What are Our Immigrants Worth in Dollars and Cents?

San Francisco Call/August 25, 1907

by Sydney A. Reeves, Former Professor of Steam and Hydraulic Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Lecturer at Harvard

Tales of murder, arson, blackmail and more horrifying crimes are clogging the newspapers nowadays. And with them comes again the ever new and ever old question. “Are the immigrant hordes that pour into America to blame?” Police Commissioner Bingham of New York outspokenly lays at the door of the immigrant the responsibility for the late outbreak of unspeakable crimes against little girls, and for this he has been harshly criticized in some quarters. In other circles there is in progress again a serious discussion as to the advisability of curbing the immigration flood. All of this leads up to the question of the immigrant, his value or his menace and his position in the social machine. The Sunday Call herewith presents a new light on the problem, “What are the immigrants worth in dollars and cents?”

Current conversation and the periodical press are full of condemnation of our lax restriction of immigration. All the evils to which our country is heir are explained by the “undesirable horde” of aliens which is pressing into the land with ever increasing volume. The steady increase in criminality which has now become unquestioned is attributed to this “overflow” of the undesirable from the older countries, and these countries are accused of collusion with the steamship companies toward a promotion of the volume of migration. That portion of our citizens which is interested in the labor market is in chronic rebellion against this influx of cheap labor, destined to compete upon an un-American basis with American labor. Those of us who are interested in purity of politics see in the inflowing torrent a current supply of corruptibles upon whose votes political machines may be reared and supported.

Upon every side arises this denunciation of immigration. Nor is it a recent phenomenon. Look up the literature of immigration and you will find the decade of 1840-1850 supplying its fair quota of “kicks” in goodly proportion to what our increased population puts forth today. For 60 years we, as a nation, regardless of whether our continent yet contained undeveloped territory, as in 1847, or undeveloped possibilities, as in 1907, have been objecting strenuously to immigration.

Meanwhile the immigration has been steadily increasing, except during the period of the civil war, and at the end of the 60 years we enjoy phenomenal prosperity.

There is an inconsistency here somewhere between the theories of the pessimists and the facts, and a big one, too.

What are the facts?

As to criminality, we can find none supporting the theory that in general immigration is of a criminal sort. Here and there may be found minor facts and figures on that side, it is true. The southern Italians, without question, are unusually illiterate and addicted to the settlement of differences by stiletto. So, too, are the mountaineers of American Tennessee. We even identify the Italians roughly with the Black Hand system of blackmail. The south Italians are but a small fraction of all immigration; the class of crimes to which they are prone is a minor one in our criminal records: the blackmail extorted by the Black Hand is but a drop in the bucket compared with the volume of extortion currently practiced by American businessmen, within and without the law, against American born victims.

Viewing the situation broadly, there is no decisive evidence pointing to the criminality of the average immigrant. There is much pointing to his superiority over the average native American in industry, sobriety and the patient toleration of adverse conditions without outbreak. Indeed, the most decided evidence on this point comes from Great Britain, which country complains that of all her immigrants the Americans are the most criminal, being three or four times as bad as the average of the rest and 10 times as bad as the Poles and Hungarians!

We do not conclude from this too hastily that America is ultra criminal. But we quote it to signify that he who seeks statistical support for anti-immigration views, doing it in sincerity and breadth, is apt to meet with sour comfort.

Our own conclusions are that the vast majority of immigrants are slightly above our American standards in industry, sobriety and patient self restraint, though they are undoubtedly below us in initiative. They come from countries where unceasing toil is the price of life and where the get rich quick microbe is virtually unknown. In their fatherlands drunkenness is a minor crime, whereas in Great Britain and America it is a major one. And as to patience under conditions inviting to revolt, America is proud of standing first among all the non-Latin peoples of the temperate zones in here promptness to resent publicly, by the passive rebellion of the strike, if not by actual violence, the presence of conditions unnecessarily hard. Our complaint against the immigrants must be that they are too patient and submissive for American standards, rather than that they are too violent and resentful.

As to illiteracy, it is true that the immigrants are below our standard. What of it? Education is a thing of itself, neither conducive to nor antagonistic to morality and happiness. It may be a powerful tool of both. But it is often used as an equally powerful tool against both. Our educated classes are not always the happiest ones. Our worst and biggest crooks are the educated ones.

In short, a man is of value to a country solely according to whether he produces more, of material or of morality, than he consumes. He may produce very little, yet if his wants are less than that little he is still a profitable investment for the nation. He may, on the other hand, apparently produce millions; yet if he consumes more than that, or if he undermines our standards of morality, or if he is found to produce actually much less than he apparently produces, he may be a great source of loss, in spite of his prominence and power.

The people understand this well. It is their habitual application of this new economic trysquare to men in the public eye which is now making millionairism so uncomfortable.

To which class, then, belongs the average immigrant? Is he a producer or a dissipater of net wealth and morality? If the former, what is our immigration worth, net, to the nation?

Our answer, it must be explained, is based upon economic principles which are laid down in the writer’s “Cost of Competition.” The distinction between the net productive and the net dissipative classes is there portrayed with accuracy. It is too bulky to be more than suggested here. But once in mind it makes it obvious that the vast majority of immigrants belongs to the net productive class.

Indeed, they belong to the most productive class. They not only confine their efforts to purely productive lines, wasting very little time in bargaining over prices or ownership of property, but they do not discount their worth, as do many American born producers, by indulgences in labor tyranny. The walking delegate is essentially an Americanism.

What, collectively, are these immigrants worth to us as a nation?

The law says that a dead male adult constitutes a loss of $5,000 to his family. In this it strikes a rough average and draws no distinction of any sort between individuals. So it is hard to get at it in that way.

The average adult male immigrant (and half of our immigrants are of this sort) earns at least $300 per annum soon after his arrival. Rather, that is what he is paid. My estimates have led me to state, elsewhere, that his actual productivity is from three to four times that amount, the balance going to pay the cost of doing “business” with what he produces and consumes. But the benefit of this doubt will be left, for the present, to the opposition. We shall base our estimates upon the $300 figure.

The right will be reserved, however, to class all immigrants under this figure, for the majority of them have been here long enough to expand their income beyond $300. That is to say, most of those who were classed as children at the time of entry are now adults. Of the women, some are offset in their unproductivity by the men who earn more than $300; the rest are producing more than that value in the form of children.

During the last 20 years some sixteen or seventeen million immigrants have arrived. The exact figure does not matter, for all we wish is an estimate of the number now alive and working, and many who came before 1887 are that. If these people are producing an average of $300 worth of goods and children apiece their current productivity is now five billions of dollars per annum.

This is two hundred times as much as our new automobiles cost us last year. This enormous fund of current income we should have lost had we rigidly excluded immigration in 1887. It is some such sum as this which we are losing each year that we continue our exclusion of the oriental races.

How much capital do these immigrants embody, not in their pockets or bank accounts, but in their strength of body and character?

Assume that out of the 17,000,000 aliens arrived since 1887 10,000,000 are now adult males. For each one of these that you kill his family can collect from you, by law, $5,000. He must be worth at least half that. That is to say, we have got from Europe during the last two decades, for nothing, a working machine which capitalizes at from twenty-five to fifty billions!

This figure agrees fairly well with our estimate of the annual productivity of this great human machine. But this exactness of the figures does not matter. It is plain that, however they may be modified in detail, they will still remain enormous. Our crops have certainly been enormous of recent years, but it has already become plain that they cannot stand alone as an explanation of our remarkable prosperity. We not only grow hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of corn, wheat and cotton, at the cost of much labor, each year, but we also imbibe with another continent, without a cent of cost to ourselves, upward of a billion dollars’ worth of human livestock per annum.

This last statement is based upon the supposition that the average value of an immigrant, including the minority of females and boys, is only $1,000 at the time of entry. And certainly, when we recall the average price of a sound negro slave in the days before the war, in such a condition would pass our immigration inspectors, and allow for the greater efficiency of the modern industrial organization over the plantation gang of negroes fresh from mid Africa, this figure of $1,000 apiece is moderate.

We do not hesitate to assign a solid value to every other form of livestock which the land needs for its working. Why should not our immigrants be figured as a similar asset?

The immigration officials lost a fine chance to be human when they failed to christen “Welcome!” the ferry boat which plies between Ellis island and the Battery, and which waves the American flag for the first time above most of these homeless ones. The name should have been emblazoned on the boat in every language known to Europe.

It would have taken considerable altruism, considerable height and breadth of thought, considerable courageous disregard of prevailing phariseeism, to have done this. It was hardly to be expected that mere men should have risen to such a height. And yet, had it been done, should we not have had to look upon the deed a little shamefacedly? More than a billion of good, exploitable capital, capable of producing a current income of a fifth of that sum each year, coming into the country each year for nothing, and we have the courage to stand up and say “Welcome!” openly? Indeed not! We know our own dignity too well for that! Let us continue to insist that it is as a favor that we condescend to accept it.

By Robert Watchorn, Commissioner of Immigration

Public opinion is all wrong, or nearly so, upon many phases of the immigration question. With more than a million immigrants a year we cannot supply the urgent demands for labor. The menace of pauper immigrants is a myth. This army of workers adds enormously to the wealth and prosperity of the country.

It is not the scum of Europe we are getting, but the pick of the most earnest and hard working of its population. As to the morality of the immigrants of today, it seems to me that it compares favorably with that of our native born population.

This is not a matter of mere opinion or sentiment. It is borne out by the actual statistics. Mr. Reeves’ figures, it seems to me, in some respects understate the facts. He mentions $300 a year as the earning power of these immigrants. As a matter of fact these men will earn more, on the average, than a dollar a day. I think the figure may safely be increased by at least 50 per cent. Within a few days Charles W. Lorhn, the New York state commissioner of labor, came to me in search of men I could not supply. He estimated that New York state alone needed 100,000 men, to whom he would pay $25 a month and board on the farms alone. Now, that does not look much like overcrowding or the impossibility of assimilating we hear so much about.

Of the million, or, to be exact, the 1,004,756, immigrants last year more than 10 per cent were under 14 years, 4 per cent were over the age limit and a great proportion brought their wives. About 50 per cent may be classed as workers. But in another sense they were all workers. There were no idlers, scarcely one who would shirk his duty. And as to their morality, the average is certainly good. These immigrants are placed upon a probation for three years. Should they get into trouble in this time they are liable to be deported. Last year there were for all causes less than 1,200 deported. I question if our native born population can show a better record.

The modern immigrant of today, it seems to me, is greatly misunderstood. We hear a great deal of talk about the menace of the immigrant from the south of Europe. A few decades ago most of the immigrants came from Ireland, while Germany ranked second and Great Britain third. Italy and Russia sent comparatively few. Today the situation is practically reversed. Last year we received 267,000 from Italy, 192,000 from Russia and but 24,000 from Ireland and 30,000 from Germany. From Austria and Hungary some 292,000 reached our shores. It is unfair to say that the north of Europe is no longer represented. But are the immigrants from the southern countries dangerous or undesirable? The statistics of crime do not prove it. The Italian is a hard worker. We should remember that the Latin people were highly civilized when the north of Europe was peopled with savages. The southern countries may not have progressed of late, but the impulse is still there, and with unlimited opportunities of America before them who can tell what they may not accomplish in the future?

A great deal of the misunderstanding is due to the use of that term pauper labor. I have estimated that every immigrant in coming to America spends on an average from $80 to $100 for transportation. This includes his fare from his home to the point of departure, the crossing of the Atlantic and the railroad fare to his destination. In other words, they spend upward of $100,000,000 a year in search of work. Let us suppose for the sake of argument that Russia suddenly held out great opportunities for money making so that Americans by the millions were attracted there. It seems to me that 1,000,000 native born citizens might have some difficulty in raising $100,000,000 for transportation. And in addition, this army of incomers carried with them more than $20,000,000 in cash.

There is, of course, urgent need of the restriction of immigration, but such restriction is already in force. The laws governing the situation are very rigid; they have been devised by intelligent men, familiar with the situation, working in sympathy with these people as well as in the best interests of the country. And the laws are being enforced. As the need for further restriction occurs it will receive due attention. Meanwhile the demand for laborers throughout the country is very urgent. The immigrants are adding hundreds of millions of dollars to the wealth of America, while they help themselves to a broader and more prosperous life.

by Emerson McMillan, Chairman Conciliatory Committee of the New York Civic Federation

Decidedly I favor an intelligent restriction of immigration on both our eastern and western seaboards. Without being an alarmist, I venture to say that the problem grows more difficult each year and must ultimately demand a solution. America has accomplished wonders in assimilating great hordes of immigrants from many different countries, but it is a very serious question how long, at the present rate of increase, she can continue to do so. Now it seems to me that when foreigners come to us in such numbers that they form separate and distinct communities, preserving their language and traditions intact, they constitute a menace. When such a colony is formed it is difficult to break up. Assimilation goes on very slowly. Then, again, the class of immigrants who come to us has changed of late years. Formerly a great majority of these immigrants came from the north of Europe, from England, Germany, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. Today they come for the most part from southern countries, and, generally speaking, are less desirable. We may have great sympathy, for instance, for the Russian Jew in his sufferings, but when he comes to us in surprising numbers he becomes a problem. As a rule, the immigrant of recent years differs from us widely in his ideas of morality, his attitude toward the law and in his general point of view.

When we read of the violent crimes committed, the names are usually foreign. The “Black Hand” outrages, for instance, have doubtless been greatly exaggerated, but such as they are they are a foreign importation and of very recent years.

It is undeniable, of course, that the coming of these millions of laborers has contributed much to the wealth and prosperity of the country. But should this army of workers be increased indefinitely? We have a population today in excess of 80,000,000 very active and alert people. It would seem that the natural resources of the country could be developed and the great business of the land be carried forward very well with our present population and its natural increase. And I am not among those who have any fear of race suicide. The increase in the number of immigrants from year to year is astonishing. Can we continue to receive this army indefinitely without some day reducing our scale of income to that of Europe?

I remember very distinctly when the labor of the country, the digging and carrying, was done by the Irish almost exclusively. Well, today all this is changed. The Irish are still here, but they have prospered. They have become Americans and in turn are employing still other immigrants to do the rougher work of the land. Does it seem probable that the Slavs, the Russian Jews, the Sicilians and others who are coming to us in such numbers today will in a few years have risen as have the Irish, and have become as good Americans? And if these foreigners with traditions and manners very different from our own are not assimilated, the problem becomes a very serious one. Will the class of immigrants who are now coming to us some day become the same forceful, patriotic citizens as the natives of northern Europe who came a few decades ago? On the other hand, they may never be completely assimilated, or, at least, so slowly that in the process they will destroy our laws and transform the general attitude toward many American traditions. This argument applies particularly to the Chinese, and therefore I approve of the exclusion of the Chinese from our shores. The situation on the eastern seaboard of America, it seems to me, demands similar if less drastic measures.

(Source: Chronicling America, http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1907-08-25/ed-1/seq-11/#date1=1789&index=0&date2=1924&searchType=advanced&language=&sequence=0&words=Chinese+immigrant+Immigrant+IMMIGRANTS+immigrants+Immigrants+immigration+Immigration&proxdistance=5&state=California&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=&phrasetext=&andtext=chinese+immigrants&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1)