The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Immigrants Not Such a “Problem” in 1914 Report

In 1914 the Massachusetts Commission on Immigration issued a report titled The Problem of Immigration in Massachusetts (there is a copy in the Society’s collections, and you can also view it here on Google Books), but it is not what you might think. The “problem” is not how to prevent immigrants from entering Massachusetts or how to deport immigrants already residing in the Commonwealth. Rather, it is how to ensure proper care and treatment of new immigrants to the state. The report outlines the commission’s findings on the current living and working conditions of immigrants residing in Massachusetts and suggests ways in which the government can improve their lives.

Immigration has been a hot button issue since the early days of the Commonwealth, but the government has not always played a kindly role. In the 17th century, laws were enacted to discourage non-Puritan and non-English immigrants from settling in the colony. The government began encouraging the immigration of other ethnic and religious groups to aid the state’s growth in the 18th century, but by the 19th century the continuing influx of immigrants fueled a growing anti-immigrant sentiment and the rise of nativist parties in the state. This history makes the contents of this early-20th-century report even more striking

The commission identifies two main goals, “the welfare of the State and the welfare of the immigrant,” but actually focuses chiefly on the latter. Particularly remarkable is the section on education, which shows sensitivity to preserving traditional cultures in immigrant children who are assimilating. The commission recommends that teachers adopt a method that ensures “that the immigrant child shall not, through his Americanization, lose respect for his parents and for the traditions which they revere.” It also recommends offering more educational opportunities for older children and adults through evening classes, even suggesting “lectures in the various languages…to inform the immigrant about labor laws, sanitary regulations and other things he needs to know immediately upon arrival.”

Protecting immigrants from exploitation, scams, and unsafe conditions is a strong theme of the report. At the time immigrants often fell prey to negligent landlords, medical charlatans, “shyster lawyers,” and phony bankers. The commission recommends government oversight to prevent people from taking advantage of immigrants, especially those just arrived in the United States. The overall content of the report presumes two key beliefs: that the immigrant deserves to be welcomed and given the opportunity of a decent standard of living, and that the Massachusetts government has an obligation to protect and foster them.

If a modern-day Massachusetts Commission on Immigration issued a report on “The Problem of Immigration in Massachusetts,” what would it say? How might it be similar and how might it be different from this 1914 report? Share your comments below!

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 5 December, 2012, 8:00 AM


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