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Welcome to New York

Remembering Castle Garden, a nineteenth-century immigrant welfare state.
The New York Public Library

In the four decades before Ellis Island opened in 1892, New York State had a robust immigration regime that attempted to ensure new arrivals’ welfare and integration into American society. While we now think of immigration to the United States as a federal matter, it wasn’t until 1882, when Congress passed an act that put the U.S. Treasury Department in charge, that it was overseen by the national government. (Legislators chose Treasury because they viewed the passenger trade as a form of commerce.) Before the Civil War, politicians from slave states feared increasing federal authority over bodies crossing borders due to the implications such a move might have for the interstate slave trade. The responsibility for immigrants thus stayed with state and local governments. The long-held idea that the U.S. had an “open door” policy before 1882 is simply wrong. Substantial regulatory bureaucracies developed in major receiving states like New York and Massachusetts decades before federalization. Several states had laws for deporting aliens known to be paupers or criminals in their own country, while some slave states, including South Carolina, passed laws forbidding the entry of free blacks.

Thinking about immigration history strictly in terms of exclusion and deportation does not tell the whole story, however. From the 1840s through the 1880s, New York state officials expended considerable time, money, and effort to protect new arrivals at the nation’s biggest port of entry. They treated the sick, provided shelter for the destitute, gave advice on how best to reach final destinations, operated a labor exchange where newcomers could find jobs, aided in reuniting separated families, and provided many other services. They sometimes fell short of their goals but overall did much to ease the difficulties newcomers faced.

In 1847, as waves of Irish and German migration began to crest, New York State lawmakers established the first immigration agency in the country, the State Board of the Commissioners of Emigration (hereafter the Emigration Board—the words emigrant and immigrant were used interchangeably for most of the nineteenth century). The 1840s marked a rise in nativist politics in many states receiving large numbers of immigrants, but New York’s economic and political elites moved in a different direction. Several influential leaders, like governor and U.S. senator William H. Seward, viewed immigrant labor as a key ingredient to the Empire State’s great prosperity, vital to the building of the Erie Canal system and growing railroad network. These leaders did not view immigrants as a threat but as a vulnerable resource worthy of government protection.

View on Lapham’s Quarterly