Academic journal article The Historian

El Paso, a Sight for Sore Eyes: Medical and Legal Aspects of Syrian Immigration, 1906-1907

Academic journal article The Historian

El Paso, a Sight for Sore Eyes: Medical and Legal Aspects of Syrian Immigration, 1906-1907

Article excerpt

The Voyage to America is the Via Dolorosa of the emigrant; and the Port of Beirut, the verminous hostelries of Marseilles, the Island of Ellis in New York, are the three stations thereof. And if your hopes are not crucified at the third and last station, you pass into the Paradise of your dreams. If they are crucified, alas! The gates of the said Paradise will be shut against you.

Ameen Fares Rihani (1)

WHILE PROBABLY LESS than two percent of Syrian immigrants received the medical rejection certificates at Ellis Island that would crucify their dreams, rigorous scrutiny for evidence of trachoma (a highly contagious eye disease frequently leading to blindness) by shipping line physicians at European ports prompted thousands to choose a more circuitous route from Lebanon, debarking through Mexican ports and entering the United States at less-guarded border towns, such as El Paso, Texas. (2) Global networks involving not only helpful friends and relatives, but also unscrupulous entrepreneurs and emigrant agents, promoted both legal and illegal passage across the Mexican border. On the local level, prospective immigrants conspired to evade medical restrictions and racial borders through the complicity and greed of local physicians such as Edward D. Sinks and John W. Coffin. (3)

At the beginning of the twentieth century, many believed that trachoma and favus (a contagious skin disease) were visible signs of degeneracy, depravity, illiteracy, and filth. (4) This case study of the El Paso trachoma extortion ring explores the implications of the racialization and medicalization of United States immigration policy in the early 1900s. Although restrictions were originally aimed at debarring diseased individuals, in practice public health officers designated certain nationalities, particularly those from Asia and southern and eastern Europe, as potentially diseased and thus undesirable and therefore targeted for more stringent medical inspection. It is my contention that medical inspection of immigrants between 1893-1917 was an important component in the racialization of immigration law, ultimately leading to quantitative restriction in the 1920s.

Race, as many scholars point out, has always been central to American immigration policy, beginning with the 1790 naturalization law establishing that only "free white persons" could become citizens. (5) However, early qualitative restrictions were aimed at undesirable individuals--convicts and prostitutes--rather than racial or ethnic groups. Racialization of immigration policy began to occur during the late nineteenth century as characteristics of individuals were projected upon a racial group, and consequently strategies formulated against the group, rather than a particular person. (6) While racialization is evident in many aspects of restrictive immigration policy, as Alan Kraut argues, "medicalization of preexisting nativist prejudices" through the creation and codification of "immigrant diseases" occurred as the native-born population blamed diseases upon foreign-born groups and "stigmatized" members of the groups as potential carriers of disease. (7) Furthermore, racialized policies linked disease to race as an inherited predisposition rather than a circumstance of culture, place, and time.

Trachoma is a chronic conjunctivitis caused by the bacteria Chlamydia trachomatis. It occurs at extremely high rates in countries with low standards of hygiene and a lack of clean running water. (8) Undeniably, turn of the twentieth-century physicians had difficulty distinguishing the symptoms of trachoma from those of simple conjunctivitis, but the observation that the disease occurred with more frequency in certain national groups allowed physicians to be unduly influenced by commonly held anti-foreign-born prejudices as they made the false connection that trachoma was biologically linked to certain races or ethnicities, rather than occurring as a result of the sanitary conditions in the diseased immigrant's homeland, or indeed through contact with fellow migrants en route to the United States. …

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