American in the Making (Part Two)

WHEN I returned to New York in 1906 after resigning from the Consular Service, I had a definite plan worked out in my mind for my future. I wanted first to complete my education, get admitted to the bar, and then enter public service.

On my return to New York, I found it hard to get a job. The experience I had gained abroad was of little value in connection with available jobs in the United States. I soon realized that I would have to start at the very bottom of the ladder. I got a temporary job with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, translating parts of the French penal code pertaining to children. This paid me $10 a week. Then I got a job with a steamship company at $15 a week. I found that if I learned stenography I could earn more money. An ad in the newspapers offered a complete course in stenography for $7.50 at the Pratt School. I paid my $7.50 and at the end of six weeks got a job as stenographer with Abercrombie & Fitch, where I received $20 a week, which was considered good pay in those days.

In the meantime I had taken the United States Civil Service examination for interpreter at Ellis Island, Robert Watchhorn was then Commissioner of Immigration in New York. He was most helpful to me. Because I knew Croatian as well as Italian and German, my name was placed high on the eligible list, and soon Mr. Watchhorn was able to assign me to an interpreter's job at Ellis Island at $1200 a year. This enabled me to go through law school in night classes relatively free from economic worries.

On applying for entrance to New York University Law School I learned, much to my chagrin, that the certificates I had from the Arizona schools were not satisfactory to the Regents of the State of New York. I was therefore required to take Regents' examinations for the equivalent of pre-law school courses, and I had to do some boning. In one group of examinations I made all the points needed except four, and completed those the next term. The New York Preparatory School, which I entered for the purpose of studying for Regents' examinations, poured the stuff into us as fast as any individual could absorb it. My stay in Europe had not been entirely wasted, for besides my knowledge of languages, the general reading I had done in history came in handy.

I entered New York University Law School in 1907, taking my courses in the evening after my full day's work over on Ellis Island. The work on the Island was difficult and strenuous. For two years we worked seven days a week, for immigration was very heavy at this time. All of us were glad, however, to have the jobs, despite the long hours and tiring tasks. Immigrants were pouring in at the average rate of 5000 a day, and it was a constant grind from the moment we got into our uniforms early in the morning until the last minute before we left on the 5.30 boat in the evening.

Under the Immigration Law, contract laborers who have been induced, assisted, encouraged, or solicited to migrate to this country by offers or promises of employment are excluded. The application of the contract labor provision of the law during my day in the Immigration Service was anything but uniform. Some of the inspectors were clever about questioning the immigrants and trapping them into admitting that they had offers or promises of jobs.

It is a puzzling fact that one provision of the Immigration Law excludes any immigrant who has no job and classifies him as likely to become a public charge, while another provision excludes an immigrant if he has a job! Common sense suggested that any immigrant who came into the United States in those days, to settle here permanently, surely came here to work. However, under the law, he could not have any more than a vague hope of a job. In answering the inspectors' questions, immigrants had to be very careful, because if their expectations were too enthusiastic, they might be held as coming in violation of the contract labor provision. Yet, if they were too indefinite, if they knew nobody, had no idea where they were going to get jobs, they might be excluded as likely to become public charges. Most of the inspectors were conscientious and fair. Sometimes, I felt, large batches of those held and deported as violating the contract labor provision were, perhaps, only borderline cases and had no more than the assurance from relatives or former townsmen of jobs on their arrival.

While the application and interpretation of the contract labor law might seem on the surface to be extreme, even illogical, the history of immigrant labor in this country fully justified such a law. Before its enactment in the eighties, our country went through a period of exploitation of labor which is one of the most sordid and blackest pictures in our entire history. The railroads and our young industries were built by exploited immigrant labor brought here under contract. They were built with the blood and tears and sweat of underpaid, ignorant immigrants. The padrone system flourished for more than twenty-five years before it was weakened by our immigration laws. For some twenty years thereafter, the padrone system continued to operate in a milder form but in just as cruel and greedy a manner, and with just as disastrous results for the poor ignorant immigrants who were subjected to it. Though we have outlived systematized exploitation of labor, the contract labor provision still serves a useful preventive purpose.

Shipload after shipload of immigrants was brought into this country by contractors, or padrones, who had already made contracts with the railroads and other large corporations for their services. The wages, at best, were disgracefully low. In the eighteen-nineties these wages averaged $1.25 to $1.50 a day. The padrone was paid by the corporation. In addition to the low wages he paid the laborers, he took a rake-off from their meager daily earnings. In addition to that, be gave the immigrants board, for which he often made exorbitant charges, deducted, too, from their small pay. Often he had a company store as well, in which he sold them supplies at excessive prices. How they ever managed to save enough to send for their families is a wonder. The twelve-hour day was not unusual, and the seven-day week was common.

The parents of some of our splendid citizens went through a life of hardship and sacrifice. It is no wonder that so many of their children have made valuable contributions to American life, for they valued what they and their parents got after such effort. It annoys me greatly whenever I hear thoughtless people, often raised the easy way, who have never known any of the hardships these immigrant families endured every day, hurl insults at American citizens who have in many cases contributed much more to the welfare of this nation than those who turn their noses up at them. Look around you in any part of this country: the immigrants have contributed more than their share to building its power and its wealth.

The time is not distant when our country will want more immigrants. Within a few years there will be great need for more unskilled workers, domestic help, and manual laborers. Perhaps we shall have to work out a system of seasonal immigration for some workers. Before long there will be a shortage of labor in our coal mines, and these immigrants will have to be permanent residents. I hope that we shall learn from our past experience and build staffs of understanding, considerate men and women interpreting a careful, consistent body of immigration law adequate for the new immigration we shall require.


DURING the last year of my three years' service at Ellis Island, I was assigned to the Night Court as an interpreter. This was very helpful to me, for it permitted me to take my last year's work at law school in the daytime and saved me time going back and forth to Ellis Island.

The Night Court at that time, 1910, dealt exclusively with cases of commercialized vice. The Immigration Service was interested in aliens who were engaged in such practice. I had to interview defendants brought into Night Court and to ascertain from them their place of birth, and, if they were foreign-born, the dates of their arrival. If any of them had been here less than five years, warrants were issued, and upon proper proof they were deported. I interviewed an average of thirty to forty such persons every night for a whole year.

Some of these cases were very pathetic. In this work I got a liberal education in the ways of the Police Department, experience that was very helpful to me later on. I venture to state that the suppression of commercialized vice during my administration as Mayor was more efficient than at any previous time. We just did not tolerate police corruption and were determined to wipe it out.

That some of the police were corrupt in 1910 was easy to see. It was not at all unusual for a patrol wagon full of women to draw up to the Night Court. The policemen and the victims would suddenly learn that there had been a substitution of judges. A "jail judge" was sitting instead of a "fining judge." The clamor among the girls was then great. I used to see police officers reluctantly return money to the girls. When a "fining judge" was sitting, more cases were brought into court. The grafters were thus able to maintain their record for arrests and do a thriving business.

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Photos of New York City, in Motion

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In