American in the Making

A native of New York City, son of Italian immigrants, FIORELLO H. LA GUARDIA spent his boyhood in Arizona, where his father was bandmaster of the 11th U.S. Infantry, and his early manhood in Fiume, where as our Consular Agent he continued the self-education which was to make him one of the most creative statesmen of our time. In this, the first of three installments drawn from his autobiography, which he did not live to finish, we see the unforgettable interaction between his youthful experience and his mature legislation. The autobiography, edited by M. R. Werner, will be published by Lippincott in May.


WHEN I went to Flume in the autumn of 1903, the Cunard Line had just opened a semimonthly passenger service between Fiume and New York. Four slow-speed steamers were put into this service. As no one in the Budapest office had had any experience with immigrants to America, I had to start from scratch. I read everything we had about immigration, including the quarantine regulations and the duties required of consular officers dealing with immigrants. The laws, rules, and regulations were not annotated, and there was very little in our limited library on the subject. But I did gather that I had to certify to the health of all passengers and crews and give the ship a certificate that it had cleared from a port free from contagious diseases or illnesses subject to quarantine regulations and that bedding and other household goods had been properly fumigated. I learned that the passengers were required to go aboard ship as late as possible before actual sailing time. But the rules and regulations made no mention of specific duties of consular officers stationed at ports of embarkation and placed on them no definite responsibilities in connection with immigrants and the process of immigration. Only in the quarantine regulations was it suggested that consular officers should "ascertain" the facts concerning the health of the passengers and crews of departing ships and should be "satisfied" that conditions and facts were in keeping with the certificates they issued.

It occurred to me that with so many causes for exclusion of immigrants and so many restrictions on their entry into the United States, it was strange that there should be no definite provision for inquiry, investigation, and checkup in the country of origin or at the port of embarkation, where accurate information was available. I discussed this situation with my immediate superior, the Consul General, who agreed with me that I could retain physicians to inspect immigrants at the time of their embarkation. He also agreed that since anyone afflicted with a contagious or loathsome disease was inadmissible under our immigration laws, such persons could be prevented from sailing under the more explicit regulations of the Quarantine Law.

Being new at Fiume, I took a look around and decided to retain a certain resident practicing physician who had a good reputation and took an interest in public health matters. I found him to be much interested in the subject and that he had given it a great deal of thought. He told me that he had been particularly concerned about the local health of a small community like Flume in relation to the constant flow of large numbers of transients into the town, on their way to America. The population of Fiume in 1903-1906 was only about 30,000, and the estimated number of immigrants was 2500 a month.

The day of the sailing of an emigrant ship arrived soon after I became Acting Consular Agent. About eighty emigrants were to embark, and I was invited to "tea" on board ship. I cannot describe the surprise and consternation of the Cunard officials when I arrived with my doctor and inquired about the health of the passengers. To say that the representatives of the steamship company were horrified is putting it mildly. The local Hungarian authorities were just confused. They, like myself, had had no previous experience in these matters.

The Cunard officials insisted vigorously that I had no authority to inspect emigrants, told me that they had been carrying passengers to America since before I was born, and stated flatly that they would not permit either my doctor or myself to "look at an emigrant." The Hungarian officials said that if it were possible to detect anyone who would be inadmissible before he sailed, they could not see why it was not the humane thing to do.

I left the ship, and a few minutes after I got back to my office on the Corso, a clerk came for the bill of health with the five-dollar fee required for it. I refused to issue the bill of health. The Cunard officials soon realized, for the first time apparently, that I meant business. The captain of the ship was worried, he came to the Consulate personally to protest, but he remained to plead with me. I told him that if he would disembark the emigrants and permit me to examine them, I would be glad to do so, but that if he did not consent to that, I would insist on disinfecting the entire ship. He asked for an hour's time, and we went back to the ship together.

The emigrants were all on deck. I examined each one of them with my doctor and stamped their cards, while the Cunard representative and the British Consul filed a formal protest against my action. They paid the fee for the bill of health but refused to pay my doctor's fee. They claimed that for me to demand that they pay the doctor was "adding insult to injury." I was not worried about that. I know that another ship was coming along soon. When that ship arrived, I made the line pay the doctor's fee for the previous ship, the Aurania, and deposit enough money to pay for the doctor's fee on the second ship. They had to do it to got clearance, but they did it all under protest, pending a decision from Washington on my ruling.

Before long there was complete cooperation on the part of the steamship line, and we had a smaller percentage of rejections for health at Ellis Island than any other port in the world. The routine became well established. Inspection was speedy and efficient, and we saved many hundreds of innocent people from the expense of taking a trip all the way to New York only to be found inadmissible on health grounds and sent back.

Fiume was the only port where emigrants were inspected before embarkation. During my time there, from 1903 to 1906, we must have inspected at least eighty to ninety thousand of them.

Twenty-five years later it was a source of great satisfaction to me to see a bill presented to Congress by the Department of Labor asking that such examinations as I had instituted be made mandatory all over the world. Public Health Service doctors were assigned to ports of embarkation to give the examinations. The system should have been a source of satisfaction to the steamship line, too, and was of great importance to the poor emigrants, for in the three years of my service at Fiume we had only forty-five emigrants rejected for trachoma, while the average rejection for that disease from other ports was about twenty-five for each ship reaching the United States.

The examination of emigrants and the scenes when they boarded ship were picturesque and created quite a lot of interest and excitement in the small port city of Fiume. Each emigrant carried his bag, crammed with all his worldly goods; the children tagged along behind their parents. They all walked up to a platform, stepped up to a doctor, who examined them for physical defects, took their temperature by feeling them, and then passed them on to the next doctor for examination of their eyes for trachoma, which was the most prevalent infectious disease at the time. The thousands of emigrants rejected every year at Ellis Island because of trachoma went back to their native lands disappointed, heartbroken, broke, for they had sold all their property and taken all their savings to pay for their passage to the land of hope.

(to be continued)

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