The Catholic Immigrant
The present immigration law, known as the Immigration Act of 1924, which went into effect in July, 1924, limits the annual quota of immigration to 2 percent of the number of each nationality resident in the United States in l890. Not more than 10 percent of any annual quota may be admitted in any month. It is interesting to note that the census of 1890 is used as the basis of the law, rather than the census of 1910; and the rate is reduced from 3 percent of any nationality resident in 1910, to 2 percent resident here in l890 so that the number of admissible immigrants may be relatively limited. The object of this new law, which is based on nationality rather than individual qualification, is to limit the total immigration quota into the United States to 150,000 each year.
The port of New York is the door through which most of these people from the old world enter the new. Steamer after steamer comes into the harbor each month with countless men, women, and children destined for the Promised Land. Although many of the newcomers immediately join relatives in various parts of the country, the greater number remains in or near New York City.
In December, 1923, Cardinal Hayes, mindful of the dangers, as well as advantages, which confront the newcomer, assigned the responsibility for the follow-up work of the Catholic immigrant within his archdiocese to the New York Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. Mrs. Michael Gavin, then president and provincial director of the National Council of Catholic Women, was appointed president of the Archdiocesan Council. Two years have passed since the women of the New York archdiocese assumed the great responsibility of caring for their Catholic brethren from other lands – two years of tireless work in the interest of the Catholic who comes to America, seeking the best life has to offer.
The Immigration Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, through its relations with the countries of Europe and through its staff at Ellis Island, is in close contact with Catholics coming to America. The names of immigrants who may need assistance are forwarded to their destination in the United States. The names of those who will settle within the New York archdiocese are referred to the Committee on Immigration of the New York Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women. When these names arrive in the office of the Archdiocesan Council, the work assigned by His Eminence begins. Since the birth of the Archdiocesan Council in 1923, the welfare of 6,838 Catholic immigrants has been entrusted to its care.
Regardless of the country from which she may come, the immigrant will find in some member of the council staff a friend who understands her language. On the active staff are women who speak German, French, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Ukranian, Czecho-Slovak, Russian, and Spanish. If, by chance, the immigrant speaks still another language, an interpreter is readily found for her. To a stranger in a strange land, what can compare to the inexpressible joy of finding a friend who understands her native tongue? The language is the key to the customs, traditions, hopes, and ambitions of any peoples.
The Church is the strongest connecting link between the old world and the new. The staff worker refers the newcomer to a church where she may hear sermons and go to confession in her native tongue. Several cases of marital difficulty have been satisfactorily adjusted. Because of ignorance or convenience, the civil marriage sometimes is accepted by the persons concerned, and only the tactful persuasion of the case worker brings the couple to a priest.
A recent study made in one of the so-called foreign sections of New York City, revealed that an amazing number of Catholic children receive no religious instruction and, as a result, grow up in absolute ignorance of the faith which is their natural heritage. The campaign which the council has undertaken, with other organizations, to insure every Catholic child attending public school in this section catechetical instruction after school hours, is one of the most significant evidences of the seriousness with which the Catholic women of New York have accepted their mission.
The newcomer is now instructed in the civic responsibility she is to assume. The case worker advises her to take out first-citizenship papers and offers all possible assistance in the citizenship procedure. The Cable Act [of 1922], which requires a woman of foreign birth to secure independent citizenship, is explained carefully. Through the clauses of this act a foreign woman no longer assumes the nationality of her husband, but must secure her own citizenship. The importance of this act was realized in the case of a widow who, not understanding the law, failed to file her own citizenship papers. After her husband's death the tragic result of her ignorance was forced upon her when she was refused a widow's pension because she was not a citizen of the United States.
"The Civics Catechism" on the rights and duties of American citizens, published by the National Catholic Welfare Conference, is invaluable to the case worker. This pamphlet is printed in English, and in bi-lingual form in Arabic, Croatian, French, German, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Spanish.
Many of the foreign-born who come to America are well educated. Others have little or no education, and a majority does not have a working knowledge of English. Any person who does not speak English is referred to an English class. The foreigner who already has knowledge of the language is advised to continue his general education in a free day or night school, elementary, trade or high school. In the East Harlem district, where the educational program is already being carried out, the educational committee organized five classes which were later taken over by the Board of Education, and other classes are now being organized and conducted by the same committee. Economic distress is not one of the infrequent problems faced by the person who is endeavoring to assist the immigrant. The close cooperation between the associated Catholic charities and the Archdiocesan Council is responsible for the efficient manner in which cases in need of relief are handled.
The archdiocese of New York covers a vast territory. In addition to the three counties in New York City, the geographical divisions include seven other large counties. The area covered by the organization committee presents, in itself, a considerable task. In each county, the council has appointed a representative who is responsible for the progress made within her district.
An intensive plan of local organization is now being instituted, whereby the archdiocese is divided into sections. This division may be a county, city, or some part of the city. A committee on immigration is to be appointed in each section. Much is expected of this unit organization, since it affords an opportunity for each Catholic woman in the archdiocese to participate in the immigration program. Although endless opportunities exist in the national metropolis for Catholic women's activities, the serious handicap of great distances and heavy traffic makes much of the work difficult. The local units will eliminate the necessity for the out-of-town members to visit New York frequently. When the details of organization are complete, a course of study will be issued from the headquarters office for all local units. Intensive instruction will be given in legislation affecting immigration. Before the present immigration law can be fully understood, it is necessary to trace the reasons for and development of immigration in the United States.
The first federal immigration law, passed in 1882, excluded convicts, insane persons, and any who might become social dependents. Since this first attempt was made to limit wholesale and unchecked immigration, other laws have been passed as the necessity for them became apparent.
Through the new immigration law, countless numbers are excluded each year. The law is purely arithmetical, however, and some immigration authorities question its merits. To be sure, the severity of the law reduces the proportion of undesirables admitted within the year; but at the same time it also shuts out persons of the finest caliber. An ideal law would seem to be one based on quality rather than quantity.
During the world war, the discovery was made that a serious flaw had appeared in the "Melting Pot." No longer did the trusted crucible blend its ingredients from many lands into one perfect substance. In one camp alone, it was stated that interpreters of forty different languages were necessary. The men, drafted from all corners of the country, wore the same khaki uniform, to be sure, but at times this seemed to be the only bond they had in common.
According to the New York World Almanac, the census of New York state in 1919 showed the existence of fifty-one foreign daily and Sunday publications, with an aggregate circulation of l,352,430. In 1919, after the war, the number of publications had increased to sixty-four, with an aggregate circulation of 2,157 1804. These figures are mute evidence of the significance of the statement made by Gertrude Hill Gavin in Columbia, for October, 1924, when she said, "The Melting Pot needs watching." Is it fair to offer a welcome to the foreigner and then forget him? Should it not be our responsibility to see that he studies English, and learns to read and enjoy American newspapers at least as well as those published in his native tongue?
Mrs. William Brown Meloney, editor of The Delineator, who for years has been a close student of immigration, chose for the title of her address at the second convention of the Archdiocesan Council, “The Immigrant: A Defender or an Enemy of the Constitution?”. In a recent interview, Mrs. Meloney likened the United States unto a test tube into "which are introduced various substances of a foreign nature, designed to make a complete whole." "Any substance," she said, "which does not go into solution might, under certain conditions, cause an unanticipated combustion." A perfect solution cannot be expected with conditions as they exist today. In New York City, information destined to reach the entire population must be printed in twenty-two languages. This incurs tremendous ex pense and time.
If immigration should stop tomorrow, there still would be more work among the foreign-born already here than any one organization could hope to cover adequately in years. It is one thing to accept a foreigner into the United States, but another to assist that foreigner until he understands English, knows the laws of the land, and is eager to abide by them. Americanization is not only a matter of citizenship papers – it is a long, slow process, and sometimes cannot be completed in one generation.
The New York Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women realizes the religious and national importance of the trust which Cardinal Hayes placed in its members. In two years, a beginning has been made. Permanent headquarters have been opened at 641 Lexington Avenue, where an executive secretary and a foreign language staff direct the work. A comprehensive survey of the archdiocese has been made and the approximate racial composition ascertained. Contact has been made with important religious and educational agencies in the city. Publicity is sent to the foreign newspapers, and through this medium those who do not read American papers, are reached.
Catholic women of America look back to September, 1919, when the hierarchy of the United States, under the leadership of His Eminence, the late James, Cardinal Gibbons, assembled in Washington, D. C., and officially established the National Catholic Welfare Conference. In March, 1920, Catholic women took their part in this nation-wide movement and banded together under the National Council of Catholic Women. It is as a part of this organization, and with the same leader who was the first president of the National Council, that the New York Archdiocesan Council looks ahead to a work well done. With Cardinal Hayes, the Catholic women of New York realize more and more that "We are under obligation to serve our fellow man, and especially the immigrant that comes to our gates."
About the Author
Marie Reilly Owens is an official of the New York Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women.