The Rude Birth of Immigration Reform
As America debates immigration reform, it is in danger of repeating the mistakes made a century ago when the flawed foundations of today’s policies were established.
In 1908, Anna Herkner donned the tattered peasant clothing of a Bohemian immigrant and boarded a crowded steamer bound for the United States. She was shocked at what she found. In steerage, women weakened by seasickness were mauled by crew members, and some were reportedly raped. Nauseated passengers lay “in a sort of stupor” in their cramped berths. “Only the fresh breeze from the sea overcame the sickening odors. The vile language of the men, the screams of the women defending themselves, the crying of children, wretched because of their surroundings, and practically every sound that reached the ear, irritated beyond endurance. There was no sight before which the eye did not prefer to close. Everything was dirty, sticky, and disagreeable to the touch. Every impression was offensive.” Herkner’s 12-day voyage offered “abundant opportunity to weaken the body and emplant there germs of disease to develop later. . . . Surely it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.”
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Katherine Benton-Cohen is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (2009). As a 2009–10 fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, she worked on a book about the Dillingham Commission.more from this author >>