Passports for women immigrating to the USA

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Passports Women Immigrating USA

Lippincott’s monthly magazine, vol. Lxxxix, number 532, April 1912

Migration, immigration and emigration is one of the most challenging topics our society has to handle nowadays. But it’s not a new topic as you can read in this article which was published in 1912.

“No, I shall never revisit the United States. I should rather take my chances in Russia”

The young girl at my elbow laughed bitterly as our steamer glided past the cloud-capped, rainbow-tinted hills of Jamaica, her native island. She was a sedate young person, with ultra-English poise and mannerisms. Our voyage was almost ended—hence perhaps her sudden burst of confidence. Passports Women Immigrating USA

“My brother was to have met me at New York,” she explained, “but through a misunderstanding, he did not appear. I was questioned and cross-examined by the immigration inspector, besides having to pass quarantine and put up with a lot of fuss about my luggage. In spite of the protests of many friends I had made on the voyage, one of whom invited me to visit her, I was detained on the steamer, and finally taken to Ellis Island, where I was kept in a prison-like room all night. In the morning I was conducted before a sort of court, where I was again closely questioned, courteously enough, yet with the implication of the grossest insult.

While they were debating whether I should be allowed to land or be sent back to Jamaica, my brother arrived. Of course he was indignant, as the misunderstanding was not his fault. We went to the British consulate about it, but we were told that everything had been done according to law, that it was quite regular and really for my protection. At all events, we had no redress-except to advertise ourselves in the newspapers!’ Passports Women Immigrating USA

“Of course they have to handle thousands of immigrants daily, and it must require lots of red tape. Doubtless cases like yours are the results of some one’s blunder,” I mumbled, feeling that I must defend my country’s institutions.

“But I was not an immigrant ! “ she replied sharply. ” I was treated according to law, and with all the consideration the law permitted, as our consul himself told me. But oh, it was horrible, and I shall never forget it “—and the girl shivered. Then the harbor of Kingston unfolded itself in the panorama of the brilliant shore that had been glowing to starboard all the afternoon, and my fair travelling acquaintance disappeared.

Confident that her statement must have been biased or exaggerated, I took pains to investigate the whole subject on my return, with the result that I found the experience of this Jamaica girl was not an isolated ease, and not exaggerated in the least. Incidents of the sort are recurring continually at the gateway of the United States, under the very shadow of the Goddess of Liberty.

Perhaps boats touching at Jamaica, to and from Colon, are inspected a little more strictly because of a class of women. who throng to and fro between New York and the Canal Zone; but the legal status of every alien woman coming to our shores is this: She must present some prima facie evidence of her ” good moral character ” or she will be detained, tried before a Court of Inquiry, and perhaps deported. Passports Women Immigrating USA

The evidence of her good character is in the first instance furnished by the captain of the steamer on which she is a passenger, who is required under section 13 of the Immigration Act (passed February 20, 1907) to make a certificate ” to the effect that he has caused the surgeon of said vessel sailing therewith to make a physical and oral examination of each of said aliens, and that from the report of said surgeon and from his own investigation he believes that no one of said aliens

  • is an idiot,
  • or imbecile,
  • or a feeble-minded person,
  • or insane person,
  • or a pauper,
  • or is likely to become a public charge,
  • or is afflicted with tuberculosis
  • or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,
  • or is a person who has been convicted of, or who admits having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude,
  • or is a polygamist or one admitting belief in the practice of polygamy,
  • or an anarchist,
  • or under promise or agreement, express or implied, to perform labor in the United States,
  • or a prostitute, or a woman or girl coming to the United States for the purpose of prostitution, or for any other immoral purpose,

and that also, according to the best of his knowledge and belief, the information in said lists or manifests concerning each of said aliens named therein is correct and true in every respect.” Passports Women Immigrating USA

With the first-cabin passenger, this certificate of the captain and the surgeon is usually taken at its face value by the immigration inspector.

The latter’s task is invidious at best. Few first-cabin passengers are likely to become public charges, but how can he pass upon their morality? Uncle Sam has placed him there for the purpose of suppressing vice. Any one of the woman passengers to whose good character the ship’s captain has obligingly certified may turn out to be a dreadful creature when she gets to shore. Of course if she is a citizen, or has just become the wife of a citizen, the inspector is relieved of all responsibility.

To aid him in his research, he has a book of secret information made up of “tips” from all quarters of the globe, often anonymous, usually malicious, but always requiring him to search out the woman complained of and question her. The jealous wife, the deserted husband, the anxious parent, the disappointed lover, the acrimonious busybody, the social enemy, even the young husband who objects to a visit from his alien mother-in-law, have all helped to make up this record of secret information which serves as a guide for the immigration inspector. Passports Women Immigrating USA

The United States Government does not conduct a ” Gretna Green,” and has no tenderness for dopers. Its inspector must sift out all such victims of Cupid’s shaft and see that they do not land upon our shores. In addition to this, the inspector is certain to fix an eye of suspicion upon any alien woman, whether of high or low degree, who ventures to travel to this country without masculine escort.

Almost every day some gallant young American volunteers to act as a “supposititious brother” on behalf of some fair immigrant in distress. Uncle Sam is keen to detect such artifice. The ” brother” is questioned about the parents, the grandparents, the sisters, the cousins, and the aunts, perhaps about the early infantile diseases of the alleged ” sister,” and he soon finds that the task of being a brother to beauty in distress requires more wit and ingenuity than he had expected.

But what good has come of it all? Passports Women Immigrating USA

During the year 1910 three hundred and sixteen women were deported on the ground that they were coming to the United States for immoral purposes—three hundred and sixteen out of three hundred and five thousand woman immigrants and visitors examined and put to more or less inconvenience to establish their good moral character, which the immigration law puts in issue upon their arrival.

What possible deterrent effect has been produced cannot, of course, be expressed in figures. In balancing the ledger, also, some specific cases should be given showing concrete results from the Government’s moral censorship over the women who seek to become our guests.

A young French banker, connected with a prominent Wall Street firm, sent to Paris for his woman associate. She came in first-cabin, well dressed, attractive, and with plenty of money. Some person wrote about the situation to the immigration office, and the letter was filed in the book of secret information. Upon her arrival, the woman was taken to Ellis Island, and the young French banker came to see her at her place of imprisonment with vociferous protests.

“Will you marry the lady?” pointedly asked the immigration officer Passports Women Immigrating USA

With many a shrug and much waste of Gallic expletive, the banker declared that he would rather give up his career in America and return to Paris with his lovely Parisienne than enter the irksome bonds of wedlock. The woman on her part averred that she quite agreed with him. so the pair went back together on the next host.

A young American man of means and leisure went abroad for a “good time,” and while in Paris acquired a similar companion. When he returned to New York, the woman in question alleged she had been deceived, that promises had been broken and faith betrayed. She came to this country with letters to prove her claim, and managed to get ashore and put her case in the hands of an attorney.

She was invited to a conference with the defendant, and on entering the room found herself confronted by a United States immigration officer with a warrant for her arrest and deportation as an undesirable citizen. Of course if the young man had been willing to marry her she might have remained in this country, but the young American, like the French banker, had prejudices against that solution of the problem. Passports Women Immigrating USA

Necessity Of Passports For Alien Women Immigrating To USA
Example of a German passport issued 1915 – the year when passport pictures were introduced in Germany. At the time when this article was written (1912) passports had not a photo, only a physical description .

An inspector passing upon the moral character of women in the second cabin of the Lusitania recently noticed two pretty English girls in whom a man with long hair and the general appearance of a patent-medicine vender seemed to take undue interest. The inspector questioned the girls closely, and they became confused and gave names that did not appear on the passenger-list, finally confessing that they were travelling under assumed names. Passports Women Immigrating USA

Upon the strength of this, the inspector detained them and took them over to Ellis Island. Here the long-haired man made a vigorous protest. He said that the girls were chambermaids whom he had met in an English hotel, and he had told them how much better wages they could get in America and had offered to help them get positions. If the girls had told this story in the first place, without giving assumed names, and without any assistance from their masculine friend, they would have been admitted.

But the story of their detention was exploited in the New York newspapers, and this fact alone rendered very slight the chance of their procuring respectable employment, if that was what they really wanted. They finally consented to return to England on the Lusitania, and they arrived home in less than two weeks from the day of their departure. Possibly they were saved from an unhappy fate by the assiduity of the immigration department.

One more instance Passports Women Immigrating USA

A girl was pointed out among the immigrants thronging the detention room at the Island by a chance visitor as one having been in this country before, who had been caught stealing from her employer, by whom she had generously been sent back to Germany on her promise of reform.

On the strength of this information, she was about to be deported when an examination before the Court of Inquiry developed the fact that she was the wife of a bar-tender living in New York City. As he was an American citizen, this made her one also, and, though known to have been a thief, she had to be released.

Cases of this nature have led to the following recommendation to Congress from the immigration commissioner:

” Another year’s experience does not make it possible to add much to what was said in last year’s report on the general subject of the white-slave traffic.’ Its operations and ramifications are extended and varied. It finds in the importation of aliens and the exploitation of those already here its greatest field of endeavor. These statements are believed to be incontrovertible.

It is only natural that in so beastly and revolting a matter as this dealing in human flesh and human souls the dealers should select as their victims those who, by reason of ignorance and helplessness, are the least able to protect themselves. Frequently, therefore, the ‘victims are the alien women who have no acquaintance here, or have before leaving Europe been reduced to a state of utter dependence upon their inhuman owners.

Section 1994 of the Revised Statutes reads as follows Passports Women Immigrating USA

Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who might herself be lawfully naturalized, shall be deemed a citizen.

The Bureau repeats on this matter what it urged in its last report

Said section should be so amended as to leave no doubt on the question whether an alien woman, not in her own person entitled to naturalization, who marries an American citizen, is thereby invested with citizenship. This matter is now much in doubt, and is of primary importance in the handling of cases of alien immoral women, as well as the cases of those who are mentally or physically defective.

One of the favorite devices of those engaged in the importing of prostitutes is to have the imported woman marry an American citizen, thereby protecting the importer against a criminal prosecution and his business against the damage that would result from the deportation of the prostitute. Passports Women Immigrating USA

There has recently been a decision by a circuit court to the effect that marriage in such a case cannot confer citizenship, at least unless followed by a residence in the country (165 Fed. Rep., 980); but in the light of a decision of the Supreme Court (7 Wall., 496) indirectly touching the point, the existing doubt cannot be effectually removed otherwise than by a decision of a higher court on the exact question, or by an amendment of the law, so that it would read as follows:

“Any woman who is now or may hereafter be married to a citizen of the United States, and who herself possesses the qualifications of race and character required by law of an alien applying for naturalization, shall be deemed a citizen upon commencing to reside permanently in the United States.”

The above indicates the curious anomaly of our Immigration Law. It says to the alien woman upon her arrival : “You are coming here presumably for immoral purposes, and unless you can present satisfactory evidence to the contrary, you must be deported. If you can find an American citizen willing to marry you, you are welcome to come and dwell among us.”

As a matter of fact, many women are saved from deportation by being married at the dock; nor are all such cases those of undesirable citizens, procuring admission to the country through the loophole of wedlock.

The “other side of the picture” having been fairly presented, the problem of the respectable alien girl or woman travelling alone for business or pleasure, and her treatment upon her arrival, the danger that she will be questioned and even practically imprisoned, remains unmitigated and unsolved. Passports Women Immigrating USA

The more sensitive the woman, the more flagrant the case, the less likely it is that the public will hear of it.

The red tape of the custom-house, the unavoidable nuisance of quarantine regulations, are sufficiently burdensome; but in all conscience and good temper we must stop haling respectable women before Courts of Inquiry to pass upon their moral character.

A reasonable and sane solution would appear to be a simple matter. If we are to maintain close restriction upon immigration, some sort of a passport system must be adopted.

The commissioner of immigration himself suggests the desirability of the use of passports to assist in weeding out criminal immigrants.

On page six of the Current Annual Report he says: Passports Women Immigrating USA

Mr. Ernesto G. Fabbri, president of the Italian Society for the Protection of Immigrants, recently offered a suggestion designed to assist in the detection at our ports of aliens who have a criminal record; and that is that all aliens coming from countries that furnish their citizens or subjects with penal certificates or certificates of character shall be rejected unless they exhibit such a certificate.

This is a plan which seems well worth a trial, and it has been incorporated into the proposed law. (See pp. 161, 183.)

I asked a prominent official of the immigration bureau if a passport system for alien women would be desirable.

” Of course I speak unofficially,” he replied, “but I must confess that it would relieve our inspectors of a heavy responsibility. On the one hand, they must enforce the law, and on the other, a stupid or officious inspector may at any time make a horrible blunder.”

The vast discretion vested in the inspectors of the Immigration Bureau, the wide opportunity for an abuse of that discretion by the intolerable insult of examining respectable women as to their moral character, all point to the desirability of such an alteration of the law and procedure, in order that travel to the United States may be made less burdensome.

Immigration restrictions are not going to be relaxed; they are going to be made more and more stringent. A passport system is already in force with respect to the Japanese, and out of several thousand passports viséed during the past year only forty-nine were found defective.

The inspector of immigration, as the law stands, has a thankless, invidious, and often odious task. For his sake, for the sake of our own reputation as a nation for gallantry and courtesy, the law and its administration should undergo a radical change, and the over-zeal incited by a ” muck-raking” agitation against the ” white slave” traffic should be curbed within the limits of ordinary hospitality and propriety.


FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...