The name of Emma Lazarus is not familiar to people who live and work in countries far from the shores of North America. One ventures to guess that there are many people now living in the USA who have never heard of this woman, yet one sonnet she wrote in 1883 has been read by millions. The sonnet is "The New Colossus" and its concluding lines are to be seen on the base supporting the Statue of Liberty where a bronze plaque was unveiled on May 5, 1903.
Emma Lazarus spoke through the great statue, addressing "the huddled masses" who were then flocking to America's golden door. When the great Empires of the Old World crumbled after the disaster of the First World War, Europe's economy was paralysed for many years and the rise of Bolshevism complicated the painful process of normalisation. Emigrants and refugees sought the security and freedom offered by the USA
The year 1920 saw a veritable exodus from Europe. Many Europeans flocked to the industrial centres in the East and Middle West of the USA In the week preceding July 10 of that same year immigration officials on Ellis Island, New York, disclosed that during that time 13,161 aliens had been allowed into the country. More than 11,000 of these immigrants had crossed the Atlantic under incredible conditions as steerage passengers.
When that announcement had been made there were still one thousand hopeful entrants yet waiting for their turn to be inspected and finally allowed in. Most of those waiting on Ellis Island were men. The steamship "Mexico" had brought into New York harbour fourteen women and six hundred and sixty-six men. These steerage passengers had embarked from Portugal and stated that their destinations were Massachusetts and California. One immigration official said that he had never seen such a rush since the summer which preceded the outbreak of the Great War. At that time however, the official said that it was common to allow in anything between 13,000 and 15,000 a week.
On September 3, 1920, immigration authorities placed sixty more inspectors on Ellis Island to cope with the long queues which were forming. Eventually the staff on Ellis Island was increased even more and the existing buildings were extended. At one time immigrants were arriving at about 4,000 a day. Mental institutions in New York were overcrowded with unlucky aliens who had suffered serious breakdowns because of the tension brought about by their journey and subsequent waiting. As soon as they were judged capable of travel, these unfortunate people were deported.
Maltese interest in the United States had been evident even before the advent of the twentieth century. The War of 1914-1918 had hindered emigration to all countries but once hostilities ceased and the opportunities for work decreased, the situation in Malta developed similarities with what was happening on the Continent, where millions were deserting their traditional homes to emigrate.
Prior to 1921, when the First Quota Law was passed by the American Congress, the only serious bar to Maltese emigrating to the USA was the lack of available cash. Those who had enough money to buy their tickets did so. Emigration officials in Malta at the time stated that "we are now witnessing the biggest wave of emigration that is recorded in the history of these islands. It is enough to show the eagerness with which the Maltese artisan is hurrying to what his comrades, who are already on the spot, describe as a veritable El Dorado of the working man".
From the beginning of 1920 up to April 29, there were 2,193 passports issued to intending emigrants to the USA, while 1,268 more had lodged their application. Within less than four months 3,461 Maltese had expressed their desire to leave their home and settle in the USA, particularly in Detroit.
A report on emigration from Malta published by the Government on October 28, 1920, which covered the period between April 1, and September 30, 1920, stated that 4,566 emigrants had left Malta and that 2,627 of those emigrants had indicated that they intended to go to the USA That report also showed that before the restrictions enforced by the American Congress in May 1921, the USA was one of the easiest countries to enter and that the Maltese had intended to depart for that part of the world in larger numbers still.
The American Consulate in Malta was issuing visas to persons desiring to join members of their immediate family who were already residing in the U.S. Such authorisation applied particularly to parents, children, minor brothers and sisters and to minor grandchildren. Legislation guiding immigration in the U.S. was meant not to hinder the entry of foreigners but rather to regulate immigration. Those not allowed entry were mostly those who suffered from serious disease, or who had a criminal record or those who were entirely destitute. The American Consul was also authorised to deny entry to anybody who was either assisted financially by his own government or by some foreign association.
By 1921 it was felt that the American authorities had to make a move to check the flow of aliens into the country. Hostility to immigrants was evident. particularly in the overcrowded cities. Hardship endured by the newly arrived immigrants found publicity in the Maltese press and the British ambassador in Washington warned the Governor of Malta about the likelihood of restrictive legislation concerning the entry of immigrants into the USA At the suggestion of the British ambassador, Maltese authorities took the precaution of restricting emigration to the U.S. to lilies who wished to join their breadwinner who already living in the U.S. and to Maltese who already been living in that country.
Mr. J. Robertson wrote a letter on July 7, 1920, which provided an insight into the situation some of the Maltese found themselves in at that time. Robertson was an immigrant and he had been born in Malta, where his father had served with Royal Army Service Corps and had settled permananently in Malta. The Maltese community in Detroit had found in Robertson Jr. a useful spokesman who defended them by publishing the following protest:
Maltese ask for Fair Play
"I am one of the oldest emigrants from the Island of Malta. I have been resident of this country for twenty-six years. I give a helping hand to the newly landed, especially my com-patriots from Malta. Now the few old timers who have been resident in Detroit have been using all their influence and energy to create a Maltese population here and now are numbered some 6,000 and many more are coming.
I will narrate a brief incident that happened in one of our large concerns. A number of employees had committed a slight offence and they have been discharged. Some are trying to create enemity towards all Maltese by giving special orders to reject all applications made by this particular nationality and so far not one has been given employment.
Come to the YMCA on a Sunday afternoon when you can see them, 400 or 500 strong, being instructed in Americanism under the auspices of the YMCA".
Mr. J. Robertson also got in touch with the Americanisation Office which backed his protest and the Office described the Maltese as: "one of the highest types of immigrants that enter the country". The YMCA offered its hall to be used as an employment agency for the Maltese. After Robertson's letter a number of offers of Employment arrived at the agency. Two of them deserve mention:
At the time that Mr. Robertson made his intervention on behalf of the Maltese workers in Detroit, an Imperial Press Conference was being held in Montreal, Canada, and Malta was being represented by Dr. Augustus Bartolo, who was the editor of a prominent newspaper in Malta and who, in later years, was destined to become minister responsible for emigration. Dr. A. Bartolo took up his fluent pen to defend his people. On August 11, 1920, he wrote to the "Detroit News" a letter which that newspaper published under the title: "Malta Editor Defends Race".
Bartolo referred to some stereotyped objections against the Maltese living in Detroit. These supposed defects of the Maltese were enumerated by Bartolo:
Dr. Bartolo told the "Detroit News" that he rejected those objections. He wrote "I believe the Maltese are among the gentlest in character and the most obedient to the social obligations of their native or adopted countries. Learn to know them, treat them as they merit, and you will have an ideal class of settlers. Not only are they socially adaptable, they amalgamate readily with their neighbours. They are not aloof or socially reserved; they mix freely and intermarry with people of their class. They are industrious, frugal and sober. They have large families which they rear well. Their women are accustomed to work hard".
Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.
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