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In recent weeks, the issue of immigration, seemingly ever-present in recent years in American politics, has once again garnered major headlines. An interesting story on NPR explains why immigration has surged back into the headlines during July.

Here at ProQuest, those of us who work on ProQuest History Vault were curious to see what perspective we could gain on the recent immigration crisis by looking at immigration almost 100 years ago. In recent weeks, a major focus of the recent discussion regarding illegal immigration is on children. In 1917-1918, the Bureau of Immigration, which oversaw enforcement of immigration laws at the time, was not worried about children; they were concerned with anarchists and other political radicals.

The ProQuest History Vault module, Immigration: Records of the INS, 1880-1930, includes multiple collections on immigration to the United States during the massive immigration wave from 1880-1930. One of these collections focuses on the Bureau of Immigration’s suppression of radicals during and after World War I. The collection consists of deportation investigations of people suspected of anarchist or other radical political views. Some of the notable figures that appear in the collection include Luigi Galleani, George Andreytchine, Giovanni Baldazzi, Emma Goldman, and Salvatore Schillaci. Perhaps more valuable to researchers, however, is the extent to which the collection documents people whose voices, were it not for the interviews in this collection, would be lost to history.

One of the many interesting aspects about the cases in this collection is that many did not end in deportation but rather in cancellation of the deportation orders. Louis F. Post and other immigration officers were strikingly lenient, particularly toward people who rejected violent anarchism. Post was a free-speech champion and a defender of the downtrodden and poor; he single-handedly reviewed hundreds of deportation files, sparing people who had been unfairly accused. Unfortunately, his leniency opened him to accusations of radicalism. Enraged conservatives tried to impeach him in 1920 but were stymied by his impassioned defense.

It is hardly surprising that anarchism was viewed with such suspicion. After all, anarchism spawned a terrifying wave of terrorist activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; a shadowy international movement raging against order and tradition. A number of countries were rocked by bombings and assassinations from the 1890s onward; in the United States, President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 by a Polish anarchist. But not all anarchism was violent. Many Russian immigrants, for example, adhered to an idealistic, communalistic form of anarchism, notably the “Christian anarchism” extolled by Leo Tolstoy.

Schulim Melamed, a Russian Jew, admitted to Immigration investigators that he was an anarchist, but he stressed that he was a vegetarian, did not own a gun, did not believe in killing people or animals, had never been in jail, and believed that “government was necessary in the present state of society.”

Jankel Moskovitz, a twenty-five-year-old Jew from Russian Poland, offered similar opinions when questioned by his immigration examiner:

     Q[uestion]. Do you believe in the United States form of government?
     A[nswer]. Well in comparison with the Russian form of government I certainly agree with many things more than there.

     Q. You do not however believe in any form of Government?
     A. No sir, except a communalistic form of government based on science.

     Q. Do you consider any form of Government as necessary in the United States at this time?
     A. To some extent yes.

     Q. To what extent?
     A. To a certain element of people who have not reached the real human knowledge.…

     Q. Have you at any time advocated the over-throw of laws of the government of the United States?
     A. No sir.

Certainly these beliefs could be unsettling, but immigration officials were wise enough to recognize that not all “anarchists” were dangerous or undesirable, as the comments by Melamed and Moskovitz indicate.

In Part 2 of this series (July 31), however, we will look at cases of anarchists who were deemed to be much more dangerous.

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Librarians: learn more and sign up for free trials of ProQuest History Vault modules. Plus, learn about complementary resources including ProQuest Executive Branch Documents, new ProQuest Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations 1789-2014 releasing soon, ProQuest Digital U.S. Bills and Resolutions, 1789-Present, and ProQuest Historical Newspapers™.

24 Jul 2014

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