Immigration; One Man’s Story.

He soon made a formal declaration of intent to become a citizen of the United States.  By 1901 Ernie had saved enough money to send for his family.  His wife, Sassine, sold their furniture and whatever other belongings they had and set off for the docks at Beirut.  With the tickets that her husband had procured she sailed with her son and daughter to northern France.  In Le Havre they boarded a German steamer and sailed for New York.

Ernie arranged prepayment for his family through a steamship company in New York.  The fee for the three steerage class tickets was approximately $120, that’s about $3,200 in today’s economy.  In 1900 the average peddler in Boston made about $25 a month, that’s about $650 today.  Rent for a three room apartment in the South End was about $2 a week or about $53 today.  Ernie worked very hard and lived very frugally for three years to save enough money to reunite his family. 

Steerage [between decks] was the default ‘class’ by which most immigrants sailed to America.  Although conditions varied slightly from one steamship line to another they were generally quite harsh.  Steerage often housed hundreds of immigrants in one large area.  Each passenger was issued a pillow and a blanket and assigned a berth on a bunk three or four high.  An adult was allotted 3 quarts of water daily and a weekly ration of 3 lbs. of bread, 1 lb. each of oatmeal, rice and potatoes, 4 ozs. of raisins, 1 lb. each of beef, pork, fish and sugar, 3 ozs. of salt and 1 cup of vinegar.  A child received one half of the adult provision.  The average voyage from Beirut to New York via Northern Europe was about 22 days.  Privacy was unknown and sanitary conditions were minimal and abysmal. 

Upon arrival in New York the family was detained by the Immigration Bureau.  The children, Sophie and Azziz, it seems, had some type of eye infection and were placed in quarantine.  The doctor determined that it was trachoma, a contagious and incurable disease.  They were slated to be deported on the ship they arrived on in five days.  In a seemingly cruel mockery, their mother was granted permission to land.  By law, the steamship company was compelled to take the children as passengers free of charge.  They would have been fed leftovers from the crew and discharged when the ship returned to France.  Homeless and without family they would end up as beggars trying to make their way across Europe back to Syria. 

Ernie quickly returned to Boston to speak with one of his clients, Joseph J. George of Worcester.  Joseph quickly related the story to a prominent lawyer he knew.  The sympathetic lawyer immediately issued a bond to the Immigration Bureau to extend the stay of the family until the facts could be satisfactorily ascertained.  Meanwhile, he informed his father.  The lawyer’s father was U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, George F. Hoar, an ardent campaigner for the rights of minorities and immigrants.  Senator Hoar immediately telegraphed his friend and colleague Henry Cabot Lodge, the other Senator from Massachusetts.  Senator Lodge went personally to the Immigration Bureau but discovered that the bond had been denied and the children were already on board ship and due to sail in two days.  He was told that “the law was peremptory, and that it required that the children be sent home; that trouble had come from making like exceptions theretofore; that the Government hospitals were full of similar cases, and the authorities must enforce the law strictly.”

On Wednesday morning, one day before the children were to be deported, a furious Senator Hoar sent the following telegram from Boston to the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. 

To the President,
White House, Washington, D. C.

I appeal to your clear understanding and kind and brave heart to interpose your authority to prevent an outrage which will dishonor the country and create a foul blot on the American flag. A neighbor of mine, a Syrian by birth, made some time ago his public declaration for citizenship. He is an honest, hard-working and every way respectable man. His wife with two small children have reached New York.

He sent out the money to pay their passage. The children contracted a disorder of the eyes on the ship. The Treasury authorities say that the mother may land but the children cannot, and they are to be sent back Thursday. Ample bond has been offered and will be furnished to save the Government and everybody from injury or loss.

I do not think such a thing ought to happen under your administration, unless you personally decide that the case is without remedy. I am told the authorities say they have been too easy heretofore, and must draw the line now. That shows they admit the power to make exceptions in proper cases.

Surely, an exception should be made in case of little children of a man lawfully here, and who has duly and in good faith declared his intention to become a citizen. The immigration law was never intended to repeal any part of the naturalization laws which provide that the minor children get all the rights of the father as to citizenship. My son knows the friends of this man personally and that they are highly respectable and well off. If our laws require this cruelty, it is time for a revolution, and you are just the man to head it. GEORGE F. HOAR."

Within a half hour, President Roosevelt sent an order to the Immigration Bureau at New York to permit the children to land.  Upon further examination by a doctor in Boston it turned out that the contagious eye ‘infection’ was an irritation caused by the glare of the ocean and the hardships endured on their voyage.  Within a few days they were completely recovered.  Sometime later the President visited Massachusetts and asked to meet the children.  They visited the President at Senator Hoar’s home “dressed up in their best and glorious to behold.”  They had their picture taken with the President on the front porch of the Senators home. 

In the next session of Congress, Senator Hoar procured the following amendment to be inserted in the immigration law.  " Whenever an alien shall have taken up his permanent residence in this country and shall have filed his preliminary declaration to become a citizen and thereafter shall send for his wife and minor children to join him, if said wife or either of said children shall be found to be affected with any contagious disorder, and it seems that said disorder was contracted on board the ship in which they came, such wife or children shall be held under such regulations as the Secretary of the Treasury shall prescribe until it shall be determined whether the disorder will be easily curable or whether they can be permitted to land without danger to other persons ; and they shall not be deported until such facts have been ascertained."

The experience of Ernie Namer and his family was not an isolated case, many of our immigrant forbearers experienced detention, separation and deportation.  Thankfully, there were always people like George Hoar, his son, and their acquaintances like Joseph George who realized that a bureaucratic system could also spawn injustice and sought to amend it with appeals for compassion and common sense.  In today’s ongoing debate over immigration reform, cases like this should be revisited to glean the human dimension of the issue. 

Ernest Namer and his family went on to settle in Worcester where he opened a fruit market.  His family was instrumental in the founding of St. George Church there in 1902. 

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