Passing a Camel Through Ellis Island: Arab-American Press and the Immigration Act of 1924

This post was written by Diogo Bercito, a Brazilian journalist who worked as a foreign correspondent in Jerusalem, Beirut, and Cairo. He is currently pursuing an M.A. in Arab Studies at Georgetown University, where he researches Arab migration to Latin America. He was a recipient of the Khayrallah Center’s Visiting Scholar Grant in May of 2019.

A century before President Donald Trump called for a “Muslim Ban,”[1] American legislators approved a law in 1924 which drastically reduced Arab immigration to the United States. “Passing a camel through the hole of a needle became easier than the entry of a Syrian immigrant,” according to an Arabic newspaper published in New York during that year.[2]

Political cartoon illustrating anti-Italian sentiments. As fellow Mediterraneans, Syrians faced similar stereotypes. This cartoon was originally published in Judge Magazine, 1903.

Congress started debating the Immigration Act of 1924 on March 17, 1924, with the goal of curtailing immigration to the United States—particularly immigration from Asia, a region they saw as inherently inferior. As a consequence, Arabs faced severe restrictions to their entry, prefiguring what would happen a century later for many Arabs with the passage of the “Muslim Ban” in 2017. For example, the Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota of a mere 100 individuals from “Syria,” a category that included present-day Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine/Israel. In comparison, around 112,000 Syrian-Lebanese immigrants had arrived in the United States between 1880 and 1924, averaging around 2500 per year, and at its peak in 1920 reaching 4200 immigrants per year.[3] 

In spite of the devastating effects of that legislation, Arabic newspapers published by the diaspora in New York did not sound the alarm right away. It took them several weeks after the debates to pass the law began, to grasp the implications for the future of their own community.

The delay in recognizing that the age of mass Arab immigration to the United States was over, as the gates of Ellis Island resoundingly closed, informs us about the complex processes by which immigrants understood themselves, and how they experienced the rule of law in their host countries. This article tells that story through the Arab-American press, in a departure from the official narratives promoted by the United States bureaucrats.[4]

Cartoon illustrating the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 establishing a 3% quota, which preceded the more stringent Act of 1924. Image courtesy of The Library of Congress.

The House of Representatives and the Senate approved the Immigration Act of 1924 on April 12 and May 15 respectively, and President Calvin Coolidge signed it into law on May 24. According to the text, the American government would only accept an annual quota of immigrants according to the place of their origin. The quota was equivalent to 2% of the number of people from each origin who were already living in the United States in 1890. There was a minimum of 100 entries, in case the percentage was too low.[5]

The two most widely circulated Arabic daily newspapers in the United States—al-Huda (The Guidance) and Mir’at al-Gharb (The Mirror of the West), both available in the archives of the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies—reported on the new law as a legislation that targeted Japanese immigrants. The two newspapers consistently mentioned Tokyo’s protests against the act and informed its readers that the legislation would affect “Japanese and others.”[6] The Arab-American press failed to inform their readers, in the vibrant Arab community of New York and throughout the US, that their families in Syria were among those “others.”

Even after the passage of the act, Abraham K. Hitti, a cousin of the Lebanese-American scholar Philip K. Hitti, continued advertising tickets to travel between New York and Beirut on the S.S. Madonna.[7]

Ad for the S.S. Madonna in Al-Hoda Newspaper, June 2, 1924.

The business-as-usual treatment of the new law in the press and the continued advertisement of $165 offers for tickets to a country closing its doors, might be due to the fact that papers such as al-Huda targeted a well-off audience that had already acquired American citizenship or that had already immigrated. Thus, they would not be affected by the Immigration Act of 1924.

However, the reaction of the Arab-American press might also point to the complicated process of seeing oneself as part of a specific nationality, such as “Syrian.” Immigrants often times identified more immediately with their village or region of origin than with an entity called “Syria” or “Lebanon,” both of which were only established after the end of WWI when the League of Nations formally delivered that former Ottoman territory to France as an international mandate. The very idea of being Syrian or Lebanese developed in conjunction with the experience of immigration. In part, these identities were a consequence of restrictive laws, by which migrants understood their positions within specific categories—developed by American legislators and immigration officials—they had not used themselves before.

The first major reaction by an Arabic newspaper dates from May 29, when Mir’at al-Gharb published a long article on the new law, more than two months after the beginning of the debates in Congress.[8] Given the previous silence of the Arabic press in New York, the text is particularly remarkable, with a clear recommendation that its readers write back home and warn their relatives to reconsider their plans to immigrate. Syrians should think twice before selling all their possessions and enduring the perils of the long trip—only to be sent back home. 

Front page of Mir’at al-Gharb newspaper, May 29, 1924.

Mir’at al-Gharb, meanwhile, advised its readers to abide by the rules of the legislation, whatever it was, and to respect the country that took them in as immigrants. Furthermore, it warned them against travel agents who told immigrants in Syria that they could travel to Brazil instead and, from there, cross an iron bridge by foot for five minutes and reach the United States. Indeed, the barriers progressively erected in the United States during the 20th century led some to choose other countries, among them Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico, as a possible point of transit.[9]

 Al-Huda maintained a far less dramatic posture in comparison. It did not advise people to pause their plans of immigration. But on June 2, the newspaper published an article, in its section “Thoughts,” asking for the opinion of law professors regarding the new legislation.[10] One of the contentious points was the fact that the quotas were based on the 1890 statistics—back then Syria was not a nation, but part of the Ottoman Empire, so how would Syrians be counted? How would legislators decide who was a Syrian, in a date in which Syria did not exist as such?

In that same section, the author reported on a Syrian immigrant who could not pass through the United States in transit between the Dominican Republic and France, in spite of having thousands of dollars with him. “What is this? What is the essence of this law?” Suddenly the real impact of the law was becoming apparent, as the Arab-American press realized that its application would go beyond Japanese immigrants to include them as well.

Ibrahim K. Hitti—the owner of the traveling company—answered the appeals from the newspaper and wrote on June 7 a detailed explanation of the Immigration Act of 1924.[11] He did not advise Syrians to rethink their travels, in contrast to what Mir’at al-Gharb had done. Instead, he gave them some advice. Those planning to leave the United States for a brief period, for instance, needed to file a petition in Washington requesting a return permit, he wrote. Hitti also explained that Egyptian-born children traveling with their Syrian father counted as Syrians for the purposes of the quotas; however, traveling by themselves, they would count as Egyptians. The distinction is not trivial, given that Egyptians faced a different 100-people quota. Moreover, Egyptians were not immigrating en masse, so passing as such could mean better chances of successful immigration.[12]

The Immigration Act of 1924 lasted until 1952, inspiring similar restrictive legislation in the rest of the continent. Brazil, for instance, instituted its own quotas of 2% in 1934.[13] Through immigration legislation, Arabs in the diaspora learned new ways of understanding their newly formed identities, while also taking note of their marginalized place in American society, a position that is still under negotiation today.

Notes

[1] Jenna Johnson, “Trump Calls for Total and Complete Shutdown of Muslims Entering the United States,” The Washington Post, May 5, 1924.

[2] Mir’at al-Gharb, May 29, 1924.

[3] Statistics vary from one author to the other, but the 112,000 people figure cited by Alixa Naff gives an idea of how the quota of the 1924 act was restrictive. See Alixa Naff, “Lebanese Immigration into the United States: 1880 to the Present,” in The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration, ed. Albert Hourani and Nadim Shehadi (London: The Centre for Lebanese Studies, 1992), 145.

[4] Stacy Fahrenthold refers to the need of representing “the rights and agency of migrants from the Middle East,” in a moment in which their movement is treated as a political problem. See Stacy Fahrenthold, “Essential Readings: Emigration from the Levant, 1870-1930” (Jadaliyya, May, 2019).

[5] United States Congress, Immigration Act of 1924. 68th Cong. 1st Sess. HR 7995.

[6] Al-Huda, April 14, 1924.

[7] The S.S. Madonna add is present in all Arab-Americans publications of that period, including the very day in which the American president signed the new legislation. See Al-Huda, May 24, 1924.

[8] Mir’at al-Gharb, May 29, 1924.

[9] The possibility of immigrants crossing from Mexico was already anticipated. See “Bootlegged Immigrants,” The New York Times, May 5, 1924. The idea that immigrants were fundamentally fooled into going to Latin America, however, is challenged by some authors, who argue that Arabs consciously chose those countries. See Nancie González. Dollar, Dove, and Eagle: One Hundred Years of Palestinian Migration to Honduras (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992).

[10] Al-Huda, June 2, 1924.

[11] Al-Huda, June 7, 1924.

[12] There are several examples of how Arabs circumvented immigration laws. To cite one, a certain Mustapha Rajab says that he pretended to be a shoemaker and to be 20 years old so that he could enter Brazil. Only 16 years old, he was not a shoemaker. See Samira Adel Osman, Imigração Árabe no Brasil: Histórias de Vida de Libaneses Muçulmanos e Cristãos (São Paulo: Xamã, 2011), 174.

[13] “The immigration regimes of the United States, Brazil, and Argentina resembled one another, in part, because they were written in reference to one another,” writes Stacy Fahrenthold. See Stacy Fahrenthold. Between the Ottomans and the Entente (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 26.

 

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