Immigrants: Report of the Committee, June 12, 1909

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This is the first year that the National Conference has had a Committee on Immigrants, so my report naturally will be brief. I should like, however, to supplement this brief or almost non-existing report with a few general reflections.

May we not believe that when the philosophical historian, who is sure to come along in the course of time, considers the quarter of the century in which we are now living, he will observe that it was singular that the most remarkable phenomenon which America presented was so little noticed, and made so little impression upon the national life. He will say that although a million people -- aliens -- came every year into America, we paid almost no attention to them. We seemed to be inhibited, so that we did not even perceive these immigrants, did not even know that they were here, or whence they came or whither they were going.

Why is it that we see so little of them? We are all willing to go to Europe in order to see new customs and get new ideas. We read all sorts of things about the Old World and its people, yet we have almost no intercourse with the immigrants who are all about us. This may be because we have inherited something a little insular from our English ancestors, or it may be due to the blindness of the man who called his brother a fool.

We talk about the congestion of our cities, and say the immigrants are adding to that congestion every year. But what do we do to help them out into the country? At one of the section meetings it was said that immigrants sent out into the country by existing employment agencies have suffered such bitter hardships that when they get back to the city they are firmly resolved that whatever else may happen to them they [page 2] will never again look for a job in the country. Nothing could add to our urban congestion more than such a sentiment among the thousands of immigrants, yet we do very little to prevent this sort of thing. Miss Abbott, the superintendent of the Society for the Protection of Immigrants in Chicago, told several grisly tales. One was of fifty-three immigrants sent to Arkansas to work, who found there only work for fifteen. The unemployed walked back to Chicago, with the exception of two, who were shot in St. Louis trying to board a train. The survivors made up their minds to work in Chicago and never again go to Arkansas or any other country place. 

We hear a great deal about the need for better recreation in our cities, a more spontaneous recreation. Nothing affords such a reservoir of public festivals as the large colonies of immigrants in every city. Nothing is more beautiful than the gay celebrations in the Italian quarter in Chicago on Garibaldi's birthday. Nothing is brighter than the march of the mutual benefit societies along the streets. Each nationality has its own method of celebrating its anniversaries. In the Bohemian districts the Slavophiles fill the crowded theater. Young Russians preach social righteousness on the street corner. The Greeks parade, blowing their pipes and flinging their banners in honor of their immortal heroes over our dirty Chicago streets just as they flung them out over the Acropolis. Nor is this display altogether gaudy. It is full of charm and reminiscence, a sort of historic pageant which they themselves apparently do not as yet understand. We say a great deal about municipal art, and here we have the beginnings, the nuclei of the best kind of municipal art of every description, for art is the attempt to put into beautiful and permanent form the emotions which have uplifted the human race from time immemorial, that a man may get his connection with the past, and be free from the sense of isolation and hardship.

In this discussion we were warned not to go into the vexed problem of immigration, but to keep to the subject of immigrants -- how far they might be helped by the people represented in this Conference and by the societies and agencies here gathered, as well as how far on the other hand they might be of benefit to us. We have called in two professors from colleges, [page 3] one a professor of economics, and the other a professor of philosophy. Charity is continually going out into new fields, and other agencies are constantly coming into the charitable field. It has been pointed out that the reform of the poor laws came about not through efforts of the philanthropists, as would have been natural, but through efforts of the economists, and that the building up of factory legislation came about not through the efforts of the economists as might have been expected, but through the efforts of the philanthropists. We are continually mixed up in this human tangle, all engaged in weeding the same neglected garden.

I will ask Professor Jeremiah Jenks of Cornell University to speak to us upon some racial problems presented by recent immigration. Prof. Jenks is a member of the Congressional Commission looking into this matter of immigration. The commission consists of three senators and three members of the House of Representatives and three other members who were appointed by the president. Mr. Jenks has been in charge of the most detailed investigation which this commission has undertaken. We cannot expect that he will tell us what is in his report, but I am sure a man who has given such close attention to this subject for two years will have a message of great importance to us.