Shall Immigration be Suspended?

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Shall Immigration be Suspended?

Magazine article

By: W. E. Chandler

Date: January 1893

Source: Chandler, W. E. "Shall Immigration Be Suspended." North American Review 156 (1893): 1-8.

About the Author: The North American Review is one of America's oldest literary magazines, published from 1815 until 1940 and from 1968 to the present. In the early 1800s, the journal was considered the country's leading literary publication. W. E. Chandler was the Chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Immigration.


Daily life was far more hazardous before the development of antibiotic drugs. A minor cut or infection carried the risk of serious complications, and minor illnesses were potentially fatal. Diseases such as pneumonia, which today threatens primarily the elderly, posed a significant risk even for healthy young adults. The threat of pneumonia and other infections, combined with a limited understanding of disease transmission made the possibility of an epidemic even more terrifying.

Cholera, a bacterial infection of the intestines, is rare in developed countries today, but, in the 1800s, the disease was fairly common in Europe and North America. Cholera is generally spread when healthy individuals ingest food or water contaminated with feces from an infected person. Prior to the widespread adoption of water purification and sewage treatment, human waste frequently found its way into water and food supplies, where the bacteria multiplied and spread. For this reason, cholera often appeared without warning, caused widespread infection, and then receded. Causing severe vomiting and diarrhea, cholera killed forty to sixty percent of its victims, usually from dehydration and often within twenty-four to forty-eight hours of infection.

The World's Fair, scheduled for 1893 in Chicago, was seen as a fitting end to what had been a glorious century for the United States. Millions of Americans were expected to travel by train to the Midwest, where they could marvel at exhibits of technology and commerce, including wonders of architecture, a seventy-foot-high tower of light bulbs, and an eleven-ton block of cheese. Many more were expected to arrive from overseas to experience this grand showcase of American and world progress. Years of planning and millions of dollars were invested in the showcase event, which had been secured for Chicago after a fierce and sometimes bitter battle with Saint Louis, Washington, D. C., and New York City.

In 1892, cholera raged through Europe. In the cramped and unsanitary conditions below decks on most ocean vessels, disease spread quickly, and the United States began requiring inspections of all vessels leaving Europe. Ships carrying cholera victims were required to fly a yellow flag signaling infection, and arriving ships were quarantined for twenty days as a precaution. With American sentiment toward immigrants already negative, Europe's cholera epidemic led to a drastic reduction in immigration. As the date for the Columbia Exposition approached, American officials faced a serious question. Should immigration be halted entirely in order to protect the United States from the epidemic and the Exposition from bad press and a potential financial loss?


Opportunities come to nations as well as to individuals, and they must not be neglected. A republic especially should be prompt to seize its opportunity; for, while a monarchy or despotism can act on the impulse of one ruler or a few rulers, many minds must concur to put a republic in motion. When the people, or their representatives in the legislature, are ready, there should be no delay or hesitation, or the opportunity may pass.

The United States is now offered an opportunity to make a wise initial movement towards the restriction of immigration, some of whose existing evils an almost universal feeling demands should be immediately checked. A concurrence of imperative reasons favors the suspension of all immigration for the year 1893, during which period suitable conditions for its resumption may be fixed and promulgated.

There is already a virtual suspension which may be easily prolonged.

The cholera of 1892 has almost stopped immigration. It will not be resumed in full proportions before the spring of 1893. This cessation should be prolonged by law until new conditions are matured under which immigration for settlement in the United States may be resumed. The interest and anxiety manifested during the last few years by the American people concerning the enormous inroads of inferior immigrants have been supplemented by the outbreak of cholera in Europe, by its presence in the harbor of New York, and its advent into the city itself. The evil was limited and the danger averted, only by the virtual suppression of immigration from certain countries. It will be the highest wisdom to take advantage of this fortuitous circumstance to continue the suspension until a new policy can be adopted by the United States covering the whole subject of immigration into its territory.


The cholera again threatens us, and can only be averted by the suspension of immigration.

Not only will it be wise on general grounds to take advantage of the suspension of immigration which the cholera of 1892 has caused, to continue the same for 1893, but there is no other safe method of averting an invasion of cholera in the coming year. The most eminent authorities assert that the suspension of all immigration is the best way to keep out the cholera. Many believe that it is the only reasonably sure method.

It is not believed that the cholera germs are now here, although it is possible that they are. There will be another outbreak of cholera in Europe; indeed it has already appeared there. If it comes to this country, it will be brought with the immigrants in the steerages of the steamships. There is no serious danger from cabin passengers coming as visitors.

If there is no suspension of immigration it will be indispensable to secure the adoption and observance of the most rigid precautions and rules in the European ports, for a period before the sailings of emigrant vessels, and the maintenance of strict regulations during the voyages. For this strictness we must depend upon foreign officials and the officers of the steamship companies and not upon ourselves. No one believes that we can prescribe and enforce upon foreign governments and the steamship officers such measures as will keep the cholera from coming here. It will sail into our ports and overtax all the resources of our quarantine and health authorities, and will alarm and distress our whole people, even if it does not widely break into our borders and ravage our homes. If we allow immigration we are largely at the mercy of foreigners. If we suspend it our lives are in our own hands. In suspension alone is there any certainty of safety.


Protection to the World's Fair requires the suspension.

The Columbian Exposition at Chicago can only be protected from cholera, and made a success so far as foreign visitors are concerned, by the proposed suspension of immigration. We are inviting, and we very much desire, European visitors to the World's Fair. They will not come in the same steamships with swarms of immigrants, nor will they come even in steamships bringing no steerage passengers if they are to encounter the immigrants upon the docks of the steamship companies. Two currents, one of cabin passengers coming as visitors, and one of immigrants, will not cross the ocean side by side. One or the other will stop, and that one should be the current of immigrants.

It is certain that there is to be some cholera in Europe. If there is also to be cholera in the Untied States, Europeans will not come here. If, however, it can be made tolerably certain, as it can, by the suspension of immigration, that there will be no cholera in the United States, foreigners will come here in large numbers. It will be the safest place for them to visit, indeed it will be the only place in the world which they can visit where they will be reasonably sure to avoid cholera.

The success of the World's Fair may be possible even without many foreign visitors. But such success will not be possible with any considerable amount of cholera in the Untied States. With cholera existing anywhere in this country Chicago will be the last place to which Americans will go. They will stay at home or flee to the mountains; they will not go to the city of Chicago. The case seems too clear for argument. It is an absolutely imperative necessity for the welfare of the Columbian Exposition, either as a resort for Americans alone or for Americans and foreigners as well, that European immigration shall be suspended. It is unfortunate for the Exposition that it is to be held during the second of a series of cholera years, but the misfortune exists. The failure of the Fair can be averted by simply asking immigrants who wish to come for settlement to delay their departure for one year.


While the direct impact of Senator Chandler's recommendation is unknown, immigration continued to rise in the decade following his appeal, jumping from 3.7 million in the 1890s to 8.8 million the following decade. The feared American cholera epidemic never materialized.

As U.S. officials wrestled with the cholera question in the 1800s, evidence already pointed toward the disease's cause. In 1854, a severe cholera outbreak hit the London neighborhood of Soho. Within a few days, more than 100 people had died and most residents of the affected area soon fled. Ten days after the outbreak, the death toll had climbed to 500, and most of those who died lived within a relatively small area. John Snow, a physician living nearby, believed that cholera was spread not by air, as was popularly believed, but by contaminated water. When the Soho outbreak began, Snow quickly began interviewing residents of the area. His investigation led him to theorize that a single water source was the origin of the outbreak. After mapping the outbreak, he found himself at its epicenter, a public water pump on Broad Street. Microscopically examining a water sample, Snow observed small white objects. He quickly reported his suspicions to the local authorities.

Snow's theories were considered outlandish at the time, but with few other alternatives the authorities agreed to remove the handle of the suspected pump as an experiment. Soon after, the cholera epidemic subsided. While Snow had identified the cause of the outbreak, city officials remained skeptical of his water-borne illness theory. Despite encouragement from Snow and others, Soho continued to employ open cesspools, many of which leaked.

While cholera has been largely controlled, other diseases continue to present the threat of an epidemic. In 2003, an influenza virus known as H5N1 began spreading through Asia. Limited almost entirely to birds, the so-called bird flu led to the slaughter of millions of infected or exposed animals. As the virus spread to Africa and Europe, public health officials became increasingly concerned that the virus might mutate and infect humans. If that were to occur, modern transportation methods could quickly spread the disease, making it much more difficult to contain. Numerous government agencies have drawn up contingency plans to deal with such a scenario.



Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History. New York: Penguin Books, 2004.

McPherson, J. H. T. The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Summers, Judith. Soho: A History of London's Most Colourful Neighborhoods. London: Bloomsbury, 1989.


Keller, C. C., et al. "The 'Americanisation' of Migrants: Evidence for the Contribution of Ethnicity, Social Deprivation, Lifestyle and Life-Course Processes to the Mid-20th Century Coronary Heart Disease Epidemic in the U.S." Social Science and Medicine 63 (2006): 465-484.

Schwartz, James Z. "A Melancholy and Trying Season: Cholera and the Conflict over Cultural Boundaries in Early Michigan." Journal of the Early Republic 26 (2006): 95-116.

Sepulveda, Jaime, et al. "Cholera in Mexico: The Paradoxical Benefits of the Last Pandemic." International Journal of Infectious Diseases 10 (2006): 4-13.

Web sites

Illinois Institute of Technology. "World's Columbian Exposition of 1893." 〈〉 (accessed June 12, 2006).

UCLA Department of Epidemiology. "John Snow." 〈〉 (accessed June 12, 2006).

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Cholera." 〈〉 (accessed June 12, 2006).