We Were Them
Updated: May 10, 2022
by Susan Weinberg
I’ve been doing talks around the country on immigration history, weaving in video clips from my interviews with Jewish elders. The interviews and history are part of my book We Spoke Jewish:A Legacy in Stories combined with artwork. This article explores that history with a few genealogy tips.
The United States is a nation built on immigration, yet the reality is our history has often been decidedly unfriendly to the immigrant. As immigration has once again become a topic of much debate, it is useful to revisit our nation’s history to better understand the past and inform the present.
For the early part of our history we really didn’t have much in the way of immigration requirements. If you’ve ever looked at a manifest from the 1800s, you will find few details. In 1812 the ship captain was required to keep a manifest with the name, age, sex, occupation and country of those entering the US.
After the Civil War the Supreme Court found that immigration was a responsibility of the federal government. The government obliged in 1882 with the first immigration law, The Chinese Exclusion Act. This law banned those of Chinese ethnicity, trapping many young Chinese men in bachelor communities in the United States. They were unable to return to China for a temporary visit to family and unable to bring a wife to the United States. Most had come here during the Gold Rush and had moved from mining to building the railroad.
As fate would have it, an "act of God" offered them a respite with the 1906 earthquake which destroyed San Francisco birth records. This allowed them to claim US birth as no one could prove otherwise. A thriving business in paper sons began where sons were claimed by these new citizens and the papers sold to others who wished to come to the US. They assumed the new name and identity to do so.
Having cut their teeth on this law, the government issued a spate of laws to restrain immigrants from entering our shores. In 1882 we blocked idiots, lunatics and convicts. Still greater impact came from restrictions on those deemed to be a likely public charge. This was frequently applied to women and children traveling alone. If a male didn’t show up to take responsibility they could be sent back.
If they were detained, you will see an X to the left of the name. At the end of the manifest, you will find a listing of detained aliens and who, if anyone, picked them up. You can gauge the number of days they were held by the number of meals they were fed. Click to read more