Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

"The Undesirability of Admitting Deaf Mutes": U.S. Immigration Policy and Deaf Immigrants, 1882-1924

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

"The Undesirability of Admitting Deaf Mutes": U.S. Immigration Policy and Deaf Immigrants, 1882-1924

Article excerpt

MOISCHE FISCHMANN arrived at Ellis Island in December of 1913. Thirty years old, Fischmann had supported himself as a blacksmith in his native Russia since he was fourteen. Now, in the midst of ongoing pogroms against Jews in Russia, he had decided to come to the United States to join his brother and sister in New York. The Public Health Service physician on duty, however, found Fischmann to be afflicted with a physical defect, in the terminology of the time, and sent him before the Board of Special Inquiry, a panel of three immigration officials, to determine his eligibility to land.

At his hearing, Fischmann was unable to testify. While the Bureau of Immigration employed a large staff of interpreters for the multitude of spoken languages the immigrants used, interpreters fluent in the sign languages of the world were not among them. Instead, Fischmann's brother and sister were asked to speak on his behalf. His brother told the board that he had lived in the United States for nine years and was now a citizen. He was well employed as an ironworker, with savings of $235, a respectable sum for a working man at the time. His sister testified that she had been in the United States for six years, worked as a paper box maker, and had managed to save $455. Three cousins accompanied them, one with a letter from his employer guaranteeing Fischmann a job. They all promised to support him through any difficulties while expressing confidence that, as a skilled blacksmith, Fischmann would have no difficulty becoming self-supporting. The board concluded, however, that Fischmann's "certified condition is such that he would have considerable difficulty in acquiring or retaining employment" and voted unanimously to return him to Russia.

Immigrants excluded by the board had the right to appeal the decision to the secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor in Washington, D.C., under which the Bureau of Immigration was located (after 1913, the U.S. Department of Labor). Most did not, whether because they lacked the skills, the resources, or the confidence to do so. Those who did appeal tended to be better educated and more articulate and had either assistance from individuals or organizations or the personal wherewithal to hire attorneys. Fischmann appealed.

In addition to letters promising financial support from his relatives, Fischmann had an attorney provided by the Hebrew Immigrant Sheltering and Aid Society, who forcefully argued that Fischmann was entirely capable of self-support. Furthermore, the attorney stressed that, if Fischmann were deported, he would be "sent back to misery and possibly destruction," reminding the bureau of the perilous situation for Russian Jews in 1913. The society itself sent a letter arguing that "the work of a blacksmith does not require the faculty of speech, but rather the possession of muscle and strength, and this he has." It concluded that "we do not see how he can be termed a person likely to become a public charge with all his relatives eager to help him . . . nor how the fact that he is a deaf-mute will affect his ability to earn a living, especially since he has earned his own support in the past." A second employer, the Fagan Iron Works, wrote to say, "I need a blacksmith. Send him over as soon as possible and I will start him at twelve dollars a week."

The family's congressman, a member of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, wrote to the commissioner general of immigration that it would be "exceedingly distressing if this alien were sent back to a land in which he has no relative and really no near friend, and kept from joining his nearest relatives here, who will indemnify the Government by bond or otherwise against the alien becoming a public charge." He stressed that, "by allowing him to land, the family simply will be united, while to deport him means to send this unfortunate alien adrift." The commissioner general, however, was not swayed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.