the quality of the immigrant admitted, and would incidentally render assimilation of the foreigner all the easier.

The precise details of selection, and the machinery, are mere matters of detail. But the consular service, as long ago suggested by Catlin, Schuyler and others, seems to offer the proper base of operations. We have already recommended charging consuls with viséing certificates from police, medical, and poor-relief authorities. We should further require that declarations of intention to migrate be published (somewhat as marriage banns are published) at local administrative centers (arrondissement, Bezirk, etc.) and at United States consular offices; the consular declaration should be obligatory; perhaps the other might be optional, though in all probability foreign governments would coöperate in demanding it. These validated declarations of intention should be filed in the consular offices. When notice comes from the United States Department of Labor that so many laborers will be admitted from such and such district, the declarations are to be taken up in the order of their filing, and the proper number of persons certified for admission. The apportionment of admissions from each country might be calculated on a basis of its population, also upon the nature of the employment offered, and upon the desirability of the alien himself, his general assimilability, his willingness to become naturalized, to adopt the English language and the American standard of living among efficient workers, etc.,—all as proved by past experience with his countrymen. This plan, in so far as it provides for a sliding scale of admissions, is in line with that proposed by Professor Gulick. He advocates making all nations eligible for admission and citizenship, but would admit them only in proportion as they can be readily assimilated. This would admit annually, say, five per cent of those already naturalized, with their American children. The principle here seems to be that we can assimilate from any land in, and only in, proportion to the number already assimilated from that land. But the difficulty of applying such a test lies in the complexity of the assimilative process. No measure yet exists for assimilation. Anthropologists are convinced that various strains in the populations, for example of France, or Great Britain, which have been dwelling together for centuries, are not by any means assimilated. Mere naturalization is not a sufficient test of assimilation; it is only the expression of a desire to be assimilated; and it may only be a device for the promotion of business success here or in foreign parts, as we have already indicated in the case of the Greeks. Hence in working out the basis of a sound immigration policy, it would seem more practicable to consider first the question of economic utilization rather than assimilation. This, of course, does not exclude from the Secretary of Labor’s judgment the category of assimilability as one of the factors in determining the apportionment of admissions.

It will appear that the plan outlined above limits immigration policy to purely national and economic considerations. But it is, as matters now stand, a national question. And it must remain so for some time to come, even if we are reproached with a narrow Mercantilist economics. The admission of aliens is not yet a fundamental international right, or duty; it is only an example of comity within the family of nations. And the matter must rest in this state of limbo until we develop some institution or method of registering our sentiments of internationalism, and especially of determining international surplus. As it is idle to talk or dream of abolishing poverty until at least the concept of social or national surplus is pretty clearly fixed and its realization either actually at hand or fairly imminent, just so is it vain to expect an international adjustment of the immigration problem on economic grounds until the existence of an international surplus is demonstrated, and the methods of apportioning it worked out.

How soon we may expect these things it is not our province to predict. It is too early to pass final judgment on Professor Patten’s dictum that inter-racial coöperation is impossible without integration, and that races must therefore stand in hostile relations or finally unite. But it is perfectly apparent that we have a long way to travel before the path to integration is cleared. Such assemblages as the First Universal Races Congress which met in London in 1911 can do much to prepare the way. But it must not be forgotten that the German representative at that Congress pleaded for the maintenance of strict racial and national boundaries, and summed up his plea in the rather ominous sentence: “The brotherhood of man is a good thing, but the struggle for life is a far better one.” Meanwhile we need not anticipate serious international difficulties in the way of the sliding-scale plan; for foreign governments are watching the tide of immigration with mixed feelings. They welcome the two or three hundred million dollars sent home annually by alien residents in the United States. But they also resent the dislocations of industry, the fallow fields, the dodging of military service, and the disturbance of the level of prices which such wholesale emigrations inflict upon the mother country.

Since the protagonists of unrestricted immigration have taken largely an economic line of argument, it seemed desirable to accept their terms, and meet them on their own ground. But I should not wish to be misunderstood as limiting the immigration question to its economic phases. When we have said that the latifondisti of Southern Italy are in despair at the scarcity of laborers to work their lands at starvation wages, and that the railway builders and mine operators of America are equally anxious to have those selfsame South Italian laborers for their own exploitive enterprises, we have told a bare half of the tale. There remain all those cultural, educational, political, religious and domestic variations and adjustments which make up the general problem of assimilability of the alien and of the strength of our own national digestion. America had a giant’s undiscriminating appetite in the great days of expansion from 1850 to 1890. But there are many signs, economic and other, that we can no longer play Gargantua and continue a healthy nation. An unwise engineer sometimes over-stokes his boilers, and courts disaster. Is it not equally possible that national welfare may suffer from an over-dose of human fuel in our industry?